Dreaming of an island vacation beckons images of exotic landscapes in far-flung locations and scores of beachcombers. But you can look in your backyard for an off the beaten path destination most tourists often overlook. From bear watching to spending a lazy day exploring remote islands, these ten hidden islands in the U.S. are prime vacation spots for adventurous families at heart.
1. Admiralty Island, Alaska
Ambitious families with a spirit for exploring the great outdoors should put Admiralty Island on their travel radar. Known by the native Tlingit people as “Kootznoowoo,” or fortress of the bears, the Admiralty Island area is home to some 1,600 brown bears. Broken down into bear terms, that’s more brown bears than all of the lower 48 states combined! To get there, visitors make the half-hour journey from Juneau to the Stan Price State Wildlife Sanctuary by float plane or boat and stay to for the day or overnight at the Admiralty Island Wilderness Homestead Lodge. Kids (and grown-ups) will love kayaking Seymour Canal, hiking, bird watching, and fishing before making the trip back to Juneau.
2. Anderson Island, Washington
Tucked away in the southernmost part of Puget Sound, Anderson Island boasts over 170 acres of wetlands, a tidal estuary, and forests begging to be explored. There are nearly 1,000 year-round residents on the island with a few establishments ranging from an old dairy to a coffee shop. Families who want to go fishing pack up their gear and take the 20-minute ferry ride over from Steilacoom. To cool down, pay a stop by the century-old Johnson Farm Museum with a community garden and historic buildings where kids can learn more about farm life and the island. Kids will love a dip in the Ol’ Swimmin Hole on a hot day or adventure hike at Andy’s Marine Park to look for treasures of driftwood and seashells.
3. Cedar Key, Florida
If you’re a globetrotting family with beach fever, you’re probably smug in the knowledge you’ve already explored every nook and cranny of Florida’s coast. But Cedar Key usually goes unnoticed in favor of more popular Keys drawing big crowds. Rich with Old Florida culture, Cedar Key is home to some 700 year-round residents, as well as a group of small islands and trails that are rich with wildlife. For something low-key, take your family to Southern Cross Sea Farms for handmade treats while Mom and Dad peruse the local crafts. Kids will love exploring the historic Cedar Key Railroad Trestle Nature Trail and local coastline.
4. Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts
Cuttyhunk Island quietly sits on the outermost area of the Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Families get away from the bustle of Cape Cod, stroll the sleepy mile and a half long island, and grab fresh fruit or a snack from one of the handful of shops along the way. Kids are impressed by the one-room schoolhouse that’s still in operation. The Museum of the Elizabeth Islands and a small library dot the quiet landscape. Indulge in a lunch of fresh-caught oysters at Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms and than indulgence at the ice cream shop. Outdoorsy kids will love an afternoon of fly fishing or a beloved boat tour before asking for yet another ice cream.
5. Dauphin Island, Alabama
Dauphin Island is popular for families looking for a decidedly laid-back beach vacation lacking overcrowded ocean fronts and scores of tourist shops. Affordable beachside rentals are relatively easy to come by on quiet streets spilling onto the beach. For a break from the beach, take a walk through the trees and listen to the birds at the Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Or, pay a stop to the historic Indian Shell Mound Park where kids can see unusual live oaks and explore large mounds of layered shells. But the real draw is, of course, the beach. Kids will love looking for pods of dolphins while making sandcastles and playing in the gentle waves.
6. Great Diamond, Maine
Seasoned travelers probably already know Casco Bay, Maine from visiting Portland but are less familiar with the city’s little enclave called Great Diamond Island. In fact, Portland’s swell of tourists never seems to make it out to Great Diamond Island despite missing out on an enchanting stop that doesn’t allow cars or unwanted visitors. Guests take the ferry over and stay at The Inn at Diamond Cove and wander down paths to isolated beaches watching the boats go by. Kids will love a day of hiking, biking, and raiding the General Store for last-minute treats before turning in for the night.
7. Hatteras Island, North Carolina
The Outer Banks of North Carolina are already an isolated getaway for laid-back beach travelers, but Hatteras Island really gives “hidden island” a whole new meaning. Fishing, water tours, and kiteboarding are popular ways to pass the time before sampling fresh seafood at local restaurants. Work off your lunch with a climb to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to take in the spectacular views before hitting the beach again. And when kids are ready for a break from swimming and exploring, there’s something for that too. Kids will love the Hatteras Island Ocean Center for activities including Turtle Patrol to learn about the lifecycle of sea turtles or Campfires, Crabs, and Constellation program where they learn under the stars.
8. Molokai, Hawaii
As Hawaii’s fifth largest island, Molokai runs 38 miles long and 10 miles across and is known for its towering sea cliffs and the world’s longest continuous fringing reef. Although Honolulu resembles a Western metropolis, nearby Molokai works to retain its old-world Native Hawaiian ancestry and heritage. In the know travelers are drawn to the expansive white-sand beach of Papohaku Beach, and little ones delight in hiking along the cliffs of Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Kids will love stopping at Hoolehua Post Office to Post-a-Nut where you can choose a coconut, personalize and decorate it before addressing it before the postmaster adds a colorful stamp and sends it on its way to an unsuspecting loved one.
9. Sapelo Island, Georgia
Family travelers leave their worries behind when they set foot on Sapelo Island and are welcomed by nature and resounding tranquility. This remote barrier island is home to just 70 residents living in Hog Hammock along with scores of native wildlife and salt marshes. Start your day on Sapelo Island at the Visitor Center or take an island tour and learn more about the Geechee Island people before taking an easy hike along the maritime forest nature trail. Guests can stay the night at Reynolds Mansion Sapelo Island or pitch a tent for the night at the local campground and watch the stars come out. Kids will love grabbing an ice cream and hopping on rented bikes or golf carts to explore the island.
10. Smith Island, Maine
The Chesapeake Bay is peppered with dozens of islands including Smith Island that just 300 people call home. The locals also have a delightfully unique dialect that linguists refer to as Tidewater English. Smith Island is a prime destination for hiking, biking, and kayaking with opportunities for exploring and sampling crab and oysters. Kids enjoy an eye-opening experience at the Smith Island Crab Meat Co-op observation window where crabs are picked and cleaned. Over at the Smith Island Cultural Center, families learn more about life on the island from prehistoric times to present day. Kids will love a day on the water with Chesapeake Fishing Adventure before topping off their trip with a slice of Maryland’s official dessert, Smith Island Cake, at one of the island’s three restaurants.
Whether you’re looking to sprawl out at the beach all day or explore a maritime forest, a trip to a hidden island makes for an unforgettable family vacation that’s also perfect social media fodder. Make sure to call any visitors centers or state parks ahead of time to check on any seasonal closures or restrictions before you go.