Taking an island vacation doesn’t have to mean splurging on some ritzy all-inclusive resort. You can grab your tent and get away from it all for a fraction of the cost year-round. Even better, the winter season on these U.S. islands has a different feel, marked by diminished crowds, an abundance of waterfront space, and a quiet beauty.
I love camping on islands, especially those with empty beaches. In honor of National Camp Day, on November 19, I’ve compiled a list of nine U.S. island destinations that beckon with warm weather and plenty of outdoor adventure.
1. Santa Rosa Campground
Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California
Santa Rosa Campground ($15) is nestled in a beautiful valley on the northeast side of Santa Rosa Island, the second-largest island in this national park, just 50 miles off the Southern California coast. Book your passage over with Island Packers Cruises (from $55 one-way), which leaves from Ventura Harbor. The ferry will drop you off at the pier, and from there it’s an easy 1.5-mile hike to the campground, which offers potable water and modern bathrooms.
Each of the 15 sites has a wind shelter, which is key this time of year, as gusts can whip in off the water. I’m speaking from experience—you want to pitch your tent behind that shelter. But even a windy night is worth waking up to the sound of the Pacific crashing on the beach below the nearby cliffs, and the sunrises are spectacular—book sites one through four for the best views.
I recommend fishing or diving for your supper from the bay by the pier; although 20 percent of the park’s waters are marine-protected areas, fishing is allowed everywhere else in accordance with state regulations (permits from $9). During my trip here, it was easy to collect overpopulated urchin and spear rockfish.
Hikers can enjoy the island’s many trails, which range from a mile to 28 miles, and keep an eye out for the adorable foxes—I counted 14 when I was there!)—one of the park’s 281 endemic species.
2. Cinnamon Bay Beach and Campground
Saint John, U.S. Virgin Islands National Park
Kick it in the Caribbean when you bunk at the only campground in U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. Visitors can choose from a variety of tent sites ($50) or cottages ($285) December through April and pop in to the on-site Rain Tree Café for options like smoothies or food to go. This is a paradise that begs exploration by land and by sea; take to the more than 20 trails in the park, some leading to petroglyphs and an old sugar mill, or rent snorkeling gear at the campground and spend hours swimming the island’s turquoise waters and coral reefs home to some 400 species.
3. Cannabis Farm and Greenhouse Garden
Mountain View, Big Island, Hawaii
Campers on the eastern side of the Big Island can choose between two unique sites at this forest Hipcamp—next to the cannabis grove or within the greenhouse deck ($45 for two people per night). Enjoy hot outdoor showers, but expect to pay for electricity.
The host offers one-hour cannabis tours ($50 for two people), surf lessons ($75), and customizable island tours. Or head off on your own to explore the nearby Wao Kele o Puna rainforest, sacred home of the goddess Pele as well as native habitat to the endangered apapane and akohekohe birds. The hot spot of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is also just ten miles away.
4. A Gulf Coast Island Retreat
Now’s your chance to cosplay Robinson Crusoe: an entire island with four campsites is available to rent in the middle of the Alafia River, about a 20-minute drive south of Tampa (from $65). Designed with elevated wooden platforms for your tent, an outhouse, a fire pit, and a picnic table, you pack in the essentials (including water) and pack out all your trash.
Although the island host offers shuttle service for a fee, renting one of his kayaks or canoes for the quarter-mile crossing is your best bet: you can paddle to area mangroves, catching sight of dolphins and stingrays; request a river tour; or, for a night out, tie your boat up at the River’s Edge Bar and Grill across the water.
5. Stafford Beach Campground
Cumberland Island National Lakeshore, Georgia
Only 300 visitors a day are allowed on Cumberland Island, a barrier island more than twice the size of Manhattan. Stafford Beach Campground ($12) has ten sites and offers necessities like flush toilets, fire rings, potable water, and (cold) showers. A 45-minute ferry from the town of St. Marys will drop you off at the pier. From there, you’ll take a 3.5-mile trail to the campground, part of a 50-plus-mile island-wide network.
Or bring your bike and cruise around with your binocs—there’s plenty of wildlife to see, including wild horses, loggerhead turtles, and alligators. Saltwater fishermen can look to hook species like catfish and crocker. Historical relics also remain an attraction; tour Dungeness Ruins, a former mansion occupied by the British in the War of 1812, and Plum Orchard, once the winter home of the Carnegie family, built at the turn of the 20th century.
6. A Private Horse Farm
Saint Helena Island, South Carolina
This 70-acre Low Country Hipcamp, set on the property of Camelot Farms Equestrian Center, is a working farm once part of the Coffin Point Plantation. Its five sites ($15) rest between two ponds below a grove of oak trees, potable water is available from a spigot, and campfires and pets are permitted. (There are no bathrooms.)
Book a horse ride with the farm ($100), or head three miles down the road to Hunting Island State Park (from $5), the filming location for Forrest Gump’s Vietnam War scenes, where birders can check oystercatchers and yellow-rumped warblers off their list this time of year, hikers can enjoy more than nine miles of trails, and anglers can rent a rod and reel and try their luck at the end of a renovated pier or along the shore.
7. Bird Island Basin Campground
Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
Bird Island Basin’s steady wind and warm shallows qualify it as one of the best windsurfing spots in the country. You can pitch your tent at one of the first-come, first-served sites ($8, plus a $25 vehicle entrance fee) along Laguna Madre and then make the easy two-minute walk to Worldwinds for a windsurfing class (from $70) or to rent kayaking or paddleboarding gear.
If you’re there for the birds—plenty are, as it’s located on the Central Flyway—winter sees thousands migrating through the area, and common sightings include the double-crested cormorant and snowy egret. Aficionados might tack on Padre Island Expeditions’ six-to-eight-hour birding tour ($600 for up to four people). Come prepared with food and firewood, as the nearest stores are 12 miles away.
8. Rainforest Camping
Utuado, Puerto Rico
Leave the mainland behind for this rainforest Hipcamp ($30) in the mountains 90 minutes southwest of San Juan. Ask the host for a map of the property when you arrive and hit the trails in search of waterfalls. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a bathroom with hot water, fire pits, and potable water. There’s also a glamping site on the property ($59), and breakfast and dinner can be ordered for an additional fee.
Up for an eco-adventure? Host-led tours include hiking, exploring subterranean rivers, caving and more. Or venture into the town of Utuado for rappelling, river caving, and horseback riding on a coffee farm, or to visit the pictographs and stone monoliths of Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Park, an ancestral site of the native Taínos.
9. Kahua Lehua (Hoomaluhia)
A campsite within Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden? And just nine miles from the island’s beloved Lanikai Beach and 12 miles from central Honolulu? Yes, please! At Kahua Lehua ($32), you’ll have access to the sprawling 400-acre property, which features plants from major tropical regions around the globe as well as those indigenous to Hawaii.
Birders can request its garden-specific checklist, which includes local species like the Pacific golden plover and black-crowned night heron. Five campsites are available (each can accommodate groups of up to ten) and offer picnic tables and fire circles. The required permit is available for purchase two weeks ahead of time, so be ready to book—this place is popular.
Alexandra Gillespie is a travel writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scuba Diving, and NPR. She lives in Southern California, where she spends much of her free time shore diving.
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