Photograph: Shutterstock

Car-free cities in the US for a getaway

Forgo four wheels and explore these auto-free destinations instead.

Written by
Lauren Mack
Thursday June 16 2022

Increasingly, cities across the US are creating car-free pedestrian zones, but several towns and islands have been off-limits to vehicles for years. Forget about traffic or rental cars and rely on two feet to explore the resort amenities of Santa Catalina Island, California, the magnificent sunrises and sunsets on Mackinac Island, Michigan, and the Havasu Falls in Supai, Arizona (to name a few).

While some car-free destinations like Halibut Cove, Alaska and Supai, Arizona require some effort to get to, most of these car-free places are a quick ferry ride away. From golf carts and trams to wagons and carriages to bicycles and skiffs, each car-free place offers a respite from automobiles and an attitude of no car, no problem.

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Car-free cities in the US

Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Bald Head Island, North Carolina

Located 30 miles south of Wilmington, NC and 60 miles north of Myrtle Beach, SC, Bald Head Island is a loggerhead turtle nesting ground located two nautical miles from where the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Ocean meet. It’s a quick 20-minute ferry ride from Southport, NC to the southernmost of North Carolina's cape islands. On the island, visitors use trams or golf carts to navigate the island’s beaches, golf courses, maritime forest, and Old Baldy Lighthouse, North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse that was first commissioned by Thomas Jefferson and is home to the Smith Island Museum of History. Don’t miss ascending the lighthouse’s 108 steps to get panoramic views of the island.

Photograph: Colonial Williamsburg

2. Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Walk back in time at the car-less Colonial Williamsburg, the largest outdoor living history museum in the world. Part of Virginia’s historic triangle of Jameston, Yorktown, and Williamsburg, the 301-acre Colonial Williamsburg includes 88 original buildings. Visitors leave their cars at the Visitor Center and take the free shuttle to the town, where the transport options include carriages, wagons, and walking around the immersive 18th century sites, taverns, and homes where actors recreate life in colonial times. Visitors should look for the Grand Union Flags, which indicate which buildings are open to the public as some structures are still private residences.

Photograph: Shutterstock

3. Daufuskie Island, South Carolina

Located between Hilton Head Island and Savannah, Georgia, Daufuskie Island is one mile across Calibogue Sound from Hilton Head Island. The western part of the peaceful island, known for its oysters, is populated with Gullah homes, historic homes owned since after the Civil War by descendants of the Gullah people, Africans who were enslaved on plantations along the Atlantic coast. Visitors reach the island via passenger ferry or boat from Hilton Head Island. Once on island, enjoy the three miles of beach and points of interest like The Bloody Point Lighthouse & Museum at the southern tip of Daufuskie Island.

Photograph: Shutterstock

4. Fire Island, New York

While it is possible to drive to Fire Island via two bridges, you can’t actually drive once on the island as there are no paved roads and vehicles are limited to emergency and state services. A popular summertime respite for New Yorkers, Fire Island is a year-round wonder thanks to its Sunken Forest – a 40-acre maritime forest of centuries-old holly, bayberry, blueberry, sassafras, and shadblow trees – but it’s the beaches and boating along the island’s miles of coastline that are the main draw. Most visitors stay in the family-friendly Ocean Beach and the gay-friendly The Pines and Grove. Cycling is the mode of transport here. In addition to sunbathing, islanders indulge in tennis, with courts in nearly every community, clamming, surfing, and birdwatching where more than 300 species have been spotted.

Photograph: Shutterstock

5. Governors Island, New York

In the heart of New York Harbor just 800 yards from lower Manhattan is the 172-acre, car-free Governors Island. Founded in 1524 by the Lenape who seasonally used the leafy island as a fishing camp, the island was more recently used by the US Coast Guard in the mid-20th century. In 1996, the Coast Guard moved out and the island is now run by the nonprofit the Trust for Gov­er­nors Island created by the City of New York to manage the island. Today, visitors can take passenger ferries from lower Manhattan and Brooklyn for day trips for picnicking, catch-and-release fishing, and seasonal arts, cultural, and community events.

Photograph: Shutterstock

6. Halibut Cove, Alaska

Tucked inside Kachemak Bay State Park, Alaska’s first state park, Halibut Cove is nearly hidden within the mountainous park’s 400,000 acres. The remote, peaceful community of 60 people features a floating post office, serene views, and wildlife, including sea otters, seals, and whales. The community is accessible by water taxi from Homer, Alaska and, once there, locals and visitors navigate the 8.12 square-miles by skiff, all-terrain vehicles (ATV), or foot.

Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Mackinac Island, Michigan

Located on Lake Huron between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, the mystique of Mackinac Island, its magical sunrises and sunsets, and delicious fudge draw visitors by plane and ferry to northern Michigan for slow-paced travel. More than 80 percent of the vehicle-free island is state park, replacing roads with nature trails. The island famously lacks chain hotels and is populated instead with dozens of charming inns, small boutiques, and local restaurants. Guests get around on foot and via whimsical horse-drawn carriage rides.

Photograph: Shutterstock

8. Santa Catalina Island, California

Located 22 miles off the coast of southern California, Santa Catalina Island is a picturesque island where Marilyn Monroe once briefly lived and the Chicago Cubs held spring training for 30 years. Most visitors take short ferry rides from San Pedro, Long Beach, Dana Point, and Newport Beach, but visitors can take planes and helicopters to reach the island, which has two communities, Avalon on the east and Two Harbors on the west. While there is a bus route and a taxi stand in the center of Avalon, locals and visitors use golf carts to get around the narrow streets to hillside homes, Descanso Beach, and waterfront businesses, including the Tuna Club, the oldest big-game saltwater fishing club in the world and Two Harbors’ campsites, biking trails, and marine reserve.

Photograph: Shutterstock

9. Supai, Arizona

It’s quite a trek to get to Supai, the most remote community in the lower 48 states. Supai has been home to the Havasu Baaja for 1,000 years and everyone and everything must make the eight-mile trek on foot or by mule from Hualapai Hilltop at the rim of the Grand Canyon to Supai (the US Postal Service even delivers mail by mule). It’s also possible to take a helicopter down. The village is known for its beautiful blue-green Havasupai waterfalls, which flow year-round. Visitors can take a refreshing swim in the Havasu Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River and camp under a canopy of stars.

Photograph: Shutterstock

10. Tangier Island, Virginia

Located 12 miles into the Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island is only accessible by air or sea. The 740-acre island is at-risk of disappearing due to rising sea levels. Located off Virginia’s eastern shore, there’s only about 1.2 miles to explore. While there are a few cars, the roads are only wide enough for two golf carts, so the main modes of transportation are golf carts, boats, mopeds, and bikes. The watermen community is known as the 'soft-shell crab capital of the world' as crabbing is the main industry and visitors can get a glimpse into this and island life by visiting the isolated island.

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