What comes to mind when you think of national parks in the US?
For most people, it’s incredible sights like the Grand Canyon, the towering Half Dome in Yosemite Park, or Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone Park.
Make sense too – the majority of America’s national parks lie in the west.
But does that mean there aren’t any east coast parks worthy of your consideration?
Not at all! Just the opposite…
There are masses of east coast parks that are just as beautiful and diverse.
From snorkelling expeditions in the Gulf of Mexico to snowshoeing excursions near the border of Canada, America’s east coast national parks have a lot to offer.
Ready to learn all about the best national parks on the east coast of the USA?
Keep reading to see why these amazing parks belong on your travel bucket list!
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1. Everglades National Park
If you think national parks are synonymous with mountains and snow, think again!
Everglades National Park is not only the third-largest national park in the lower 48 states (1.5 million acres or 6,000 sq km), but it’s one of the largest subtropical wetlands on earth.
Located at the southern tip of Florida and sandwiched between the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, you won’t find any mountains or snow here.
Instead, you’ll find a hot, muggy, nearly impenetrable maze of swamps, marshes, islands, and waterways.
The Everglades is the only place on the planet where you’ll find alligators and crocodiles sharing the same habitat.
It’s also home to other “exotic” species like manatees, Florida panthers, bobcats, and more than 360 species of birds.
An invasive species called the Burmese python has become so numerous in recent years that Florida hires professional snake hunters to hunt and kill them.
Don’t let all this talk of alligators and snakes put you off from visiting.
You can explore these amazing wetlands from the safety and comfort of an airboat — the premier mode of transportation through the Everglades.
You can also learn more about the wildlife in this unique area at one of the many “gator parks” within the park borders.
South Florida in the summertime is oppressively hot, humid, and rainy.
You’ll enjoy visiting the Everglades during the drier winter months when temperatures sit comfortably between 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit (21-26 degrees Celcius).
Bonus: It’s also one of the easiest east coast national parks to reach — it’s less than an hour from downtown Miami!
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
What the Rockies are to the western US, the “Smokies” are to the east.
In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the entire nation.
Straddling the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, this is among the prettiest stretch of the Appalachians — a chain of mountains and valleys that stretch from the Canadian province of Newfoundland all the way to the southern states of Georgia and Alabama.
That’s a distance of nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km)!
Numerous routes will get you there, but Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is the main gateway into the Great Smoky Mountains.
From here you can explore one of the oldest and most diverse deciduous forests in the world, which is home to bears, elk, deer, turkeys, eagles, and more than 100 species of trees.
And hikers rejoice!
You’ll find over 850 miles (1,360 km) of hiking trails throughout the park, many of which run parallel to 2,100 miles (3,379 km) of rivers and streams.
Fireflies perform a spectacular nightly “light show” in May and June, while huge herds of elk flock to the area during September and October.
The Smokies are most crowded during the summer months, so try to plan your visit during the spring or autumn.
The closest large cities with international airports are Charlotte, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, each located about a three-hour drive from the national park.
3. Acadia National Park
Just shy of 50,000 acres (198 sq km), Acadia National Park is one of the smallest east coast parks on our list.
Whatever it lacks in size, however, it more than makes up for in natural beauty.
Located off the coast of Maine, it’s one of the northernmost national parks in the contiguous US.
The majority of the park lies on Mount Desert Island, which is a bit of a misnomer considering the island is full of beautiful woodlands.
Here you can hike to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point anywhere on America’s Atlantic coast.
Kayaking, biking, and whale watching are other popular excursions around the park.
Keep your eyes peeled for the whales, seals, bald eagles, mink, foxes, and white-tailed deer that call Acadia “home.”
You can enjoy scenic views and stop for photo ops and short hikes along the 27-mile (43 km) Park Loop Road.
When it’s time for dinner, enjoy a New England feast of lobster, clam chowder, and more in the charming town of Bar Harbor.
Acadia National Park is fairly isolated as far as east coast parks go.
The closest major city with an international airport is Boston, Massachusetts, located about five hours south of the park.
Acadia is open year-round and is most popular during the summer months and also the autumn when fall colours are in full bloom.
4. Shenandoah National Park
There’s a lot to love about Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.
Located in the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains, 95% of the park is covered in thick, beautiful forestland.
Waterfalls, wildflowers, wildlife, wooded hollows — Shenandoah has it all.
In fact, you’d never guess that it’s located less than 100 miles (160 km) from the nation’s capital city of Washington, DC.
Partially developed during the 19th century, the region was (beautifully) reclaimed by Mother Nature during the Great Depression era.
You’ll find hundreds of miles of hiking trails on offer, but the park is best known for its epic Skyline Drive.
This 105-mile (170 km) drive includes 75 overlooks that offer gorgeous views of the mountains surrounding Shenandoah Valley.
You’ll see white-tailed deer, squirrels, and birds in abundance, and perhaps a black bear or bobcat if you’re lucky.
You could visit the park in a day, even as a day trip from Washington DC, but it’s worth planning a few days in the area.
Shenandoah Caverns are a must-see if you enjoy caves, and the region is also teeming with award-winning wineries and breweries.
Summer and autumn are the busiest months in Shenandoah, so be prepared for crowds if you visit during that time of year.
You can easily reach the park borders within a two-hour drive from the closest cities of Washington, DC or Richmond, Virginia.
5. Dry Tortugas National Park
Would you like to warm up after spending all that time in the mountains?
Head down to Florida and keep going south — past Miami, past the Everglades, and past the tiny island of Key West (the southernmost point in the US).
Here you’ll find one of the most unique east coast national parks, Dry Tortugas, which is just a stone’s throw from the Caribbean Sea.
It’s one of the best national parks on the east coast, but its remote location helps it to remain a well-kept secret too.
“Tortuga” is the Spanish word for turtle, and yes, there are plenty of species of land and sea turtles in the area.
The main attraction of the park, however, is the 19th-century Fort Jefferson — once one of the most strategic and important deep-water ports in North America.
With over 16 million individual bricks, it also happens to be the largest brick structure in the western hemisphere.
You’ll find the fort located on Garden Key (the islands in this region are known as “keys”).
From here, you can enjoy a stroll on the white sand beach or spend a few lazy days swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, or beach camping.
If you’re SCUBA certified, you’ll find a slew of old shipwrecks to explore below the water’s exterior.
This is also a prime location to view marine life such as turtles, dolphins, sharks, coral, and other animals that live in the Florida reef ecosystem.
Fun fact: Less than 1% of this national park is located above the water!
Due to its remote location, the only way to reach Dry Tortugas National Park is via boat, ferry, or seaplane from the nearby island of Key West.
If you plan to camp, be sure to bring everything you need from the mainland, as there’s no electricity, water, WiFi, or other amenities on Garden Key.
Plan your visit during the drier winter months (December through April), which also places you safely outside of the Atlantic hurricane season.
6. New River Gorge National Park
Would you like to visit not only one of the best parks on the east coast but one of the newest as well?
Book your stay in West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park, which only acquired its “national park” status at the end of 2020.
Don’t let the name fool you — there’s nothing “new” about this park.
The New River is thought to be one of the oldest flowing rivers in North America, estimated to be 360 million years old.
Interestingly, it also flows from south to north, unlike most other rivers on the planet.
Kayaking and whitewater rafting are the main draws since the New River offers 53 miles (85 km) of unencumbered, world-class rapids.
If you’d prefer to stay dry, there are ample opportunities to hike, bike, or rock climb around the gorge.
There are also a variety of historical sites, cultural centres, and preserved farms that harken back to the days of the first settlers.
If you’re hoping for an epic whitewater experience, plan your visit for springtime, when snow runoff kicks the rapids into high gear.
For a quieter, more colourful visit, come during the autumn months to enjoy the area’s spectacular fall foliage.
As far as travel time, expect a solid four-hour drive from the closest big cities of Columbus, Ohio or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Or, if you have plenty of time, combine New River Gorge with visits to Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks for a true taste of the Appalachians.
7. Mammoth Cave National Park
Ready to tick a few superlatives off your travel bucket list?
Book your visit to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, which is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also home to the longest-known cave system in the world.
So far, scientists have explored 400 miles (643 km) of the cave, but they estimate that the cave system continues for an additional 600 miles (965 km).
As you might expect, the only way to visit Mammoth Cave’s limestone labyrinth is with a guided tour.
The National Park Service offers a variety of tours to suit all ages and ability levels, including kid-friendly tours, limited mobility tours, and adventurous spelunking tours.
The temperature inside Mammoth Cave is 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celcius) year-round, so it’s perfect to visit any time of year. Just don’t forget to bring your jacket!
Back above ground, the surrounding area is well worth exploring too.
Hiking, biking, fishing, and horseback riding are some of the most popular attractions outside the cave itself.
Mammoth Cave National Park is an easy day trip from the nearby cities of Louisville, Kentucky or Nashville, Tennessee (drive time of about an hour and a half).
Like other east coast parks, the summer months are crowded, so try to plan your visit during the autumn, winter, or spring.
8. Biscayne National Park
No list of the best east coast national parks would be complete without the last of Florida’s “Big Three” — Biscayne National Park.
Like Dry Tortugas National Park further south, Biscayne National Park consists of a few offshore islands (or “keys”).
The majority of the park — 95%, in fact — consists of water.
And not just any water. Biscayne National Park lies entirely within the Florida reef ecosystem, the third-largest reef system on the planet.
It’s home to a staggering variety of wildlife, from sharks, stingrays, manatees, and jellyfish to colourful coral formations and hundreds of species of tropical fish.
As you might have guessed, Biscayne Park is best explored from a boat.
You can snorkel or scuba dive (if you’re PADI-certified), or you can sign up for a leisurely cruise in a glass-bottom boat.
Other options include canoeing, kayaking, or renting wave runners to explore the shallow coastal waters.
Tours abound from both Miami and Key Largo, ranging from relaxing sightseeing tours to full-day fishing excursions or guided eco-adventures.
Located just south of Miami, Biscayne National Park is easy to visit as a day trip from the city.
You can also combine Biscayne with Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks, as they’re all located within a few hours of Miami.
And, as mentioned earlier, avoid visiting Florida during the summer and autumn months.
Not only is it unbearably hot and humid, but that’s also the peak of hurricane season!
9. Congaree National Park
Have you ever heard of the “Redwoods of the East?”
Although not quite as tall as their redwood cousins out west, the gigantic trees in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park will still make your jaw drop.
Nicknamed the “Home of Champions,” Congaree boasts the largest intact bottomland old-growth hardwood forest (say THAT ten times fast!) in the southeastern US.
“Champion” trees are the largest of their particular species, and Congaree boasts the highest number of champion trees anywhere in the country.
Among the towering giants, you’ll find loblolly pines, oaks, elms, cottonwoods, and bald cypress trees that form an impressive canopy some 150 feet (45 m) above your head.
Below your feet, you’ll tread on elevated walkways above the watery marshes that flood a dozen times each year.
Trees aren’t the only draw to this beautiful east coast park.
Be on the lookout for otters, turtles, alligators, deer, and bobcats. There’s also a unique species of bioluminescent fungi that grow on the trees (and glow in the dark)!
Located just 18 miles (29 km) from the city of Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree is an easily accessible gem among the east coast parks.
Summers are very humid with many mosquitos, so try to plan your visit outside the summer months.
10. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Would you like to visit a national park where the river once caught on fire?
You can learn about this fascinating historical event (due to toxic waste dumping) and much more when you visit Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, and canoeing through more than 33,000 acres (133 sq km) of wooded river valleys.
You can also hop aboard the Cuyahoga Scenic Railroad for a relaxing sightseeing trip, a four-course dinner ride, or (for extra fun) a murder mystery ride.
As you enjoy your time in this beautiful park, take a moment to think about its lasting legacy.
The toxic river fire mentioned earlier led to many important milestones, including the Clean Water Act, the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the celebration of the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970).
Located just a 20-minute drive from Cleveland, Ohio, this park enjoys close proximity to both a major city and an airport.
The spring and autumn months are the best times to plan your visit.
Bonus: 5 More Amazing East Coast Parks
There are 423 national park sites across the US, but only 63 of them are designated “national parks.”
The other sites include battlefields, memorials, seashores, monuments, preserves, and recreation areas.
Here are five of the best east coast parks that, while not “national parks,” are still maintained by the national park system — and more than worthy of your time.
11. Cape Cod National Seashore
Famed poet Henry David Thoreau once said, “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”
Where was he talking about?
The beach he stood on is now part of Cape Cod National Seashore, a protected 40-mile (64 km) stretch of pristine coastline along the Atlantic Coast of Massachusetts.
Picture rugged sand dunes, historic lighthouses, fields of wild cranberries, and — of course — seafood restaurants serving the very best New England clam chowder.
Located about two hours from downtown Boston, this is the perfect summertime destination for swimming, biking, or sunbathing.
12. Appalachian National Scenic Trail
To be fair, this isn’t exactly one trail or one park.
It’s a series of connected trails that pass through multiple national parks in 14 states (from Georgia to Maine) and encompasses 2,190 miles (3,524 km) of hiking!
Unless you have months to hike the trail (and a serious love of camping), you probably won’t get to walk the entire route.
However, keep your eyes open for portions of the famous trail as you explore Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks.
13. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
If your US road trip takes you as far north as the upper peninsula of Michigan, schedule a stop at the stunning Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
There’s a lot to see on this 42-mile (67 km) stretch of shoreline along Lake Superior, from waterfalls and coastal cliffs to rugged forests and sand dunes.
The highlight of the park is its namesake multicoloured sandstone cliffs that rise as high as 200 feet (61 m) above the water’s surface.
Enjoy a summertime drive along the coast or hike some of the 100 miles (160 km) of trails to enjoy some truly spectacular scenery.
14. Statue of Liberty National Monument
If it’s your first visit to New York City, it would be a crime not to see one of the most famous landmarks in the country, which also happens to be a universal symbol of democracy and freedom.
The Statue of Liberty was a gift of friendship from France and has been welcoming visitors and immigrants to the US since 1886.
You can view it from multiple areas of New York City, but it’s worth booking a ferry ride and tour to Staten Island to see the famous monument up close.
15. Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Did you know that the oldest settlement in the US is not tied to the original 13 colonies?
More than 100 years before the first Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon anchored his ship and waded ashore in northern Florida.
The Castillo (or “castle”) de San Marcos in Saint Augustine, Florida, was built soon after and has been meticulously preserved for more than 450 years.
History lovers will enjoy learning about this unique chapter in America’s past.
Saint Augustine’s architecture and layout are also reminiscent of many cities in Spain, so be sure to stop in as you drive along Florida’s east coast.
America’s Best East Coast National Parks Revealed
As you can see, there’s a lot more to US national parks than those located out west.
From Florida to Maine and all points in between, there are an endless number of opportunities to explore the diverse landscape.
Whether you want to snorkel in warm tropical waters, spelunk in enormous underground caverns, or hike through remote stretches of forested hills, there’s an east coast park to suit every travel goal.
So, as you plan your American holiday, be sure to include some of these east coast national parks in your itinerary.
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