Island Camping Around the Country
Ever wanted to have an island all your own? Or maybe just find one to get away from it all for a while? There are many such islands-on some you can really get away, while others have conveniences close at hand-and they’re right off the shores of the continental United States. Some are for tent campers; others have full hookups and accommodate RVs. Such is the variety along our coasts. We’ve surveyed a handful of great island camping locations, starting with the West Coast islands first, followed by those in the Great Lakes Region, then the Northeast, East Coast, Southeastern, and finally the Gulf States.
WEST COAST ISLAND CAMPING
Whidbey Island is 62 miles long and lies in the northwest corner of Washington State about 90 miles north of Seattle. There are several islands located in Puget Sound and in the straits leading to the Sound, but Whidbey is the largest. It has five state parks, of which Deception Pass is the most popular.
Travel to Whidbey by ferry, air or land. At the northern end of the island there is a remarkable bridge connecting the island to the mainland. The Deception Pass Bridge is 1487 feet long and 180 feet above the water below (depending on tide). It was completed in 1935 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Deception Pass State Park is outstanding for its rugged cliffs with great views, abundant wildlife and old-growth forests. Fort Casey State Park has the Admiralty Head Light, and provides more great views of Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which leads from Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean. There are several campgrounds on Whidbey Island, from rustic to full-service RV parks.
One of the few places visitors can get a taste of wilderness and arrive by public transportation is located in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Angel Island is the largest of the Bay islands and there are primitive campsites on the 740-acre forested island. The entire island is a state park and can only be accessed by ferry or private boat. From the top of the island’s 788-foot Mount Livermore, 360-degree views are possible of the surrounding bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
When the last ferry leaves at 4:30 p.m., it leaves a few rangers and the campers lucky enough to have reserved one of the nine sites on the island. Campers are required to furnish all gear and pack it for about 2 miles. A kayak-accessible site can accommodate 20 people.
More than 13 miles of hiking trails and fire roads cover the island, and eight are suitable for biking. There are rental bikes available, a cafe and a motorized tram tour. A dock with boat slips and mooring buoys can accommodate private boats in the island’s Ayala Cove.
Off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, a series of islands are designated a national park and their surrounding waters a marine sanctuary. The Channel Islands are comprised of five unique island paradises – Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara.
There are two mainland visitor centers in Ventura and Santa Barbara and access to the islands is by park concessionaire boat, airplane or private boat. Two concessionaires make trips to the islands: Island Packers (/islandpackers.com/) and Truth Aquatics (/truthaquatics.com/). In addition to transportation to the island and guided excursions, Island Packers offers whale watching, while Truth Aquatics offers scuba diving.
There are no services of any kind on the islands, so all supplies must be packed in and out. Reservations for transportation and camping sites are necessary, and planning ahead is important. Camping on the islands, as opposed to taking a day trip, allows time to explore more remote areas and to enjoy sunrises and sunsets. Check the Channel Islands website (/nps.gov/chis/) for instructions on visiting these unique islands.
GREAT LAKES ISLAND CAMPING
Isle Royale in Lake Superior offers a remoteness that was a challenge to visitors in times past, but now it is the island’s main attraction. The entire island is a national park and is located 14 miles from the nearest mainland. Three passenger ferries operate during the summer to Isle Royale-from Houghton, Copper Harbor and Grand Portage, Michigan.
With over 165 miles of trails, hiking is the best, and only, way to get around on land. Canoeists and kayakers have more opportunity for exploration, since there are numerous lakes, bays, and other islands within the national park boundary. The ferries will transport canoes and kayaks to various drop-off points. The campsites on Isle Royale are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Backcountry permits are required for all camping.
Two Isle Royale visitor centers offer canoe, kayak and motorboat rentals. Day trips are possible but overnighting is the best way to get the most of Isle Royale’s natural beauty. What to do on Isle Royale? Watch wildlife – only 18 mammal species live on the island as opposed to 40 on the surrounding mainland. One large prey species (moose), and one predator (wolf), inhabit Isle Royale. Hiking, scuba diving around shipwrecks and fishing are the main forms of recreation.
Hop over Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to another Great Lake-the North and South Manitou Islands are just off the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore of Lake Michigan. The only way to both islands is by boat. The Manitou Island Transit provides ferry service for the islands from Leland, Michigan. South Manitou Island permits camping in only three primitive campgrounds. All require campers to pack in all their supplies.
The prominent feature of South Manitou Island is the 100-foot lighthouse. A Coast Guard Life-Saving Station was also on the island, but now functions as the ranger station. The rangers operate a motorized tour of the island, the terrain of which varies from dunes to high bluffs. A white cedar forest on South Manitou represents one of the few stands of virgin timber in all of Michigan. Some are over 100 feet tall and include the national champion white cedar.
North Manitou Island consists of 15,000 acres and is almost completely managed as a wilderness area. Camping is permitted anywhere on this island, but there is no transportation or services. Backpacking and camping are the primary reasons visitors come. Wildlife and bird watching, along with wildflower study, are also popular activities.
In the Adirondack Mountains in the extreme mid-eastern part of New York, 32-mile-long Lake George contains about 170 islands, more than 50 of which permit camping. And there is no better way to explore the beautiful lake that by boat or kayak.
There are three main groups of islands that allow camping on Lake George: the Long Island Group, the Glen Island Group, and the Narrow Island Group. The size of the islands vary greatly; large islands have as many as 90 campsites, small islands fit only two or three campsites. All islands are equipped with at least one toilet facility, fireplace and picnic table. The state requires campers to reserve sites, so planning ahead is a must.
More than 50 miles of hiking trails lead to mountains overlooking the lake and to remote mountain ponds. Recreational boating of all kinds is enjoyed on Lake George and fishing is good.
EAST COAST ISLAND CAMPING
Acadia National Park is situated on the largest island in Maine just off the coast. Mount Desert Island is 10 miles wide and 12 miles long. The national park is the best-known attraction on the island, although there are several towns on the island, too. The largest, Bar Harbor, has all the necessary services and supplies.
The national park has 120 miles of hiking trails, 50 miles of carriage roads (for biking and hiking), and a 27-mile Park Loop road with many of the park’s most popular attractions. Drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain (1530 feet, the highest mountain on the eastern coast) to be the first in the United States to see the sunrise. Acadia National Park has two campgrounds, but neither has hookups and no backcountry camping is allowed in the park. There are several private campgrounds outside the park. It is possible to get to Mount Desert Island by plane, ferry or car. State Highway 3 from Ellsworth, Maine, connects to Mount Desert Island. A ferry sails between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and the nearest airport is near Ellsworth.
Assateague Island National Seashore is located close to Chincoteague Island, Virginia, and Ocean City, Maryland, and offers more than 37 miles of beach. Part of the national seashore is in Maryland and part is in Virginia. One of the most popular activities is watching the more than 300 wild ponies that wander the beaches, inland pine forest and the salt marshes.
Camping at Assateague Island National Seashore is permitted only on the Maryland side of the island. Assateague State Park is also located on Maryland side, and has more than 300 campsites. Backcountry camping is available for backpacking or paddling around the island.
The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located on Assateague Island, is one of the most popular birding destinations in the United States and is an essential part of the Atlantic Flyway, offering prime habitat for migrating waterfowl and other birds. The Assateague Lighthouse, on the Virginia portion of Assateague Island near Chincoteague, was built in 1833 and is 142 feet high. Besides visiting the lighthouse and watching ponies, hiking, biking, fishing and clamming are all available on Assateague Island.
Off the coast of North Carolina a 130-mile long string of barrier islands contain two National Seashores-Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout-and offers campers a host of activities. The Outer Banks are surrounded by 900 square miles of water and have the third-largest estuary system in the world, wildlife refuges, maritime forests, and the highest sand dunes on the East Coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. One of those islands-Ocracoke-has 16 miles of oceanfront beach that are part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and are free of development.
Three campgrounds are located on Ocracoke, one of which is operated by the National Park Service. Things to do on Ocracoke include surf fishing, swimming and shelling. There are four lighthouses on the Outer Banks, and one of them is located here. Built in 1823, Ocracoke Lighthouse is the oldest in North Carolina and the second oldest in the nation.
Tybee Island is off the Georgia coast about 20 miles from Savannah. Tybee’s main attraction is its 5 miles of beach. There are other attractions to enjoy during the campground stay, and they include the Tybee Island Light Station, Forts Screven and Pulaski, the Tybee Museum and the Pier and Pavilion. The Light Station was built in 1773, and is Georgia’s oldest and tallest lighthouse. There is another lighthouse on Cockspur Island, which remains open to the public, although the terrain of Cockspur Island limits access. At Fort Pulaski hike the overlook trail for a closer look at the lighthouse.
There is only one campground on Tybee Island. The River’s End Campground and RV Park, located on the north end, is owned and operated by the City of Tybee Island. It is a short walk to a riverfront beach and from the Tybee Lighthouse and the ocean. It has full hookups and primitive sites.
Just a short distance south of Tybee, the Cumberland Island National Seashore is off the coast of St. Mary, Georgia. This island is more remote than Tybee and is accessible by ferry or private boat. Its isolation affords campers the opportunity to enjoy beautiful beaches and live oak forests in solitude. A couple of docks offer minimal services, and bike rental is available.
A total of 50 miles of hiking trails wind across the island through forests, interior wetlands, historic districts, marshes, and along the beaches. There are developed and wilderness campsites on the island. Numerous animals live on or around Cumberland, including manatees, sea turtles, wild turkeys, armadillos, wild horses, dolphins, whitetail deer, bobcats, otters and more than 300 species of birds.
SOUTH COAST ISLAND CAMPING
Along the Gulf Coast more barrier islands provide opportunities for recreation and relaxation away from the hurried pace of the mainland. Off the coast of Fort Myers, Florida, Sanibel Island is a unique barrier island, oriented north-south rather than east-west. Because of its orientation, the island’s beaches have an abundance of shells. The shells, the outstanding beaches and the presence of Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge make Sanibel one of the outstanding Florida Gulf Coast islands.
Sanibel Island also has only one campground-Periwinkle-located on the similarly named main thoroughfare on the island. Biking is one of the more popular ways of getting around on the island. A lighthouse and fishing pier occupy one end of the island, while the other end joins another little sister island-Captiva-by a short bridge across Blind Pass. Although Sanibel has condos and resorts, restaurants and golf courses, it is a great camping island.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore consists of several barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi and Florida. Most areas have been reopened, but some are undergoing roadwork since Katrina. The Florida sections of the national seashore are located southwest of Pensacola and near Fort Walton Beach. The historical Fort Pickens is situated on the extreme western part. The Mississippi section has Cat Island, Horn, Petit Bois, and East Ship Islands.
Camping is permitted on all islands of the Mississippi district and two in the Florida district-on the Perdido Key and at one of the Fort Pickens campgrounds. Visitors can enjoy hiking, fishing, beachcombing, swimming and bird watching while visiting the islands.
Ferry service is available from Gulfport to the Ship Islands. Fort Massachusetts, on West Ship Island, 12 miles off the Mississippi coast, was covered by a 30-foot storm surge from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but has reopened.
The last island on our list, Padre Island National Seashore, has 130,434 acres and is the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world. It is located off the Texas coast between Corpus Christi and Brownsville near the Mexican border. Padre has a wide variety of plant and animal life, as well as recreational possibilities. It is a beach paradise that is open year-round for sun bathing, swimming, surfing, beachcombing, shelling, bird watching and surf fishing.
One of the major activities in both spring and fall on Padre Island is birding. This entire area lies along the central flyway. There are other wildlife species found on the island including coyotes, snakes, and whitetail deer (but these usually wade across from the mainland and are not native), raccoon and opossum.
Numerous campgrounds are available on the island from semi-primitive with water, restrooms, and showers to totally primitive campsite with only pit toilets. Camping is free, but require a permit.
The islands featured here are in a variety of locations-lakes, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. Some are large, some are small, some developed and some still very wild. The thing that every one of them does have in common, though, is that they all await your exploration and enjoyment.
For More Information:
Angel Island State Park
Channel Islands National Park
Isle Royale National Park
North and South Manitou Islands
Mount Desert Island
Assateague Island National Seashore
Maryland Information: 410/641-1441
Virginia Information: 757/336-6577
Cumberland Island National Seashore
912/882-4336 ext. 254
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Park Headquarters, Florida: 850/934-2600
Mississippi District: 228/875-9057 Ext. 100
Padre Island National Seashore