If ever there was a moment to put your car in park and plan a vacation where you can easily get around without draining your travel funds at the pump, it’s now.
As gas prices hit record highs in the US just in time for summer 2022, we don't want that to hamper your plans for getting out and exploring the country.
From the Lowcountry of South Carolina to just offshore from 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.
Daufuskie Island, South Carolina
Best for staying in a lighthouse
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.
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Dry Tortugas, Florida
Best for feeling like you’re in the Caribbean
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 of Dry Tortugas National Park, where rays, parrot fish, sergeant majors and sea turtles (tortugas, from the islands’ name) abound.
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Halibut Cove, Alaska
Best for anyone who wants to hook a big one
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 90 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.
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 camp sites you can stroll to from the ferry dock, miles of shoreline and lonely beaches and the historic, blufftop Pottawatomie Lighthouse to explore.
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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.
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Two Harbors, Catalina Island, California
Best for scuba divers
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.
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Tangier Island, Virginia
Best for hearing an English-style accent
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).
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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.
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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.
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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 five-square-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. There’s even a New England-style inn overlooking the marina and marsh where you can stay.
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