Need a break from traffic, pollution, gas prices, and all the other stresses related to the internal combustion engine? Visit one of the handful of US islands where motor vehicles are banned. These protected havens (most are national parks or seashores) are often only reached by boat and have no paved roads. But unlike exotic destinations such as Bali and Tahiti, they’re both affordable and accessible—if you’re up for a little adventure.

Channel Islands
National Park
Ten thousand years ago, the “Galapagos of North America” was home to some of the oldest human settlements in the Northern Hemisphere. Nowadays this mountainous archipelago is virtually free of people, despite being only 60 miles from Los Angeles. Instead, its five islands are home to thousands of species of plants and animals, 145 of which are found nowhere else on earth. In the surrounding waters, 750-pound black sea bass and bright orange and blue Garibaldi swim through giant kelp forests. Humpbacks, orcas, and blue whales, cruise nearby, as do four species of dolphin. In spring, wildflowers explode across the hillsides in pinks, purples, and yellows.
Get There, Stay There:
Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara offers multiday, live-aboard trips to the park, complete with gourmet food.
Camping is also available by reservation.

Dry Tortugas
National Park
Visit this string of tiny coral keys 70 miles from Key West, Florida, and you can explore the ruins of a nineteenth-century fort, snorkel with 300 species of tropical fish, dive to more than 250 nearby shipwrecks, or spot pelicans, terns, and masked boobies from the beach.
Get There, Stay There:
Two operators, Yankee Freedom and Sunny Days Key West, run ferries from Key West to Dry Tortugas. The park is open year-round and camping on the beach is welcome.

Isle au Haut
When one of the only ways to reach your destination is by mail boat, you know you’re off the beaten path. Isle au Haut is a pine-covered slab of rock 7 miles off the coast in Maine’s Acadia National Park. Mink, snowshoe hare, and otters roam a forest of spruce, pine, cedar, maple, and oak; ravens, eagles, and the occasional osprey soar overhead. The southern end of the island drops into the North Atlantic down dramatic 100-foot cliffs. A small town features a café, a gift shop, and a year-round population of about 50 hardy souls who brave ice-choked harbors and brutal nor’easters each winter.
Get There, Stay There:
Book a spot on the mail boat, which leaves from the town of Stonington through mid-October. You can camp in one of five lean-tos, from May 15 to October 14 ( At the Keeper’s House Inn, you can spend a night at the secluded Robinson Point Lighthouse, which is powered by solar panels and windmills. Management is about to change hands, so check out the website to get the latest info.

Cumberland Island National Seashore
This charming isle lies just off the coast of Georgia, but it seems to belong in a fairy tale. Salty ocean breezes that slow tree growth have created a bent and buckled forest of live oaks, with some trees shaped like arches. Visitors can explore the area via a boardwalk that crosses a sea of white sand dunes. Another attraction is Dungeness ruins, the remains of a 6,700-square-foot mansion built by the Carnegie family in 1884; the house is a 2-mile hike from the beach.  
Get There, Stay There:
Ferries leave from the village of St. Mary’s. Camping is available at backcountry sites or near the beach.
Or try the ultra-deluxe lodging at the Greyfield Inn, built by the Carnegies in 1900. Rooms start at $350.

Isle Royale
National Park
This smattering of more than 400 islands in the northwest corner of Lake Superior was formed when lava burst through the earth’s crust a billion years ago. Today, the resulting 1,300-foot Greenstone Ridge is forested with conifers and paper birch, and the islands are home to wolf, moose, and bird populations. Lakes, streams, swampy beaver ponds, and bogs provide a transportation grid for kayakers and canoers.
Get There, Stay There:
The park is open April 16 through November 1. A ferry leaves from Houghton, Michigan, and there are 36 campsites. The Rock Harbor Lodge has rooms with lake views and private cottages.

Fire Island
Though it’s best known for the summer cottage scene that attracts nearby New Yorkers, this barrier island 50 miles from Manhattan also features serene beaches and several unspoiled shore ecosystems. Its sunken forest is a dense spread of oak, black gum, sassafras, shadbush, and holly—some trees predate the Declaration of Independence. Hundreds of species of birds swing by on their way up the Atlantic migratory flyway, and giant leatherback sea turtles, harbor seals, finback whales, and humpbacks are all occasional visitors.
Get There, Stay There:
There are plenty of  ferries that link to the island, and marinas at Sailors Haven and Watch Hill cater to private boats. Camping is available.
To find cottage rentals, check out Fire Island Finder.

Cape Lookout
National Seashore
These three storm-battered North Carolina barrier islands have 56 miles of undeveloped beaches. And although four-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed in designated areas on the two northern islands, South Core and North Core, the southernmost Shackleford Banks is for trekkers only. It’s here that you’ll find vine-entangled maritime forest and more than 100 wild horses along the beaches.
Get There, Stay There:
The islands are accessible by frequent ferries, and there are rustic cabins on the northern two islands, where vehicle camping is also allowed. There are no established campgrounds on Shackleford, which means you can settle in just about anywhere on the beach, but there are no services.

Story by Justin Nobel. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in March 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Exhausted your vacation options? Take a trip to a car-free island
Get out from behind the wheel and experience a true sense of calm.