5 Unexpected Islands in the US to Consider for Your Next Getaway
From the Hawaiian Islands to the Florida Keys, a few domestic islands seem to get all the attention. And that’s to say nothing of the dazzling US Virgin Islands, which draw throngs of vacationers to their postcard-worthy shores each year. Still, the United States is vast, with a jaw-dropping 95,741 miles of shoreline, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With so much coastline at our disposal, it’s no wonder the country is also home to thousands of lesser-known and under-explored islands.
These hidden gems offer many of the spoils of more trafficked US island destinations—beautiful beaches, serene waters, spectacular views—but without the year-round crowds. And depending on where you live, a few may even be close to home. From the Pacific Northwest to the Mid-Atlantic, here are five of our favorite unexpected islands across the mainland United States to consider for your next vacation.
Orcas Island, Washington
It would be impossible to compile a list of unexpected US islands without including the stunning San Juan Islands. Tucked between Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, Canada in the deep blue waters of Puget Sound, this idyllic archipelago is a favorite boating and beach-hopping destination for Washingtonians. But savvy travelers actually venture from much farther away—even from abroad—to experience the serene waters and unmatched views surrounding these 172 islands. At its heart, the crescent-shaped Orcas Island is not only the largest of the San Juans, but also one of the most beloved spots to drop anchor, thanks to its panoramic views and its vibrant arts community on shore. Browse its collection of pottery shops, galleries, boutiques, and restaurants, then take in sweeping 360-degree views as you hike to the very top.
Cumberland Island, Georgia
As Georgia’s largest barrier island, Cumberland Island National Seashore is a gem that’s hidden in plain sight. The island is accessible only by taking a 45-minute ferry, which you can board in coastal St. Mary’s—a sleepy seaside town nestled quietly in between Brunswick, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida. But once you reach Cumberland, it feels suddenly a world away from the mainland, and from modern life in general. Nearly 18 miles of silky white beaches fringe the island, while old live oaks draped in Spanish moss line the quiet paths that crisscross the land. On your visit to Cumberland, you’re also likely to spot a smattering of ancient marine forests that are home to an incredible biodiversity of sea life. And you might even encounter herds of wild horses that freely roam the land. History buffs will find no shortage of carefully preserved historic sites to explore, like the Dungeness Mansion ruins that date to 1884. And if the laid-back pace leaves you feeling like you need more time here, you’ll have your choice of accommodations, from beach camping under the stars to booking a room at the stately colonial-style Greyfield Inn.
Channel Islands, California
While Los Angeles is known for beautiful beaches that span the entirety of the city’s coastline (and, let’s be honest, well beyond the city limits in both directions), it may be surprising that some of the region’s most spectacular beaches are actually located offshore. Just shy of 90 miles out into the deep Pacific, the Channel Islands of California compose such a remarkable natural habitat that they are frequently regarded as the “Galapagos of the North”—and it’s easy to see why. From bald eagles and other avian species to a vast variety of marine life, and even a massive kelp forest, this eight-island archipelago is a must-visit on your next West Coast trip. And while the island chain may feel relatively secluded, it’s a breeze to access. Just board a short ferry from Ventura and you’ll find yourself on Santa Cruz Island in about an hour; from there, it’s easy to hop around to the other islands in the chain. You can also rent kayaks, standup paddle boards, snorkels and scuba gear to explore all the undersea treasures that the Channel Islands have to offer.
Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
For a true taste of unspoiled natural beauty along with a real touch of Southern hospitality, look no further than the Outer Banks of North Carolina. While there are several barrier islands here, the real showstoppers are Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. Hatteras is home to nearly 50 miles of breathtaking shoreline, with a handful of small towns scattered throughout the island offering a range of hospitality options. And on quiet Ocracoke, a 16-mile barrier island that remains largely undeveloped even today, visitors can experience true seclusion on the many picture-perfect beaches that fringe the island’s perimeter. Located just 18 miles offshore, it’s easy to forget you’re anywhere near the mainland as you sit in blissful solitude on these quiet shores. Here, you’ll enjoy some of the most striking coastal views in all of the Southeastern region—yet it’s all within close proximity to several major port cities on the mainland, and with transportation available by air and by sea.
Block Island, Rhode Island
When it comes to picture-perfect New England seascapes, Cape Cod and Nantucket are usually among the first destinations that spring to mind. But tucked just 12 miles off the coast of neighboring Rhode Island, the petite and laid-back Block Island just may be the secluded East Coast sanctuary you’ve been searching for all along. Hop a short ferry from Point Judith on the mainland, and spend the day exploring the tiny island on foot or by bike—after all, it’s just 10 square miles in total. Still, despite its small size, the island packs a whopping 17 miles of shoreline, including sheltered beaches and coves, dramatic cliffs (most evident at Mohegan Bluffs, a favorite spot on the island), and the stately North Lighthouse at its northern tip. Spend the day—or several—soaking up a rare bit of New England that still manages to feel blissfully undiscovered, even today.