Top 10 Unusual Islands in the United States

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There are many famous islands in the United States, and most are famous in part because they’re tourist magnets. But you won’t find the likes of Maui, Nantucket, Hilton Head, Key West, Miami Beach or these other must-see places on this list. Instead, you’ll find an island that has been branded the “Forbidden Island,” one where the dead outnumber living residents 850,000 to O and another so remote Russia is only two miles away.


10. Hart Island, New York City

From a Confederate POW camp to a missile base, New York City's Hart Island has had a strange history.

Photo credit: Cisc1970

If you’re looking for a cool travel destination in the Big Apple, you can forget Hart Island. In fact, access to the island is severely restricted. That makes it no less remarkable. Located in Long Island Sound, the quarter-mile-wide, 1-mile-long island has had a ridiculously varied history: it served as a Confederate POW camp during the Civil War and housed an anti-aircraft missile base following World War II. It has been home to an insane asylum, prison and reformatory, all since abandoned. Many of these old structures are still standing, which would make this a great spot for history buffs … except for that whole restricted access thing. Hart Island may be best known today as site of the largest public cemetery in the world. Some 850,000 indigents are buried there in the potter’s field.


9. Little Diomede Island

Little Diomede Island is only two miles from Russian territory.

Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard

This remote, rocky island, located in the Bering Strait only a couple of miles from Russian territory, gained a measure of fame in 2008 when GOP vice presidential contender Sarah Palin noted that Russia could be seen from an Alaskan island. This is that island. It’s small, only 2.8 square miles, and lightly populated, with less than 150 residents. The inhabitants lead a harsh existence, battling both isolation and the elements. The island is usually frozen from December through mid-June, and wind gusts of 80 mph are common. But as Palin noted, you can see Russia from the island. When a correspondent from Anderson Cooper 360 visited the island in 2008 to ask Little Diomede residents what they thought of Palin, he found many didn’t know who she was, as they don’t own a television.


8. Goat Island

The view from Goat Island is like few others.

Photo credit: Matthew Trump

Goat Island boasts one of the most spectacular views of any isle in the world, thanks to its unique location. Take a look at a photo or satellite image of Niagara and Bridal Veil Falls and their Canadian counterpart, Horseshoe Falls. See that strip of land between the falls? That’s Goat Island. The island is part of Niagara Reservation State Park, the oldest state park in the U.S. The island is accessible only from the American side of the falls, but if you’re going, a better view of the falls can be had from the Canadian side, so don’t worry if you miss Goat Island.


7. Assateague Island

The Chincoteague Pony Swim is not the only reason to visit Assateague Island.

Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard

You’ve probably seen news coverage of the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim on Assateague Island in Virginia. If you haven’t been in person, put it on your bucket list. About 300 wild ponies live on the island. The romantic version of their story is that they’re descendants of wild mustangs that swam ashore from a Spanish ship that sank near the barrier island more than 200 years ago. The more likely scenario is that they were a tax evasion ploy, brought to America by settlers on the mainland and left on the island to avoid paying livestock taxes. The annual pony swim each July isn’t the only reason to visit the island. You can encounter the wild horses wandering around the beaches and forests at any time of the year, but the Assateague Island National Seashore also offers camping, canoeing, hiking and other recreational opportunities.


6. Alcatraz

Alcatraz is a strange and memorable tourist destination.

Photo credit: Mark Schwettmann/

The most famous island on this list, there’s not much to say here that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, including on this site. If you’re looking to visit while in the San Francisco area, be sure to book your tickets ASAP, as tours can sell out well in advance. Also, even if you go in July or August, it can be surprisingly damp, windy and cold, so take a jacket.


5. Mackinac Island

A visit to Mackinac Island is like stepping into the past.

Photo credit: Bardy

Mackinac Island has been drawing the rich, famous and regular folks since the late 19th century. The island in Lake Huron between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas can be reached by plane, boat or ferry, but leave your car on the mainland — only emergency vehicles are allowed. Visiting the island is like a step back in time, with many historic buildings dating back a couple of hundred years. Most notable among these is the Grand Hotel, built in the 1880s, which boasts having the longest porch in the world at 660 feet. Summer is the best time to enjoy this island.


4. Channel Islands

The Channel Islands off the California coast feature many species not found elsewhere in the world.

Photo credit: Ken Lund

The Channel Islands are less than 50 miles from the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills, Hollywood and other much more famous Southern California locales, but the islands bear more in common with the Galapagos Islands than SoCal. Like the Galapagos made famous in Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the Channel Islands’ isolation has led to some unique plant and animal diversity. The Channel Islands National Park, which encompasses five of the eight islands in the chain, is home to 145 plants or animals found nowhere else in the world. Open to visitors year-round, the best time to visit is spring or summer, prime time for blue whale sightseeing cruises. But the national park draws less than a quarter-million visitors per year, giving you plenty of room to explore the islands away from the crowds typical at many other national parks.


3. American Samoa

American Samoa is much closer to New Zealand than it is the United States.

Photo credit: Acepharma

The southernmost territory of the United States, American Samoa is actually located south of the equator, and is much closer to New Zealand, which is about 1,600 miles away, than the continental U.S., which is almost three times that distant. The United States has had an interest in the seven-island chain far longer than any of its other Pacific Oceans territories that it took possession of after World War II, establishing a naval facility there in the early 20th century. A large U.S. Marine presence there during World War II tightened the bond between the territory and the U.S. mainland. The 67,000 or so residents, who are overwhelmingly native Samoan, mostly work in the tuna fishing industry, although many younger residents move to Hawaii or the mainland U.S. to seek employment, including in the U.S. military.


2. Thousand Islands

The Thousand Islands region has been a popular tourist draw since the late 19th century.

Photo credit: Teresa Mitchell

Want to buy your own island? If money is not an issue, your own island paradise may be awaiting in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River, between Canada and New York State. The name is a bit of a misnomer — the term “1,860 Islands” would be more accurate but unwieldy. Most of those islands are privately owned, although some have been preserved as parks. Wealthy businessmen from New York, Cleveland and elsewhere in the Northeast descended on the area in the early 20th century and began building vacation homes, some to a massive scale, such as Singer Castle, on Dark Island, and the Boldt Castle, on Heart Island. But there are plenty of other unique islands as well, including the aptly named “Just Room Enough,” an island that has just enough room for one cottage. If you don’t have the money to buy one of these islands, rentals are available.


1. Niihau, Hawaii

Niihau's nickname, the Forbidden Island, reflects its isolation.

Photo credit: CCA-SA 3.0 Christopher P. Becker

Niihau, the seventh-largest island in the Hawaiian chain, has been dubbed “The Forbidden Island,” an immediate clue you won’t be visiting there on your next Hawaiian vacation. Access to this 70-square-mile island is restricted, and it has been that way for generations. Niihaua has always been a little different from the rest of the Hawaiian Islands. Even the great Hawaiian king Kamehameha struggled to bring the island into his kingdom 200 years ago. In 1864, a woman named Elizabeth Sinclair purchased the island from one of Kamehameha’s descendants for $10,000 in gold. Sinclair’s descendants closed the island to outsiders in the early 20th century, and they still own the island today. The 150 or so inhabitants there, who still speak native Hawaiian, life a simple life. There is no running water and residents generate their own electricity. As for the “Forbidden Island,” nickname, that ode to the isle’s isolated past is slowly changing, as the owners now operate helicopter tours.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.