When it comes to national parks in the United States, people’s minds usually go straight to the West Coast. Although it’s true that the national parks in this area do live up to the hype, the ones on the opposite side of the country deserve some recognition too.
There are 7 national parks on America’s East Coast, each with its own incredible attributes. You’ll find majestic mountaintops, epic coastlines, marshy wetlands, and some of the best scenic drives in the country in this region.
Whether you’re trying to make the most out of your national parks pass or simply looking for a new place to explore, the East Coast’s national parks should not be missed. From Maine to Florida, these outdoor expanses deserve a spot on every traveler’s bucket list.
Read on to learn the best things about all 7.
Table of Contents
1. Acadia National Park
Starting at the top of the East Coast, Acadia National Park is one of the most stunning in the whole country and packs a big punch. There’s much to love here, including serene lakes, verdant forests, sandy beaches, and dramatic cliff faces.
For half of the year, this New England gem sees the first light of day in all of the US – and the sunrises here are truly breathtaking. Cadillac Mountain is the best place to watch, and you’ll want to arrive plenty early if you hope to find a parking spot.
After the sun is up, the crowds thin out in search of breakfast – which is usually found in the nearby city of Bar Harbor. If you pack your own breakfast and stick around, you’ll often have some of the most popular areas of the park to yourself for a few hours.
Although these magical sunrises would be enough to satisfy any traveler, there’s a lot more to see and do in Acadia National Park. The sea hugs the forested mountains in such a dramatic way, and you’ll find plenty of hiking trails around the park that provide incredible coastal views.
- The Ocean Path is one of the most popular for those looking for epic vista points.
- Those in search of a hike that will get their adrenaline pumping can take on the daunting Beehive and Precipice Trails.
- Take some time to amble around the Jordan Pond and check out some of the historic carriage trails located in the area.
- Explore this area via bike or horseback – but whatever you do, don’t miss the scenic lookouts from South Bubble and Bubble Rock.
- The Bass Harbor Lighthouse is another photogenic spot, and if you stay the full day, it’s the best place to catch the sunset.
Those who prefer to take in the beauty of this stunning area via the comfort of their vehicle can go for a scenic drive along the 27-mile Park Loop Road. You’ll encounter most of the major sights along this lovely route, and you can stop off at the points that you find especially enticing.
Sand Beach is one of the places worth pulling over for, and you can spend some time here bathing in the chilly waters or stretching your legs on one of the short trails that start from this area.
No matter what time of year you visit Acadia National Park, you’ll find unique splendors and plenty to keep you busy. The fall is perfect for leaf peeping, and the winter draws visitors in for skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling.
2. Shenandoah National Park
Nature lovers won’t want to miss the stunning Shenandoah National Park, located on the east coast of Virginia. Waterfalls, caves, and wildlife abound – but the real star of this park is the immense network of hiking trails.
Situated in the magnificent Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park is home to over 500 miles of hiking trails. Of those, just over 100 belong to the famous Appalachian Trail – but there are plenty of short trails dispersed throughout the forest for those who aren’t looking for a full-fledged backwoods experience.
- Dark Hollow Falls is one that shouldn’t be missed.
- Those looking for the most spectacular view in the park should head straight for Blackrock Summit along the 9-mile Old Rag hike.
- Spend your time chasing waterfalls along the Whiteoak Canyon hike.
- If you get warm, go for a dip in one of the various swimming pools along the way.
No matter where you walk, you’ll have a great chance of spotting some of the park’s full-time residents if you do so quietly – including deer, turkey, fox, and maybe even a black bear or two (which are more populous here than anywhere else in the country). The best wildlife watching opportunities occur in the early mornings before the daytime visitors flood the park.
Some of the best views in the park can be found along the incredible Skyline Drive. This historic route stretches for 100 miles through the heart of the park, and you’ll find 75 scenic overlooks along the way. Depending on how long you spend taking a gander at each, the drive should take about 3 hours one way.
Although the park will leave you in awe even after just a few hours, plan on spending at least 2-3 days here to get a full appreciation of this wooded wonderland. Wine lovers may want to plan to spend a little extra time in this area, as Shenandoah Valley is home to some of the best wineries on the East Coast.
This is one of the most visited national parks on the east side of the Mississippi, and you’ll likely find yourself wanting to visit again and again to experience the best of each season. Autumn is one of the busiest times, and once you see the spectacular fall foliage you’ll understand why. To avoid crowded trails and stop-and-go traffic, visit Shenandoah National Park between May and June.
Check out these 30 of the Best Things to Do in Shenandoah National Park to make the most of your trip!
3. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is perhaps the only one on the East Coast that is as renowned as those on the West Coast, and this breathtaking park is the most visited in the entire country. Year after year, these ancient mountains beckon visitors from near and far to North Carolina and Tennessee to bask in the beauty of the Great Smokies.
Not only is this park the most visited in the whole country, but it’s also the most bio-diverse. The park earned its name from the gas isoprene that is emitted from the vast forest, and the blue-tinged “smoke” is really just a thick fog.
No matter what the cause, the smoke is certainly a sight to see – and you’ll find lots of places around the park from which to enjoy the view. Many lookout points can be accessed by car, so even those who aren’t very active will be able to take in the incredible views.
The scenic drives inside this park are some of the best in the country, including:
- Newfound Gap
- Cades Cove
- Roaring Fork Motor Trail
- Clingmans Dome (This is perhaps the best of all the scenic drives, as it’s the highest point in the park and offers simply stunning panoramic views – you can see for hundreds of miles across seven different states on a clear day, so if you only have time for only one drive, make it this one.)
The scenic drives are anything but unknown, and you may spend some time stuck in traffic. That just gives you more time to soak in the views, however, so be patient as you make your way through the park.
Those looking for a more active way to reconnect with nature will find over 900 miles of hiking trails inside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and you can even hop on the Appalachian Trail here.
The trails come in a variety of difficulty levels, so whether you’re a novice looking for something easy or a seasoned pro looking to get the blood flowing you’ll have plenty of options. Some of the most popular trails in the park include the Ramsey Cascades Trail, where you’ll find the park’s tallest waterfall, and the Chimney Tops Trail.
Whether you’re driving or hiking through this verdant forest, you’ll likely spot carpets of beautiful wildflowers and maybe even some wildlife, if you’re lucky. If you’re driving, stay alert and never take the curves too fast, as sometimes critters make their way onto park roads.
Autumn is by far the most popular time to visit the park, and if you don’t mind being stuck in some traffic, the incredible fall foliage here is unmatched.
Check out the 20 Best Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park – and these 30 hotels are some of the best places to stay if you’re planning a trip!
4. Congaree National Park
Head south into South Carolina to experience one of the most underrated national parks in America. Congaree National Park is home to the largest bottomland hardwood forest in the country, in addition to playing host to the most champion trees that win the record for being the largest of their species. Tree lover or no, this magical place deserves a spot on your bucket list.
Established in 2003, Congaree is one of the newest national parks in the system. This tranquil area has been a popular place for wildlife for centuries, but it has yet to catch up to the popularity of the Great Smokies or Acadia. This makes the park the perfect place for nature lovers looking to get off-grid for a while – and you’ll find plenty of ways to immerse yourself in the depths of nature here.
You’ll feel the sunlight peeking through the thick canopy of the forest as you walk along the park’s boardwalks, and the calls of the birds and the sound of your own footsteps are likely the only noise you’ll hear.
It’s easy to slow down and unwind here, and if you tread lightly, you have a great chance of encountering some of the wildlife that calls this place home. Keep your eyes peeled for alligators, owls, turtles, deer, and more, and consider packing some bug spray as well, as you’ll almost certainly encounter some pesky little critters during your time here.
There’s no helping the large swaths of insects that reside in the park; it’s a swamp, after all. You likely won’t get far without encountering beetles, millipedes, and lots and lots of mosquitos.
There’s one bug you might actually be thankful to encounter here, which is the firefly. If you’re lucky enough to be in the park during their mating season, you’ll get to encounter the rare synchronicity of these tiny creatures. For one month of the year, these little critters light up at the same time and put on a show that you’re not likely to forget – so make sure you stick around until dusk.
Even without the light show, Congaree boasts incredible scenery, and one of the best ways to take it all in is via the 15-mile water trail. Grab your canoe or kayak and paddle along the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, and take in views of some of the tallest trees on the East Coast. If you don’t have a boat, there are plenty of hiking trails from which to explore the forest, some of the most popular including the Kingsnake, Oakridge, Bluff, and River Trails.
The spring is arguably the best time to visit Congaree National Park, as this is when the fewest mosquitoes are present and the weather is the most pleasant.
5. Everglades National Park
Florida is home to the final three national parks on the East Coast, though the scenery of each couldn’t be more different. Everglades National Park is the third-largest in the lower 48, and you could easily spend days (or even weeks!) exploring these wetlands.
This is one of the most bio-diverse areas on the entire continent and it’s the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live together in harmony. Other animals that call the park home include manatees, panthers, flamingos, and a wide variety of other bird species like gulls, pelicans, and shorebirds.
Much of the park is made up of water, so exploring via boat is one of the best ways to see as much of this 1.5 million acre expanse as possible. You can rent a kayak and explore the mangrove-lined water trails, or book an airboat tour of the Everglades for a truly unique experience.
If you’d like to keep both feet on solid ground, you’ll find two land-based areas in the park, Flamingo and Shark Valley. You can drive to both, and the best time to take a land-based tour of the park is during the dry season between December and mid-May. Not only is there more space to explore during this time, but there are also much fewer mosquitos.
You’ll find plenty of walking trails around the park – but one of the most popular is the Anhinga Trail. Mahogany Hammock is another must-see destination while in the Everglades as this area is where some of the oldest Mahogany trees in the country can be found.
Other popular park activities include:
- Scuba diving
- Booking a guided tour to learn as much about the park as possible
- Private photography lessons
- Eco tours
This large park is extremely popular – you’ll find both private tour companies and ranger-led activities available year-round, so your options are endless.
Due to its size, there are three entrances on different sides of the park. Depending on where you enter, there will be different opportunities for sightseeing and activities. For this reason, it’s recommended to do your research and plan your trip to Everglades National Park well in advance.
6. Biscayne National Park
If you thought the Everglades were all about water, wait until you see Biscayne National Park. This is one of the East Coast’s most beautiful parks, and it’s also one of the most unique. The park is actually mostly water – 95% to be exact! Obviously, the best way to explore involves dipping your toes in the water – and there are plenty of fun ways to do so.
The park is located along a small chain of islands off Florida’s eastern coast consisting of colorful coral reefs, mangrove forests, and even a few shipwrecks. There’s also a large variety of marine animals that live in the depths of the park including dolphins, turtles, pelicans, and of course, lots and lots of fish.
It may be hard to discern, but there are actually 4 different ecosystems within the park including the mangrove trees, the chain of islets, Biscayne Bay, and the Florida Keys Reef Tract – the 3rd-largest in the world!
To explore this watery wonderland:
- Take a boat tour
- Rent a canoe
- Kayak or paddle board from the visitor center,
- Go snorkeling or scuba diving along the Maritime Heritage Trail (where you’ll find the aforementioned shipwrecks!).
For obvious reasons, sticking to the water will allow you to see as much as you can of the park, but there are also a few areas back on land that are worth checking out.
There’s a short trail located near the visitor center, and the path will lead you to a bird sanctuary and some mangroves. You could also spend some time inside of the visitor center itself to learn about these incredible ecosystems, or head out for a guided tour of the individual keys.
The lighthouse on Boca Chica Key is a stand-out, and if you climb to the top you’ll get views all the way to Miami on a clear day. Elliot Key is another highlight of the tour, and if you’d like to submerge yourself in nature for a night or two, you can book a campground and explore some of the islet’s hiking trails.
Although this may not be the most convenient park to visit on the East Coast, it is certainly one of the most breathtaking. No matter how you choose to spend your time, it’ll likely be a one-of-a-kind experience.
7. Dry Tortugas National Park
The last national park along the East Coast is Dry Tortugas National Park. Similar to Biscayne and the Everglades, this park is all about water.
Located about 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Dry Tortugas is made up of 7 small islands that can only be reached by ferry, charter boat, or seaplane. Not surprisingly, this deters large swaths of visitors – so those who make the journey will have this little slice of paradise mostly to themselves.
One of the highlights of the park is its long and rich history, and you may be surprised to learn that there’s an old military fort located within the park. The seven keys that make up Dry Tortugas are located on the edge of a busy shipping route, and during the mid 19th century, the fort was constructed to protect this lucrative channel.
Fort Jefferson is located on Garden Key, and although never completed, the beautiful brickwork against the stunning backdrop of the crystal clear water is certainly a sight to behold. You can explore this fort for yourself and learn more about this strategic outpost while visiting the park.
But the real draw to Dry Tortugas is undoubtedly its unspoiled nature. Its turquoise blue waters beckon visitors to take a dip in their depths, and the colorful coral reefs off the shoreline make for great diving and snorkeling opportunities. You could also kayak along the coast of the islands, sunbathe on the white-sand shores, or go on a ranger-guided tour.
Tortugas means turtles in Spanish – and if you visit the park between June-September, you might even get to see some laying their eggs! There are 5 different kinds of turtles that inhabit these islands, and you might also catch a glimpse of crocodiles, nurse sharks, and over 300 different species of birds.
The beauty of Dry Tortugas National Park will likely have you wanting to stay for days on end, especially after the 2-hour ferry you took to get here – but camping on the island is not for the faint of heart, as you’ll find no modern conveniences. It’s remote living at its finest – with no electricity, WiFi, or even running water. You’ll need to bring everything required for an overnight stay – and make sure to leave nothing but footprints when you depart.