Deep, turquoise waters. Sandstone cliffs, groves of pine and oak, and long, empty beaches. Miles of trails for hiking, beautiful state parks, and historic lighthouses. You may not get whiffs of saltwater or need to dodge falling coconuts, but you will find incredible island experiences in the Midwest. Here are some of the best.
Washington Island, Wisconsin
A quick five-mile ferry ride across the passage known as “Death’s Door” — shipwreck central some 100+ years ago — Washington Island is known for a few things that’ll convince you to leave the mainland: Schoolhouse Beach, made of polished limestone pebbles, is one of five “sandless” beaches in the world; the fields of lavender at Fragrant Isle could light up your Instagram for weeks, and lunch here means noshing on “lawyer.” (It’s a cold-water fish popular around these parts, but it’s also a great line.)
There are actually 35 islands in the Grand Traverse Archipelago, off the shores of Door County, but only a few are readily accessible. Rock Island — home to Rock Island State Park and its lighthouse and miles of trails — is also a great day trip via the Karfi ferry from Washington Island’s Jackson Harbor.
Madeline Island, Wisconsin
Technically a part of the Apostle Islands but not part of the national lakeshore, Madeline Island is just three miles from Bayfield — an easy ferry ride or, come winter, an easy drive across frozen Lake Superior (seriously). La Pointe, a town of 250, comes surprisingly chock full of shops, restaurants, art galleries, and things to do. Don’t miss Big Bay State Park, a stunner by anyone’s definition (picture sea cliffs, cerulean waters, and dense forests for wandering).
Note: To the Lake Superior Chippewa, Madeline Island is a spiritual center. Please treat it as such.
Isle Royale, Michigan
45 miles long by nine miles wide, Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior — it’s also one of the least-visited national parks in the country, and not because it offers little in the way of grand views and adventure. With a short season (April-October) and little infrastructure, Isle Royale remains uncrowded and wild, built for avid hikers, backpackers, and paddlers, not window-gazers and park-counters.
You’ll arrive via seaplane or boat at either Windigo or Rock Harbor, staying in the island’s on-site lodge or at one of 36 campgrounds. Post-up in your new island home and take day hikes through the aspen and fir, searching for wildlife, caves and cliffs, or travel by water. Lake Superior is known for its dangerous waves, so if you’re not a pro-paddler, stick to the many lakes, calmer bays, and inlets. There are plenty of spots on Isle Royale for sheer solitude.
South Bass Island, Ohio
This is Key West, Lake Erie style. Put-In-Bay is the island’s family-friendly hot spot, accessible via ferry from Port Clinton, Sandusky, Lorain, or nearby Catawba Island. Once you’re here, you could get around on foot or bicycle, but the best way to see South Bass Island? In a golf cart.
However you hoof it, spend the day out the trails at South Bass Island State Park or work your way between wineries, museums, historic monuments, caves (yep, caves!), and nature preserves. If on land isn’t your speed, rent a jet ski and take in the island’s slight white cliffs from the water.
Beaver Island, Michigan
At 55 square miles, Beaver Island is one of the larger islands on this list, and its two-hour ferry journey, the longest. With most of its 600-some population of Irish descent, the island is fittingly and lovingly referred to as the “Emerald Isle.” You’ll see plenty of shades of green here, including up in the sky — Beaver Island is exquisite for star- and aurora-gazing.
Spend your daylit hours paddling the Beaver Island Water Trail, golfing, gazing up at lighthouses, fishing the inland lakes, wandering the state forest or open beaches, or taking in the island’s history. It was once ruled by a king.
Peacebunny Island, Minnesota
Near mile 832 on the Mississippi River, rabbits roam free. Well, in the warmer months, at least. Peacebunny Island is a 22-acre summer camp for comfort bunnies, a training ground before they go off to spread joy across the Minneapolis — St. Paul area. Peacebunny also works to prevent abandonment, focusing on rare heritage breeds, like American white and blue rabbits.
The island’s technically open to the public, but access is limited: you can score a visit either by volunteering or by winning contests and auctions via Peacebunny’s social media. Once here, you’ll simply lounge in a hammock with a ball of fluff in your lap — a peaceful island getaway that never goes out of style.
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