When you hear about an island vacation, most people immediately think of the tropics. It’s a trip that’s all about relaxation—lying on the beach, sipping drinks by the pool, and riding the warm ocean waves…right?
Well there is a different kind of island vacation that offers up a whole different type of fun and adventure. Islands can offer a variety of unique experiences in all kinds of climates, and the U.S. is filled with memorable destinations that are far from your typical resort-oriented getaway.
Want to experience something a little more wild? Explore an incredible natural setting? Escape the crowds? Here are six different kinds of island destinations that make for unforgettable vacations.
1. The San Juan Islands
Tucked into the northwest corner of the continental U.S., the San Juan Islands are less than 90 miles north of Seattle and within sight of Canada. You’ll find 172 named islands in this beautiful archipelago, with three served by ferry and receiving the vast majority of tourists—San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island. The temperate climate here (it averages a high of 70 in the summer) is perfect for outdoor adventures, whether that means hiking, camping, kayaking—or simply enjoying the quaint small towns and restaurants. Take a boat ride to watch the orcas, or rent a bike and take a leisurely ride along the shore. You’ll find places to camp, hike, horseback ride, and even zip-line. And if you want to combine your island trip with some urban activities, you’re not far from Seattle or Vancouver. But chances are, you’ll want to spend as much time as possible taking in the picturesque scenery.
2. Dry Tortugas National Park
Located about 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park isn’t the easiest place to reach. But for those looking for a tropical adventure that’s off the beaten path, it’s well worth the effort to get here. The 100-square-mile park (most of which is water) is accessible only by seaplane or boat, and it features some of the country’s best snorkeling, scuba diving, and bird watching. Its remoteness means that you’ll get to see abundant sea life and its remarkable (and colorful) coral reefs. The park is also home to Fort Jefferson, a massive, unfinished coastal fortress that’s the largest brick structure in the western hemisphere. You can camp here, but the site is limited to just eight primitive campsites, meaning that you’re truly far from the crowds. It’s far from the resort experience, but the views of the night sky are incredible, and you won’t find a place like this anywhere else.
3. Catalina Island
On Catalina Island, you’re only 22 miles from Los Angeles, but it’s a world away from a typical southern California vacation. The island—about an hour’s ferry ride from the cities of Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point, and Newport Beach—has a well-deserved reputation as a destination for the rich. But that shouldn’t discourage you from exploring all that this relatively accessible spot has to offer. The city of Avalon is on the more developed east side of the Island, while Two Harbors is the less-developed village on the west side. But the vast majority of the island is undeveloped. Preserved by the Catalina Island Conservancy, it’s a great place to hike and watch wildlife, including the island’s bison. Of course, there are plenty of Pacific adventures as well, with ocean safaris, glass-bottom boat tours, snorkeling, paddling, sailing, and even an undersea sub expedition.
4. Isle Royale National Park
On the other end of the spectrum, this island is not a popular spot for the rich and famous. Isle Royale National Park, located in Lake Superior and closer to Canada than the U.S. mainland, is the least-visited national park with only about 25,000 visitors expected each year. Isle Royale, 45-miles long and about 9-miles wide, is mostly wilderness, and you’ll have to take advantage of the 165-miles of hiking trails to get a good look at the interior. There are only two developed areas on the island: Windigo, on the southwest side, features a camp store, some rustic cabins and a boat dock for ferries arriving from Minnesota. Rock Harbor, located on the south side, has a bit more, including some restaurants and a lodge. It’s reached via a ferry from Michigan’s UP. You’ll find 36 wilderness campgrounds on the island, and that’s why most of the visitors come here, to experience a truly wild landscape. Some campgrounds are only accessible by either trail or canoe or kayak. You can see moose and wolves among the many creatures who make their home here. If you’re up for a backcountry paddling and camping experience, this is one of the best places to do it.
5. Acadia National Park
Acadia is much less isolated than Isle Royale, as it’s the most popular national park in the northeast and one of the 10 most popular in the country. Located on Mt. Desert Island (and portions of 16 smaller islands) off the coast of Maine, Acadia is known for its rocky headlands, high peaks, and incredible shoreline. It rises from sea level to the top of Cadillac Mountain (1,530 feet) in a small amount of space, creating a wide variety of different ecosystems to explore. You’ll find all kinds of camping, with four campgrounds in the park and a dozen nearby, plus more lux accommodations elsewhere on the island. Hiking is very popular, with about 125 miles of trails in the park. Cycling, horseback riding, fishing, and paddling are all excellent as well. Take in all the fantastic rock formations, like the Otter Cliff, Thunder Hole, and Bubble rock, as you explore all this island has to offer.
6. Channel Islands National Park
More than 3,200 miles from Acadia on the opposite side of the country, Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California is another natural wonder of land and sea. Eight islands just south of Santa Barbara make up the Channel Island chain, and five are part of the national park. Unlike Catalina island, there is very little development here. In fact, there are no services on the island, so visitors must come prepared with everything they need on a visit. But several outfitters are available to help people get to the island and enjoy the experience that only these islands can provide. The islands are perhaps best known for their sea caves, and kayaking among them is one of the park’s signature experiences. Hiking and camping on the island allow you to explore the interior and enjoy stunning views, while water activities around the islands include scuba diving, snorkeling, whale watching, swimming, and surfing.
Written by Jeff Banowetz for Matcha in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products.