Cumberland Island National Seashore | WHEN TO VISIT

Arriving on Cumberland Island in early April

Arriving on Cumberland Island in early April

When visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore you are up against two forces of nature for most of the year—heat and bugs. Both can ruin a visit, so choose your visitation dates depending on what you plan to see and do on the island. For the most part, visitors can be divided into two categories: those who want to go to the beach and swim and those who don’t want to go to the beach—at least not to swim—instead preferring to hike, camp, and explore the historic sites on the island.

For non-swimmers, you want to avoid the heat and the bugs, so it’s a no-brainer as to when to visit. To avoid the heat, stay away from the island from June through September when the temperatures will be in the high 80s and up. Besides, these months are prime time for mosquitoes. May and October can be warm as well, so you might also want to avoid these two months if possible. I visited the park in both mid-March and early April and the weather was wonderful. Even during the winter months the high temperature is usually in the low 60s. If you are walking or biking around the island and it is chilly, just wear a jacket.

If you want to avoid bugs, you can’t go wrong by visiting in December, January, or February. A park Ranger recommended these months for camping, though March through May is actually the busiest season. October, November, March, April, and May are “iffy” months because if the temperature gets over 60°F and no wind is blowing, the gnats are going to eat you alive (mosquito season is in the late spring and summer months). Unfortunately, even if you know the forecast temperature there is no way to predict the gnats because it is really the wind that determines whether or not they stay away.

During my March visit the gnats were non-existent to very light in certain areas and prevalent in others, particularly around the Sea Camp ferry dock area. It’s as if the gnats know that every day at 10 AM and 12 PM that a buffet is arriving. People had so many gnats flying around their heads that they looked like Pig Pen in the Peanuts cartoon. I had a mosquito net for my head and was the envy of the island. I suggest a mosquito net, long pants, and a long sleeve shirt when visiting during the iffy months. Bring shorts and a T-shirt to change into if there are no bugs. The good thing is that the weather should be cool enough that you won’t sweat to death while wearing long-sleeved clothing.

My second visit was in April, and having had the experience with the gnats in March, I was expecting things to be even worse. Instead, it was cool and a breeze was blowing and there wasn’t a bug in sight. The Ranger told me that just the day before the gnats were out in force and made things miserable. As I said, there is no way to predict gnats.

Those who want to visit the beach and do some swimming have a bit of a conundrum. The air temperature needs to be 80°F or higher for swimming to be pleasurable for most people, which leaves June through September as sure things for swimming weather. Unfortunately, these months are the prime season for mosquitoes, though they usually are not on the beach as long as there is a breeze. The closest beach is Sea Camp Beach, a half-mile from the Sea Camp ferry dock. As a Ranger put it, beachgoers only need to brave the mosquitoes for that half mile in the morning and again later that afternoon on the way back. With some insect repellent applied before getting off the boat, it doesn’t sound too bad. But what makes swimming possible—hot weather—can also ruin a day at the beach.

You may be wondering how heat can ruin things, for after all, if you get hot you can just go swimming. What people who have never visited a remote, undeveloped island like Cumberland do not take into consideration is that it’s not like being on a typical mainland beach were you can go back to the hotel and take a break. Day trippers who arrive in the morning are stuck on the island for six hours, and the only escape from the heat is back into the surrounding maritime forest where, you guessed it, the mosquitoes await their next meal. June, which is one of the park’s busiest months, may not be so bad, but July and August can be brutal. One of the guys on the ferry boat told me that he has seen people get off the boat at Cumberland Island and then get right back on to go home due to the extreme heat.

However, there is a solution. What you need is shade, but you don’t really want to resort to the forest. Why not bring a beach umbrella? Now you have shade without bugs, and as mentioned earlier, if you get too hot you can always go swimming.

With all that said, people come to Cumberland Island National Seashore year-round for all sorts of reasons because not everyone has the flexibility to schedule vacation time around the weather. If the only time you can get to the island is in August and you want to explore the historic areas, nothing is stopping you. If you want to go swimming in March, be my guest. You won’t be the first and you won’t be the last. But if you have the leeway to pick and choose your vacation dates, take the above advice to heart. It is not only based on my experience, but on the experience of the Rangers and ferry crew who I talked with extensively during my visits to Cumberland Island National Seashore.

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Last updated on February 13, 2020
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