Peaceful, Pristine Cumberland Island National Seashore

Keystone owner Nancy Bell Kimsey shares her insights

July 20, 2021
By: Nancy Bell Kimsey, author of Grace on a Rambling Road: Devotions for RV Travelers

Looking for an excursion along the southern Atlantic coast that will allow you to experience a wide variety of natural habitats, wildlife, and historic buildings in a single day? Cumberland Island National Seashore is just a stone’s throw from Jacksonville, Florida and is accessible by ferry or private boat from the coastal Georgia town of St. Marys. This barrier island includes salt marsh, beach, live oak forest, wild horses, loggerhead turtles, and even the ruins of a Carnegie mansion. CINS is free to those with a National Parks America the Beautiful Pass and costs $10 for others who are 16 years and older. Ferry fees vary by age, and departure times change seasonally. Advance reservations are strongly recommended.

For RVers, a great launch point for your CINS adventure is Crooked River State Park near St. Marys. This state park is less than 20 minutes from the ferry dock and has hiking trails, cottages, a nature center, a boat ramp on Crooked River, and 63 campsites. The sites are well spaced and mostly level, and site #11 is especially nice: a pull-thru with a scenic river view.

On the day of your visit to CINS, plan to arrive at the ferry office one hour early to pick up your tickets; then walk down the street a few blocks to the dock. There are a few restaurants, a submarine museum, and a lovely waterfront park nearby. If you plan to bring your bicycle on the ferry (or camping gear for those with primitive camping reservations), you are allowed to drop those off at the dock before parking near the ferry office. Be aware that all roads on the island are sand, so bicycles with wide tires are needed and E-bikes must be less than 1 horsepower. It’s also crucial to bring all the food, water, trash bags, bug spray and sunscreen that you will need for the entire time that you will be at Cumberland. There are restrooms and bicycle rentals at the dock area, and additional restrooms can be found at other points on the island. The ferry ride lasts about 50 minutes and passes near the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base.

If you select the 9 AM ferry you will have 4-6 hours on the island, depending on your return time slot. Those who are biking may wish to head to the north end of the island to explore Plum Orchard Mansion, Cumberland island Wharf, and the First African Baptist Church. The park encompasses over 36,000 acres, so you won’t run out of places to ride! If walking, the suggested 4.3 mile South End Loop begins with the River Trail which parallels the river through maritime forest. You then pass by the Ice House Museum which is set up with items from the Dungeness mansion that you will see later. Turning left, the sandy road is lined on both sides with Spanish moss-draped oak trees - a great photo spot. The Dungeness area of CINS is perhaps the most unique. Thomas Carnegie, wealthy industrialist and brother of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, built the Dungeness estate on Cumberland Island, but it was destroyed in a fire in 1959. You can see feral horses wandering the grounds surrounding the Dungeness ruins. Then make your way across a long boardwalk over the salt marsh (an excellent area for birding!) A sandy path dotted with weathered trees will lead you across the dunes to 18 miles of pristine beach, a perfect place to hang out for an hour or so and enjoy a seashore that has been protected from commercial development. When about 30-40 minutes remain until boarding time for your return ferry, follow the trail back to the ferry dock through an incredible canopy of twisted live oak trees. Then enjoy your trip back to Saint Marys, keeping a lookout for dolphins as you travel.

The National Park Service has detailed information at https://www.nps.gov/cuis/index.htm

Nancy Bell Kimsey is a lifelong outdoor enthusiast whose hiking and camping experiences have ranged from backpacking and family tent camping to adventuring in an RV. She is the author of Grace on a Rambling Road: Devotions for RV Travelers. The book is a collection of 60 devotional meditations that link the Scriptures with vignettes about the camping experience, uplifting life applications, and prayers.