There’s nothing quite like island life, where you can leave your worries on the mainland and fill your days with sun, sand, and ocean views that seem to go on forever. If island life is calling your name in 2023, we have you covered with our picks for our favorite quaint islands in the U.S. Many of these islands are tiny, but they pack a lot of adventure into a few square miles, and on these islands, you’ll find everything from waterfalls and wild horses to rolling sand dunes. Ranging from beachy barrier islands to islands with rugged, rocky coastlines, these locations show off the diversity of the natural wonders a traveler can find in the U.S. — especially if you step off the beaten path, or in this case, the ferry.
1. Moloka’i, Hawaii
The tiny island of Moloka’i is a paradise in the Pacific Ocean and home to the highest sea cliffs in the world and the longest continuous fringing reef. The island is only 38 miles long and 10 miles across at its widest point, but it’s packed with outdoor adventure. A high percentage of the population is of Native Hawaiian ancestry, and the locals work hard to preserve their rural lifestyle that’s focused on a love of the land. There are two gorgeous waterfalls you can hike to on the island, but they’re on private land, so you’ll want to book a guided tour. After your hike, you can relax on one of Hawaii’s largest white-sand beaches.
Moloka’i is more remote and off the beaten path for most cruise ships, but you can fly into Honolulu and connect via a local airline to Moloka’i airport. If you’re thinking of a Hawaiian getaway in 2023, a visit to Moloka’i is a must! Get more tips for your trip, including our favorite waterfalls on all of the Hawaiian islands here!
2. Prince Of Wales Island, Alaska
Rugged Prince of Wales Island offers visitors true Alaskan adventure and a chance to kayak, backpack, or try to land a trophy salmon or halibut. The island has 990 miles of coastline that feature coves, straits, bays, protected islands, and more. There are also chains of inland lakes to explore by canoe or kayak. Prince of Wales Island is big on wilderness but also features an extensive road system, making it easy to access the island’s campgrounds, villages, hiking trailheads, and fishing lodges.
The island is just a 3-hour ferry ride from Ketchikan, which is another must-visit destination. Ketchikan is the gateway to the Inside Passage, a system of waterways that weave through Revillagigedo Island, and is a great destination for shopping and dining before heading farther north. Alaska is a bucket-list destination and requires some advance planning, so be sure to check out more of our travel tips here!
3. Camano Island, Washington
One of the few Washington islands accessible by car, Camano Island is about an hour drive from Seattle and offers fun activities in a less touristy setting. Try your hand at ax throwing, visit an outdoor sculpture park, or fly through the Pacific Northwest forest on a zip line. There are several parks in the area for outdoor activities, including Cama Beach Historical State Park, which used to be an auto camp. Visitors can rent a cabin and enjoy the beach, bird watching, and even take a boat-building class.
The English Boom Trail is another waterfront park that features a beach, a nice trail, and interpretive signs that detail the area’s history as the site of a former logging boom. Camano Island is the perfect spot for a day trip from Seattle or a stop on your way to other destinations in the Pacific Northwest. Learn more about the unique activities on the island here!
4. Angel Island, California
Angel Island is a hidden gem in the San Francisco Bay and offers breathtaking views of the San Francisco skyline and other Bay Area sites. Accessible from San Francisco or Tiburon by ferry, Angel Island would be a great place to spend a day. Visitors can ride an open-air tram and learn about the island’s history, including the oldest standing group of Civil War buildings in the world and a former U.S. immigration station.
The Angel Island Immigration Station Museum was in operation from 1910 to 1940 and served as the main immigration processing center for immigrants from all over the world. Many visitors opt to rent a bike or e-bike for the day, which gives access to parts of the island normally too difficult to reach by foot. Angel Island is also a great hiking destination, and the views of the Bay and San Francisco can’t be beat. Find inspiration for San Francisco and your Bay Area trip here!
5. Beaver Island, Michigan
Beaver Island is the largest island in Lake Michigan and is easily accessible by ferry or plane. The island is ideal for outdoor enthusiasts, with options like biking, birding, hiking, stargazing, and more. The island has over 12,000 acres of preserved land and a variety of habitats suitable for seeking out local wildlife, including many types of migratory birds heading north to their breeding grounds. Beaver Island sits in the center of northern Lake Michigan, giving it extra dark skies at night, perfect for stargazing or catching a glimpse of the Milky Way or Northern Lights.
History buffs will also find plenty to love here. At the Mormon Print Shop Museum, you can learn about Native American life, the Irish families who settled on the island during the 1840s, and the story of a Mormon kingdom formed on the island in the 1850s. The Beaver Island Toy Museum & Store offers a dose of nostalgia, with many toys on sale for a dime a piece! With so much to do indoors and out, Beaver Island is a great destination for a family trip. See all of our favorite things to do on the island here!
6. Mustang Island, Texas
Mustang Island sits off the Gulf Coast near Corpus Christi and is a great escape from the bustling city. While on the island, you’ll want to spend plenty of time in the small town of Port Aransas, known for its laid-back vibe, gorgeous beaches, and delicious seafood. A stretch of 18 miles of beaches plays host to sand castle competitions, parasailing, and plenty of water sports. Mustang Island State Park is a haven for wildlife and is home to over 300 species of birds and also the nesting grounds for the smallest and rarest breed of sea turtle in the world.
Around the island, you may also be able to see dolphins, alligators, and other species. Port Aransas is known as the “Fishing Capital of Texas,” so you’ll want to schedule a fishing charter and see what you can pull out of the Gulf waters. If you don’t have any luck, don’t worry, because the restaurants around town offer up amazing seafood dishes that make the most of the teeming Gulf waters. Find out more about this charming island, including the best times to visit here!
7. Avery Island, Louisiana
Avery Island is a salt dome in the Louisiana delta and is known as the home of world-famous Tabasco hot sauce. You can go on a tour of the Tabasco factory and visit the museum, but be sure to bring some tissues because the capsaicin from the peppers gets into the air and can make you feel the heat! Escape from the spice on a visit to the 170-acre Jungle Gardens, which hold a sculpture of Buddha said to be 900 years old and over 60 varieties of bamboo. A section of Jungle Garden is known as Bird City, where you can view flocks of egrets and other migratory birds.
Of course, the food on Avery Island is very Tabasco-forward, so be prepared for some spice. Avery Island is a unique Louisiana island and a great stop on a road trip through southern Louisiana. See our recommended route and other tips here!
8. St. George Island, Florida
St. George Island is a barrier island in the Florida panhandle that’s part of “The Forgotten Coast,” the part of the Gulf Coast known for its stretch of pristine beaches. The beach has been named one of the best in the U.S. and features clean, white sand, perfect for a day spent relaxing. Visitors to the island can also explore the Cape St. George Lighthouse or the Crooked River Lighthouse for beautiful views of the coast.
Keep an eye out for unique sea life at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve Nature Center, where visitors follow a winding nature path and learn about the habitats of local wildlife. Make sure to stop in Apalachicola, a quaint beach town on Apalachicola Bay that offers oceanside dining, galleries, boutiques, and more to explore. There’s plenty to enjoy on this charming island, and don’t miss some of our other favorite beaches in Florida here!
9. Marco Island, Florida
Marco Island is the epitome of island life, with water activities, pristine beaches, fresh seafood, and beautiful views. Part of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands region, the area is home to abundant sea life and part of a migratory bird path. Some of the best birdwatching in the world can be found here, and group and private birding photography tours are available. The Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is a wonderful place to learn about local wildlife and explore mangrove forests and waterways. Visitors can take a tour of the mangrove forests and paddle through the strange and unique root system of the trees.
Another unique tour opportunity is Manatee Eco-Tours, where you can see the gentle manatees that thrive in the Southwest Florida waters. Fans of water sports will find plenty of opportunities for kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, jet skiing, and more out on the water. Marco Island offers something for everyone, and we have even more recommendations here!
10. Cumberland Island, Georgia
Cumberland Island is Georgia’s southernmost and largest barrier island and will make you feel like you stepped back in time. In the 1880s, family members of Andrew Carnegie discovered the island and at one point owned 90 percent of it before giving the land to the government to create the Cumberland Island National Seashore. You can visit a few of the mansions once owned by the family or visit the tiny church where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married. Another unique attraction: the wild horses that run along the beach, graze the salt marshes, and are completely unphased by the tourists.
The roads on the island are sand, so plan to explore by bike or foot, and make sure to pack what you need because you won’t find any stores on the island. Only about 300 visitors each day can take the passenger ferry service to the island, so make your reservations early! See all our tips for planning the perfect day on Cumberland Island here!
11. Daufuskie Island, South Carolina
The low-country island of Daufuskie is isolated, serene, and filled with traditional Gullah culture. The historic district includes vintage Gullah homes and a circa 1884 church that still conducts Sunday services. A walk along the Robert Kennedy Trail is a great way to explore other historic landmarks and dive deeper into the island’s Gullah history. While on the island, enjoy traditional seafood preparations at the many restaurants or grab a cocktail and relax near the water.
The island is 5 miles by 2.5 miles and is easy to explore by golf cart, bike, or foot. It is accessible by ferry from Hilton Head or Savannah. You can explore most of the island in a day, but you can stay on the island and spend more time relaxing and enjoying the low-country vibe. Learn more about why Daufuskie Island is the perfect day trip or weekend getaway here!
12. Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
One of the most remote islands on the North Carolina Outer Banks, Ocracoke is the home of pristine beaches, unique culture, and pirate legends. There’s no bridge to the island and it’s only accessible by a public ferry or private boat. The all-white Ocracoke Island Lighthouse greets visitors upon arrival, and though it’s small at only 67 feet tall, it’s also the oldest operating light station in North Carolina.
With the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the calmer Pamlico Sound on the other, Ocracoke has plenty of water fun to offer, from parasailing to kiteboarding and surfing. The island is also an excellent spot for fishing, but because it’s so popular, you’ll want to book your charter early! Fans of pirate lore will love exploring Teach’s Hole Pirate Museum, which details Blackbeard the pirate’s life and death on Ocracoke. Ocracoke is also teeming with lots of shops to explore, relaxing beaches, hiking spots, and an area where you can see wild ponies up close. Ocracoke is an excellent day trip during a visit to the Outer Banks, and we have even more tips for your trip here!
13. Assateague Island, Maryland
Assateague Island is filled with romantic sights, from rolling sand dunes to the wild horses running through the island. But be warned that although the horses are beautiful, they can be unruly, and visitors should only admire them from a distance. Each year a pony auction is held which serves as a fundraiser and is meant to help with population control of the wild herds.
In addition to the horses, Assateague Island is also an excellent spot for bird watching and fishing. The shifting ecosystem of this barrier island is preserved as part of the Assateague Island National Seashore, which includes nature trails, campgrounds, a beach, and a visitor center. Kayaking is a popular way to explore the island, especially on the calmer bay side. The island is located off the eastern coast of Maryland and Virginia and is just a few-hour drive from many major East Coast cities. A visit to this beautiful island would be a great weekend escape from the city, and we have plenty of recommendations for your trip here!
14. Plum Island, Massachusetts
An 11-mile barrier island off the coast of Massachusetts, Plum Island is a beach-goer’s paradise and you’ll find plenty of sand and sun on your trip. Plum Island Beach is a long, sandy beach perfect for relaxing in the sunshine or playing on the sand. Parking can be tricky, but the island has no shortage of beachfront rentals so you can step right out your door and straight onto the sand. The island also serves as the habitat for several types of migratory birds, and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge offers viewing platforms, an elevated boardwalk, hiking paths, and more. The island got its name from the wild beach plum shrubs that grow on the dunes, and you can try a taste of wild plum jelly and other local favorites while you’re there. To make the most of your time on the island, including the best time to visit to avoid biting horseflies, check out our recommendations here!
Still looking for more quaint islands to add to your travel bucket list? Be sure to check out last year’s list here!