10 of the best car-free places to visit in the USA this summer

Settling yourself for a week or a weekend on a car-free island can come with unexpected benefits: the joy of getting around via bicycle, the conversations that happen while walking from one place to another, the hilarity of golfcart transportation.  But while we all love a good road trip, sometimes the car is just a means to getting from point a to point b. On these islands, even the getting around is part of the fun. Not to mention its stress-free and incredibly freeing for everyone coming along on the trip. 

This vacation season, choose to leave the car behind. From the Lowcountry of South Carolina to offshore Southern California and way up near the Canadian border, we’ve scoured the United States for some of the best places for car-free (and carefree) summer fun.

A pink sky as the sun sets over a waterway with a small dock
Relax on the peaceful shores of Daufuskie Island © Adam Colick / Shutterstock

1. Daufuskie Island, South Carolina

Best for a slow pace of life 

Word is spreading about this remote island off the South Carolina coast, between Hilton Head and Savannah, that’s accessible by ferry only. But Daufuskie Island remains a sleepy, car-free escape where visitors and locals ply the oak-lined roads by bike or golf cart. Vacation rentals are available for overnight stays within the Haig Point community. 

A favorite is the two-bedroom historic lighthouse said to be haunted by the friendly ghost of the former lightkeeper’s daughter. When you’re not exploring the island’s 3.5 miles of white sand beaches and quiet backroads, check out local galleries like The Iron Fish, visit a rum distillery or go horseback riding along the beach.

2. Tangier Island, Virginia

Best for dining on soft shell crabs

Located 12 miles off Virginia’s eastern shore and accessible by ferry, Tangier Island’s locals speak a unique dialect of English that’s been largely preserved since the 1700s. 

Most visitors arrive on the car-free island for quick day trips via seasonal passenger ferries from Onancock, on Virginia’s mainland. But it’s worth settling in at a vacation rental or bed and breakfast for a night or longer to really feel the rhythm of a true fishing island (and to eat as many soft shell crabs – Tangier’s sublime seafood specialty – as you can). 

Exploring more of Virginia? Here are the best places to visit right now

A brick fortress with a walkway at sea level
Catch a ferry or take a seaplane to reach Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park © Boogich / Getty Images

3. Dry Tortugas, Florida

Best for snorkeling

Lapped by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 70 miles west of Key West, the seven tiny islands that make up the Dry Tortugas require a ferry or seaplane to reach. And it’s well worth the effort to get here from crowded Key West. 

The reward comes in a car-free escape where you can camp beachfront at Garden Key, explore the historic 19th-century Fort Jefferson and snorkel in the pristine waters, where rays, parrot fish, sergeant majors and sea turtles (tortugas, from the islands’ name) abound. 

Looking for other great places to visit in Florida? Here are our recommendations

4. Two Harbors, Catalina Island, California

Best for scuba diving

Some 22 miles off the coast of Long Beach, California, the waters surrounding Catalina Island lure scuba divers to explore golden kelp forests dazzling with dappled sunbeams and teeming with bright orange Garibaldi fish (and sometimes sea lions, too). 

On land, you can look forward to a car-free vacation in the quaint little town of Two Harbors (quieter than Avalon, Catalina’s main hub), where a rustic stay (read: BYO sleeping bag, pillow and towel) awaits at Catalina Cabins. There’s also the Craftsman-style bed and breakfast, Banning House Lodge, for bedding down with more creature comforts. Hire a golf cart or set out on foot to visit area beaches, restaurants and hiking trails.

A small island community in a rural hilly area
Bring your fishing gear to Halibut Cove, Alaska © CSNafzger / Shutterstock

5. Halibut Cove, Alaska

Best for fishing

Hop the scenic ferry from Homer for the 12-mile ride across Kachemak Bay to reach this car-free coastal community on the Kenai Peninsula home to roughly 200 residents. There are rustic log cabins in Halibut Cove for rent through Reserve America and Alaska’s Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation. Or splurge on a stay at a wilderness lodge, like Alaska Stillpoint Lodge or Ridgewood Wilderness Lodge. Kachemak Bay State Park is at your doorstep for activities that range from ogling glaciers, fishing for monster halibut and salmon, kayaking and heaps of hiking. Be sure to send a postcard from the Halibut Cove post office, a floating version of USPS that sits right on the docks. 

Want to see more of Alaska without a car? Take a trip on the Alaska Marine Highway

6. Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin

Best for lakefront camping 

Tourists flock to Door County’s scenic Lake Michigan beaches and quaint villages in the summer months like moths to the long lost light. But you can escape the sunshine-starved crowds (and cars) by heading just off the northern tip of the Door Peninsula and making your way to Rock Island State Park, instead. 

Accessible by ferry service from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day weekend, the island has campsites you can stroll to from the ferry dock, miles of shoreline and lonely beaches and the historic, blufftop Pottawatomie Lighthouse to explore.

A family walk on the grassy shores of a waterway with a large bridge in the background
Get around Mackinac Island by foot, bike or horse-drawn carriage © Lokibaho / Getty Images

7. Mackinac Island, Michigan

Best for old-fashioned family fun  

It’s hard to dream up a more all-American summer vacation spot than Mackinac Island, which sits surrounded by the sapphire waters of Lake Huron between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. Motor vehicles were exiled from here more than 120 years ago after they gave the island’s carriage-pulling horses too much of a fright. Today, visitors get around on foot, bike or by horse-drawn carriage tours.

Rent a cabin in the woods or a Victorian cottage near the lakefront and clear your summer schedule for lots of swimming, hiking and, of course, sampling all the fudge flavors for which the island has become famous. Don’t miss sipping a cocktail in a rocking chair overlooking the Straits of Mackinac at the Grand Hotel’s extra-long terrace, too.

Traveling Michigan as a family? Here are the best things to do there with kids

8. Bald Head Island, North Carolina

Best for beach bums 

The numbers speak for themselves when it comes to this car-free locale south of Wilmington, off the North Carolina coast: Bald Head Island has 14 miles of golden beaches and is protected by more than 10,000 acres of mostly untouched nature preserve in the form of marshes, maritime forests and more. It’s a giant natural playground, waiting to be explored. 

Passenger ferries arrive here after a 20-minute crossing from the mainland. Then the roughly 5-sq-mile island is yours to enjoy (without sharing the streets with a single car). Take the tram or rent a bike to get around to beaches, kayaking or fishing on the Cape Fear River or your vacation rental on the beach. You can even stay at a New England-style inn overlooking the marina and marsh.

A person with a bike sits outside wooden-fronted store
Car-free McCarthy, Alaska, is reached via a footbridge over the Kennicott River © Benny Marty / Shutterstock

9. McCarthy, Alaska

Best for backcountry adventures

Located inside the absolute wilds of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in central southeast Alaska, the tiny, car-free town of McCarthy is home to a year-round population of just a few dozen hearty souls and reached via a pedestrian footbridge across the Kennicott River. 

Book into the historic Ma Johnson’s Hotel, an erstwhile boarding house, and fill your schedule with backcountry park adventures like rafting and glacier trekking. There’s even a pub – the Golden Saloon – dishing up tacos and live music, within stumbling distance of your bed. Right nearby, the ghost town of Kennicott is worth a visit, too, to take a guided National Park Service tour through an abandoned mining camp. 

Planning to visit more national parks? Here are Alaska’s best

10. Isle Royale, Michigan

Best for hiking 

Step off the ferry dock (or arrive by seaplane) at this car-free island in the far north of Michigan and more than 160 miles of hiking trails lay at your feet, waiting to be walked in the wilderness of Lake Superior. 

Bring your camping gear to pitch a tent or book a room at Rock Harbor Lodge, on the eastern end of Isle Royale – the island’s only full-service lodging option, where 60 rooms with Lake Superior views await. You can head out on fishing charters, rent a canoe or kayak to paddle the shoreline spotting eagles, or spend your days switching it up between swimming and hiking in Isle Royale National Park, where you might spot moose, beaver, otters and more. 

Want to follow more trails in Michigan? Here are the top hiking routes

This article was first published Jun 8, 2022 and updated May 7, 2024.

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