• Abby Voce

The Most Remote National Parks in the Contiguous United States

Dry Tortugas, Channel Islands, and Isle Royale - Well Worth The Effort To Get There!


An epic sunset blazes through the clouds over Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park

Santa Cruz Island: Channel Islands National Park - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan


 

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Sometimes the most rewarding experiences are when you venture off the mainland! Extra planning is required to get to these most remote National Parks in the contiguous United States, but it pays off. Dry Tortugas in Florida, Channel Islands in California, and Isle Royale in Michigan are all island National Parks that are more than worth the visit. Because of the difficulty involved in accessing these parks, their beauty is often overlooked.



Dry Tortugas National Park


A colonial era fort, moat, and trees at Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson: Dry Tortugas National Park, FL - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



How to get there


Dry Tortugas is accessible only by seaplane or ferry. The most popular way to access the park is with the Yankee Freedom National Park ferries, which leave from a terminal just minutes from downtown Key West. They offer both day trips (7am to 5:15pm) and overnight camping trip transportation. The ferry tickets range from $180 to $210 and include breakfast, lunch and park entrance fees. Be sure to bring extra snacks and water for the day after you depart the ferry. Yankee Freedom also has parking available, but vans and cars with roof racks should call ahead to locate a convenient separate parking lot with no height restrictions. Although the daytime tends to be hot, the return trips are often very windy and cold because of the sun setting, so be sure to pack accordingly!


A pristine, empty beach with the pale green-blue waters of the Caribbean at Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park, FL- Photo Credit: Abby Voce


Activities


The Ferry drops off at Garden Key, home of the Park's famed Fort Jefferson. The Park itself is 99% water, so while there are not any hiking opportunities outside of the fort itself, relaxing on the beach or snorkeling are perfect activities to experience all the Park has to offer. The Florida Keys are home to the third largest reef system in the world, notable for its marine life diversity due to its remote location. Several snorkelers even reported seeing barracuda while I was visiting!


Fort wall, moat, and submerged seawall at Dry Tortugas National Park off the Florida Keys

Fort Jefferson: Dry Tortugas National Park, FL - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



Accommodations


The Florida Keys have very limited camping options. I stayed on Cow Key at Boyd’s Key West Campground, which is a 20 min drive from the ferry terminal. The campground is right on the water, and very high-end... for a campsite! It included showers, water and night security. Because of the high price, I would not stay there again, but it worked in a pinch with minimal alternate options.


Camping on Garden Key within Dry Tortugas is common for the more adventurous types, and is a great way to explore the park without groups of tourists nearby. The sites are all first-come, first-serve only, excluding group sites. It is required to take a ferry, rather than a seaplane to camp on the island. All campers will be guaranteed a campsite upon arrival.


While you're in southern Florida, stop by Everglades and Biscayne National Parks too!


 

Channel Islands National Park


The cutest baby fox on the planet, an Island Fox native only to the Channel Islands off the coast of California

Island Fox, Native to Channel Islands National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan



How to get there


Channel Islands National Park is comprised of 5 separate islands and the surrounding mile of ocean, only accessible by Island Packers ferries or via private boat. The ferries leave from Ventura or Oxnard harbors, and are both about a 2 hour round-trip boat ride. I took the ferry from Ventura Harbor to Prisoners Harbor on Santa Cruz Island. The ferry leaves at 9am and begins the return journey at 2:45pm. The day goes by fast, so make a plan before departure to know what activities you want to do to maximize your time on the beautiful island.


An American Flag hangs off the back of a ferry leading from the California Coastline to Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park, FL - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



Activities

Due to limited time on the island during a day trip, hiking trails are moderate and relatively short. If you arrive at Prisoners Harbor, I recommend bringing your lunch and hiking the 4 mile round trip trail to Pelican Bay for a picnic. This trail gives consistent 360 degree stunning views and even a chance to see the small island foxes that inhabit the island - they are adorable!


The cold blue waters of the Pacific strike contrast against the coastline of Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park, FL - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



Accommodations


While visiting Channel Islands, I stayed in Ventura on the coast of California at Faria Campground. This was one of the most beautiful campgrounds I have ever stayed at, right on the water. The campground is about a 15 minute drive to Ventura Harbor. There are many locals that frequent here, and it truly feels like a community. There are water and showers available for campers too. I even met some Volkswagen obsessed friends here - Ron and Mike, who showed me around the campground and shared a campfire with me! Although this campground was incredible, I would recommend getting reservations to camp on one of the islands for $15 per night for those who prefer solitude. The National Park Service offers camping on all 5 islands year round, that have been known to provide epic sunsets and chances for stargazing. This rare opportunity is an amazing way to experience the Park on your own, without crowds or tour groups passing by.


If you are in need of new gear, Ventura is also home to Patagonia’s HQ and flagship store!


 

Isle Royale National Park


A seaplane lies waiting to take travelers to Isle Royale National Park in Northern Michigan

Isle Royale National Park, MI - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



How to get there


Michigan is home to Isle Royale, one of my personal top 3 favorite National Parks, and the least visited National Park in the contiguous United States due to its secluded nature. As with Dry Tortugas, the island is only accessible via ferry or seaplane. Due to COVID restrictions and lack of planning on my part, ferry availability was slim when I arrived in Michigan, and therefore I took a seaplane to the island. I traveled with Isle Royale Seaplanes from Hancock Portage Canal to Rock Harbor. Although this alternative was more expensive, it was a more convenient and much faster way to access the park - and I got to experience my first seaplane ride! Travel time is about 40 minutes via seaplane, or 6 hours via Ranger III ferry from Houghton, MI to Rock Harbor. Be sure to plan ahead, because this park is closed annually from November 1st to April 15th!


Beautiful grass, trees, and sky over the coastline of Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park, MI - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



Activities


During my seaplane ride I met Jenny and Celeste, sisters from Maine, with whom I was fortunate enough to hike Stoll Memorial Trail. I spent most of my journey to 51 National Parks hiking alone, so it is always nice to share a few trail miles with some company. This moderate 4.2 mile trail starts from Rock Harbor and quickly navigates into desolate, wild land as you immerse yourself deeper into the island habitat. You travel through forests and along the island's shoreline, with stunning views the entire way. Before boarding the seaplane again, relax on the dock and listen to the loons calling in the background. If you're lucky, you might even spot a moose on the island!


Article writer Abby on the rocky shores of Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park, MI - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



Accommodations


While visiting the northern peninsula of Michigan, I camped at Hancock Recreation Area Campground. It had bathrooms, water and was conveniently located - only an 8 minute drive from the seaplane departure location. I did not make reservations since it was a large recreation area, and many camping spots were available when I showed up in the late afternoon. As with the other two parks on this list, there are also options to backpack, basecamp, boat or lodge on the island itself. There are 36 campgrounds located across the 40 mile long island, each of which require permits to stay overnight.



Avoiding the crowds at popular Parks and venturing beyond the beaten path is a great way to experience nature in its wildest form. Existing on an island provides a natural barrier for these Parks from direct human impact on their wild ecosystems. In general, these parks provide an alternative to the most popular National Parks and showcase plants and animals in a unique environment.


 

Get exclusive stories, trail reports, National Park alternatives, recipes, and more delivered directly to your inbox from our growing team of experienced thru-hikers, former National Park employees, and fellow adventure lovers.



 

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