Our Georgia Coast road trip could not be considered complete until we had visited Cumberland Island. Believe me when I tell you that we saved the best for last! For the rest of our trip, see below:
Where is Day 5? Day 5 was spent lounging about on St. Simons Island. Mainly searching for tree spirits with my youngest while my oldest combed the beach and my middle alternated between the TV and the pool. Everyone needs a break now and then, so I excused my kids from any kind of plan whatsoever and just let them be on vacation.
On Day 6, we traveled from the Okefenokee Swamp to the little town of St. Mary’s, Georgia. Word of advice – when you travel to remote locations and through small towns, have printed directions with you. We left Okefenokee with zero cell service and I had no idea how to get to St. Mary’s. I used the time-tested method of stopping at a gas station in Folkston and the young girl there gave me perfect directions.
Cumberland Inn & Suites
We arrived in St. Mary’s tired and wet. We had run through a downpour at the Okefenokee and had been sitting in the wet clothes for the drive. It was the end of Day 6 of this trip. We had all been in one hotel room together for the last 6 days. Are you feeling me?
Then, we enter our room at Cumberland Inn & Suites. I sprang for the suite because I figured that we could use a little extra space by this point of the trip and the cost wasn’t that much more than a regular room. When we entered our room, the sun shone, angels sang and my kids exclaimed like it was a revival meeting.
Tons of space, and a full size oven/stove and refrigerator. But it was what we saw when we walked further into the room that caused us to have a religious experience.
At this point in our trip, everyone was down to their last pair of clean everything. Bags were full of sand from the beach. Our current clothes were wet. Seeing a washer and dryer IN our room made this little mama ridiculously happy. There was no detergent, but the CVS right next door took care of that easily enough. I washed everything I could get my hands on, making the unpacking at home a lot easier.
We chilled out that night in comfort and peace. I elected to sleep on the sofa bed in the living room just to obtain any shred of privacy I could get. The next morning we were checking off an item that had been on my bucket list for a while.
Cumberland Island Visitor Center
The visitor center is a ten minute drive from Cumberland Inn & Suites. I’m grateful for the nice folks at the Cumberland Inn front desk who advised me on where to park. The spots in front of the visitor center are mostly restricted to a certain number of hours. Down and across the street is a shaded lot that’s free with ample parking for day trippers.
- Get your tickets in advance. I purchased ours in advance of leaving home. There are a limited number of people allowed on the island per day and trips can sell out.
- Allow time for check in. Even if you purchased tickets early, you still have to check in at the desk inside. There can be lines, so plan accordingly. If you haven’t checked in 20 minutes prior to departure, they will start giving away spots to walk-ups.
- The ferry only travels to and from the island a couple of times per day. Once you are there, you are there for hours. There is no concession service on the island so you’ll need to bring your own food, sunscreen and bug spray. There are bathrooms. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make sure you have enough food and water for your family, along with comfortable shoes.
The Junior Ranger Program
If you’ve been following along on this journey with us, you’ll know that since Cumberland Island is a National Park Service site my youngest was all about getting a Junior Ranger book. If you’re unfamiliar with the program, I’ve detailed it in another post. This trip, my son received not one but three books.
- Cumberland Island: Of course, there was a book specific to that location. Inside are all kinds of activities related to the ecosystem and history of the island.
- Centennial: This book was leftover from 2016 when the Park Service celebrated its anniversary. I can’t guarantee they still have these on hand.
- Underwater Explorer: This is also a national book that is given out at the National Seashore sites.
Each book earns the child a badge. If you don’t want to feel rushed to finish all of them, you can complete them at home and mail the book to the Park Service. We just focused on the Cumberland Island book that day.
Cumberland Island Ferry
Before we boarded the ferry, we listened to a prep talk from a ranger. She gave us the ins and outs of where things were, important locations and safety information. After that, it was time to load up.
My kids have always loved “things that go”. Any kind of transportation is part of the fun for them, so they were excited about the ferry ride. It takes 40 minutes to get over to the island, so settle in. There are spots all around the lower and upper decks of the ferry. Inside, though, is a seating area with tables. It was a windy day, so the youngest and I decided to park ourselves in there and get started on his Junior Ranger book.
Arriving on Cumberland Island
The ferry will dock and you’ll be free to explore! You have several choices of where to start. There are guided tours for a fee that will take you all over the island. That was a little pricey for the four of us and I didn’t know how long my kids would be up for this adventure, so I opted to take the later ferry and self-guide.
The island itself has over 50 miles of hiking trails. You can also rent bikes from the island (again, these sell out) or bring your own bikes over on the ferry for $10/bike. Notable landmarks are the First African Baptist Church where JFK, JR. and Carolyn Bessette were married, Plum Orchard Plantation and the Dungeness Ruins.
The church and Plum Orchard were too far for us to walk with our youngest, so we settled on exploring the beach and the Dungeness Ruins.
A Walk In The Woods
To get to the beach, you had to trek through the maritime forest. Y’all, I could have strolled through there all day. The beauty and peace of that forest was awe-inspiring. If that was all there was to Cumberland Island, I could have left happy.
The above picture is one of my favorites. I love the simplicity and rustic beauty of this area with that tiny little home made sign.
Since Cumberland Island isn’t a traditional tourist beach, the beauty is unspoiled. I noticed first how tall the dunes are.
When we passed the dunes, however, I was immediately struck by the vastness of the beach. No plastic chairs, no umbrellas, no coolers. Just sand, and plenty of it.
My oldest son was beside himself. He took off near the water, looking for shells. You are allowed to keep any uninhabited shells that you find. Soon, he was way ahead of us. We weren’t finding anything near the seashore and I was disappointed. We wandered up closer to the dunes and hit the motherlode. It’s hard to imagine the tides being so high when you are used to touristy beaches with much smaller strips of beach. When we moved up, we found more shells than we could possibly carry. We finally caught up to my oldest and enlightened him.
A must – sunscreen. You can see, there is no shade for miles. We walked facing the sun. It was a windy day and I wasn’t hot in the least, so I wasn’t thinking about sunburns. It was definitely brought to my attention later!
Cumberland Island Wildlife
It’s everywhere, y’all. The most famous residents are the horses. Once kept as stock for work and hunting, the horses were allowed to be free range and eventually became feral. There are anywhere from 130-170 feral horses on the island in a given year. They are not managed in any way by the park service. Do NOT approach too closely or try to feed them. Associating people with food might negatively impact their natural survival skills and cause problems for visitors.
Birds are plentiful as well as ghost crabs. We didn’t see any, but know that snakes and alligators are also inhabitants, so be aware of your surroundings. What I was not expecting were armadillos. I don’t know why, but I always thought they were native to western states.
These guys were all over the place near the Dungeness ruins. I had lived 46 years without seeing an armadillo in person. I can now add another life experience to my list.
We left the beach and moved further inland with the aid of several boardwalks to cross the salt marshes. I was not leaving until I saw the ruins of Dungeness.
Nearby Jekyll Island was home to the Jekyll Island Club, an exlcusive club for magnates and millionaires such as the Morgans, Pulitzers, and Rockefellers. Thomas Carnegie afforded himself more privacy and purchased property on Cumberland Island. His lavish home was named Dungeness but he died before the 59 room mansion was completed. His wife lived there from 1886 until 1925 when the home was essentially abandoned. It was destroyed by fire in 1959. The ruins are now preserved by the National Park Service.
You’re free to approach the building as closely as you would like, but common sense and the Park Service dictate that you don’t actually go in. Even in its devastation, Dungeness is a site that is impressive. If you set foot on Cumberland Island, don’t miss this chance to view this property for yourself. Since we had been to Jekyll Island and my kids were well acquainted with the Jekyll Island Club, it was easier for them to connect the time period of this mansion and the level of wealth involved in maintaining it.
The Long Walk Back
We had been on Cumberland Island for hours now, hiking and exploring. We took advantage of the many picnic tables in shady spots to eat the lunch we brought, but now it was about time to head back to the dock for our return trip to St. Mary’s. I could tell people were fading a little.
We followed the road back connecting Dungeness to the dock area. It was shaded and had occasional benches for breaks, which I appreciated! Our ferry was the last one of the day; anyone not on this ferry had better have made arrangements for a campsite on the island.
This is the only picture I have of me from the whole vacation that is not a selfie. Curse of the mom. The cranky teenager knew I meant business when I impressed upon him the importance of getting at least ONE picture of all of us together.
At the dock area are plenty of picnic tables, restroom facilities and tons of shade. Relax while you wait your turn to board.
Our day was amazing and a great introduction to Cumberland Island. Truly, we sampled only a tiny portion of what this island has to offer. In the future, I’ll save up and budget for the full day van tour. I think my kids would really like seeing the entire island and hearing more about the history and ecology of Cumberland.
If you are anywhere near this barrier island at the bottom of the Georgia coast, make the investment of money and time to get yourself on Cumberland Island. There is talk of allowing more commercial development on the island, which saddens me tremendously. If a visit is on your bucket list, make that trip sooner rather than later so you can enjoy Cumberland Island in all its unspoiled glory.