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Why dream of an island paradise when you can actually hike it? We found 12 wild islands where you can paddle or backpack for days in the company of seals, wolves, and wild horses.
Kick off your boots, lie back, and let the sand gather between your toes. A breeze is blowing off the water, taming the sun’s warmth to a perfect napping temperature. Before your eyelids surrender, peer down the coastline. Not a soul in sight.
You’re on a wild island.
When you wake from your nap and resume hiking, you’ll find there’s more to these islands than sun and surf. Father Time moves leisurely here, as if he’s strolling barefoot in the sand. Small?some are just a day’s hike end-to-end?a wild island is more knowable, more intimate than a deep forest or endless mountain range can ever be.
What follow are the best backcountry islands in North America. Here you can hike coastal paths, wander for hours collecting shells, feel the ground tremble under the hooves of wild horses, and stride trails stitched together with wolf tracks. Or simply find a spot along the shore, sit, and stare out at the blue horizon. Pick your island and cast off now.
Escaping The Sea Of Humanity
In one hand, I’m holding a global positioning device linked to a satellite orbiting in the cosmos. In the palm of the other, I have a shard of a rock bowl hand-chiseled millennia ago.
I followed a rib of land from the tallest overlook in California’s Channel Islands National Park to reach this ancient Chumash Indian campsite. A fresh sea breeze caresses my face and I taste the saltwater that settles on my lips. With ocean waves pounding the shore, a pair of seals whirling through a protected cove nearby, and migrating gray whales passing northward to the Bering Sea, I feel like I’m in the middle of a lost world. And yet fewer than 30 miles away is Santa Barbara.
Sculpted by nearly incessant wind and weather that ranges from chilly monsoon rains in winter to bone-dry autumns, the eight Channel Islands are rugged and treeless, but ideal for hardy wilderness hikers. With 140 species of birds, rare endemic foxes, endangered California brown pelicans, and an abundance of sea creatures (including seals, sea lions, dolphins, sea otters, and sharks), I consider my treks here a consummate North American safari. Yet the 30,000 annual visitors rarely stay overnight.
What those daytrippers miss is the meditative solitude of a remote, surfside campsite and the image that comes to me on mornings like this one. As I run my fingers over the ancient crockery, I see southern California before the invasion of asphalt and feel somehow connected to the people who long ago sat on these islands and stared out at the vast blue sea with the same mixture of wonder and gratitude.
Casting off: Boat transportation is available through Island Packer Cruises (805-642-1393; www.islandpackers.com) and Truth Aquatics (805-962-1127; www.truthaquatics.com). Light plane access is available through Channel Islands Aviation (805-987-1301; www.flycia.com).
Guides: Channel Islands National Park, by Susan Lamb and George H. H. Huey (Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 888-569-7762; www.spma.org; $8.95). The park provides an adequate map, or try Trails Illustrated’s Channel Islands National Park #252 map (800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95).
Hidden treasure: At Santa Rosa Island, backpackers in the know can secure backcountry permits for superb beach camping (other islands have designated campgrounds).
Contact: Channel Islands National Park, (805) 658-5711; www.nps.gov/chis.
Round Island, Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary, AK:
The 10,000 snoring walruses and clouds of nesting seabirds like puffins and
murres more than make up for only 3 miles of hiking trails and the absence of sandy beaches and palm trees. Contact: Walrus Island State Game Sanctuary, (907) 842-2334; www.state.ak.us/adfg/wildlife/region2/refuge2/rnd-isl.htm.
Tongass National Forest, AK:
With 17 million acres and more than 1,000 islands, the Tongass has been called a “forest of islands.” Hike in bear tracks in the Kootznoowoo Wilderness on Admiralty Island National Monument or in old-growth forest in the 265,000-acre West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness. Contact: Tongass National Forest, (907) 228-6202; www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass.
Na Pali Coast State Park, HI:
The 22-mile (round-trip) Kalalau Trail hangs from the cliffs and wisps through the sands of Na Pali Coast State Park, offering stunning vistas, soft beaches, and whale watching.
Contact: Na Pali Coast State Park, (808) 274-3445.
Hiking The Wolf’s Eye
Right there, right on the trail, almost star-shaped and as big around as my fist–a wolf track so fresh it seems that I should feel the animal’s stare from deep in the brush. I stop. Wait. Nothing. Only the whisper of wind in the trees and the slow lap of waves along the shore. It is a long time before I move off, quietly, down the trail.
If Lake Superior’s outline resembles the head of a wolf, Isle Royale, tucked in its northwestern corner, is the wolf’s eye. Unlike so many other islands cut by roads and dotted with summer homes, Isle Royale is wild and asphalt-free. Only 20,000 people visit each year.
Here, wildness is found in the details?the slap of a beaver’s tail, the shades of brown in a fox’s coat, the tartness of a thimbleberry against your tongue–and in knowing that you’re hiking the largest island in the largest lake in the world, as remote as any national park in the Lower 48.
Wherever you stand on Isle Royale, you’re never far from the sound of waves or a glimpse of a blue-sky horizon. But more than a distant horizon makes this place wild. After a day of hiking in wolf tracks, I set up camp along the shores of Feldtmann Lake and fall asleep to loon calls, a sound hauntingly like howling to ears still holding out a hope for the wild call of wolves.
Casting off: Walk-on ferry service is offered from Houghton, Michigan, (906) 482-0984; Copper Harbor, Michigan, (906) 289-4437; and Grand Portage, Minnesota, (715) 392-2100. Floatplane service is available from Isle Royale Seaplane Service, (906) 482-8850; www.nps.gov/isro/seaplane.htm.
Guides: Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails and Water Routes, by Jim DuFresne (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $12.95). Isle Royale National Park #240 map (Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com); $9.95).
Hidden treasure: You’ll find the greatest solitude on routes like the Feldtmann Ridge and Minong Ridge Trails (see “The World At Your Feet,” June 2001). Or paddle the 3-day, 20-mile, five-lake inland canoe route from Rock Harbor to McCargoe Cove, taking dayhikes along the way.
Contact: Isle Royale National Park, (906) 482-0984; www.nps.gov/isro).
North Manitou Island, MI:
This 15,000-acre wilderness island boasts 20 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and 22 miles of trail. There is regular ferry service from June through August. Contact: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, (231) 326-5134; www.nps.gov/slbe.
Voyageurs National Park, MN:
The four main lakes of this paddling park-Kabetogama, Rainy, Namakan, and Sand Point-are laced with islands. Some have campsites, and many others are webbed with wolf tracks.
Contact: Voyageurs National Park, (218) 283-9821; www.nps.gov/voya.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, WI:
Twenty-one wild islands in Lake Superior harbor black bears, bald eagles, sandy beaches, and sandstone bluffs. Hike the islands (Oak Island has the best trails) or a 12-mile stretch of mainland coast. Contact: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, (715) 779-3397; www.nps.gov/apis.
-Jeff Rennicke, Midwest Editor
East And South Maryland/Virginia
Drifting On The Edge Of A Continent
The first time I laid eyes on Assateague Island, I was sitting on my father’s shoulders, straining to see the horses made famous by Marguerite Henry’s classic children’s tale Misty of Chincoteague. To a small girl, the island seemed far away and rather magical, a place set aside from the bustling mainland where only wild ponies were permitted to live.
Thirty years later, Assateague still feels wild and magical. Summer brings crowds, but in any other season you’ll share 37 miles of dunes and beach grass, saltwater marshes, and loblolly pine forest with just the ponies and the ever-present wind.
Assateague sits off the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula, with bridges linking both ends to the mainland. During a late-November visit, I hiked from the empty north-end parking lot to a bayside campsite 5 miles distant. With pants rolled high in the Indian summer heat, I waded along the hard-packed beach while a gaggle of shorebirds carved boomerangs in the sky. In the distance, brown and black ponies painted with white spots grazed on stubs of beach grass.
Weather roared in the next morning like a runaway herd. On the beach, great gusts crashed against the waves and whipped their spray back toward the sea in frothy white manes. As I leaned into the buffeting wind under a blue-black sky, Assateague no longer felt tethered to the edge of a continent, and I grinned as I rolled up my pants for another day of wild island hiking.
Casting off: Assateague’s north entrance is at the end of MD 611, 8 miles south of Ocean City, Maryland. The south entrance is at the end of VA 175, 2 miles from Chincoteague, Virginia. A $5 entrance fee and $5 backcountry camping permit are required.
Guides: A good source for information is the Assateague Island Handbook (877-628-7275; www.nationalparkbooks.org; $7.95). A free map is available from the park headquarters (see Contact below).
Hidden treasure: Escape off-road vehicles and personal watercraft by paddling to the Pope Bay and State Line campsites.
Contact: Assateague Island is divided into a state park and national seashore on the Maryland end and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia end of the island. Only the national seashore allows overnight backcountry camping. Assateague Island National Seashore, (410) 641-1441; www.nps.gov/asis.
East and south
Ten Thousand Islands, Everglades National Park, FL:
Actually, there are just 200 of these mangrove keys, but all are blissfully deserted, with white sand beaches and abundant waterfowl and offshore fishing. Be sure to coordinate your paddling with the tides. Contact: Everglades National Park, (305) 242-7700; www.nps.gov/ever.
Cape Lookout National Seashore, NC:
A beachcomber’s paradise, the three islands that make up the national seashore are home to endangered loggerhead turtles, eagles, peregrine falcons, and wild horses. Contact: Cape Lookout National Seashore, (252) 728-2250; www.nps.gov/calo.
Matagorda Island State Park, TX:
The 43,893-acre state park and wildlife area on this barrier island is critical habitat for more than 300 species of birds, plus alligators and snakes. Hike over the dunes or walk miles of lonely beaches. Contact: Matagorda Island State Park, (361) 983-2215; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/matagisl.
-Michele J. Morris, Northeast Editor
Bonus Web Destinations
See Island Hopping, in sidebar at right, for four more great island trips, including beach walking in the Virgin Islands, paddling in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, marsh exploration on Georgia’s Cumberland Island, and lava trekking on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa.