Think of epic national parks in the United States and you’ll probably come up with famous names such as Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. These parks’ natural beauty means they’re deservedly placed amongst the world’s best. They are, however, predominantly West Coast national parks. So what about the national parks on the East Coast of the US?
While the world has many amazing national parks (Serengeti, Banff, Komodo) the US can boast 63 areas of protected land and hundreds more as part of the National Park System. But of the 63 parks, only a small number are on the east coast while there are over 30 on the west.
With so much attention on west coast national parks, you’d think that Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon would be the top drawer in America? Well, you’d be wrong! According to the National Park Service, the most visited site in the US in 2021 was Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Acadia and Indiana Dunes were also in the top 10 most visited.
To tell you more about the national parks on the East Coast, I’ve asked my fellow travel bloggers to give you an insight into these areas of outstanding beauty. They’ve visited the parks themselves so they know what they’re talking about!
National Park Annual Pass
If you plan to visit national parks on the East Coast regularly then consider an annual pass. The ‘America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass’ is just $80 (€76/£65)! With this, you’ll have access to 2000 national parks, lakeshores, seashores, historical sites and more.
The pass is valid for 12 months so you really have no more excuses to not explore these wonderful sites. Visiting a couple of parks alone can equal $70 so the pass can be great value for keen explorers! Passes are per vehicle while motorcyclists will need one each.
You can find out more information and purchase a pass at the National Park Service.
Must-See National Parks On The East Coast
Everglades National Park
Recommended by Debbie from World Adventurists.
One of the great biological wonders of the world, Everglades National Park is a truly unique place that is well worth a visit. This impressive park is a world heritage site, the largest subtropical wilderness in the USA, a wetland of international importance, and an international biosphere reserve.
Everglades National Park is a special place for many reasons. First, it is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live together. Second, it is home to a variety of plant and animal life, including many endangered species. Third, it offers visitors the chance to see some of the most beautiful scenery in Florida.
A huge highlight of visiting the Everglades is searching for modern-day dinosaurs while ripping through the sawgrass on an Everglades airboat ride. The many hiking and biking trails, boating opportunities as well as bird watching are just a few of the other activities you can enjoy in this beautiful park.
The fact that there is no public transportation available in this area makes a vehicle a must. Unless you are joining a tour, be sure to have a vehicle if you plan on exploring the Everglades!
If you want a real taste of Florida wilderness you can camp in the park. For extra creature comforts, stay in Everglades City. You can find hotels and cabins for rent near this small town on the park’s western border. If you are looking to do a day trip, the closest major city is Miami.
The best time to visit the Everglades is during the winter months, with low humidity and the dry season.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Recommended by Anwar from Beyond My Door.
It comes as a surprise to many that there is a National Park in Ohio. But Cuyahoga Valley National Park, established in 1974 is the sole member of the 63 national parks in the Buckeye State. The park protects the rural landscape around the Cuyahoga River. The crooked (as Cuyahoga means) river certainly lives up to its name as it slithers its way through the park.
The park is a bit unique in that it protects much of the rural lands that include several inhabited areas between the cities of Cleveland and Akron (the two closest metropolitan areas to the park). Many visitors usually choose to stay in one of these cities while visiting and there are certainly no shortage of options at all price points in either town.
Visitors to the park can hike a multitude of trails and visit several beautiful waterfalls. There is also a train that winds its way through the park and visitors can take on a scenic ride and stop at several stations within the park boundaries.
Be sure to stop at Szalay’s Farm & Market, which is one of the best farm markets in the area and certainly a famous landmark within the park.
There are several waterfalls in the park, but none are more famous than Brandywine falls which at 65feet is the tallest waterfall in the park.
In terms of hiking, the ledges trail is one of the more scenic options with its forested paths and rocky ledge outcroppings.
Camping in the park is only possible for backcountry hikers. There are no drive-up campsites within the park boundaries. Options for camping do exist outside the park or for less rustic accommodations there is no shortage of hotels surrounding the park boundaries.
Acadia National Park
Recommended by Dhara from Visit New England Now.
Acadia National Park in Maine is one of the most visited national parks in the country. If you are looking for great national parks to visit on the east coast, Acadia National Park should definitely be on your radar!
Located on Mount Desert Island along the northern Maine coast, Acadia National Park features spectacular scenery, epic hiking, and many scenic walks and drives. Whether you plan to visit solo, as a couple, as a family, or with friends, you’ll find lots of fun things to do in Acadia National Park.
One of the must-do activities in Acadia is catching the sunrise at the top of Cadillac Mountain. You can drive up to the summit. The views are panoramic from this high vantage point in the park.
Many hiking enthusiasts visit Acadia to try one or more of the park’s exciting rung-and-ladder trails. The Precipice Trail and the Beehive Trail are the two most popular.
But the park has many easy hiking trails as well: scenic walks around lakes or the Ocean Path, which runs parallel to the park road and offers beautiful views of the coast.
Acadia National Park is easy to visit by road. Bar Harbor is the gateway town to the park, but Boston and Portland (Maine) are larger cities for flying in from other parts of the country or internationally.
Fall is easily the best time to visit Acadia National Park. When fall foliage is at its peak, the landscapes in the park are jaw-dropping!
Shenandoah National Park
Recommended by James Ian from Parks Collecting.
Shenandoah National Park runs along the northern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The showcase is the scenic Skyline Drive, which runs along the top of the mountain ridge. The Blue Ridge Parkway starts at the southern end of the Skyline Drive.
The road was specially built to allow visitors to the national park to enjoy the highlights by driving through. There are 75 overlooks along the way to stop and take in the sensational views.
However, to enjoy all the park has to offer, you should get out and hike some of the many trails to beautiful waterfalls and sensational viewpoints. The most popular hike in the park is the steep trail down to Dark Hollow Falls. The multi-tiered waterfall is beautiful – but be aware that the return hike is uphill.
There are four entrances to the park. The two at the northern end are close to Washington DC. The most southern entrance is near Charlottesville, VA. It’s an easy park to visit, but due to its proximity to urban centres, it can get crowded.
Fall is the peak time to visit. The middle two weeks of October are when the fall foliage is generally its most spectacular. Try to visit during the week if you can to avoid the worst of the crowds. However, spring is the best time to visit to see the waterfalls, as most of them are fed by snow melt or rainfall, so dry up in the middle of summer.
There are two lodges inside the park, Skyland and Big Meadows. Staying in a rustic cabin in the woods is a must-do. Nights can get chilly, so pack layers.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Recommended by Candice from CS Ginger.
One of the best and most popular national parks on the East Coast, is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is in fact, the most visited national park in the US. This national park is filled with great hiking trails, beautiful overlooks, and picturesque waterfalls. The park is home to lots of wildlife like the Cherokee elk, black bears, and fireflies.
The closest major city and airport to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Knoxville. The McGee-Tyson Airport is about 90 minutes away from Gatlinburg and the attractions in the Smoky Mountains.
One of the best things to do in the park is driving or biking Cades Cove. It is an 11-mile roadway that will take you through some of the most scenic areas of the park. It is also a great place to see wildlife in the park, like black bears. It’s a good idea to start this drive early in the day to avoid traffic.
Another one of the fun things to do in the park is to hike Laura Falls. It is a 2.5-mile hike that is rated as an easy hike. Laurel Falls is an 80-foot waterfall and is one of the most popular waterfalls in the park. The river downstream from the waterfall is also a fun place to cool off by playing in the water.
One of the best views in the Smokies is at the top of Clingmans Dome. It is the highest point in the national park at 6,643 feet. This hike is short, but it is very steep. Roundtrip the hike is only 1.2 miles but has 330 feet of elevation gain. There are benches along the trail where you can take a break if you need to.
Biscayne National Park
Recommended by Kenny from KNYCX Journeying.
Biscayne National Park is located in South Florida. It covers an area of over 700 square kilometres and incredible islands, coral reefs, and shores with an exciting diversity of wildlife and marine life. It is one of the best coastal national parks in the USA because it is home to the third-largest coral reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and Belize’s Barrier Reef.
The national park is located offshore between Miami’s south beach and the northern Florida Keys. Since over 95% of the national park is on the area above sea water in Biscayne Bay, the only way to get there is by boat. You’ll need to drive to Dante Fascell Visitor Center and then take a free trolley to the park’s visitors centre.
While it is possible to sail your own boat into the park from the marinas, visitors who want to go scuba diving, snorkelling, canoeing, swimming, fishing, or dolphin watching may sign up for a guided day tour to experience the exciting sea life under the water. You may get to meet a manatee or hawksbill sea turtle!
In fact, Biscayne Park has more than sea life, but it also has an impressive population of pelicans living in the lagoon and a mangrove forest along the shallow waters. With more time, visitors can go camping on one of the islands in the national park.
Apart from the thrilling water activities and beautiful natural sceneries, nearby areas like Miami’s South Beach and Key West are some of the places that feature the largest Art Deco architectural cluster in the world.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Recommended by Erin from Super Simple Salty Life.
Dry Tortugas National Park sits in a breathtakingly beautiful landscape in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida. This park preserves seven islands or “keys” covering 100 square miles of ocean and includes the historic Fort Jefferson, coral reefs, endangered migratory birds, and unique tropical ecosystems.
The closest place to stay when planning a visit is in Key West, and because of the extremely remote location, the only way to visit is by boat or seaplane. The ferry to the Dry Tortugas is the only authorized tour operator traveling to the national park, providing day trips on an air-conditioned state-of-the-art catamaran to the park directly from Key West.
There are so many fun activities and experiences for all ages once you arrive at Dry Tortugas! The main attraction is Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Constructed in the 1800s the fort was a southern coastline defence system for the United States.
You can hike inside the fort, walk on the top tier to see the amazing views of the turquoise ocean, read about the history of the fort, and walk along the moat walls. Because 99% of this national park is actually underwater, most families spend the afternoon snorkelling and swimming the keys in the clear blue waters.
The ferry provides all your snorkel equipment. So you only need to pack a towel, sunscreen, and a change of clothes for the return trip! The Dry Tortugas has some of the most beautiful and healthy coral reefs in North America, due to the secluded location and the limited number of visitors allowed.
Congaree National Park
Recommended by Chris from Around The World With Me.
Congaree National Park is one of the least known and least visited American national parks.
Situated in central South Carolina, it offers a glimpse into a pristine lowland swamp by preserving some of the oldest hardwood forests in the United States. Much of the southeastern United States used to be covered in hardwood forests and floodplains, but nearly all the forests were destroyed for lumber as the United States expanded. The flood plains were drained and farmland was created.
Getting to Congaree is easy. It’s 19 miles southeast of Columbia, South Carolina. The park is free to enter and due to its small size, 1-2 hours is sufficient. Congaree is not really a park you want to plan an entire trip around, but if you’re going to be in South Carolina or driving down I-95 it’s worth a stop.
Park your car at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and check out the exhibits. Then embark on the Boardwalk Loop Trail, a 2.6-mile nature walk through the swamp. You’ll be on an engineered boardwalk the entire time. As the entire park is a flood plain, the trail is perfectly flat.
Should you wish to spend more time in the park, there are a few longer trails that get off the boardwalk. If you want to get your feet a little dirty the Oak Ridge Trail and the Kingsnake Trail are good options.
The best time to visit Congaree is in the fall or spring. Summer can be brutally hot and humid. It’s a swamp so just imagine how muggy it will feel in 95-degree temperatures with 95% humidity. There is one primitive campsite in the park but being so close to Columbia there are ample accommodation options nearby.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Recommended by Samantha from PA On Pause.
Indiana Dunes National Park is one of the United States’ newest national parks, but it has been a part of the NPS system for much longer. Upgraded from a national lakeshore to a national park in 2019, it is on the smaller side and can definitely be explored in 1 to 2 days.
Indiana Dunes is also really easy to access from Chicago. It’s just a quick 45-minute car ride away, and you’ll want to have a car for this adventure.
Although the park is small, the trails and beaches are spread out a little bit and you won’t want to walk from one to another. Be sure to hike the Dunes Succession Trail during your visit. Especially if you’ve never visited any of these lakeside sand dune areas in the past.
You’ll learn all about the natural evolution of the landscape and ecosystems within the dunes. They’re ever-changing!
The Dunes Succession Trail is a short loop, but it can be combined with others for a longer hike if you wish. New for the summer of 2022, the park now has a vehicle entrance fee for all areas. Visiting on a nice summer day is undoubtedly best for getting the most out of Indiana Dunes’ beaches. However, the park can get quite busy with Chicago locals enjoying their weekends at the beaches.
Visiting mid-week will most likely give you a little more space to enjoy yourself during your visit. Be sure to have a hat and sunscreen on hand. You’ll need it at the beaches and on some of the exposed hiking areas.
Indiana Dunes is a perfect east coast national park destination for a more easily accessible weekend of exploring.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Recommended by Natalie from Cosmos Mariners.
Mammoth Cave National Park is located just outside of Cave City, Kentucky, and it is well worth the drive to get to this out-of-the-way park. You’ll need a car to travel here as there isn’t any public transportation nearby. Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee are both about 1.5 hours away by car.
The centrepiece of Mammoth Cave National Park is the underground series of caverns that provides the name for the park. The cave is indeed massive! While it’s not the longest cave system in the United States, it does boast the largest interior rooms of any cave in the country. The Rotunda room, the first that tours visit, is over a quarter-mile wide.
Definitely take a guided tour while at Mammoth Cave. It’s the only way to experience the cave, and you’ll get a great dose of history along with your excursion. For families, the Modified Historical Tour comes recommended as it allows visitors to explore the major attractions inside of the cave from the Rotunda room to the Fat Man’s Squeeze, which is small for most adults!
Bring a jacket for your cave tour as the interior remains around 65 F/18 C year-round.
Outside of the cave, there are multiple surface hikes and an engaging visitors centre with an interpretive museum.
Stay in the Wigwam Village No. 2 in Cave City for an overnight stay you’ll never forget! Run by an entrepreneurial couple, this semi-circle of concrete teepees dates to 1947, and they are classic Americana. The Wigwam Village is only a 10-15 minute drive to the entrance of Mammoth Cave National Park.
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve
Recommended by Lydia from Lost With Lydia.
New River Gorge is America’s newest national park and is known for beautiful hiking trails, an impressive bridge, and white water rafting. The park is free to enter and is close to Fayetteville, West Virginia. The closest major airport is in Charleston, West Virginia, located about an hour away. You will want to have a car to explore the park properly.
There are several great hiking trails in New River Gorge. For views of the river and the New River Gorge Bridge, hike the Long Point trail or the Endless Wall trail. To get up close and personal with the ruins of a former mine, hike the challenging Kaymoor Miners trail (it includes 821 steps).
In addition to hiking, visit the Thurmond Ghost Town, go white water rafting on the New River or the Gauley River, or walk on the catwalk below New River Gorge Bridge. It is also worth visiting overlooks around the park, including Canyon Rim Overlook and the Concho Rim Overlook. Driving the original road crossing the New River is a fun way to appreciate the bridge. This narrow and steep road leads you to the river and provides a nice view looking up from below.
The best time to visit New River Gorge is in the fall. You can see beautiful foliage, enjoy the best rapids on the Gauley River and experience Bridge Day (the third Saturday in October).
Finally, check out Five Springs Farm on Airbnb for a unique place to stay. You will stay in a renovated guest house at an active farm and get to see cows, dogs, an organic garden and more right outside your window.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post on the National Parks on the east coast of the USA. If you have any questions or suggestions then feel free to get in contact. Or just let me know in the comments below.