Whether you paddle or sail there, take a water taxi or ferry, escape to these 6 island campsites on Lake Champlain this summer.
Story and Photos By Karen Warren
I was camping on an island along the Maine Coast many years ago, when I stumbled upon an abandoned cabin. An engraved sign on the cabin wall had a quote from a Rachel Fields poem: “If once you have slept on an island, you’ll never be quite the same.”
That quote has stuck with me. I’m continually drawn to campsites on remote little islands. There’s nothing like waking up to my own piece of waterfront property. Watching the many moods of water is soul-soothing. There is also something special about not being able to jump into my car to solve the problem of forgotten tent stakes or a camp stove run dry of fuel. I relish the challenge of finding MacGyver solutions to the dilemmas that come up. Plus, because I can’t fit the kitchen sink in my kayak or canoe, life is pared down to the essentials. The freedom and simplicity of island camping make me feel not quite the same when I return.
In Vermont, we don’t have to go far to find that feeling. The Inland Sea of Lake Champlain—the waters east of Grand Isle and South Hero and just west of Franklin County— is blessed with some gorgeous remote island campsites. The state parks on Burton, Knight, and Woods islands offer lakeside camping without the bells and whistles of commercial campgrounds. Tiny Law Island located near the Colchester Causeway is another remote camping island jewel. What you give up for running water and flush toilets, you gain back in blazing orange sunsets, misty morning quiet, and dialing back the pace of life to synchronize to island time.
I’ve paddled to and camped on these 6 island campsites over the years. Each provides its own unique experience of discovery. One fall weekday, I kayaked over to Knight Island for a few days of solo island time away from the craziness of my job. I know the math of islands: take beautiful moments in nature, add water and sky, subtract outside world news, multiply by adventure, and it equals re-centering and relaxation. So I set out on a two-night trip. There’s no ferry service to Knight and no dock so unless you arrange for a water taxi it’s a three-mile crossing from Knight Point State Park on North Hero, which keeps it quiet.
With the exception of a few daytrippers, I had the 185-acre island all to myself and my pick of seven remote campsites. Mornings and evenings on Knight were my own private paradise with a starry sky to tuck me in and my own waves lapping the beach just steps from my tent to wake me. The first evening, I grilled quesadillas with wild greens on the fire grate and roasted swamp oak acorns I’d found that day.
Fantasies of subsisting off the island wild edibles entertained me as I imagined staying for a few extra days. At sunset, I paddled the placid water around the island with a moon rising. It was that aching kind of beautiful that says “don’t leave”. Islands have a persistent way of not letting go.
Another time, while canoeing over to Burton Island to camp, a big storm blew in on the lake. One minute it was calm and then quickly we were buffeted by big rolling waves that threatened to capsize the canoe my friend and I crossed in. Fortunately, we were close enough to the landing to wrestle the canoe through the surf to safety. But as I glanced back on the expanse of the lake, I watched a sailboat twice the size my canoe catch a sudden gust and flip over like it was a kid’s toy boat. I learned that day about the unpredictable weather on the lake.
Burton Island is accessible by ferry but if you plan to paddle to any island on Lake Champlain a knowledge of wind, waves, and weather is essential. Wind speed is affected by fetch, the distance wind travels over water. Lake Champlain has a fetch that goes from Whitehall, NY to Canada, a distance of around one hundred miles. So when a strong south blow sweeps up the fetch of the lake, the wind and waves build. A prudent paddler knows to wait it out. I’ve been windbound many times on the coast of Maine, in the Great Lakes, in the fjords of Alaska and on the sounds of New Zealand. It’s always an extreme test of patience but a necessary course of action. To gauge the wind and weather conditions before paddling, check out the Lake Champlain recreational forecast put out by the NOAA National Weather Service. Remember that “if it blows, don’t go” is a wise safety measure.
Burton Island State Park
Don’t be surprised that you don’t think “remote camping” when you arrive at Burton Island. Burton Island bustles in the summer. A 100 slip marina has flashy cruising boats tied up and bands of 'tweeners leave dust behind them as they bike down the campground trails at top speed. But with nary a car on the island, the joy of island life still offers a feeling of slowing down, which is why families return year after year.
The Island Runner Ferry transports campers and their gear to Burton seven times daily. The 10-minute crossing from Kill Kare State Park in St. Albans costs $8 each way. In addition to 14 tent sites and 26 lean-tos on the northeast end of the island, there are three 3 ADA accessible lakeview cabins with beds for 4 people (closed this season due to Covid-19). Amenities include pay showers, flush toilets, fresh water and, gasp, WiFi.
There are ample places to swim from campsites as well as a designated swim beach. In normal times you can rent bikes or kayaks and canoes. An island naturalist interprets the natural and cultural history of the island with hikes and campfire programs. Dogs are welcome and have an off-leash area to run along the shore.
But paddlers looking for something a little wilder can book any of four paddle-in sites on the southeast side of the island. There are fire rings, picnic tables, and privies nearby but no running water. Primitive campers who want to grab a shower or fill water bottles can hike the Southern Tip trail about a mile to the center of activity on the northeast side of Burton. But do make it back for the evening show. When the buttery light just before the sun sets melts onto your tent, scurry out to the southern point of the island for the grand finale.
Read more about Burton Island in our story: How to Get Away on Burton Island
Knight Island State Park
Knight Island is the second largest of the Lake Champlain island state parks with 185 acres of wooded beauty. Camping is by reservation only during the season for the 7 remote campsites. There are 6 sites with lean-tos and one tent site, all out of sight from each other, adding to the remote feeling. A signposted nature trail around the island reveals the island’s history of farming and other natural features. Stone beaches surrounding the island invite swimming and wading. The rocky shallows off the north tip of the island are a fun playground for kids.
Campsites have a fire ring and nearby composting privy. There is no potable water, so bring your own or filter, treat, or boil lake water. The dock on the west side of the island is up to a mile away from some campsites so you might be schlepping gear quite a distance. While there are no docks at the campsites, the landing beaches near each are accessible to paddle craft.
Launch your boat from the beach adjacent to Knight Point State Park (a 3-mile paddle) and leave your car in the lot there for free. Power boaters might prefer to launch from Kill Kare State Park near St. Albans, a 5-mile trip. Alternatively, North Hero Welcome General Store has a ramp and parking for a fee and can help arrange a water taxi via Driftwood Tours (802-373- 0022). They also rent canoes and kayaks for transportation to Knight. The general store has everything you need to stock up including overstuffed deli sandwiches for a beach picnic and the best mixed berry pie in the islands (and perhaps the planet).
Woods Island State Park
Woods Island is the smallest and most remote of the state park islands. And it also has the most poison ivy. Either bring a quart of calamine lotion or learn the “leaves of three, let it be” mantra and tread carefully. In spite of the poison ivy, Woods is a gorgeous wilderness island. Five campsites are generously dispersed over the 125 acre island with a 2-mile trail connecting them. The bluff campsite on the southwest point is choice for views and breeze to keep the bugs at bay so try to score that one on the park reservation line. Yet, any of the campsites on Woods will confirm the Rachel Fields poem.
Sandwiched between Burton and Knight Islands, Woods is a 2-mile paddle from Kill Kare State Park, where you can park overnight. Although the island landing is marked on the east side, paddle craft can easily access the pocket beaches near the campsites. Fishing and swimming are excellent on Woods Island. Each campsite has a fire ring and a composting privy. There is no potable water so bring water or filter/treat lake water.
At nine acres, Law Island is a tiny gem located south of South Hero near the Colchester Causeway. Towering limestone bluffs grace the west side of the island, providing exquisite views of terns diving for dinner, wedges of Canada geese during migration, and the sun giving a show as it dips behind appropriately named Sunset Island to disappear behind the Adirondacks.
On a recent trip to Law Island, the resident bald eagle perched above the landing carefully eyed me as I pulled in. Eagles nest on the island and the big bird was curious about what kind of visitor I’d be. Since there’s no guarantee of a bald eagle marking the landing every time, look for an eastfacing cobble beach in a cove adjacent to the causeway. A spacious campsite is on the northwest point nestled in among the cedars and oaks. If it’s occupied, there are several gorgeous cliff side sites to tuck in a tent or two. Just make sure no one in your group sleepwalks.
At the main campsite there is a picnic table and a large fieldstone fireplace left over from a prior settlement on the island. Follow the scenic island ring trail to find the outhouse. There is no water source except for Lake Champlain water so plan to boil or bring something to purify the water. Island visitors should carry out their own trash. The camping is free but a donation to the Lake Champlain Land Trust, the non-profit that conserved the island, is always welcome.
Like the island state parks, Law Island is part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The Lake Champlain Committee oversees the NFCT section that includes these camping islands. The committee has established the Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail and provides excellent information and stewardship of natural sites of interest to boaters.
The shortest paddle to Law Island is from a public boat launch at the Colchester Point Access Area on Windemere Way. This 3.5-mile journey starts at the where the Winooski River spills out to Lake Champlain and heads along the southern shoreline of Colchester Point. As weather and winds can change quickly on the wide and broad Main Lake, paddlers should check the National Weather Service’s Recreational Forecast for Lake Champlain for predicted wave height and be prepared for inclement weather.
Valcour and Schuyler Islands
Part of the Adirondack State Park and only a mile paddle from the Peru, N.Y. boat launch, Valcour Island looks and feels like the coast of Maine. On the southern tip, exposed to the full breach of Lake Champlain, waves crash against rocky cliffs and stubbled pines, rooted in granite, appear to be holding on for dear life. Nestled above the cliffs are 29 remote and often stunning campsites, accessible by 12 miles of trails that circle the 968-acre island. The campsites are free and first-come, first-serve but you need to check in with the DEC caretaker and get a permit.
At the busy northwestern end is a sandy beach where powerboats are often rafted up side-by-side. On either side are a few protected coves where boats vie for safe anchorages, which are often packed on busy weekends. Paddlers can pull in at Bullshead Bay, North Bay and Butterfly Bay.
Still, if you can sneak out during the week or off-season, you'll find Valcour and its history are fascinating. Samuel de Champlain first documented the island in 1609 and in 1776 the Battle of Valcour was one of the most important battles of the Revolutionary War as Benedict Arnold led a flotilla of gunboats that stopped the British from dividing New England from the other newly-created states. If the Clinton County Historical Museum is open (it is currently closed due to Covid-19) pick up the Valcour Island Heritage Trail Guide.
After the Battle of Valcour, Benedict Arnold retreated south to Schuyler Island—a mile paddle for today's travelers from the Port Douglas boat launch. At 161 acres Schuyler is the second largest of New York’s Lake Champlain islands and, like Valcour, is home to white-tailed deer… and poison ivy. Pull up on a rocky beach on the west shore and from there it’s a short hike to one of the island’s three designated campsites, some perched near grassy bluffs. Keep in mind that during the season this is a popular picnic spot for day-boaters who sometimes leave it less-than-pristine. Still, like any island, it’s not a bad place to retreat to.
Planning To Camp On Vermont’s State Park Islands? Call Ahead.
This may be the summer you get lucky. State Parks were closed until June 26 and normally the island campsites book up fast. Advance reservations for all three state park islands (Burton, Knight and Woods) are strongly advised. There are three ways to make reservations at Vermont State Parks: reserve on-line at vtstateparks.com, call the reservation center at 1-888-409-7579 weekdays, or call the park directly during the camping season.
Some of the prime lean-tos and cabins (cabins are currently closed due to Covid-19) on Burton Island are as tough to get so book early. Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance. Fees range from $19 per primitive tent site for 4 people to $40 for a Burton Island waterfront lean-to site.
Looking for more solitude? Midweek camping has much more availability. Camping out of season also yields many unclaimed sites and is free of charge. The off-season officially runs from November 1- April 1 but you’ll find privacy out on the islands any time after Labor Day.