Cumberland Island was on Sara’s wish list for a long time. She first heard about the “island of wild horses” when she was young and instantly knew she wanted to visit one day. Spanish moss, wild horses, empty beaches and castle ruins? It doesn’t get much more magical than that!
We had the pleasure of visiting this island – where wild horses roam free and the beaches are empty – in May of this year and it was epic! Our one day trip to Cumberland Island was way too short but it was still the best, most relaxing day we have had since we stopped traveling in March 2020.
In this article, we would love to share our experiences at Cumberland Island and provide you with some tips for your visit. Before we do so, allow us to introduce ourselves. We are Chris and Sara (@chrisandsara_): storytellers who love to travel and experience as much as possible along the way.
Chris is originally from Kentucky and Sara is originally from Georgia. We met while bicycling across America in the summer of 2014. We guess you could say adventure and travel have always been at the heart of our relationship since we met doing both! Ultimately the people we meet and their cultures we get to experience is what inspires us to keep traveling.
As creative people, the opportunity to share these experiences through photos and videos enriches the experiences by connecting with our audience and by encouraging and inspiring them to explore the world in their own backyard or even across the ocean. For more info about our journey together check out our travel and lifestyle blog – chrisandsara.com.
Perfect Day at Cumberland Island
We love visiting historically significant places that are also beautiful and Cumberland Island is just that! Unfortunately our trip was just one day, but we managed to squeeze in a lot. From the Dungeness Ruins and wild horses, to cemeteries and beaches, we managed to see a lot in one day.
We rented bikes which helped us move around the island quickly and see as much as possible while still managing to relax and take in the slow pace of the Georgia coast. One of the biggest surprises was how big the island was. We thought we could see everything in a day but we were wrong.
On our Cumberland Island trip, we only managed to cover the south end of the island. But we do hope to return again soon to explore the north of the island. We would say the experience on the island far exceeded our expectations though! Typically places run and managed by the National Park Service (like Cumberland Island) are crawling with tourists and visitors.
However, because the island is only accessible by boat, the number of people on the island is limited to how many people can book on the ferry out of St. Mary’s, Georgia. We expected to have people near us at all times (like most national parks) but surprisingly we hardly saw anyone else.
We would pass cyclists on the roads and see a few groups sprinkled on the beach, but when we were watching the horses and exploring the Dungeness Ruins we were all alone which was awesome! It was wonderful to see that the remote island we had imagined really existed and that you could feel a world away even though you were a short boat ride from town.
Top 5 Things To Do in Cumberland Island
Seeing wild horses was our favorite experience on Cumberland Island. They weren’t in any one place but rather were roaming around the island freely. We would bike down the road and they would just cross in front of us. When we lounged on the beach, we had a group of horses grazing 100 feet from us. They weren’t phased at all by our presence. It was so cool!
As great as seeing the wild horses of Cumberland Island was, it wasn’t the only amazing experience we enjoyed on the island. Below you will find our top 5 things to do in Cumberland Island. All of these experiences can be enjoyed on a day trip or you can spread them out across a few days of fun.
1. Rent a Bike to Ride the Spanish Moss Lined Paths
Bring your own bike if you have one, otherwise you can rent a bike on the island. Just enjoying the simple pleasure of biking the roads with Spanish Moss hanging from the trees is wonderful. Take the back roads and cycle slowly without a plan – you will find some epic hidden gems!
2. Explore the Enchanting Dungeness Ruins
Dungeness was a hunting lodge first built by James Oglethorpe. He was a British soldier, member of Parliament and the founder of the colony of Georgia. The property was later purchased by industrialist Thomas Carnegie and his wife in 1884, however it burned down in the 1950s. Today you will find wild horses roaming around the ruins and near the beach.
3. Relax at the Best Beaches of Cumberland Island
The entire Atlantic Coast on Cumberland Island is beach and you can find some amazing stretches of coastline here. From south to north, the best beaches are: South End Beach, Dungeness Beach, Sea Camp Beach, Goats Way Beach, Greyfield Beach, Little Greyfield Beach, Campground Beach, North Stafford Beach, Willow Pond Beach and Duck House Beach.
4. Learn about the Complex History of the Island
Throughout your visit to Cumberland Island you will get the chance to learn about the history of the island. From stories of aboriginal people who called the island home as early as 2000 B.C., to the times of Spanish missionaries in the 16th century, to the era proceeding the American Revolution – there is a rich and complex set of stories to learn about here.
5. Wander around the Island to Find Wild Horses
As mentioned above, the horses that roam freely around the island were the number one highlight for us. It doesn’t take long before you start bumping into groups of horses walking around and grazing. The south end of Cumberland Island is your best bet to find the famous wild horses!
Immersing in the History of Cumberland Island
Only a few homes sprinkle the island of Cumberland and most are owned by descendants of the Carnegie family or the Coca-Cola founder’s family. So there aren’t a lot of locals to meet on the island. We didn’t even see these homes, so they must be tucked away or at the far north end of the island.
We think the best way to immerse yourself in the culture of Cumberland Island is to learn as much as you can about the history (they do offer guided tours by the way) and then allow yourself to get lost a little bit. Its beauty and mystery is largely what makes it such a special place!
Where to Stay in Cumberland Island
There are very few places to stay on the island: you can camp at one of the NPS operated campgrounds, or you can stay at the Greyfield Inn. Do keep in mind there are no concessions at the campgrounds and they are all pretty primitive, so you have to come prepared with gear and food.
We didn’t stay at the Greyfield Inn but it’s on our list for next time. It’s pretty pricey but the experience looks incredible! If you don’t want to splurge on the Greyfield Inn or stay at the campgrounds, consider staying in St. Mary’s, Georgia or Amelia Island, Florida. Both have plenty of Airbnb and hotel options, and it gives you an excuse to see another amazing destination!
Best Memory from Cumberland Island
Our best memory from the island was our time biking around and getting lost. It had been a while since we had been somewhere without cell service and it felt so good to just be present and enjoy the beauty of our surroundings. It’s impossible not to feel like a kid when riding a bike, but throw in wild horses and sunny beaches and you have got the perfect day.
Need to Know Before you Go
We can’t emphasize enough the importance of planning. Unless you own your own boat, you will have to book a ticket on the ferry out of St. Mary’s which usually books up quickly. *Note: if you are wanting to bring your own bike, you will need to make a reservation for that too.
It’s also important to note that only service animals are allowed on the island. So make sure Fido has somewhere to stay while you are on the island. We use the Rover app to find dog sitters. Also be sure to pack snacks, water, sunscreen and bug spray. Nothing is available besides a few potable drinking fountains. You need to be prepared to face the elements.
One last note: watch where you step. We saw multiple snakes during our day there. All were non-venomous but venomous ones do exist on the island (along with alligators). Thanks for reading everyone! We hope you enjoy visiting the incredibly unique and beautiful Cumberland Island.