Lands and Legacies of Cumberland Island National Seashore

One of the pristine beaches of Cumberland Island
One of the pristine beaches of Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island is mighty in so many ways. It’s 17.5 miles long, featuring 36,000 acres of wild marsh and tidal creeks. Historic mansions dot the Cumberland Sound behind private roads. Grand Avenue, the only main road, stretches from north to south under oak colonnades. Hundreds of wild horses graze in old cotton fields. There are four campgrounds and fifty miles of hiking trails. Needless to say, one day isn’t enough to fully explore the island and learn about its fascinating colonial, plantation, and gilded age histories. But if one day is all you have, the Lands and Legacies Tour is the best option. No matter how you choose to experience this National Seashore, adventure awaits.

Getting There

The Cumberland Lady, Cumberland Island's passenger ferry
The Cumberland Lady, Cumberland Island’s passenger ferry

Cumberland Island is only accessible by boat. There is a passenger ferry that departs from St. Mary’s, Georgia. Reservations are recommended and can be made on the Cumberland Island Ferry website. There are limited departure times, so plan carefully. This is not a national park you can expect to walk up and visit, particularly in the busy season of March-May and especially if you wish to see the island. The ferry takes 45 minutes each way, traveling up scenic riverways with views of other coastal islands and fantastic birdwatching opportunities. Bring food and water!

Upon arrival, there are endless possibilities. Bike rentals are available (you can also bring bikes over on the ferry), hiking trails are plentiful, beachcombing yields multiple surprises, and the Lands and Legacies Tour van is waiting. This tour takes you on a 30-mile adventure across Cumberland Island, showing you the main historic locales and scenes in only about six hours time. It’s a whirlwind tour packed full of information and lots of time riding in a van, but it’s more than worth every penny.

Lands and Legacies Tour

Cumberland Island's Grand Avenue is a bumpy dirt road surrounded by vegetation, including palmettos, oak trees, and pine trees
Grand Avenue, Cumberland Island’s main road

For me, this tour is the best bang for your buck if you have limited time and want to see as much as possible. Plus, you have an extremely knowledgeable tour guide providing you with information along the way. Simply stated, I cannot recommend this tour enough. In order to see everything that we saw, I believe it would have taken four days of backpacking, and I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much. I would say the only downside is the amount of time spent in the van, but it is simply unavoidable. There’s no other way to see everything in six hours.

PRO TIP: Pack motion sickness remedies if you’re prone to car sickness because the main road (a.k.a. the only road) is incredibly bumpy and filled with potholes.

By far, the highlight of the tour is how much you learn about each place you visit. I had been wanting to visit Cumberland Island for years, but never knew that it had such an interesting human history. I’ll give brief summaries below so I don’t spoil all of the facts but still give you an idea of what you’ll experience.

Plantation Era

Robert Stafford's grave
Robert Stafford’s grave

Your first stop along the journey is the grave of Robert Stafford. Born on the island, Stafford became a very wealthy plantation owner. He was known for treating his slaves much differently than his counterparts on the mainland. Among other things, Stafford ensured they received an education and helped them save money they had earned. You will drive by the old cotton fields he owned and see his estate. Currently, it is occupied by caretakers of the Carnegie properties on the island. One day, the house will belong to the National Park Service and hopefully opened to the public.

Gilded Era

The Plum Orchard Mansion
The Plum Orchard Mansion

The gilded era history was the most fascinating to me, and also one of the larger focuses of the tour. The Carnegie family had an enormous stake in Cumberland Island before it became a National Seashore, beginning with Lucy Coleman Carnegie. Lucy, the wife of Thomas Carnegie, wanted to join other millionaires (such as the Rockefellers) on nearby Jekyll Island. However, due to her husband’s Scottish ancestry, her application was denied. She decided to build a winter home on Cumberland Island instead. Over time, she decided to reside full-time and her children join her. Eventually, her grandchildren own the island and, in an attempt to keep it undeveloped and natural, they work hard to donate the land to the National Park Service.

Pictured above is Plum Orchard Mansion, one of the stops on the tour. Not only does time allow you to walk around the grounds and eat lunch here, you’ll also get to tour the inside. There, you’ll learn about the ways of the wealthy Carnegie family. To give you an idea, this house, built in 1900, contains a heated, indoor swimming pool. There was no shortage of money. If you’re not on the tour, park rangers also give daily tours of the mansion.

The ruins of the Dungeness Mansion
The ruins of the Dungeness Mansion

You will also visit Dungeness if time allows. Our tour guide, Mike, suggested a shorter lunch break in order to fit it in, and our group agreed. I would suggest doing the same. Dungeness is a popular spot for other day-visitors who are not on the tour since it’s not far from the dock. This was the home that Lucy had built as her winter home before making it her full-time residence. As a result of suspected arson that still remains a mystery, the house burned down in 1959.  The ruins left behind still grant a look back into the home’s enormous footprint, and the grounds themselves are gorgeous.

A Kennedy Connection

The First African Baptist Church where John F. Kennedy, Jr. was married
The First African Baptist Church where John F. Kennedy, Jr. was married

A little-known fact: John F. Kennedy, Jr. loved Cumberland Island. He visited many times in his short life in an attempt to escape from the harassment of the paparazzi. He loved it so much, in fact, that he also chose to get married at a small church on the island to avoid a media frenzy. The church is located on the northern end of the island and impossible to reach in just a day visit. If you’d like to see the church, definitely elect to take the tour. Here, you’ll also learn about what happened to Stafford’s 300 slaves and the wild woman of Cumberland Island.

My experience on the Lands and Legacies Tour at Cumberland Island National Seashore Click To Tweet

Wildlife

Four of Cumberland Island's wild horses graze at Dungeness
Four of Cumberland Island’s wild horses graze at Dungeness

There are approximately 150 wild horses on Cumberland Island. Their existence is quite controversial, with many activist groups attempting to relocate them. We saw quite a few on our drive. If we hadn’t taken the tour, I believe we still would have seen a couple, but perhaps not as many. If seeing the horses is one of your top priorities, you’ll cover more ground on the tour and, therefore, have a better chance at spotting them. We saw them in the cotton fields, at the Plum Orchard Mansion, grazing along the roadside, and at the ruins of Dungeness. Needless to say, they’re very spread out and very common.

Cumberland Island is also an excellent place for birdwatching, particularly if you’d like to see herons or egrets. Our tour guide mentioned wood storks, but I never saw one. He also said they sometimes see alligators sunning in the tidal creeks you’ll pass. The island is also home to deer, wild hogs, armadillos, and various other creatures. There are, of course, sea critters as well. Oyster shells littered the coastline and we saw a few conch shells too. We didn’t have time for beachcombing, but I’m sure you’d find fascinating things. Surprisingly, you can collect shells from the island. You just have to make sure there’s nothing living inside!

Summary

Riley poses in front of the Plum Orchard Mansion
Posing in front of Plum Orchard, one of my favorite stops on the tour

On my weekend trip to the coastal islands of Florida and Georgia, Cumberland Island was my favorite stop. I would recommend this trip be at the top of your list if you plan to be in the area. We saw so much and learned more than I expected. I don’t find history particularly interesting since I’m more of a nature person, but our tour guide did a great job keeping me intrigued for six hours. It was also a lot of information to remember, so I commend him for his knowledge. We visited on a pretty cold day by Georgia standards and appreciated the heated van.

I hope to return to Cumberland Island again one day and do some camping and hiking. When I do, I’ll have irreplaceable knowledge thanks to this tour. There’s nothing quite like walking the hallways of a Carnegie mansion or driving the same roads as a Kennedy, and you can do both on Georgia’s unique Cumberland Island.

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