Post Summary: Explore the wild terrain of Eastern USA with these 10 stunning National Parks on the east coast.
When thinking about the National Parks in the US, most people tend to think of the epic west coast national parks like Yosemite, The Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone. While no one would argue about the grandeur of those parks, there’s a lot of wild beauty and terrain to be explored in the east coast national parks. While it’s true, the majority of the national parks are located in the western USA, the national parks on the east offer a great variety of landscapes from intricate cave systems, coral reefs, marshy wetlands, to majestic mountain tops. So, while the east coast doesn’t have a high number of national parks, they pack a punch with the incredibly diverse geography they offer. And, while it has a smaller number of national parks, the east still has plenty of national monuments, national seashores, national historic sites, and more.
Here’s our complete list of the best national parks on the east coast. We’ve also included a short guide to the national parks and suggested itineraries if you want to embark on your own east coast national parks road trip.
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National Park Pass
You might want to consider buying the national park pass if you’ll be visiting more than one national park in a year. The national park pass allows you entrance into over 2000 federal land parks for a one-time annual fee. If you already know the parks you’ll be visiting, you can look up the entrance fee to each park and do the math to see if you’ll come out ahead. Make sure to check each individual park, since some parks charge per person while others charge per car.
There are discounts for the disabled, active military, and senior citizens.
You can buy the national park pass here.
National Park Passport
A fun way to commemorate your time visiting the east coast national parks is to purchase a national park passport and collect stamps along the way. While this is often touted as an activity for kids…I don’t see why adults can’t do it as well. I want cool stamps too!
They can be purchased at any national park store or purchased beforehand online. While you can just as easily make your own passport journal with a spiral notebook, I tend to like the preformatted journal templates like this one with cute options to write in dates and what you did.
Recommended National Parks Book
If you’re looking for more guidance and inspiration for visiting national parks on the east coast check out the following books:
1. National Geographic: Complete National Parks of the United States – National Geographic’s national parks guide is an in-depth guide book that can also be a beautiful coffee table book in your house. It’s National Geographic so you know the photos are stunning. It also offers comprehensive, useful advice. Win, win.
2. Leave Only Footprints – Rather than a conventional guide book, Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park, is an excellently written travel memoir through one man’s journey to every US national park. Written within the backdrop of a painful breakup with his fiance, Conor Knighton takes readers on a journey to America’s national parks peppering in fascinating history about the parks and his own personal stories. Perfect for anyone looking to go deeper than a traditional guidebook.
East Coast National Parks Map
10 Must-See National Parks On The East Coast
Location: Tennessee, North Carolina
Interesting Fact: The smoky mountains earned its name from the smoky fog that hovers over the mountains. The blue tinge to the mist comes from the vegetation of the land emitting the gas isoprene. Once the isoprene is released, it interacts with other molecules in the air and creates that distinctive blue “smoke” that the mountains are aptly named after.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not only the most visited national park in the US, it’s also the most biodiverse national park in the US. In addition, it holds the distinction of being one of the few national parks in the US with no admission fees. While it’s popularity brings in over 10,000,000 people per year, with other 800 miles of hiking trails, it’s not hard to wander off the beaten path and find some solitary bliss.
Highlights of the park include driving along the Cades Cove Loop and the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail. Both are one-way motor trails that get a lot of traffic, so it may be a slow drive with frequent stops as people take photos or spot black bears. If you’re looking to avoid the congestion, arrive early in the morning. Either way, it’s a beautiful route that’s perfect if you have limited mobility or if you’re traveling with young children.
Hiking enthusiasts will have their pick of easy to hard hikes, whether it’s to hike to the park’s tallest waterfall, Rainbow Falls, or to take on the challenging and diverse, Alum Cave hike.
Wildlife sightings are common and include black bears, turkeys, and elk. Most of the elk population congregate around the Cataloochee area in the southeastern section of the park. September to October is the best time to hear the distinctive bugle call from the male elk.
Another phenomenon is to be in the Great Smokies when the fireflies do a synchronistic light show during their two-week mating season. The exact times can’t be known, but it generally happens from May to mid-June.
Asheville, North Carolina is 45 minutes to an hour away from the park and is an excellent add-on to a Smoky Mountains National Park getaway.
When To Visit: The park is open year-round, but in the winter and early spring, many campgrounds and visitor centers will be closed. Summer and Fall are the ideal times to visit but are also when most visitors are coming to the park. October is regarded as one the best times to visit the park because of its incredible fall colors.
Where To Stay: Gatlinburg Cabin
Interesting Fact: For half of the year, Cadillac Mountain, the highest point in the park, is the first spot in the US to catch the rays of the rising sun.
Located on the coast of Maine, most of the 47,000 acres of the park are located on Mount Desert Island. This New England national park is nature’s playground, whether you’re a “leaf peeper” looking for the technicolor fall foliage, an avid hiker looking to test your endurance, or a water lover romping in the frigid waters of Sand Beach.
Highlights of the park include driving the 27 mile Park Loop Road. The road will take you to all the major sights, so it’s an easy add-on when planning your Acadia itinerary. You’ll want to stop by Sand Beach to splash in the (ice-cold) waves or try one of the short hikes that start at the beach. From Sand Beach, you can opt to hike to Thunder Hole, where you can hear the ocean waves and their thunderous sounds, created by the waves filling up in the cavern below.
Biking is another popular pastime at the park, whether it’s biking the Park Loop Road or biking any of the 45 miles of old-fashioned carriage roads that meander through the park.
Two to three days is enough to get a glimpse of the main highlights, and five to seven days will give you a deeper dive into the experiences of the park.
When To Visit: The best time to visit is September to mid-October when summer crowds will have diminished, but the weather is still pleasant, and fall foliage is on display.
Where To Stay: Historic VRBO or Bar Harbor Inn and Spa
Interesting Fact: Shenandoah is home to the densest population of black bears in the United States.
Shenandoah National Park has nearly 5oo miles of trails with 100 of those miles being part of the iconic Appalachian Trail. With the backdrop of the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah is a nature lovers paradise. Waterfalls, caves, and wildlife sightings make this one of the most visited national parks east of the Mississippi River. Popular hikes include the more leisurely 1-mile hike to Blackrock Summit, a spectacular boulder field overlooking the valley, to the strenuous 9.2-mile bucket list-worthy Old Rag Hike. You can also spot waterfalls and take a dip in swimming holes along the way, on the Whiteoak Canyon hike.
For those wanting to take in the scenery from their car, you can do the historic 105-mile drive on Skyline Drive. It takes about three hours, but with over 75 scenic overlooks, you could easily spend a full day stopping along the way to take in the sights or take hikes along the road.
Two to three days is enough to see highlights of the park, but you might want to add a few extra days if you want to visit more of the sights in Shenandoah Valley as well as visit their award-winning wineries.
When To Visit: Fall is largely considered the best time of year to visit the park for its gorgeous colors and gentler weather. May and June offer pleasant weather and fewer crowds.
Where To Stay: Getaway House or Cider House Orchard
Location: West Virginia
Interesting Fact: Contrary to its name, the New River that runs through the National Park is one of the world’s oldest rivers. It’s estimated to be as old as 360 million years old.
The New River Gorge National Park is the newest addition to the National Park System. In the last days of 2020, New River Gorge became the latest addition to the National Park system. For years, this under-the-radar gem was a hot spot for outdoor recreationists. With its new National Park status, this beautiful piece of American land will be protected for years to come.
The main draw of New River Gorge is the mystical New River that flows south to north, unlike most rivers. With 53 miles of unencumbered rapids, a guided white water rafting tour is a must-do for any adventurers traveling to the park. If you’re looking for a calmer day out on the water, the upper section includes Class I to III rapids. For advanced paddlers looking for more thrills, the Lower Gorge has Class IV and V rapids.
For those looking to stay dry, the 2.4 miles Endless Wall Trail is a stunning hike that winds you through the forest along with cliffside lookouts of The New River and the picturesque New River Gorge Bridge. If you’re visiting in the Fall, be sure to check dates for the annual Bridge Day festival. It’s the one day a year you can legally walk across the bridge or BASE jump off the side.
Another fantastic hike is the 12 mile out and back Glade Creek Hike. With swimming holes along the way, bring a lunch and make an entire day out of it. For a short but beautiful hike, take the Canyon Rim Boardwalk that begins at the New River Gorge Visitor Center.
The park also offers excellent rock climbing and biking baths for all experience levels. One to two days is enough to see the main highlights, but a long weekend will allow you to take your time and explore Fayetville, the charming small town gateway town into New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
When To Visit: For white water enthusiasts, the best time to visit is in spring, when the water will be overflowing. The summer months may be more crowded, but the weather will be warm and perfect for swimming activities in the area. If you want a quieter experience, Fall is a beautiful time to visit for its mild weather and fall foliage.
Where To Stay: Historic Downtown Loft or Hampton Inn
Interesting Fact: The Everglades is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live together.
The Everglades is one of the most unique national parks in the East. The Everglades is a massive wetland encompassing 1.5 million acres. It’s rich in biodiversity and home to manatees, alligators, crocodiles, flamingos, panthers, and a range of different birds.
Since almost all of the park is water, the primary way to enjoy this park is on a boat or a kayak. Cape Sable and Florida Bay are great places to explore and look out for gulls, shorebirds, and pelicans. Renting a kayak or going on a boat tour to explore the park’s many water trails and mangroves is a must-do when visiting the Everglades.
While the Everglades is best experienced by boat, there are still several different options, whether you want to scuba dive, bike ride, or take one of the many short walks available through the park. Kids (and adults!) will love spotting alligators in the water.
The Everglades is a truly unique landmark in America. Its wild beauty will leave an impression on your soul. Two to three days is enough time to see the highlights of the park, but five is good for those who are wanting to dig deeper into the beautiful wetlands of the Everglades.
When To Visit: The most popular time to visit the Everglades is during the dry season from December to April when the weather is temperate, and the insect population (mosquitoes) is significantly reduced. Visiting in the summer months will mean high humidity, rain, and mosquitoes.
Where To Stay: Oceanfront VRBO or Courtyard By Marriott
Interesting Fact: The island is aptly named Tortugas (Spanish for turtles) for the five kinds of turtles that inhabit the island.
If you’re looking for solitude while exploring the best parks on the east coast, then Dry Tortugas National Park is where you want to be. Located 70 miles west of Key West, the only way to access this park is by ferry, seaplane, or chartered boat. The national park is a cluster of seven islands, called the Dry Tortugas, and the surrounding water.
The most popular sight (and only sight) is Fort Jefferson, a fortress built in the 1800s that was never completed. It is the largest brick structure in the western hemisphere, with over 16 million bricks. You can take a tour and learn about the history of this massive fort and what it took to build it.
What else do you do at this remote national park? Enjoy the unparalleled beauty and powder white sand. You can swim, sunbathe, snorkel, dive, bird watch, kayak or have your own Robinson Crusoe adventure and camp out on the mostly uninhabited island, Garden Key. With only 60,000 visitors a year, this is the place to get away from it all.
Most people spend a day at the park, but if you are planning to camp, three days should make the 2 1/2 hour ferry ride to get there worth it. If you are camping, make sure to prepare everything you need beforehand. There is no water, electricity, wifi, or amenities on the island, so you must bring everything with you.
When To Visit: June to September brings the calmest water and best visibility, but you will have to contend with the possibility of rain. It’s also when the turtles come to land to lay their eggs, so you might be able to witness this annual event.
Where To Stay: Havana Cabana at Key West
Interesting Fact: While Biscayne National Park may seem like a large swath of water, it actually holds four different ecosystems. These four ecosystems are the mangrove trees, the islands of the Florida Keys, the world’s third-largest coral reef, and Biscayne Bay.
Biscayne National Park is one of the hardest national parks on the east coast to access. The reason being….it’s 95% water. With no public ferries and no road, you’ll need to join a tour or charter a boat to enjoy this national treasure. One thing is for sure; if you’re a water lover, this is the national park for you.
Popular activities include snorkeling the Maritime Heritage Trail to see the debris of old shipwrecks and the abundant sea life. Kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding are all popular pastimes. Since the water is too shallow to allow big boats, you can paddle, knowing you’re safe from speedboats.
While the park is primarily a water destination, there is a short nature walk (.75 miles round trip) near the visitors center that is perfect if you’re visiting with kids or if you have limited mobility. A gravel path leads you to mangroves and a bird sanctuary.
One day is enough to do a guided ranger tour and a small outing, but a long weekend will allow you to enjoy the park and all its water activities fully.
When To Visit: The best time to visit is mid-December to mid-April, the driest time of the year in subtropical Florida. From June to November, temperatures will be hot and humid, and tropical storms are always a possibility.
Where To Stay: Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay
Interesting Fact: Mammoth Cave is one of only 13 natural US sites to be honored with the distinction of being a UNESCO world heritage site.
Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the longest known cave system in the world. Four hundred miles of Mammoth cave has been explored, and it’s estimated that the cave system continues an extra 600 miles. With grand caves, tight passageways, and otherworldly canyons, Mammoth Cave is an incredible limestone labyrinth to explore.
The only way to explore Mammoth Cave is with a guided tour. Several different tours are available from historical tours, tours for people with limited mobility, kid-based tours, adventurous spelunking tours, and more. Tours change according to the season, so the National Park Service site is the best place for updated information. As tours book up quickly, it’s highly recommended you reserve a spot before you go.
While the main draw of the park is visiting the cave, there are miles of hiking trails that wind through the diverse habitat of the area. You can hike, fish, kayak, and go horseback riding through the lush surrounding forest.
One to two days is enough to take a few tours and explore the outside terrain.
When To Visit: The cave is consistently 54 degrees, so the weather isn’t a factor when visiting the caves. Crowds, on the other hand, are a significant factor. The summer months are the busiest times of the year, with fall bringing a slight reduction in crowds. November to February is the slowest time of the year with fewer people and lower hotel costs.
Where To Stay: Nolin Lake VRBO or The Lodge At Mammoth Cave
Location: South Carolina
Interesting Fact: At night, you can listen to the distinct call of the horned forest owl and see the glowing fungi that grow on certain trees in the forest.
Congaree National Park is easily one of the most underrated national parks on the east coast. This is the park to visit if you’re a lover of BIG trees. Congaree has the distinction of being home to the most “champion” trees anywhere in the US. A champion tree is the largest individual tree of its species. Congaree’s warm and extended growing season, coupled with the moisture and nutrients provided annually by flooding from the Congaree River, creates the perfect environment for these champion trees to flourish.
Highlights of Congaree National Park include exploring the swamplands of the park on a kayak or canoe. The Cedar Creek Canoe Trail is a well-managed trail that winds for 15 miles through the Congaree wilderness. You can keep your eyes peeled for turtles, otters, birds, and alligators.
After you’ve explored the water, hike through the 25 miles of trails to get another perspective of this southern old-growth forest. If you’re looking for longer hikes, check out the Rive Trail, the Oakridge Trail, and the most challenging of them all, the 11.7-mile Kingsnake Trail. For those looking for a more leisurely trail, the 1.7 mile Bluff Trail hike is an easy loop through the forest.
One day is enough to see the park by boat and do a short hike, but add on another day if you want to include a long hike.
When To Visit: Congaree is beautiful and accessible all year, but summer will bring high humidity and mosquitoes. Late spring and fall are particularly attractive times to visit the park, but you will have to contend with the possibility of rain flooding the park.
Where To Stay: VRBO Modern Home
Interesting Fact: Before it was a national park, the Cuyahoga River had caught fire more than a dozen times since the 1800s. The most famous fire occurred in 1969 due to decades of toxic waste dumping. Outrage over the incident led to the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, and the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
The Cuyahoga River is named for the Mohawk word meaning “crooked river,” and it is the central feature at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The park spans 51 square miles and claims the land along the river between Akron and Cleveland.
Highlights of the park include hiking any of the 125 miles of hiking trails. A must-do when visiting is the Virginia Kendell Hedges hike. It’s a 2.2-mile moderate hike flanked by giant limestone boulders and dramatic sandstone ledges. You’ll get fantastic views of the vast Cuyahoga Valley. Another fan favorite is to visit the handful of waterfalls sprinkled through the park. Popular ones include Blue Hen, Buttermilk Falls, and the 65 foot Brandywine Falls.
Another fun option is to bike ride through the park’s converted canal trails. What was once a towpath trail for mules towing boats is now a mostly flat trail system for walking and biking.
If you’re traveling with kids or have limited mobility, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad runs through the park. It offers special excursions like themed trips, murder mystery rides, and four-course dinners. You can also board the train one way with your bike for a small fee.
One day is enough to hit the highlights, but you can easily spend three days doing several hikes and activities.
When To Visit: Autumn is generally considered the best time of year to visit the park for its incredible fall foliage and pleasant weather.
Where To Stay: Midcentury Modern VRBO, Parma Heights Home, or Inn at Brandywine Falls
East Coast National Parks Road Trip
Trying to plan an east coast national parks road trip is admittedly a little harder than planning a west coast road trip since there aren’t as many, and they’re quite spread out. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though. Here are a few paths you can try with suggested time frames. The time frames we recommend are for someone who enjoys traveling at a slow to moderate pace. We’ve also added in extra time for visiting nearby sites outside of the park. Time frames can be shortened for someone who enjoys traveling faster.
1. Everglades NP > Biscayne NP > Dry Tortugas NP (7 – 10 days)
2. Shenandoah NP > Great Smoky Mountains NP (5 days)
3. Cuyahogo Valley NP > Mammoth Caves NP > Great Smoky Mountains NP > Congaree NP > Shenandoah NP ( 14 -21 days)
Happy exploring! We hope you enjoyed our post on the incredible national parks on the east coast.
If you liked this post, you can check out our sister post about 17 Must-See West Coast National Parks.
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