For suburbanites and city-dwelling Americans, it’s difficult to imagine anywhere in the country that’s not jam-packed with people, strip malls, gas stations, and Starbucks. But the United States is indeed the third-largest country in the world by landmass. No matter where you live, it’s not too hard to escape the maddening crowds. You just have to know where to look. The best place to start? One of the many fantastic islands that dot the country’s coastlines. These are the best deserted islands in America to visit in 2021.
Channel Islands, California
California’s Channel Islands are a literal national treasure. San Miguel Island, the westernmost in the chain, feels and is worlds away from anywhere. Reaching the shore requires a four-hour boat ride one-way. But, hearty explorers will appreciate the island’s solitude and pristine landscape. It’s 9,500 acres of stunning natural beauty, home to more than tens of thousands of animals, including peregrine falcons and foxes, plus marine mammals like dolphins, seals, and blue whales. Whether day-tripping or overnighting, just be sure to pack everything you’ll need.
Dry Tortugas National Park, The Florida Keys
For sheer solitude, it’s hard to beat the U.S. National Parks. But to truly escape the crowds, look to the smallest, most off-the-beaten-path parks in the USNP system — parks like Dry Tortugas. Garden Key, the main island in the archipelago, is a former island prison and is the actual southernmost point in the continental United States. At 70 miles beyond Key West, it’s closer to Cuba than it is to Florida. Most visitors are daytrippers; however, overnight camping is allowed. For those looking to truly get away, we recommend it. Be warned that there are zero services on the island, so you’ll need to carry in all of your own supplies, including food, shelter, and clean drinking water.
The Outer Banks, North Carolina
Most visitors to The Outer Banks have never heard of Portsmouth Island. The small tidal island off the southwest coast of Ocracoke is only accessible by private boat, tour, or charter, which means it sees very few visitors each year. The island’s claim to fame is its well-preserved ghost town with a handful of historical buildings, including a one-room schoolhouse and a combination post office/general store. Beyond that, the 13-mile-long island boasts some of the most beautiful, untouched beaches in the U.S., even by Outer Banks standards.
Mokoli’i — known locally and somewhat unfortunately as “Chinaman’s Hat” — is a speck of an island off the eastern coast of Oahu. At just 12.5 acres, there isn’t much to do on the island beyond a 20-minute hike to its peak. But it’s popular among visitors for two main reasons. One, it’s become something of a meme as a cheeky backdrop for tourist photos. But the fact that it can only be reached by kayaking, surfing, or swimming has also made it a bucket-list-worthy challenge for many Oahu visitors. If that’s a little too adventurous for your liking, it’s also accessible at low tide by wading across the channel. Time your visit during the week, and there’s a good chance you’ll have it all to yourself.
Lake Michigan, Michigan
Finding the perfect desert island doesn’t always require a trip to the coast. South Manitou Island, a small, eight-square-mile patch of land off the shores of Lake Michigan, is a hidden gem for solitude seekers. It’s only accessible via infrequent ferry, meaning visitors are unlikely to see too many other people. This is a place where time slows down, where days consist of beachcombing the island’s 10 miles of pristine pebble-dotted sands and exploring groves of old-growth cedar that date back more than five centuries. South Manitou Island’s long history has inspired plenty of modern-day ghost stories, and the waters surrounding the island are home to more than fifty known shipwrecks.
San Juan Islands, Washington
Washington’s San Juan Islands are a popular destination for nature- and outdoor-loving travelers. But, no island in the chain delivers the peace and untouched beauty of Yellow Island. The 11-acre Natural Conservancy Preserve remains largely today as it has for centuries — covered in wildflowers and home to dozens of wildlife species. It’s only reachable via private boat or kayak (for experienced kayakers out of Deer Harbor on Orcas Island), which ensures that visitors have no trouble finding an acre or two all to themselves.
St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Even among the Virgin Islands, Buck Island stands out. The 176-acre island, less than two miles off “mainland” St. Croix, is part of the larger Buck Island Reef National Monument. The monument includes more than 19,000 acres in total, the majority of which are underwater, making this an ideal destination for snorkelers and scuba divers. On-island, visitors can while away the day along Turtle Beach to the west or hike the heart of the island through turpentine and pigeon-berry trees. Like most islands on this list, Buck Island is only accessible by tour or private boat, so it only sees around 30,000 visitors each year.
Flathead Lake, Montana
Montana is known for many thanks, but “world-class deserted islands” isn’t one of them. That makes Wild Horse Island all the more worth a visit. It’s the largest spot of rock in the middle of massive Flathead Lake, home to no one — well, no one except mule deer, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, and (obviously) wild horses. It’s all the beauty, peace, and quiet of a traditional desert island, but with a distinct Big Sky Country vibe. Don’t miss a hike to the top of the caldera, the perfect picnic spot with stunning panoramic views from nearly 4,000 feet above sea level.
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