Town of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island with Mt. Baker in the distance_
Photo by Mark Gardner

10 Best U.S. Islands for a Family Vacation

Maybe you’re dreaming of an island getaway—the serenity, the privacy, the lapping water. Turns out, you may not need to book a flight. The U.S. has a number of island getaways, reachable by hopping a ferry or driving across a bridge.

A lot more than beach awaits you on the other side. On these amazing islands, families can enjoy historic landmarks, stunning nature and kid-friendly entertainment—along with that priceless feeling of getting away from it all.

Check out these 10 favorites, some good for a day trip, others for a week-long escape, and start planning for island time.

Dry Tortugas National Park


Yankee Freedom Ferry docked at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key_
Courtesy of Yankee Freedom Ferry

Imagine a sprawling, castle-like fort surrounded by pristine beaches and Caribbean-blue water. That’s Dry Tortugas National Park. Closer to Cuba than Key West, Dry Tortugas feels remote yet easily accessible for a day trip. Board the Yankee Freedom Ferry, a roomy, high-speed catamaran, for a pleasant, two-hour cruise to Garden Key. A light breakfast and picnic lunch are included with your ferry ticket, and a park orientation led by a naturalist on board will prep you for your visit. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins on the ride over!

After you arrive, take a free guided tour of Fort Jefferson and climb to the top for incredible views. In the afternoon, go snorkeling among the tropical fish (snorkel included). Since the reef is right offshore, it’s perfect for kids and first-timers.

San Juan Island


Town of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island with Mt. Baker in the distance_
Photo by Mark Gardner

Of the 172 islands in San Juan County (three served by ferry) the hub is certainly San Juan Island. Its port town of Friday Harbor boasts museums, a community theater, plenty of restaurants and a weekly farmers market. Elsewhere on the island, kids can hunt for marine life in the tide pools, hang with alpacas at local farms or wander the sculpture garden in Roche Harbor. Save time for park-hopping. Lime Kiln Point State Park is famous for whale-watching, especially from the top of the 1919 lighthouse. And the San Juan Island National Historical Park, with two sites, English Camp and American Camp, at opposite ends of the island, has the island’s best beach plus a brand-new visitors center.

Roanoke Island

North Carolina

The Elizabeth II ship at Roanok Island Festival Park__
Courtesy of

While most of the Outer Banks front the Atlantic Ocean, Roanoke Island is different, slivered between two sounds, green rather than beachy, with acres of woodlands. This is the place for time travel. Visit the 1580s at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the 25-acre Roanoke Island Festival Park, complete with a Native American town, adventure museum and a crew of 16th-century sailors aboard the Elizabeth II. Fast-forward to the 19th century and pretend to be a farmer at the interactive Island Farm. Discover the area’s seafaring past at both the lighthouse and maritime museum. See how sharks, eels and more turn a shipwreck into habitat in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” a 285,000-gallon exhibit at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. But whatever you do, don’t miss “The Lost Colony of Roanoke,” an outdoor summer musical going strong for 85 years.

Mount Desert Island


Ocean Drive surf in Acadia National Park_
Courtesy of Dobbs Productions and Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce

Most of Acadia National Park is on Mount Desert Island, one of the loveliest islands in Maine—if not all of New England. Visit Bar Harbor to fill up on lobster rolls and tour the hands-on natural history museum. From downtown, you can even walk across the land bridge to tiny, uninhabited Bar Island. Spend most of your time on the hundreds of park trails. Top picks for families include:

  • Park Loop Road, a 27-mile drive past the island’s best sights (Otter Cliff, Jordan Pond, Cadillac Mountain, etc.)
  • South Bubble Mountain, a short hike to panoramic views
  • Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, less than half a mile to a 19th-century landmark frequented by seals
  • Echo Lake, staffed by a lifeguard in summer
  • Ocean Path, particularly the stretch from Sand Beach to Thunder Hole, a carved inlet that can spout 40-foot waves

In season, take advantage of the free Island Explorer buses to get around.

Galveston Island


Beach fun on Galveston Island_
Courtesy of Visit Galveston

Want laid-back beach life plus adrenaline-pumping thrills? You’re looking for Galveston Island. Kids and adults will scream with delight on the rides at Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier amusement park and the Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark. Check “ride world’s tallest water coaster” off your bucket list as you woosh down the 82-foot-high, 926-foot-long MASSIV. The next day, you lounge, building sandcastles on the beach or browsing downtown shops to see if you can catch a taffy-making demonstration. Save yet another day for Moody Gardens. This all-in-one attraction combines a ropes course, rainforest, aquarium, Discovery Museum, zip line, 3D and 4D theaters and water park.

Aquidneck Island

Rhode Island

Mansions, cliffs and coastal woodlands on Aquidneck Island_
Courtesy of Discover Newport

Surrounded by beautiful Narragansett Bay, Aquidneck Island combines coastal scenery with cultural treasures. Marvel at the lavish homes and gardens of Newport, of course, but there’s much more to discover on the island. Love nature? Pick your own farm-fresh fruit, stroll the famous Cliff Walk, visit one of the state parks or tour a topiary garden or bird sanctuary. Want to get out on the water? Try your hand at the helm with a pro sailing instructor. Then visit the brand new Sailing Museum. Rainy day? Play over 50 games at Ryan Family Amusements. For spectacular waterfront and woodland views, rent a four-seater rail bike (it’s a thing) and pedal your way around the island.

Washington Island


Washington Island Farm Museum_
Courtesy of Destination Door County

A mere 35 square miles, this Door County island makes the most of the outdoors with its beaches, bike trails, lavender fields and nearly a dozen parks. The ferry across Death’s Door is just 30 minutes (you can bring your car), so Washington Island is an easy day trip. There are the best spots for families:

  • Schoolhouse Beach, filled with pretty, polished limestone rocks instead of sand
  • Washington Island Art and Nature Center, where kids can hold a snake and peer inside a beehive
  • Mountain Park Lookout Tower, 186 steps to views of the entire island
  • Farm Museum, with barnyard animals, historic buildings and free wagon rides Wednesdays in July

For an even smaller northern isle, take a second ferry to the car-free Rock Island State Park, home to the state’s oldest lighthouse, a 1920s stone boathouse and hiking trails all but empty of tourists.

Santa Catalina Island


A submarine excursion on Catalina Island_
Courtesy of the Catalina Island Company

In California’s Channel Islands, Santa Catalina is a hotspot for family fun. Visit the resort town of Avalon for classic attractions: arcade games, mini golf, a museum, ropes course, zip line and three public beaches. Too tame? Try something more unusual. You can ride in a submarine, become a falconer, explore a botanical garden inside a canyon or venture into the island’s interior where bison roam. Most families stay in Avalon, but for something more rustic, opt for a B&B or campground in the village of Two Harbors. From here, there are trails to scenic overlooks, coves of crystal-clear water and plenty of wildlife.

Mackinac Island


Mackinac Island in Lake Huron_
Courtesy of Mackinac Island

Car-free (but accessible by ferry) Mackinac Island is the ultimate destination for old-fashioned family fun. It’s all here: horse-drawn carriage rides, blacksmith demonstrations, bike rides and some seriously epic kite flying, thanks to the breezes at Windermere Point. Explore this Great Lakes island, over 80% of it preserved as a state park, to see everything from ancient rock formations to military forts. Be dazzled by hundreds of butterflies at not one but two conservatories. Younger visitors will love the playgrounds, jungle gyms and the Mackinac Art Museum’s kids’ studio. And, of course, sampling some of the 10,000 pounds of fudge made daily downtown is tradition.

Chincoteague Island


Wild horses seen on a tour with Cowboy Cruise Company
Courtesy of Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission

Wild horses galloping across beaches is the stuff of travel dreams, and there are a few U.S. islands where you can glimpse such a sight. (Cumberland Island and Shackleford Banks are two.) But there’s only one Pony Swim, and for that, you need to head to Virginia’s Chincoteague Island. The annual summer event includes a week-long carnival, shows, pony parade and more. For more summer fun, float down a lazy river, play a round of mini golf or visit the recently opened Iron Pony Adventure Park where kids can swing, balance and climb to their heart’s content. In season, you can travel around the island with 50-cent fares on the Pony Express Trolley. There’s also a bridge (with bike path) from Chincoteague to Assateague Island, the 37-mile national seashore where the wild horses live year-round.

Cheryl Rodewig is a journalist and content marketer based in Florida.