Photograph courtesy National Geographic
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Lightning illuminates the purple sky over Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia.
Photograph courtesy National Geographic

The 10 Best Island Getaways in National Parks

When you need to cross the water to get away from it all, head off to these beautiful retreats across America.

Solitude, romance, adventure, excitement—all these words and more come to mind when travelers think of island getaways. The National Park System encompasses hundreds of islands, some large and some tiny, and many beckon visitors to enjoy their charms for a few hours or an entire vacation.

Isle Royale

National Park: Lake Superior Island, Michigan

Wild and remote, yet not forbiddingly so in either category, Isle Royale offers a true North Woods experience to those who venture across Lake Superior’s frigid waters to reach it. The largest island in the world’s largest freshwater lake, Isle Royale provides commercial lodging, developed campgrounds, and unspoiled wilderness during its season of mid-April through October. (The park closes completely in winter.) Most people access the island via one of four ferries that leave from Minnesota or Michigan, though a few take a half-hour seaplane flight. Travelers can hike through mixed coniferous and hardwood forest, kayak along rocky shores, or camp beside gorgeous lakes, falling asleep to the howling of wolves and waking to the “laughter” of loons. Various boat services and ranger-guided trips give you the chance to explore Isle Royale in countless ways, from roughing it to (comparatively) leisurely tours. A day trip to Isle Royale is possible, but such a visit leaves only a few hours to enjoy the park; plan for a sojourn of at least a few days. Good preparation is key to an enjoyable trip, as is a realistic knowledge of physical limitations and not trying to do too much, either on land or paddling.

Cumberland Island

National Seashore: Atlantic Barrier Island, Georgia

Beautiful beaches and a wilderness area of wetlands and woodlands make this 18-mile-long Georgia barrier island a great choice for a relaxing getaway or an adventure trip. There’s plenty for history buffs, too, beginning with American Indian shell mounds and continuing through European settlement, African-American slavery and post-emancipation communities, and a period when the island was a favored retreat of the wealthy Carnegie family (some of their mansions still stand on the island). Regular ferry service provides access to Cumberland Island from St. Marys, Georgia; private boats can also anchor near the island, and some hardy paddlers reach it by kayak. There’s still private property on Cumberland, and an inn providing accommodations, but extensive wilderness and sandy Atlantic beaches make this island special for those who bike its roads or hike its trails.

Channel Islands

National Park: Southern California Islands

Despite its location off the coast of heavily populated southern California, Channel Islands National Park receives relatively light visitation. Those people who do make the boat (or seaplane) trip across the Santa Barbara Channel can explore five major island groups that are home to globally significant biodiversity. These islands, in fact, are sometimes called the “Galápagos of North America.” From ultrarare birds to blue whales, the world’s largest animal, Channel Islands is a wildlife film come to life. All the islands are reachable for day-trippers (the closest, Anacapa, is a 90-minute boat trip from the mainland), and even a brief visit will bring sightings of seals, sea lions, sea otters, whales (more than two dozen species have been seen in the waters off the islands), and the largest colonies of seabirds in southern California. Developed campsites are found on all five islands, and backcountry camping is allowed on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa. For a real adventure, sea kayakers can explore striking sea cliffs and Painted Cave, one of the world’s largest and deepest sea caves. Found on Santa Cruz, the cave is nearly a quarter mile long.

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Boats fill the harbor at Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park.

Acadia

National Park: Isle au Haut, Atlantic Coast, Maine

Most of this beautiful national park is located on an island—Mount Desert Island, off the coast of central Maine—but make the extra effort to visit the park’s Isle au Haut, a much smaller island (about 5,500 acres) 20 miles southwest of Mount Desert. Isle au Haut is reached by a mail boat from the little town of Stonington, a circumstance that limits the number of visitors. Much of the island can be seen on a day trip, exploring trails that wind through woodland and meadows and along rocky shores. More solitude is available by reserving a campsite at Duck Harbor. Sleeping on Isle au Haut makes it possible to enjoy sunrises and sunsets on the island, a lovely place that seems more remote than its location would indicate.

Cape Lookout

National Seashore: Atlantic Barrier Islands, North Carolina

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are deservedly popular: a series of Atlantic Ocean barrier islands with expansive beaches, great fishing, historic beacons, and excellent wildlife-watching opportunities. Cape Lookout National Seashore, comprising three main islands—North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks—can be reached only by commercial ferries from four communities on the North Carolina mainland and has only minimal facilities. (Vehicles can be transported on some ferries.) As a result, the islands of Cape Lookout draw fewer visitors and offer more solitude than other Outer Banks islands. Other reasons to visit include seeing the 163-foot-high lighthouse, touring historic Portsmouth Village, admiring the wild horses, collecting seashells, camping in a primitive site far from other people, or simply enjoying the sun, sand, and salt breeze of a deserted beach.

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The The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks book includes these and many other amazing National Park tips.

Apostle Islands

National Lakeshore: Lake Superior Islands, Wisconsin

After getting information at the visitor center in the small town of Bayfield, in northern Wisconsin, catch a boat ride out to explore some of the 21 islands of this Lake Superior park. Eighteen of the islands allow camping, and six boast historic lighthouses. Eighty percent of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is designated wilderness, which means unspoiled island environment. Sea kayaking is a popular way to travel around the islands (rentals are available from park concessionaires), but Lake Superior’s notoriously changeable weather and rough water means paddling experience is strongly recommended. If interested in a true escape, consider this: Almost half the camping on the 21 islands takes place on just one of them, Stockton Island. Wilderness camping is available, and the park has established a camping zone system to assure solitude.

Gulf Islands

National Seashore: Gulf Coast Islands, Florida and Mississippi

This Gulf Coast park includes 12 separate units in both Florida and Mississippi, on the mainland and on islands. But true island lovers will be most interested in the four Mississippi islands where primitive camping is allowed: East Ship, Horn, Petit Bois, and part of Cat. With stunning white-sand beaches—originating as eroded quartz in the Appalachian Mountains and washed down to the Gulf of Mexico by rivers—these undeveloped islands offer beauty, nature, and solitude for visitors who have their own boats or who take charter boats for the 12-mile trip from the mainland. (Watch for bottlenose dolphins during the crossing.) Swimming, fishing, hiking, bird-watching, and beachcombing are all popular activities. Campers must bring their own food and water to the islands (plus extra supplies in case weather delays a return to the mainland), as well as the usual insect repellent, mosquito netting, sunblock, and first-aid gear. It’s strictly a policy of “pack it in, pack it out” on these remote islands, but the wild and lonely place makes the planning and preparation worthwhile.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

National Lakeshore: North and South Manitou Islands, Lake Michigan, Michigan

Most people visit this Michigan park, on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore, to swim, play on the tall dunes, or visit historic sites on the mainland. Some, however, have discovered the park’s two wild islands, North and South Manitou. The former, about 8 by 4 miles, is managed as wilderness open for backpacking, except for a 20-acre area around a small village. South Manitou, about 3 by 3 miles, is more developed, with camping allowed only in three official park campgrounds. Along with several historic buildings, South Manitou has a 104-foot-tall lighthouse, dating from 1871, that offers a panoramic view of Lake Michigan. Commercial ferries leave from the town of Leland to reach North and South Manitou Islands.

Biscayne

National Park: Elliott, Boca Chica, and Adams Keys, Florida

The watery wonderland of Biscayne National Park—95 percent of this Miami-area park is composed of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic—has more to offer than just scuba diving, snorkeling, and boating. You can take a commercial tour boat to see Elliott Key, once home to a thriving maritime community and now a park site with camping, swimming, and a 7-mile hiking trail. Boca Chica Key, also reachable by tour boat, offers camping and a 65-foot-high ornamental lighthouse built by a businessman who once owned the island. When open, the lighthouse observation deck provides a great panorama of the bay and the city skylines beyond. Those with their own boats can tour Adams Key, once the site of an exclusive fishing club where several U.S. Presidents visited. The best way to explore Biscayne’s islands is via kayak or canoe, which can traverse shallow channels and lagoons to see wildlife such as sharks, rays, wading birds, and possibly a manatee or sea turtle.

Theodore Roosevelt Island

National Memorial: Potomac River Island, District of Columbia

What is an 88-acre island in a metropolitan area doing on a list of wilderness islands? In its own way, this District of Columbia park in the Potomac River is a treasured green getaway, a peaceful respite from city life for residents of the national capital. Acquired in 1932 to honor our greatest conservationist President, Theodore Roosevelt Island comprises 2.5 miles of hiking trails through woods that seem removed from civilization, as well as a statue of Roosevelt and stone monuments inscribed with some of his quotations. Had this park been accessible during his Presidency, there’s no doubt that Teddy would have skipped out on Cabinet meetings now and then to enjoy nature here, just as he enjoyed roaming nearby Rock Creek Park to watch birds and partake in the “strenuous life” he always advocated.

This story was originally published in the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks.