Cumberland Island: Wild and undeveloped

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A wild horse roams the beach on Cumberland Island.


Words and images by Ashley Anderson


A canopy of tall, tangled trees make a patchwork pattern of light and shade all across the ground. The winding branches are covered with Spanish moss and the resurrection fern intertwining, creating myriad twists and turns.

Wild horses roam through the dunes and along undeveloped beaches. Intricate shells are left by the sea all along the shoreline, just waiting to be collected. Behind these regal beaches are giant and extensive sand dunes that eventually lead back into the vibrant green wilderness.

A once fantastic mansion, full of life and vitality, is now nothing more than broken walls and cracked brick that still give fantastic insight into the island’s story. Pieces of driftwood linger on the shore and the wind howls, telling stories that are hundreds of years old.

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The walk from the open beach morphs into a canvas of twisting and turning trees.

This is Cumberland Island located right off the coast of Georgia. This island that was once home to rich aristocrats and war generals, is now open to the public, preserved as a national treasure.

Cumberland Island is 17.5 miles long, with an area of 36,415 acres including 16,850 acres of marsh, mudflats, and tidal creeks. No cars are allowed on the island except by the owners and approved parks service vehicles.

After 17 years of working on the island park ranger Pauline Wentworth still finds this island to be something special.

“If I had to choose a place to work this is the ideal thing for me,” she said. Originally she wanted to go out to the ocean and do research but she got to the beach and stopped. “It’s not just the beach; it’s not just the forest; it’s everything working together and there is so much variety and diversity out here it is just incredible.”

Cumberland Island National Seashore, which is one of 9,800 congressionally designated wildernesses in the United States, features echoes of natives, missionaries, slaves and even wealthy industrialists. They have all been a part of Cumberland’s story.

For thousands of years the island was visited by Timucuan Indians. In the 1500s, Spanish friars and soldiers built a Catholic mission and a large fort.


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A young foal eating grass by the Dungeness ruins.

The wild horses on the island can be traced back into the 1700s, although it is believed that they arrived even earlier, possibly during the Spanish missionary period. The horses on the island today have a genetic makeup that is closely related to several breeds of common domestic horses, which is most likely the result of post-1900 introductions of other animals to the island.


Plum Orchard, built in 1898 by Lucy Carnegie for her son George and his wife, is located almost 8 miles from the Sea Camp dock.   

Greyfield was built for Lucy and Thomas Carnegie’s daughter, Margaret Ricketson.  In 1962 it was opened as The Greyfield Inn by Margaret’s daughter, Lucy Ferguson, and her family. To get to Greyfield adventurers take the “Lucy R. Ferguson,” a ferry at Fernandina Beach Harbor.

The First African Baptist Church was established in 1893 and then rebuilt in the 1930s. In 1996, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married at the site. In the 1960s, the Carnegies, joined by other landowners, cooperated with the National Park Foundation to acquire land for public purposes. Finally in 1972, Congress legislated into existence the Cumberland Island National Seashore.

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Another wild horse decides to explore the ruins.

The island, seven miles off of the Georgia coast, is only accessible by boat. On the ride over, first-time Cumberland adventurer and history buff, Monica Reimer prepared for her trip.


Her sister had told her about the island and said that it was the best park around. Reimer was very excited to explore the island, especially Plum Orchard. “I like historical houses,” she said. “It’s where I always go, wherever I am.”

Plum Orchard is currently open to the public. Adventurers can access it by foot, bicycle or the Lands & Legacies tour. Plum Orchard is open when volunteer caretakers are on site and as stop on the Lands & Legacies tour.

Reimer had just recently sold her home and decided to take on the country with her dog in an RV. She is just getting started and has only been as far north as North Carolina but she has big plans to make her way through the west.

For adventurers who want a more accessible trip, a stay at Greyfield could be arranged.

The inn also offers a day-trip option.

Adventurers can ride over on the 9:30 a.m. ferry then enjoy lunch and use the amenities, such as bikes available to rent. Guests can later  return on the 3:30 p.m. ferry. The Greyfield Inn is also available inn as well as lunch and Greyfield Inn was previously chosen as one of the “Top 10 Most Romantic Inns” by American Historic Inns.


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This sign leads the way to a beautiful and wide open beach.

According to an inn spokesperson, visitors to the inn love the seclusion as well as the meals it offers. Experienced chefs prepare fresh meals — all containing local ingredients, including vegetables grown at the inn itself.


Adventures are but a stone’s throw away on Cumberland, but with adventure comes a lot of physical activity. In order to fully enjoy the island, adventurers must do a decent amount of walking. However, walking under beautiful meandering trees and rudimentary beaches makes this journey a breeze.

“This is an amazing place. I never realized everything that happened out here on barrier islands,” Wentworth said.

In fact, Cumberland never gets old, no matter how many times you go. The walks are different in different seasons and new facts surface, meaning there is always something new to learn Wentworth said. It offers a peaceful feeling that so many people crave.      

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Dungeness, the ruins of the home of the Carnegie family.

If you go:

Cumberland is located 7 miles east of St. Mary’s, and since is an island, it is only accessible by boat. A ferry takes you from the visitor center to the island. No cars, kayaks, bikes or pets are allowed on the ferry. In spring/summer/fall (March 1 – Sept. 30) the ferry leaves St. Mary’s at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. and departs Cumberland Island at 10:15 a.m., 2:45 p.m. and 4:45 p.m.  

In the winter (Dec. 1 – Feb. 28) the ferry leaves St. Mary’s at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. and leaves Cumberland Island at 10:15 a.m. and 4:45 p.m on Thursdays through Mondays.  

There is no ferry service on Tuesday and Wednesday. The island does allow private boats and docks are open from sunrise to sunset.

A ride on the Cumberland Queen Ferry is $25 plus tax for adults, $23 plus tax for seniors (65 and over) and $15 plus tax for children (12 years and under).

Campgrounds are accessible and costs an additional $2 to $4 per person, depending on where you camp.

Plum Orchard is currently open Thursday-Monday 9 a.m.-12 p.m. and 1 p.m.–4 p.m. The free tours are offered on the hour and last about 45 minutes.

Greyfield Inn is a luxury hotel on the island. For complete information and reservations visit the website at


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