The Best National Parks on the East Coast (You Can’t Miss)

The East Coast of the United States is famous for its beaches and boardwalks, but what many people overlook is that you can find some of the best national parks on the East Coast as well.

Top takeaways

  • The East Coast of the United States has a variety of national parks, each with unique landscapes and activities, from Acadia National Park in Maine to the subtropical wilderness of Everglades National Park in Florida.
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, is the most visited national park in the U.S.
  • Shenandoah National Park in Virginia includes the scenic Skyline Drive.
  • Congaree National Park in South Carolina is home to the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States.
  • Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, is predominantly underwater and offers visitors the chance to explore Fort Jefferson and one of the largest coral reef systems in the world.
view of the mountains at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park can certainly be described as one of the best national parks on the East Coast. Photo: Plan, Ready, Go.

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Some of the oldest and most gorgeous forests in America reside on the East Coast, and these forests provide a habitat for many endangered species. The East Coast contains numerous historical sites and also features some of the best hiking trails in America.

There’s so much to see at our East Coast national parks, so let’s explore them together now! 

There are 14 states that make up the East Coast. These include Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

These states make up about 2400 miles of the entire U.S. Within these 2400 miles, you will find a large expansion of beautiful and breathtaking national parks that are just begging to be explored. 

Acadia National Park

view of the Maine coast at Acadia National Park
Acadia is a jewel among east coast national parks.

Acadia National Park is located in Maine, and it’s the only National Park in New England (not including other national park units).

The boundaries of the park include Mount Desert Island, as well as several smaller islands.

The best way to experience this national park is by traversing along the hiking trails that have been established so you can see for yourself what it’s like to be in the actual wilderness.

The whole area was discovered by many European explorers back in 1604. The first settler who made a permanent home here was a man named Samuel De Champlain. He visited and mapped out Mount Desert Island and named it Isle de Monts Desert.

On a quest to visit all 63 U.S. National Parks? Grab your own copy of the printable national parks tracker to check off your progress as you visit each park.

Things to See in Acadia National Park

Cadillac Mountain

Cadillac Mountain is accessible by car and is the highest point on the east coast. You will love the beautiful views of the island landscape below when viewing atop this majestic mountain.

Schoodic Peninsula

The scenery on the Schoodic Peninsula is unmatched. With its dense spruce forests, jack pine woodlands, and shrubby heaths, it’s a wonderful treasure trove for nature lovers who want to explore every inch of this beautiful area!

Isle au Haut

The large Isle au Haut has beautiful cliffs that rise an astounding 550 feet above sea level. It features glistening and serene bodies of water such as Long Pond, Turner Lake, and Champlain Lake.

It’s also a wonderful lobstering community and serves as a nice little retreat for seasonal cottage owners in the area.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

small waterfall at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Don’t miss the lovely Roaring Fork Motor Trail at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: Plan, Ready, Go

The main attraction for most people when visiting The Great Smoky Mountains is the beautiful scenery. With its lush, green forests, misty blue mountains, cascading waterfalls, and idyllic meadows.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is perfect for a weekend getaway.

This park is located in both North Carolina and Tennessee. Some of the most popular areas of this national park are Cades Cove, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail scenic drive, and Smokemont Campground, which has over 100 campsites.

Every year, millions of people visit The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making it the most visited national park in recent years. The park covers a wide expanse of land, with the highest peak being Clingmans Dome at an elevation of 6,643 feet.

If you considering a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, find more information here about where to stay in the Smokies.

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Read More The Best Books About National Parks

view from Clingmans Dome at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
You’ll have a steep 1/2-mile hike to the top of Clingmans Dome, but it’s totally worth it. Photo: Plan, Ready, Go.

Things to See in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Appalachian Trail

This beautiful hiking area was the nation’s first National Scenic Trail under the National Trails System Act. The Appalachian Trail is over 2,000 miles long, which makes it the longest hiking trail in the entire world. 71 miles of the trail runs through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Cataloochee

The Cataloochee Valley is part of a very rugged mountain range and is surrounded by peaks up to 6000 feet tall. This peaceful mountain valley features historic buildings, wildlife viewing (including elk), and more.

The Alum Cave Bluffs

These bluffs boast wonderful views and an almost 5-mile round-trip hike. When hiking through the forest you will reach the Alum Cave Bluff Trail that is nearby the Alum Cave Creek.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park

This scenic national park is located within the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Shenandoah National Park features beautiful tree-lined hills, enchanting wooded hollows, breathtaking waterfalls, and a variety of wildlife.

Shenandoah National Park was founded in 1935. The park was completed around the time of WWII, and by 1976, half of the park was proclaimed as protected wilderness.

Notable Features of Shenandoah National Park

Skyline Drive

The 105-mile Skyline Drive winds itself around the center of Shenandoah National Park. The road is often closed during the winter months due to heavy snowfall at higher elevations.

The road is also one of the most frequently traveled in The National Park System, so be sure to plan accordingly.

Blue Ridge Parkway 

Okay so, the Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t actually part of Shenandoah National Park, but it does connect directly to Skyline Drive at its northern end.

This Parkway covers a broad range of wild animal habitats along the Appalachian Mountains, and some of these habitats are extremely rare.

When visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway, you may encounter a quite diverse climate, vegetation, wildlife, and geological features. You will also find some of the oldest mountains in the world along the parkway. 

Read more about the best national parks in the South.

Congaree National Park

Entrance Sign in Congaree National Park in South Carolina
Congaree is the only National Park in South Carolina

You’ll find Congaree National Park in Hopkins, South Carolina (near Columbia). It’s the only National Park in South Carolina, and sadly also one of the least visited. Congaree is also a UNESCO biosphere reserve and popular activities here include hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and bird watching.

You can visit Congaree on a day trip from Savannah, Georgia. 

The Park preserves the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States, according to the National Park Service

Be warned. Congaree is swampy and famous (infamous?) for its mosquitoes. Protect yourself accordingly. You can check with the Park before your trip to find out what the mosquito levels are before you make the trip. 

wooden boardwalk path through a forest

You may have seen photos of the Congaree “Mosquito Meter.” This is not actually a thing. Well, I mean it exists, but the Park doesn’t actually use it as a daily indicator of mosquito levels. It’s completely unscientific, and they’ve even described it as a prop for photos. 

The important takeaway here is that you should be aware of the mosquitoes before you visit. 

The most popular walk or hike in Congaree is probably the Boardwalk Loop Trail.

The boardwalk path makes the 2.6-mile loop trail through the park’s old-growth forests accessible for wheelchairs and strollers. Other easy hikes include Bluff Trail, Sims Trail, Bates Ferry Trail, and Longleaf Trail.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida
Only a tiny fraction of Dry Tortugas National Park is actually dry land.

Located 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, the remote Dry Tortugas National Park is mostly water. An astonishing <1% of this national park is dry land. It’s accessible only by boat or seaplane.

Things to Do at Dry Tortugas National Park

Explore Fort Jefferson

The 19th Century For Jefferson is one of the largest in the U.S. and you’ll find it on Garden Key.

It’s also where the park’s headquarters and visitor’s center are located. According to the National Park Service, Fort Jefferson once defended “one of the most strategic deepwater anchorages in North America.”

You can book your ferry to Dry Tortugas here.

Be advised that ferries to Dry Tortugas can be booked up well in advance, so make sure to plan for your visit ahead of your trip to the Florida Keys.

Snorkeling

You can explore the third-largest coral reef system in the world during your visit to Dry Tortugas National Park. As you explore the reefs, be mindful of the NPS guidelines and remember not to touch the coral and other protected wildlife.

Camping

Camping at Dry Tortugas is available, although campers will need to bring all their own supplies including fresh water. No public showers are available for campers at Dry Tortugas.

Biscayne National Park

vegetation growing in shallow water in Biscayne National Park

Encompassing 172,971 acres in South Florida, Biscayne National Park is predominantly a water-based park, covering 95% of its area. This makes it an ideal destination for exploring by boat. This wonderful park safeguards one of the largest reef systems worldwide.

There is no shortage of exciting activities to enjoy at Biscayne National Park, such as taking a stroll along the Convoy Point Jetty Walk trail, admiring the stunning lighthouse at Boca Chita Key, or exploring Adams Key and beyond.

For water lovers, kayaking or paddle boarding in Jones Lagoon is a must-do experience. Additionally, the park offers ample opportunities to go fishing, snorkeling, and diving, and observe the captivating marine life.

Everglades National Park

Spanning over 2,357 miles, Everglades National Park in Florida is a paradise for adventure enthusiasts who enjoy kayaking, biking, fresh and saltwater fishing, hiking, canoeing, and camping amidst wilderness.

For those who seek to camp in this national park, there are various options, including front-country camping and wilderness camping. Long Pine Key and Flamingo campgrounds are equipped with all necessary amenities like bathhouses, tent and trailer sites, drinking water, and more.

If camping is not your cup of tea, you can engage in other activities such as alligator and crocodile spotting, boat rides, and saltwater fishing. The Everglades National Park also boasts a rich variety of wildlife that includes birds, manatees, snakes, turtles, and other exotic species.

New River Gorge National Park

Although it’s the newest to be officially designated a National Park, New River Gorge has been a part of the National Park Service for many years.

Located in West Virginia, New River Gorge is a breathtaking destination renowned for its stunning natural beauty, rich cultural heritage, and myriad of outdoor activities.

The park is home to the New River (of course!), which has carved a beautiful canyon that provides a picturesque backdrop for hiking, biking, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting adventures.

Visitors can also explore the park’s numerous trails, including the Endless Wall Trail, with panoramic views of the gorge, or immerse themselves in the local history and culture at the Sandstone Visitor Center and Thurmond Historic District.

Final thoughts on the best East Coast national parks

Although the U.S. National Parks on the east coast are not as plentiful as out west, the eastern national parks should most definitely not be overlooked.

The East Coast National Parks include many different kinds of natural and cultural resources. The east coast also contains numerous historical sites and also features some of the best hiking trails in America.

Some of the oldest and most gorgeous forests in America can be found along the east coast, providing a habitat for many species. There’s so much to see with these beautiful places along our ocean coasts.

We hope this article helped inspire your next vacation destination or family outing. Be sure to visit one of these top national parks if you’re ever near any part of the East Coast.

Need help planning your national parks trip? Check out our list of essential travel planning resources.  

More articles about great destinations on the East Coast of the United States  

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Best national Parks on the East Coast

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