15 Best Islands in the US

Beautiful Trunk Bay, St John, USVI
PictureLake / Getty Images

U.S. residents needn’t necessarily leave the country for bluer-than-blue waters and powdery sands. The country's 50 states and five territories have something for every kind of island lover, whether you wish for untrammeled beaches, sunlit forests, vibrant reefs, or waters where whales reside all year long. From Maine’s majestic mountains to the visually sumptuous beaches of the U.S. Virgin Islands, here are 15 of the best islands in the U.S. where you can leave your worries—and your passport—behind.

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Oʻahu, Hawaii

Hanuama Bay

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Hawaii enjoys top-of-mind recall as one of the best destinations for a paradisiacal domestic escape. For centuries, these palm-dotted Pacific islands have been luring travelers to their scintillating shores. Oʻahu—the largest and most visited island—is home to the state capital Honolulu and its world-famous beaches (Waikiki, anyone?), breathtaking hiking trails (Diamond Head never disappoints), and thirst-quenching shave ice stands. Want fairytale waterfalls? Cloud-caressing skyscrapers? Tropical city life? Surf-ready waves? Oʻahu has it all. Grab your nearest and dearest (and perhaps a surfboard) and head to one of the island’s sandy beaches—all of which are public.

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Puerto Rico

Old Fortress Wall in San Juan Puerto Rico

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Puerto Rico is the 100-mile-long island for you if you have a taste for historical sites and cultural calendars filled with spirited events. Most adventures on the “Island of Enchantment” begin in San Juan, the delightful capital with pockets of intrigue on every corner. Night owls should waste no time making a beeline to the hip Santurce neighborhood. Here, you can enjoy street murals, street food, and street parties on breezy nights while sipping piña coladas, Puerto Rico’s gift to the world that was created at the Caribe Hilton hotel in 1954.

Nature lovers and adventurers will want to head to El Yunque National Rainforest to dip in natural pools and spot coqui frogs in the presence of orange-fronted parakeets, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and red-tailed hawks. Beach bums, meanwhile, will be pleased to know that the island boasts almost 300 beaches, each of which promises sparkling waters and orange-tinted sunsets.

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Santa Catalina Island, California

Avalon, CA
Brad Holt / Getty Images

Make like Marilyn Monroe—and a host of other Hollywood notables—and call Santa Catalina your temporary home. Eternally popular for day trips, this laidback island is a hop, skip, and jump from Los Angeles, with ferries regularly departing from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. After the hour-long ferry ride, you can explore Catalina's two towns—Avalon and Two Harbors—by bike, golf cart, or foot.

At this Mediterranean-style getaway, water thrills include parasailing, glass bottom boat tours, and expeditions to spot sea lions, dolphins, and whales during their migratory season. On land, you can perch under swaying palms or speed through the sky on a zipline. Or, have a sweet time brunching at Mt Ada, the former home of chewing gum tycoon William Wrigley Jr., who previously owned the island.

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Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Coastline of Martha's Vineyard
Kevin Fleming / Getty Images

Contrary to (somewhat) popular belief, Martha’s Vineyard does not belong to lifestyle entrepreneur Martha Stewart. This small island off Cape Cod has timeless appeal, a distinct lack of chain restaurants, illuminating summertime celebrations, and a string of blissed-out public beaches. A New England stunner, it comprises six storybook villages in two regions: "up-island" and "down-island." Look no further than Oak Bluffs and Edgartown in "down-island" for shopping, buzzing bars, and top-notch dining. Running between these two towns is the 2-mile-long Joseph Sylvia State Beach, where the iconic shark pandemonium scene in “Jaws“ was filmed. "Up-island" is more rural and it’s home to Aquinnah Cliffs, which are orangey-red and not to be missed.

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St. John, US Virgin Islands

aerial shot of Trunk Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands
cdwheatley / Getty Images

Come to the U.S. Virgin Islands for Caribbean magic, splashings of rum, and lashings of sun. This archipelagic paradise is comprised of St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas, as well as dozens of smaller dreamy islets and cays. All three major islands boast tasty eateries, year-round warm weather, and beaches of indescribable beauty, but St. John takes the cake for nature evangelists. The 5,500-acre Virgin Island National Park takes up two-thirds of the island and it charms with its historic ruins, hiking trails in the dozens, and a 225-yard underwater trail for snorkeling at Trunk Bay.

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Outer Banks, North Carolina

Cape Hatteras Light House Milky Way
Robert Loe / Getty Images

It was at Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks that the Wright Brothers took their momentous first flight that changed the world in 1903. Today, these deliciously remote barrier islands in North Carolina continue to make history. The one and only Dr. Beach (AKA coastal expert Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman) put Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach at the very top of his annual list of America’s Best Beaches for 2022. Lighthouse Beach also made the top 10. Other superlative pursuits in the Outer Banks include hang-gliding at Jockey’s Ridge, the largest sand dune on the East Coast, as well as going to Cape Hatteras to climb North America’s tallest brick lighthouse.

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Mackinac Island, Michigan

Downtown Mackinac Island
Michael Deemer / Getty Images

Car-free, family-friendly, and charming, Mackinac Island in Michigan is brimming with fudge shops, colorful façades, and century-old lodgings. Grand Hotel is one such property that has been impressing residents and visitors alike since 1887 (its 660-foot porch is said to be the world’s longest). Mackinaw floats in Michigan’s Lake Huron and more than 80 percent of the island is part of the protected Mackinac Island State Park, meaning it’s well preserved for its humble population of 500 year-round residents. As automobiles have been banned since 1898, you’ll have to explore this Victorian-like island on foot, by bike, on horseback, or on your very own horse and carriage ride.

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Kauaʻi, Hawaii

Kipu Ranch

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

Kauaʻi certainly doesn’t suffer in the looks department. The Hawaiian island is famous for its rich biodiversity, legendary mountainous shoreline, and because it’s made a starring appearance in more than 100 movies including “Jurassic Park." Kauaʻi is home to the spectacular Waimea Canyon State Park, a colorful natural wonder that’s been dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Another accolade is that it’s the coldest place that cacao trees—which typically thrive in humid equatorial climates—can grow, thus earning it the nickname “North Pole of Cacao." Indulge your sweet tooth with a visit to a chocolate estate or feast your eyes on postcard-worthy views of the dramatically rugged Nāpali Coast, which can only be seen by sea or air. A helicopter ride over its cinematic cliffs is an unforgettable experience that any traveler would dream of.

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San Juan Islands, Washington

Deck chairs overlooking water with mountains in the far off

TripSavvy / Chris VR

Tucked between three major cities (Vancouver B.C, Victoria B.C., and Seattle), Washington’s San Juan Islands are a hotbed for outdoor activities. Many come for sightings of the black and white killer orca whales that reside in the archipelago year-round. Fishing expeditions, sailing trips, hikes, and visually arresting drives on the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway keep visitors busy, too. Lopez, Orcas, and San Juan (singular) are the three main island destinations. On the latter, head to Friday Harbor any day of the week to kickstart your adventures. It’s the only incorporated town in the archipelago with an assemblage of boutiques, bookstores, cultural centers, and a museum dedicated to the region’s star mammal.

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Vieques, Puerto Rico

Wild Horses of Vieques in Puerto Rico
Stephani-Elizabeth / Getty Images

A trip to Vieques, an island 6 miles off of Puerto Rico’s east coast, should be on your Puerto Rico itinerary. More than half of the island is a national park, where a 750-odd strong population of horses roams freely and invigorating hikes, bikes, and even turtle-spotting expeditions are on the menu.

But if you only have time to see one thing, make it Mosquito Bay. One of Puerto Rico's three bioluminescent bays, Mosquito Bay was officially certified by Guinness World Records in 2006 as the planet's brightest. A guided kayak tour along the bay, where plankton-rich waters twinkle and dazzle, will treat you to a silent symphony of lights, a truly thrilling experience.

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Hilton Head, South Carolina

A sand pathway leads to the beach with a sailboat in the background on Hilton Head Island, SC.
Rachid Dahnoun / Getty Images

Located 45 minutes from Savannah just off the coast of South Carolina, Hilton Head’s fan base includes beach bums lured by the 12 miles of silky sands, golfers seeking its 20-plus courses, and cyclists drawn to its 64 miles of shared-use nature trails and public pathways. Don’t leave the island without checking out the white- and red-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse, whose 114 steps to the top will grant you panoramic Lowcountry views. Afterward, plop a towel down on bustling Coligny Beach, or experience Southern hospitality while feasting at a seafood restaurant, of which there's no shortage.

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Key West, Florida

View of Key West from above

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

“It’s the best place I’ve ever been, anytime, anywhere,” said Ernest Hemingway about Key West. Closer to Havana than Miami, the city is the southernmost point in the United States. Its historic Old Town is a pleasure to discover on foot with a host of admiration-worthy Victorian duplexes built with the spoils of the long-gone salvage industry. Mallory Square and the adjacent Sunset Pier are the places to be if you don’t want to miss the daily celebration of Key West’s write-home-about-it sunsets. And for fans of Hemingway, the author’s former home is a permanent fixture on the Floridian drive-to island. Occupy an afternoon touring the Hemingway Home & Museum, or have a Hemingway-inspired libation at one of Southernmost Beach Resort’s four bars.

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Mount Desert Island, Maine

Schooner Head Panorama, Acadia National Park
Cynthia Farr-Weinfeld / Getty Images

Go on a scavenger hunt to spot bears, moose, coyotes, and bobcats at Acadia National Park, which is mostly located on Mount Desert Island, the largest island in Maine. You could spend days kayaking, climbing cliffs, biking, and hiking the park’s famous peaks (for a few months each year, Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the U.S. where the sun rises). When you get hungry, embrace lobster in all its forms in one of the island's coastal villages like Bar Harbor and Northeast Harbor, or embark on a delicious sunset lobster cruise.

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Nantucket, Massachusetts

Brant Point Lighthouse Nantucket MA
grantreig / Getty Images

Drool-worthy seafood springs to mind when one thinks of Nantucket, along with inviting dunes, shingled homes, and historic lighthouses. Located 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, this popular New England summer escape features a charming cobblestoned downtown district, whose Whaling Museum offers insight into Nantucket's former past as the whaling capital of the world. Pedal your way around the island to uncover your favorite café, pop into an oyster bar, or shed some clothing on the beach. (As of December 2022, topless sunbathing is permitted for everyone on all Nantucket beaches, so sunseekers can keep the tans and hold the lines.) Interested in learning how to surf? beginners should check out Nantucket Island Surf School.

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Maui, Hawaii

People swimming in natural pools in Maui

 Miguel Gallardo / TripSavvy

Maui is the second-largest—and second-youngest—island in the state of Hawaii. It’s a magnificent patchwork of volcanic beaches, spectacular waterfalls, charming towns (like Pāʻia and Lāhainā), stylish oceanfront resorts, and boundary-pushing restaurants. Sights include the aptly-named ʻOheʻo Gulch tiered pools (ʻOheʻo means “something special” in Hawaiian) and Haleakalā, the world’s largest dormant volcano. Many choose to take in the island’s scenic offerings while driving the Road to Hana, a 52-mile route consisting of 59 bridges, 620 curves, and enthralling seascapes. Those seeking less of an adrenaline spike can sit back and get sandy on Maui’s 30 miles of beaches that delightfully come in shades of gold, black, and even rusty red.

Article Sources
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  1. Guinness World Records. "Brightest Bioluminescent Bay." Accessed December 22, 2022.