I fell in love with Cumberland Island in the 8th grade. Our school took us there for a class field trip and from the moment I heard there were horses I was in, 100%. Over the years I’ve go back any time I get a chance especially since it’s really a perfect day trip from Savannah.
What you need to know for getting there…
The drive is a short 2 hour drive straight down I-95 from Savannah. You really couldn’t ask for a better drive, once you’re on 95 take it to exit 1, which is the exit for St. Mary’s. After you get off the interstate it’s about a 15 minute drive to the parking lot where you will leave your car for the day. The parking lot is a dirt lot and is free for the day, it’s approximately one block from the visitor’s center (where you check in) and approximately 4 blocks from the boat dock. Check in for the ferry starts an hour before the ferry departs, not earlier so there’s really no point in arriving any earlier than that. The waterfront area is nicely manicured and has a great playground. BOOK YOUR FERRY TICKET IN ADVANCE!! They tend to sell out and driving down there to be told you can’t go would be a huge waste of time.
When you book your ferry ticket you are required to book a departure and a return time. As of this posting, the round trip cost per person is $30/adult, $20/children (6-15), and free for 5 and under. The ferry ride is approximately 45 minutes each way. The National Park Service charges $7 per adult (16 and up) to visit the park. You will pay the NPS fee when you check in for the ferry.
Things to Bring
- SUNSCREEN!!! Even in the winter, even when it’s overcast, even at night!! Bring the sunscreen
- Bug Spray
- Food – whether you bring a picnic or just snacks there is nowhere on the island to buy supplies
- Refillable water bottle – the island has 3 bathroom/water fountain stops along the southern loop trail
- Trash bag(s) – there are NO trash cans on the island, if you bring it on please take it off
- Change of clothes – there’s a beach, if your kid is anything like mine they will get wet
- Diapers/wipes/misc. things – you know what you and your family do and don’t need
- Camera – or your phone – or both (the island has excellent cell service)
What to Wear
- Comfortable clothes – whatever that means to you. When I go I wear jeans or jean shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops.
- A swim suit – if you plan on getting in the water at the beach
- A jacket – depending on the weather
The South End Loop
For the best day trip experience the 4.3 mile South End Loop is the way to go. You get a little bit of everything; forest, oak lined roads, the Dungeness ruins, sand dunes, beach, wildlife, etc.
If doing the whole loop seems like too much of a challenge you but you want to see the ruins you can the 0.8 mile River Trail to the Dungeness Dock and the 0.5 mile dirt road to the Dungeness Ruins then return the way you came (2.6 miles roundtrip). If going to the pristine almost secluded beach is what you want to enjoy you can take the 0.6 mile path to the beach and return by following the same path back to the dock (1.2 miles round trip)
The path from Sea Camp dock to the beach is stroller friendly, probably not an umbrella stroller but we’ve seen folks with a Graco stroller and they didn’t seem like they were having a hard time. I think the River Trail and the dirt road to the Dungeness ruins would also be stroller friendly, you might have a few spots where you had to give a little extra push on the River Trail but it would be manageable. The only portion of the whole loop I don’t think I would want to push a stroller on would be parts of the 0.9 mile walk from the ruins to the beach. This portion of the loop contains soft loose sand, if you have a good stroller, lots of patience, or a helper you could probably do it.
4.3 miles seems like a lot, I know, especially with kids, BUT I’ve gone a few times with kids and there are so many different fun aspects of the walk the kids don’t seem to notice the difference. The last time I visited I was 8 months pregnant with a 3 year old and only carried him for maybe half a mile down the beach.
How I “do” Cumberland Island
The ferry drops everyone at Sea Camp Dock. There is a ranger station here with bathrooms, a water fountain, and picnic tables. We take a few minutes for bathroom breaks then head down the River Trail. It is a nice walk through the woods and even though close to 300 people are typically on the boat heading over we only saw a handful on the trail. The River Trail ends at the Dungeness Dock, which was damaged so badly by Hurricane Matthew it is still not open. The area is a nice size field and has a bathroom and water fountain. From there, continue down the 0.5 mile oak lined dirt road toward the Dungeness ruins.
Once we arrive at the ruins, we find a picnic table and eat lunch. After lunch we explore the Dungeness area. Everyone always has a good time running around exploring everything Dungeness has to offer. At Dungeness the wildlife is everywhere, I’ve seen wild horses, armadillo, racoons, fiddler crabs, and osprey.
When we finish playing around the ruins area we head toward the beach. This 0.9 section of the journey starts with a nice shaded walk past additional ruins, has a bathroom/water fountain area, and a cemetery along the way. Once the walk leads you out of the woods the sand dunes provide a slight challenge to the otherwise easy walking. The sandy portion is not that long and is no worse than walking in the loose sand at any beach. Along the way the park service has provided a board walk which makes the walk easier. Through the day just keep an eye on the time, I try to be at the beach by 2:30 when we go so everyone can spend time playing at the beach but not be stressed about making it back to the dock by 4:30.
The beach provides an excellent place to find nice unbroken shells, just make sure there’s nothing living in a shell before you stash it in your bag to take home. We always walk the 1.5 miles down the beach to the black and white marker pole, which marks the entrance of the trail back to Sea Camp Dock, before letting anyone get in the water.
We play around until about 3:30 to make sure we aren’t stressed for time getting back to the dock to catch the ferry back. After everyone gets out of the water, off the beach to change, and onto the trail we stop for a snack break. Large oak trees provide a nice shady area to sit and snack. After a snack we walk the 0.6 mile path back to Sea Camp dock. We take the 4:45 ferry so they suggest being back at the dock by 4:30, which is never an issue.
This trip is always different, that’s why I love it so much! Over the years, I’ve only NOT seen horses one time and even then my friends and family still had a blast spending time together. This trip is great for a small group or large group, there are so many options for where to go and how to see the island. If you or your kids really can’t do the full 4.3 mile loop just doing the ruins or the beach is worth the trip and since everyone takes the same ferry over and back you could split up a larger group without feeling like you left someone behind.