The Most Beautiful U.S. Islands

A beautiful island can make you feel like the entire world is one picture-perfect postcard. As you sit on the beach, pristine water laps your feet and lush green mountains tower in the distance. Beyond Hawaii, the United States may not be well known for gorgeous islands, but there are plenty of photogenic ones scattered around the country. So, grab the sunscreen and a jumbo towel and check out our list of America’s most stunning islands. (Manhattan, we apologize in advance, as this is one island list you won’t be featured on.)

Dry Tortugas, Florida

Steve Lyon/Flickr

Steve Lyon/Flickr

Although visitors to Dry Tortugas may initially think of the unfinished 19th-century Fort Jefferson, the national park also boasts some of the most pristine water and wildlife in the Florida Keys. It also covers an archipelago of islands that are located on the western edge of the Keys, about 90 minutes from Key West. Almost 99 percent of the park is underwater, and its protected status has enabled its coral reefs to thrive. Snorkelers can glide past otherworldly underwater structures as well as get up close to turtles, tropical fish, and sea anemone. Visitors who prefer to stay on land can break out the binoculars and spot one of the 299 bird species that the islands host. (April is peak bird-watching season.) Of course, there’s also Fort Jefferson, which was built to guard the southern coast. The six-sided building makes for beautiful pictures, too. 

Where to Stay

Kiawah Island, South Carolina

See1,Do1,Teach1/Flickr

See1,Do1,Teach1/Flickr

Located about 25 miles (or a 50-minute drive) southwest of Charleston, Kiawah Island still has plenty of untouched land that’s home to wildlife. Local animal residents include alligators, bobcats, gray foxes, and more than 200 species of birds, including ruby-throated hummingbirds and bald eagles. The landscape also boasts 10 miles of beaches, 123 acres of parks, and 30 miles of trails for hiking and biking. Those who like being on the water can take a canoe or kayak out on one of the salt marshes or tidal creeks, or on Kiawah River. Given that Kiawah Island is just 10,000 acres, it has a surprisingly large number of championship-level golf courses (five), some of which have hosted the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of one of the part-time notable residents, which include former Olympic skater Tara Lipinski and NFL star quarterback Dan Marino.

Where to Stay:

Saint Simons Island, Georgia

The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort/Oyster

The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort/Oyster

Over the centuries, Georgia’s Saint Simons Island has been inhabited by Native Americans as well as Spanish, English, and French colonists. Now, the 10,000 acres of land is a mix of historic buildings, undeveloped marshland, and recreational attractions. Native American settlers first appeared on the island in 2000 B.C., and traces of the Timucua tribe are still found in the area. Remnants of military installations dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries are now historic landmarks. Tourists primarily come to the island to sunbathe on its seven miles of beaches, sail, and golf. For hikers and bikers, the Saint Simons Island trail system stretches over the entire island. Live oaks, Spanish moss, and other vegetation covers the island, too. Painters and photographers regularly travel here to capture the landscape and wildlife, including dolphins, whales, and numerous types of shorebirds.

Where to Stay

Mackinac Island, Michigan

Jocelyn Shaw/Flickr

Jocelyn Shaw/Flickr

The citizens of Michigan’s Mackinac Island take great pride in the destination’s rich cultural heritage and landmark status. They continue to maintain a centuries-old style in a community that includes Victorian houses and horse-drawn buggies. Located in Lake Huron, Mackinac Island was originally settled by the Ottawa tribe. During the Revolutionary War, the area was a stronghold for the British. Now, in the summer season, 15,000 visitors come each day to enjoy the mix of coastline, marshland, bogs, and limestone rock formations. Popular activities include horseback riding, boating, golf, and noshing on homemade fudge. Plus, there are carriage tours, bicycles for rent, and hiking trails. Given that Mackinac Island has been a summer vacation destination since the 1800s, quite a travel infrastructure exists, including centuries-old restaurants and hotels.

Where to Stay

Mustang Island, Texas

John W. Schulze/Flickr

John W. Schulze/Flickr

The long and thin Mustang Island is probably not what you envision when you think of Texas. One end of this 18-mile-long island is in the Gulf of Mexico and the other sits in Corpus Christi Bay. In between lies a sandy jetty where surfers and fishing enthusiasts can feel like they’re on a Caribbean retreat. The beaches have water views that extend for miles and frame pale pink sunsets. The trails here are designed for kayak paddlers who can follow along the shoreline without worrying about landing in treacherous waters. Visitors who want to charter a deep sea fishing trip can try their hand at catching flounder, snapper, and kingfish, while birders will have hundreds of potential subjects to spot, including the bronzed cowbird, great-tailed grackle, and Kentucky warbler. Whooping crane fans come every February for an annual festival. Landlubbers may want to stay close to Port Aransas, where there are quirky boutiques and fresh seafood restaurants. 

Orcas Island, Washington

Loren Kerns/Flickr

Loren Kerns/Flickr

Named for the Mexican viceroy who sent an expedition to the Pacific Northwest in 1791, Orcas Island has a distinct mix of cultures and a rugged terrain that includes Massacre Bay and Mount Constitution. Native American tribes first settled here, but the land was later claimed by Spain followed by the British. These days, visitors head out to the island for a quaint getaway filled with whale-watching, kayaking, fishing, and hiking. Numerous campgrounds allow you to set up a tent while still being close to modern comforts. Moran State Park, for example, has over 150 campsites as well as mountain biking and horse trails. The island’s craggy hills make it a particularly thrilling destination for cyclists, too. At 2,409 feet above sea level, Mount Constitution is the highest peak in the San Juan Islands and is covered in fir, pine, and cedar trees. Those who work up an appetite while exploring the island can book a reservation at one of the numerous local seafood restaurants, like New Leaf Cafe, which blends a French influence into rustic comfort food, like duck macaroni and cheese.

Where to Stay

Catalina Island, California

theritters/Flickr

theritters/Flickr

Located about 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles, Catalina Island takes approximately an hour to reach by a boat when leaving from Long Beach. A mixture of volcanic and igneous rocks has given the land an uneven texture, and has led to names like Pebbly Beach and Blue Cavern Point. Scuba divers can swim through giant kelp forests and get up close and personal with mantis shrimp and harbor seals. Catalina Island was primarily developed by chewing gum kingpin William Wrigley Jr. He handed 90 percent of the land to a conservancy in the 1970s, enabling the native flora and fauna to thrive. There are also plenty of resorts, spas, and restaurants near Avalon Bay. The town of Avalon also has the Catalina Casino, which houses the country’s first movie theater designed specifically for talkies (Sorry, there is no gambling in the casino.)

Where to Stay

Kauai, Hawaii

Robert Linsdell/Flickr

Robert Linsdell/Flickr

Trying to pick the most impressive Hawaiian island is like trying to choose the most beautiful diamond. Most are pretty memorable in their own way. Given that the U.S. doesn’t have many tropical islands, every piece of the Hawaiian archipelago could be on this list. Kauai is the oldest of the main islands and -- arguably -- also the most beautiful. The mountainous island has two particularly notable peaks -- Kawaikini and Mount Waiʻaleʻale -- plus slopes that will be much easier to climb. Plenty of trails wind through the riveting landscape, which is covered in lush vegetation and lined with jagged cliffs. The Waimea Canyon State Park is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and, like the larger rock formation, was created by flowing water. Kauai’s beaches are practically spotless and much of the water makes for excellent surfing. Plus, adventurous vacationers can try a zipline or horseback riding tour.

Where to Stay

Nantucket, Massachusetts

The Wauwinet/Oyster

The Wauwinet/Oyster

For a New England island vibe, head to Nantucket. Located 30 miles south of Cape Cod, this northeastern island escape is much quieter than Martha’s Vineyard, its popular neighbor. Plus, it comes with more than 100 miles of coastline, a charming downtown area with cobblestoned streets, high-end boutiques, and photo-worthy sand dunes.

Where to Stay:

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