Cumberland Island Celebrates 50 Years as a National Seashore

Experience the island’s unique history, natural beauty, and wildlife during special events throughout the year

There is only one place on Earth where you can find wild horses, secluded white beaches, live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and the skeletal remains of a once-famous mansion. Cumberland is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Georgia coast. The National Park Service protects almost 36,000 acres of the island including miles of unspoiled beaches.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cumberland Island National Seashore, the southernmost and largest barrier island on the Georgia coast is just that place and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the congressional move that saved it from commercial development.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in October, Cumberland Island kicks off a year-long series of events including special programs, a speaker series, and even a parade. While special events such as the Cumberland Island-themed St. Marys Seafood Festival in October are exciting enough to entice a crowd the island’s history, beauty, and wildlife are unmatched experiences no visitor should miss at any time of year.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Although inhabitants of Georgia’s coast can be traced back thousands of years starting with a Timucuan tribe a more concrete history begins with 16th-century Spanish missions and James Oglethorpe’s 17th-century British forts. Oglethorpe also named a hunting lodge Dungeness in honor of a beloved landmark in England. The Dungeness name and remnants of the properties associated with the land remain to this day.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the American Revolution, the island attracted prominent families with famous pedigrees such as General Nathaniel Greene, George Washington’s most trusted officer. He and his wife borrowed the Dungeness name and began construction on a four-story mansion that would undergo several alterations over the next century. Dungeness lands then fell into the hands of Robert Stafford who purchased most of Greene’s property at auction. He built his sprawling mansion and plantation of more than 1,300 acres.

Related article: Cumberland Island: Wild, Pristine Seashore

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Civil War brought more change to the island as formerly enslaved people, locals, and others trying to navigate Reconstruction all attempted to carve out a living and a life here. Near the turn of the 20th-century members of the renowned Carnegie, family made their way to the island, purchased 90 percent of the land, and built a Scottish castle aptly named Dungeness.

Dungeness Ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dungeness Ruins

Visit the ruins of a mansion that was once called Dungeness. First built in 1884, the Dungeness Mansion was intended as a winter home for Thomas Carnegie (younger brother and business partner of Andrew Carnegie), his wife Lucy, and their nine children. Though Thomas passed away soon after construction, Lucy Carnegie went on to spend more and more time and resources on the island estate.

Dungeness Ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several additions and remodels were made over the next thirty years. By the time Lucy passed in 1916 the mansion had grown to approximately 35,000 square feet. The mansion caught fire in 1959 and only the brick and stone walls remain.

Dungeness Ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the mansion is in ruins it remains one of the most picturesque and visited spots on the island. Visitors can walk the grounds around the house and the numerous support buildings that were part of operating the estate.

Related article: The Perfect Georgia Coast Road Trip

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beauty

There simply isn’t one way to describe the scenery on Cumberland Island; it offers a variety of breathtaking landscapes and backdrops. Take a few photographs on the island and you can easily convince someone that you have visited multiple countries and traveled many miles.

The quiet beaches bring peace and splendor together particularly in the evening when the soft lull of the waves blends into the pastel-colored sky. Walk in any other direction and you’ll run into a different kind of majesties such as salt marshes full of fiddler crabs, shrimp, and alligators.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rivers and sounds traverse through it all so that every turn is a new adventure. Point a camera anywhere and capture untouched nature in all its colorful brilliance. If you need shade, spend some time under the live oaks and let the trees serve as nature’s canopy to protect you from the elements.

Though the grandeur of nature is significant on Cumberland Island so is the architecture. Of the three dozen homes here almost all are still owned and cared for by the same families who built them. There is an affection for ensuring the dwellings capture some aspect of the scenery and many of the homes themselves are works of art.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beach

Cumberland Island is home to 17 miles of uninterrupted beach. No docks, houses, or other structures interrupt its serene beauty. The island boasts a healthy expanse of vegetated dunes that make it one of the most important nesting spots for loggerhead sea turtles in all of Georgia and a sanctuary for migrating shore birds.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swimming is very popular but caution should be exercised. It is the open ocean and all the tides, currents, and animals that call it home exist. There are no lifeguards. There are designated crossings marked on the map providing access to the beach. These will either be trails or boardwalks. If a boardwalk exists, please use it to help protect the dunes. Crossings on the beach side are marked with a black and white striped pole along the dune line.

Related article: The 8 Best Things to Do this Fall in Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife

Imagine a world where a wild horse gallops freely in the distance and you are so distracted that you almost don’t even notice a turkey scurrying across your path. On the other hand picture, yourself stepping onto a beach just in time to watch brown pelicans diving into the ocean for breakfast.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maybe you even catch a glimpse of the endangered loggerhead sea turtles struggling to make it to sea or you tread quietly while you observe deer challenging feral hogs for foliage. Cumberland Island is a playground for all of these animals and countless others who make their home here. Whether it’s woodpeckers, owls or even armadillos the importance of preserving all wildlife and their habitat is paramount throughout Cumberland Island.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three Ways to Experience Cumberland Island

Visit Cumberland Island for the day, camp overnight (walk-in tent sites), or be a guest at the upscale Greyfield Inn made famous by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s wedding. Day visitors and campers reach the island by taking the Cumberland Island Ferry from the Cumberland Island Visitors Center in St. Marys to the Sea Camp Dock. Guests of the Greyfield Inn take the hotel’s private ferry, the Lucy Ferguson. The boat ride itself is a wonderful way to see Cumberland’s beauty from the water.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Marys

As the Gateway to Cumberland Island and the Georgia Coast, St. Marys offers a laid-back vibe with Southern charm for a perfect relaxing retreat or an outdoor adventure. Attractions include the downtown historic district, the St. Marys Submarine Museum, and St. Marys Waterfront Park. You can visit the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum and the Cumberland Island Visitors Center. You’ll enjoy water sports and cycling plus shopping and dining at locally owned spots.

St Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual events include an Independence Day Festival, St. Marys Seafood Festival, and free concerts in the park. The Cumberland Island National Seashore and Crooked River State Park are visitor favorites and popular for biking, birdwatching, kayaking, hiking, camping, and more.

Related article: Historic St. Marys: Gem of the Georgia Coast

Plan Your Visit

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cumberland Island at the St. Marys Seafood Festival on October 15 featuring vendors, food trucks, races, and an island-themed parade. Cumberland Island’s park superintendent is the grand marshal and the National Park Service will offer informative and kid-friendly activities such as colonial encampments, a highland pipe and drum band, musket firing, and a special 50th-anniversaryth anniversary program.

Enjoy Cumberland Island’s incomparable attractions anytime by taking the passenger ferry from downtown St. Marys, the Gateway to Cumberland Island for an island adventure.

Worth Pondering…

The beach is the draw—

17 miles of hard packed blonde sands.

You can walk forever and seldom meet a soul

—Esquire

The Perfect Georgia Coast Road Trip

Have you ever done a Georgia Coast road trip? No?! Well now’s your chance and you will love it!

From scenic beaches and wild marshes to quaint coastal towns and historic sites, the Georgia coast is a dreamy stretch of iconic Southern landscapes. Take it all in with this easy detour on your north-to-south I-95 road trip to the Golden Isles.

At the northern end of the Georgia coast, Savannah is a bustling city rich with historic charm, from its majestic antebellum architecture and cobblestoned streets to its mom-and-pop restaurants, and unique shops. Before hitting the road, stop for a bite to eat at one of the many must-try lunch spots. Then, make your way to I-95 and head south.

Sidney Lanier Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exit 49: Scenic US-17 Bypass

Hop off I-95 to enjoy the low-country landscape and off-the-beaten-path towns along coastal highway U.S. Route 17 which winds through serene wetlands and thickets of trees draped in lacey Spanish moss. Along the way, stop in the town of Darien where you can take in sweeping marsh views and spot rows of shrimp boats docked along the waterfront.

Coastal Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue along US-17 for another 5 miles until you reach the sprawling Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, an antebellum rice plantation dating back to the early 1800s. Ophelia was the last heir to the rich traditions of her ancestors and she left the plantation to the State of Georgia in 1973.

Related: 10 of the Best Places to Visit in Georgia

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A museum features silver from the family collection and a model of Hofwyl-Broadfield during its heyday. A brief film on the plantation’s history is shown before visitors walk a short trail to the antebellum home. A guided tour allows visitors to see the home as Ophelia kept it with family heirlooms, 18th and 19th century furniture, and Cantonese china.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled amongst picturesque marshes along the Altamaha River, this historic estate is a stop along the Colonial Coast Birding Trail so stretch your legs with an easy hike to scout herons, painted buntings, egrets, wood stork, and other coastal birds along the way. More than 300 species of birds (75 percent of the total species of birds seen in Georgia) have been spotted at the 18 sites along the birding trail.

When you’re ready to continue your road trip, drive west on U.S. Hwy 99 and continue south on I-95.

Coastal Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exit 36: Explore Historic Downtown Brunswick

The mainland port city of Brunswick is laid out in a formal grid similar to Savannah with city streets and squares still bearing their colonial names. Docked at the wharf, the array of shrimp boats are ready to trawl the local waters—evidence of the area’s rich seafood industry. Watch the ocean vessels come into port, see the shrimpers unload at the docks along Bay Street, and then sample the catch of the day at one of the fine restaurants. 

Coastal Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After dinner, make your way to Mary Ross Waterfront Park on Bay Street (U.S. Highway 341) at the end of Gloucester Street. This waterfront park features The Liberty Ship Memorial Plaza where you can view a scale model of a Liberty Ship, similar to those built in Brunswick’s shipyards during World War II. Other attractions include an outdoor musical playscape, staged pavilion, amphitheater, and farmers market (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 8 am to 5 pm).

Related: The Golden Isles of Georgia

This waterfront park is an enticing spot to view the sunset across the marshes. Huge oceangoing ships from around the world as well as picturesque shrimp boats may be seen along the waterfront docks.

St. Simon Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Afterward, head over to nearby St. Simons Island over the FJ Torras Causeway (about 7 miles away from Mary Ross Waterfront Park) and explore this quaint coastal community. Stop by the Welcome Center and grab a map of the mystifying Tree Spirits so you can participate in the scavenger hunt on St. Simons Island.

Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simon Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Simons Island is dotted with exceptional historic sites and attractions from the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum—a working lighthouse built in 1872—to the Bloody Marsh Battle Site where in July 1742 British and Scottish soldiers protecting colonial Georgia defeated a larger Spanish force in a battle that helped end Spanish incursions outside Florida.

Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simon Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the island’s north end, Cannon’s Point Preserve is not to be missed. This visitor favorite contains middens dating back to 2500 BCE. Fort Frederica National Monument which preserves archeological remnants of the local British colony and its defense against Spain and historic Christ Church, Frederica—one of the oldest churches in Georgia with worship held continuously since 1736—are also located on the island’s north end.

Related: Discover the Golden Isles: Rich in History and Beauty

Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simon Island

When you’re done exploring the area, hop back in the car, head over the FJ Torras Causeway, and meet up with US-17 south. Detour along GA-520 for one last stop along your I-95 road trip.

Sidney Lanier Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you look south to the foot of Newcastle Street, you will see the Sidney Lanier Bridge, Georgia’s tallest cable-stayed suspension bridge which provides easy access to the Golden Isles from Interstate 95 (Exit 29). This beautiful structure is 7,780 feet long and 486 feet tall. It contains 95,283 cubic yards of concrete and 14,810,095 pounds of reinforcing steel. The current bridge was built as a replacement to the original lift bridge which was struck by ships twice. 

Sidney Lanier Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bridge was named for Georgian poet Sidney Lanier who wrote the poem Marshes of Glynn about the beautiful marshes that surround the area. Each year in February, there is the annual 5k Bridge Run (February 17-18, 2022), sponsored by Southeast Georgia Health System when the south side of the bridge is closed to traffic and people register to run (or walk) the bridge.

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

GA-520: A Can’t-Miss I-95 Road Trip Detour

Take in the expansive marshes on State Route 520 detours to beautiful Jekyll Island. Just 20 minutes away from St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island was once a private island owned by ultra-rich families such as the Rockefellers, Morgans, Cranes, and Pulitzers. Today, the island is owned by the state of Georgia but remnants of the island’s glamorous past can be seen in its National Historic Landmark District where you’ll find opulent mansions and the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, formerly the Jekyll Island Club House founded in 1886.

Want to stay off the highway a bit longer? Rent a bicycle and explore the island on two wheels by pedaling along with the Jekyll Island Trail System consisting of 25 miles of paved bike trails.

A parking fee of $8/day is required for all vehicles entering Jekyll Island.

Park your RV or camper under the magnificent oaks on the northern tip of Jekyll Island. Located opposite the Clam Creek Picnic Area, you are near Driftwood Beach, the fishing pier, and fascinating historic ruins. For your convenience, there are camping supplies and a General Store for those pick-up items, and bike rentals, so you can explore all that Jekyll Island has to offer. The Jekyll Island Campground offers 18 wooded acres on the Island’s north end with 206 campsites, from tent sites to full hook-up, pull-through RV sites with electricity, cable TV, water, and sewerage. Wi-Fi and DSL Internet are free for registered guests.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Loop around the island to take in the views and head back to US-17 which will meet back up with I-95 south of Brunswick.

This is a great place to continue your road trip south to Florida (Jacksonville is only about an hour and a half south) or head north to your starting location (Savannah is only a little over an hour north!).

Get even more ideas on exciting places to explore and things to see along I-95.

Related: Georgia Is On My Mind

Safe travels!

Worth Pondering…

The Marshes of Glynn

Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven

With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven

Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,

Emerald twilights,

Virginal shy lights,

The wide sea-marshes of Glynn.

—Sidney Lanier (1842–1881)