A path along Cumberland Island National Seashore

Dream Campsite: Stafford Beach, Georgia

This hike-in beach escape on Cumberland Island National Seashore has it all.

Fall asleep to the sound of the ocean while nestled beneath oak trees dripping with Spanish moss at Stafford Beach Campground on Cumberland Island National Seashore. It’s the best of both worlds: acres of beautiful forest combined with 17 miles of tranquil, wild beach. The island—the westernmost point of shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean—is off the coast of Georgia and boasts almost 10,000 acres of wilderness. Camping at Stafford is like a mini-backpacking trip—you’ll walk about three miles one-way on the flat Parallel/Pratts Trail from the ferry dock to the cluster of 10 sites at Stafford Beach. From the campground, it’s just a few minutes’ walk through the forest to the beach, where you can catch a colorful sunrise. Keep your eyes peeled on the way—you might spot dolphins or wild horses.

While Cumberland Island is a wild place now, it has a long human history. Indigenous people inhabited the island as early as 2000 B.C. In more recent history, Spanish missions came to the island in the 1500s. They were followed, in the 1700s, by slavery and plantations. After the American Revolution, wealthy American families built mansions on the island. Evidence of this history can be seen in the local museums and relics from the past.  

Getting There: 

You’ll hop on the Cumberland Island Ferry from St. Marys, Georgia, which is about 40 minutes from the Jacksonville International Airport across the border in Florida. 

Best Campsites: 

Most of the 10 sites at Stafford are tucked into towering trees (great for hammocks and shade), but some are more private than others. All of the sites are a close walk to the beach and each one has a fire ring with a grill as well as a food storage locker. Up to six people can stay at a site ($12/night). You can see pictures of each site and reserve your favorite at Recreation.gov (you’ll need to make a ferry reservation too). We like sites 4, 5, and 6 because they offer a little more space between them than the others. 

When To Go: 

The campground is open year-round, but the most popular time to visit is during the spring and fall. If you’re planning to hike rather than swim, visiting during the spring/fall months will be more pleasant. Summers on the island are buggy and humid, but the warm temperatures are prime for swimming and the mosquitoes tend to avoid the beach. Winter is also great, with no crowds, no bugs, and average high temps in the mid-60s. Regardless of when you go, make campsite and ferry reservations well in advance.


BYO food and gear—the island has only water fountains and bathrooms. The campground itself has flush toilets, cold showers, and water spigots (treat this water before drinking). Campers can shop for food and last-minute supplies in the town of St. Marys before hopping on the ferry. 

A tent is seen at a campsite at a Stafford Beach campground in Cumberland Island National Seashore Photo: NPS

Things to Do:

Hiking: There are more than 50 miles of trails on the island and a variety of scenery to choose from: maritime forests, wetlands, and beaches abound. From camp, head north through the forest on the flat Parallel Trail for two miles. Take a left on the Willow Pond Trail for a quarter-mile and walk the 1,000-foot boardwalk through the swamp (a prime spot to see alligators).

Biking: All the roads on the island are dirt or sand which make for soft, leisurely riding (bikes aren’t allowed on any of the trails, though, so you can’t ride one to camp at Stafford). Bring a bike aboard the ferry or rent one through the Cumberland Island Ferry when you get off at the Sea Camp Dock.  

Fishing: Anglers will find trout in streams and bass in freshwater lakes and a variety of fish in the surf or offshore.

Swimming & Kayaking –– With 17 miles of beach there’s no shortage of opportunities for swimming in the ocean, bodysurfing the small waves, or just relaxing on the sand. Rip currents are present and there are no lifeguards so take caution. You can’t rent kayaks on the island, but experienced boaters often paddle over from the mainland (the island is at the southern end of the 800-mile Southeast Coast Saltwater Paddling Trail).  

Stargazing –– Don’t miss an evening spent on the beach looking up at the stars for an unobstructed view of the sky. If you can, head to the island during a new moon for the best stargazing. 

Wildlife Watching: The island is home to plenty of native animals, including sea turtles, alligators, and armadillos. But some of its most famous residents are wild horses. Their ancestors arrived on the island in 1742, when about 50 horses were brought to Cumberland during a battle between the Spanish and the English. When the Carnegie family built the Dungeness estate they brought horses as well. But in the 1900s, any remaining horses were free ranging and when the park was established in 1972 they’d become feral (meaning they were once domesticated but are now wild). 

Museum and Tours: Rangers lead free guided tours of the island’s noteworthy sites; ask at the visitor center (schedule depends on staff availability). Stop by the Ice House Museum to see artifacts spanning 5,000 years of human history, and visit the sprawling Dungeness Estate ruins (a large mansion built by Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, in 1884 that burned down in 1950). You can also hop in a van and join an interpretive tour and visit places like the 22,000-square-foot Plum Orchard Mansion and the one-room First African Baptist Church. The van tours run when the ferry does and can be booked online ($45/person). 


You’ll need two reservations to camp on Cumberland Island: one for the ferry ($30 for those 16 and up) and one for the site itself ($12/night). People over 15 will need to pay the $10/person park entrance fee as well. Remember that you’ll need to walk a little over three miles to the site so a backpacking mentality is helpful (you can’t drag carts and coolers on the trail). Prepare for sun and bugs by bringing protective clothing and sunscreen and remember to bring a method of water purification. Lastly, if you see a wild horse don’t get too close!

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.