How Many Islands in the USA Require Ferry Travel?

On June 2, 2013 · 34 Comments

Just when I thought I’d examined domestic ferry routes from every possible angle, and new question arose.

Longtime 12MC readers already know of my endless fascination with ferries and the saga of my formerly wildly popular ferry pages; still somewhat popular albeit Google’s love affair with them has waned. It’s a complicated relationship driven in equal parts by curiosity and indifference. I’m sure my kvetching doesn’t help me remain in Google’s good graces either. Eh, could be worse I suppose.

Even so, the major search engines drive a lot of ferry-related hits to the Twelve Mile Circle. The title of this article came word-for-word directly from one such query, "how many islands in the USA require ferry travel" Gosh, I don’t know. I never thought about it. Why would anyone really need to know?

Ocracoke Island – My most recent ferry-required trip

Some people like the New York Times crossword puzzle. I like to figure out weird geography research questions provided unwittingly by random Intertubes surfers that happened to wash ashore on 12MC. Give me a quiet Sunday morning, a big cup of black coffee, some oddball query with no real practical purpose, and turn me loose. The answer is 64 The answer is 77.

Don’t believe me? Feel free to check my handiwork.

First, I defined the question. I interpreted it to mean that each island had to be disconnected from the external road network, that no bridge, causeway, zip line, rope swing or other structure joined it to the mainland, directly or indirectly. A regularly-scheduled ferry with an established route had to be the only convenient and inexpensive transportation option available to the general public. Sure, someone could always charter a boat or hire an aircraft, and claim that a ferry wasn’t technically required. In that case the answer would be zero. That’s no fun.

Vinalhaven Island – Another great example

Let’s apply some additional asterisks and caveats before the 12MC fact-checkers begin to salivate and prepare their rebuttal comments (which I love by the way). The biggest one: this was a quick eyeball survey and it’s entirely possible, indeed likely, that I missed a small number of instances in my haste to prepare an answer before the kids woke up this morning and broke my concentration. I even found two more examples and added them to the list just before I hit the Publish button. Don’t freak out if you find other(s). Let me know and I’ll update the list.

Also, routes do change, generally due to the price of fuel and other financial considerations. I’ve done my best to compile the list as it existed on June 2, 2013. Someone reading this article far in the future will notice an ever-growing list of additions, deletions and variations.

Here’s how ferry-only islands broke down by state (again, look at the spreadsheet if you want the details):

  • Alaska – 16
  • Maine – 13
  • Washington – 9
  • Michigan – 8
  • Massachusetts – 3 4
  • New York – 2 4
  • California – 1 3
  • Ohio – 3
  • South Carolina – 3
  • Georgia – 2
  • North Carolina – 2
  • Rhode Island – 1 2
  • Wisconsin – 2
  • Delaware – 1
  • Florida – 1
  • Maryland – 1
  • Mississippi – 1
  • New Hampshire – 1
  • Virginia – 1

Hawaii also briefly had one although it was inter-island and did not connect to the mainland.

I wrestled with what should "count" as a ferry. Various national and state park properties, or portions of properties, are served solely by ferry: Dry Tortugas National Park; Governors Island National Monument; Gulf Islands National Seashore; Isle Royale National Park; Rock Island (Wisconsin) State Park. Are these ferries or are they excursions? They maintain regular schedules, however they don’t serve a permanent population unless one considers a few park rangers. I kept them on the list for no other reason than I’ve taken a ride on a couple of them and I like them.

Mt. Roberts Tramway
Juneau is NOT an island… but if feels like one

Alaska deserved special attention for its extensive Marine Highway. Many coastal towns are not connected to the larger road network even though they are not on islands. Some are remote outposts with too few people to justify the necessary road and bridge construction. Others are hemmed-in by massive coastal mountain ranges. They certainly display characteristics of islands, however they are not technically islands so I have not included them on the list. The most notable example was arguably Juneau. More than 30,000 people live in Juneau, it’s the capital city of Alaska, and yet it remains unconnected to the external road network. Juneau is located on the mainland, not an island.

I’m particularly fond of double-disconnected islands. Those are rare places where a traveler would need to take two ferries to get there. These are islands connected overland only by ferry to an island that is connected only by ferry to the mainland. I found three examples.

Washington and Rock Islands, Wisconsin

  • Rock Island, a Wisconsin state park, can be accessed only from Washington Island by ferry, which in turn is accessed from the tip of the Door Peninsula by ferry. I’ve set foot on Washington Island (my visit) although I didn’t have time to reach Rock Island because it was a day trip by bicycle. Rock Island remains on my short list of places I’d like to see.
  • Ketchiikan Alaska on Revillagigedo Island provides access to the other two examples. One is rather extensive with several settlements, Prince of Whales Island. The other is Gravina Island where Ketchiikan’s airport is located, and which 12MC discussed previously. It’s most notorious for the proposed but derailed "Bridge to Nowhere." People wouldn’t reasonably take two ferries to get to Gravina Island they’d simply fly-in to the airport, although the double-ferry route is technically feasible.

UPDATE: Chappaquiddick Island also fits the definition, accessible by ferry from Martha’s Vineyard.

Some of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and Puget Sound islands in Washington might also count although I put them into a lesser category because they’re placed in strings along a longer ferry route. Interceding islands serve as layovers. A traveler doesn’t need to disembark and transfer to a different ship.

The number of islands requiring ferries surprised me in a couple of different ways. I thought there would be fewer examples and I thought Alaska would dominate the list even more than it did. I’ve taken 8 of the island routes personally: Beaver; Dry Tortugas; Madeline; Ocracoke; Ship; Tangier; Vinalhaven and Washington. I have many more to go.

On June 2, 2013 · 34 Comments

34 Responses to “How Many Islands in the USA Require Ferry Travel?”

  1. Dave Kearns says:

    I don’t see Maryland in your list – what about Smith Island?

  2. John Deeth says:

    Does Madeline Island, Wisconsin in Lake Superior count? Most of the year it’s ferry only, but in winter there’s an “ice highway” across the strait separating it from the mainland. There’s a permanent population, mainly in the inincorporated community of LaPointe.

    Madeline Island is also a practical exclave. The ferry/ice road connection is from Bayfield County, but the island is part of Ashland County.

    • I think Madeline Island counts — climate change has been making the ice road less and less reliable, and for shorter durations. I’ve been to Madeline Island in the summer and desperately want to make it there in late winter to experience the ice road. It’s been on my travel list for the longest time…

  3. CBE says:

    Hey, I think you are off by one for Rhode Island. Everyone knows about Block Island, which is only ferry accessible. But, folks tend to miss Prudence Island, which is also only ferry accessible. ( About 80 something people live on it year round.

  4. Pfly says:

    Here’s a few possibilities:
    Alcatraz, CA
    Angel Island (state park), CA
    Guemes Island, WA
    Lumni Island, WA

  5. That’s an interesting list; more islands than I would have guessed.
    My personal example of a double-disconnected island (actually, it’s a triple, but since I was on Vancouver Island for a couple of weeks at the time, I thought of it as double):

    1) to Vancouver Island, via numerous routes
    2) ferry to Denman Island, just south of Courtenay, B.C.
    3) ferry to Hornby Island.

    My friend and I did parts 2 and 3 in both directions in one day, and we definitely made sure we knew what the ferry schedules were, so we didn’t get stuck!

    I haven’t looked, but quite possibly there are additional examples in the Gulf Islands area of British Columbia (all those islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland.)


  6. Peter says:

    Fire Island in New York is a complicated case. At its western end* a causeway connects it to the rest of Long Island and a road runs the length of the island, accessing the various communities along the way. While this would ostensibly disqualify Fire Island from the ferry-only list, things are more complicated in practice because road access is very strictly limited. Pretty much only emergency and official vehicles are allowed. Almost all access to the 15 or so communities is by ferry.
    To muddy the waters (so to speak) even further, as the access road’s restrictions do not apply to pedestrians anyone can park at Robert Moses State Park** at the island’s western end and walk along the road to the various communities. It makes for a very long walk except for a few of the westernmost ones.

    * = there’s also a bridge at the island’s eastern end, but it doesn’t go anywhere beyond a beachfront park

    ** = in that causeway-connected Robert Moses Park is physically part of Fire Island, one could argue that there is easy road access to the island, albeit a very small part of it

  7. Andrew says:

    I checked your handiwork and I still don’t believe you.

    Another one that you missed is Shelter Island, NY

  8. Peter says:

    Hart Island off the eastern shore of the Bronx is likely the strangest case. It has served as the city potter’s field for decades, with close to a million burials. Until recently it wouldn’t have been on the list despite the lack of road access because the very short ferry ride was open only to officials and to the prison inmates who work on burial detail (a very highly coveted “job” among inmates). Now, however, there is some limited public access to certain ferries so people can pay their respects at a memorial set up at one end of the island.

    • I’d love to add this to the list if I could find a published ferry schedule.

      • Peter says:

        There doesn’t appear to be a published schedule for the Hart Island ferries. People who want to visit have to contact the Department of Corrections, which runs the potter’s field. While the DOC operates ferries four days a week bringing bodies to the island for burial, I hardly would imagine that visitors would travel on them. More likely there are special runs made whenever enough visitors sign up.
        Although the Hart Island ferries run from nearby City Island, Hart Island does not count as a double-disconnected island because a bridge connects City Island to the mainland.

        • Peter says:

          After a bit more research, I found out that the Department of Correction’s visitors ferry to Hart Island operates on the third Thursday of each month. It runs in the morning, though a specific time isn’t listed.

  9. Greg says:

    North Bass Island, OH, would seem to qualify unless there are no ferries that go there. Side note: kids from North and Middle Bass Islands go to school on South Bass Island (in Put-In-Bay, the only town among the three). Brave students of driving age will sometimes *drive* to South Bass in the wintertime, but otherwise the school district has a standing arrangement to shuttle the kids via plane (weather on Lake Erie apparently being finicky enough to make boats unreliable for everyday use). So here’s a potential tangent: How many public school districts more or less require airplane travel for some of their students to get to school?

  10. Steve says:

    I didn’t read any caveats about “employee only” ferries, but I suspect this challenge deserves one, for there may be several more than our infamous Plum Island (NY).

    You know, your run-of-the-mill Biosafety Level 4 Research Facility island where all sorts of horrific diseases were “kept” and studied – often on animals. The island is in the process of being “reclaimed” and cleaned up and the Feds have been trying to sell it for a while now, as they’ve moved this sort of fun stuff to Manhattan, KS. (FTR, CT has declined the kind offer of buying the land.)

    I do believe there ARE still employees (private and public) who DO still take the ferry out there. Here’s some historical fun facts about the ferry (for all the stuff about the island itself, you have Google for that.)

    Plum Island is located off the eastern point of Long Island, New York. To get to the Employer’s facilities, employees take either a 20-minute ferry boat ride from Orient Point, Long Island, or a 45-minute ride from Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The Employer furnishes the transportation from both locations. Since approximately 1958, employees have been paid for the time they spend on the ferry boat traveling to Plum Island; they are in a duty status from the time the ferry boats depart from the harbors in either New York or Connecticut. For the return trip home, however, employees are not compensated for travel time on the ferries. The practice of paying employees only for one-way travel to Plum Island became part of agency regulations in 1965.

  11. John of Sydney says:

    When visiting friends on Molokai a few years ago we went over to Maui for the day on a boat that did the run twice (as far as I can recall) a day. The majority (perhaps all but us two visitors) seemed to go over to work – Molokai then (as still for all I know) had high unemployment.
    It was a bit of a rough ride not helped by the fact that I’d had a drink or two too much the night before.
    If this still operates I think it qualifies.
    As an aside I am amazed that there isn’t a interisland ferry in Hawaii. I followed the link to Wikipedia to discover the amazing story of the rejected ferry service. Seems very shortsighted to me.

  12. January First-of-May says:

    I think I visited one of the double-disconnected islands (not in the USA of course) – Anzer, in the Solovetsky group.
    To get there, one would first need to go take one of the several main Solovki ferries (there are at least two routes that I’m aware of, but certainly all arrive at the monastery on the main island) and then a separate ferry to Anzer; no idea, however, whether the latter ferry is anywhere near regular (as pretty much everyone who goes to Anzer is either a pilgrim or a tourist – not that there’s much of a distinction).

  13. Fredrik says:

    Hi! I was thinking that is is a nice task to do for my own country Norway. I found two instances where you have to pass 4 and 5 places before reaching a place with road connection, but these turned out to be covered by the same ferry (unfortunately..grrr). But one of them was still a double at least. Right north of the disconnected island that my mom is from, I found the only triple in the islands right west of Ytre Sula! Google Maps doesn’t include the 3rd ferry, but there is a ferry from Kolgrov to the outer islands.

    So Norway:
    1 triple
    4 doubles

  14. BigFoxy says:

    You forgot Georgia. There are about 20 barrier islands along Georgia’s Coast, there are 2 or maybe 3 that have regular ferry service, only 4-5 are connected by road. Many of the ones that have ferry service are public or conservation and have a limited permanent population.

  15. Jasper says:

    St John, VI
    Water Island, VI

    I am not familiar with other territories, but I expect there might be some more ferry only islands there. They do belong to the US.

  16. Ariel Dybner says:

    You should add Liberty Island, New York to your list. Liberty Island is accessible only by ferry from Lower Manhattan and Liberty State Park in New Jersey. On the other hand, Ellis Island, located in both New Jersey and New York, is accessible by the aforementioned ferries and a causeway from New Jersey so don’t add it.

  17. Fritz Keppler says:

    There is a good reason for a non-flyer to take the ferry to Gravina Island (at least this was true in 1996). When I arrived in Ketchikan by means of the Alaska Marine Highway, the arrival time was shortly after midnight because of tidal considerations in the passage. Thus I had to wait for several hours to take the ferry to Gravina in order to pick up my rental car, no other facility being available in the city itself. (During the wait a cop on bicycle asked me what I was doing, but when I explained the situation he was completely satisfied. The first ferry service that morning was for airport employees only, so I had to wait for the second trip.)
    There are a great number of these ferries that I want to take sometime!

  18. Fritz Keppler says:

    (Also, Prince of Wales! Though whales are a frequent sight there.)

  19. weekendroady says:

    Star Island – New Hampshire’s easternmost point – should probably be included. It has fairly regular ferry offerings, including the Isles of Shoals Steamship Co ( I’ve been meaning to get there for awhile now, but it’s just too far out of reach for a weekend trip from D.C. I’d need to make for at least a three-day weekend to include two days of driving.

  20. Bill Harris says:

    How could you miss Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River? Site of Fort Delaware, an important Civil War prison camp, and one of the larger rookeries on the east coast (and, according to Ghost Hunters, one of the more haunted locations in the country!). Although no one lives there, it is regularly (although not daily) served by ferry service from Delaware City, Delaware and Salem, New Jersey.

  21. Ariel Dybner says:

    Since Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Bald Head Island, North Carolina is no longer an island. It is now attached to Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and thus the mainland. You could walk from there along the beach to Bald Head “Island”. However, it looks like you missed Bear Island, NC which has a ferry that takes people from the mainland to Hammocks Beach State Park.

  22. Steve says:

    I didn’t see Fort Sumter, which also only accessible by ferry from Charleston.

  23. Pfly says:

    Since you posted about how many people have replied with additional ferry islands I thought I’d see if I could find a few more. Figuring you, and others, had covered coastal islands and Great Lakes islands pretty well by this point I looked for river islands and islands in small lakes. Ignoring unpopulated islands (state parks and the like) I found two I don’t think you have yet: Harsens Island, MI, in the St. Clair River, and Frye Island, ME, in Sebago Lake.

    And although I tried to ignore unpopulated islands I can’t help but mention Wizard Island in Crater Lake, OR. The boat tours of the lake might stretch the term “ferry”, but they regularly let people off and back on at Wizard Island, so…

  24. Andy says:

    Here are two islands in Michigan that should qualify for your list:

    1) Harsens Island (
    — The ferry connects M-29 on the mainland, and M-154 on Harsens Island. M-154 is one of only three Michigan state routes on an island.

    2) Russell Island (
    — Just barely disconnected from Harsens Island, it’s accessible from a ferry in downtown Algonac (although it’s not shown on Google Maps).

  25. Scott says:

    *Require* is a key word in “require ferry travel”… Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for example do not require ferries. They both have commercial airports with flights to several destinations. In addition, there is a scheduled seaplane service to Dry Tortugas. I’d say any island that has scheduled air service should not be included in the list 🙂

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