Upon hearing “national parks,” many think about the western United States, envisioning places like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite. Often overlooked, the eastern United States houses parks brimming with natural beauty and adventure. We will outline marvelous east coast national parks you should visit.
The east coast comprises the following states: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Each state makes up part of the shoreline along the Atlantic Ocean. For our purposes, most of the national parks reside in these states. However, we will move inland for a few of the parks on our list.
Acadia National Park
- Location: Maine
As a child, the mere mention of rocky shores sounded like a waste of a beach. Now that I have seen the gorgeous Acadia National Park, I understand.
Julie will quickly tell you she has never seen me happier than the days we spent at Acadia. In truth, that trip inspired us to take time from work to explore all our country has to offer.
I had never visited a place where you could breathe in the scents of the salty ocean and mountain pine at the same time. The sight of white, foaming waves crashing into the jagged, red edges of the rugged shoreline fascinated me. I struggled to comprehend the sheer size and beauty of the place. In short, I was mesmerized.
Things to do in Acadia National Park
What are popular activities in the park?
Drive the scenic 27-mile Park Loop Road. You will find parking areas near overlooks with beautiful vistas, points of interest, and hiking trails.
Bicycling on Carriage Roads
You can ride a bike along miles of carriage roads with finely crushed stone. These paths wind throughout the park, providing peaceful, lovely views.
Embark on the three-mile drive on Cadillac Summit Road to ascend the mountain. You will find a few pullouts with scenic views on the way. The summit is the highest point in the park, yielding magnificent views. Be prepared. The winds get very gusty on Cadillac Mountain. Note the park requires visitors to obtain a vehicle reservation for Cadillac Summit Road during peak season, late May to late October.
Acadia National Park boasts the ability of visitors to be the first to observe sunrise in the United States.
The park offers summit, coastal, lake, and forest trails. Of all the places Julie and I have visited, we found Acadia to have the most rewarding hikes due to the variety of courses and scenery.
At high tide, powerful waves slam into the rugged shores. You can go tide pooling when the waves recede at low tide.
Explore Bar Harbor
Take time to explore Bar Harbor, the quaint town serving as a gateway to Acadia National Park. In addition to a charming town square and gorgeous coast views, you will discover excellent shops, restaurants, and bars. You can savor lobster dishes and every blueberry concoction under the sun. Everything we tasted, and we had a lot, was delicious!
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Location: Ohio
Ohio’s only national park may not have a single attraction that boggles the mind. Still, it delivers an exceptional experience between its varied landscapes and odd mix of things to do. The park pays homage to Ohio’s history, making your visit educational and inspirational.
Transportation is a primary theme; you can hike, bike, and ride a train in the park. The park abounds with peaceful areas and lovely views. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, between Cleveland and Akron, is the perfect place to escape into nature by way of a run, hike, or bike ride.
Things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park
What are some of the park’s best activities?
Many consider Brandywine Falls the most beautiful waterfall in Ohio. You can admire the 60-foot cascading waterfall in the park from a boardwalk.
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
Take a relaxing train ride through Ohio’s history as you pass forests, quaint towns, wetlands, and sections of the Ohio and Erie Canal.
Hike, bike, or run on the peaceful Towpath Trail, the same path where mules walked, pulling boats along the Ohio and Erie Canal.
A peaceful marsh along a portion of the Towpath Trail, Beaver Marsh teems with wildlife, including many types of birds and ducks, painted and snapping turtles, otters, minks, muskrats, and beavers. On warm summer evenings, you can hear a chorus of croaking frogs as you spot bats darting about the sky.
Bath Road Heronry
The park becomes a nesting ground for hundreds of great blue herons from mid-February through June. What makes it so odd is the fact that Bath Road Heronry is so close to a highway. It is another thing that makes the park unique.
Everett Covered Bridge
Ohio has more than 100 remaining covered bridges, the second most in the country. You can walk across Everett Covered Bridge, a beautiful red overpass in the park.
Ledges Trail and Overlook
A forested trail along sandstone cliffs, you will hike right next to cliffs and peer out over their ledges. Visitors regularly spot squirrels and deer in the serene area. Although it can get crowded, stay for a memorable sunset at Ledges Overlook.
It may feel strange, but you can visit a farmers market inside Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Szalay’s Farm is a great spot to grab a bite to eat and shop for fresh produce.
Indiana Dunes National Park
- Location: Indiana
Indiana Dunes National Park is your place if you seek sand and solitude. Wind and waves from Lake Michigan formed unique habitats along 15 miles of the Indiana coastline to explore. The park delivers more than 50 miles of trails to hike along peaceful woodlands, rolling dunes, boggy wetlands, and sunny prairies. Indiana Dunes National Park is renowned for its plant and bird diversity.
Things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park
What can you do here?
Go to the Beach
Upon mention of the word “beach,” many think of the ocean. With 15 miles of sandy shores along Lake Michigan, the national park offers the perfect setting for a beach day. You can swim, walk the beach, play in the sand, or relax and enjoy the sights and sounds.
Indiana Dunes National Park comprises a 37-mile interconnected trail system that covers the entire park. Choose a short, easy ride if you are a novice. The park offers all-day courses to challenge serious bikers. Riding a bicycle is an excellent way to explore the park’s various habitats.
With a variety of habitats and its location along Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park is an excellent place for birdwatching. It is an essential feeding and resting area for migratory birds. On the third weekend of May, you can attend the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, where you can join expert-led birding excursions.
Kayaking and Canoeing
Although not recommended for Lake Michigan, you can canoe in the region’s rivers and waterways. Kayaking is permitted in the local channels and on Lake Michigan. Popular kayaking areas include:
- Lake Michigan Water Trail
- Little Calumet River
- Burns Waterway
You can choose among fourteen trail systems within the park to find a hiking experience that is right for you. Trails span from a stroll to a challenging all-day hike. Similar to biking, it is a fantastic way to explore the park’s varied habitats.
If you have a horse, you can go horseback riding in the beautiful Glenwood Dunes Trails area from mid-May to mid-December. If you do not have a horse, do not fret. You can hike the equestrian trails.
Although chilly, a blanket of snow gives the park a different look. Shelf ice forms along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Note the ice may appear solid but is not. Appreciate its beauty from a distance. During winter, you can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding in designated areas.
Shenandoah National Park
- Location: Virginia
Shenandoah National Park delivers alluring mountain vistas and wooded trails. Savor the park at a leisurely pace, whether you admire its beauty on foot or by a scenic drive. If you rush the experience, you may not appreciate the subtle nuances of its beauty or the size and scope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Things to do in Shenandoah National Park
What do visitors typically do in the park?
One of America’s best scenic drives, Skyline Drive, covers 105 miles, the park’s entire length. You will discover 75 overlooks along your journey, each providing a breathtaking view. With so many lookouts, you may not desire to stop at each one. We encourage you to stop at many overlooks, take time, and enjoy the experience. If you seek guidance, we provide a guide on recommended Skyline Drive overlooks.
The best way to fully experience the park is by hiking. Since the Appalachian Trail runs through the park, you can walk a section of the iconic trail. Shenandoah presents more than 500 miles of trails, so there is truly something for all fitness levels and interests. You can find short, easy hikes and challenging backpacking excursions. Some wooded trails lead to scenic overlooks, while others guide you to rushing waterfalls. Nature’s glory is on full display with gorgeous scenery and peaceful settings.
Shenandoah National Park houses many rockfaces for visitors to climb. Bouldering opportunities abound in the park for those who like rewarding challenges but do not want to mess with equipment.
You can bicycle on Skyline Drive and all paved roads within the park. It is an excellent way to get exercise and savor the alluring views.
The park contains more than 180 miles of trails open to horseback riding. You can arrange a guided trail ride through Skyland Stables. Exploring Shenandoah National Park on horseback makes for a memorable experience.
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve
- Location: West Virginia
Scenic and recreational opportunities await you in wild, wonderful West Virginia. The New River Gorge National Park & Preserve has 70,000 acres of wilderness along a swift-moving white water river carving deep, rugged canyons through the beautiful mountains. Although New River is one of North America’s oldest rivers, the park is America’s newest national park, established in December 2020.
Things to do in New River Gorge National Park & Preserve
What can you do here?
You can find peaceful forest trails, pretty overlooks, historic scenery, cascading waterfalls, and pools through the park’s hiking areas. The park offers everything from a 0.25-mile flat path to a 7.0-mile course consisting primarily of steep terrain.
New River Gorge Scenic Drive
Take a scenic drive along the park’s winding roads, where you gain different vantage points of the rim and gorge. The route totals 83 miles and takes about three hours to complete.
White Water Rafting
New River delivers thrilling adventure with its white water rafting expeditions. The river’s upper section is gentler, with rapids ranging from Class 1 to Class 3, while the Lower Gorge is for extreme thrill seekers, with rapids ranging from Class 3 to Class 5. Both excursions deliver beautiful views as you flow through the rugged canyon.
One of the most popular destinations for mountain biking in the eastern United States, New River Gorge holds various biking areas so everyone, from rookies to professionals, can enjoy the adventure.
With more than 1,400 established climbing areas ranging from 30 feet to 120 feet in height, the park is one of America’s most popular climbing spots. The rugged sandstone cliffs provide many features for climbers to find footholds and handholds.
Celebrate Bridge Day, West Virginia’s biggest one-day festival, on the third Saturday in October, where you can traverse the longest, single-span steel arch bridge in the western hemisphere. At 3,030 feet long and 876 feet above the canyon, the New River Gorge Bridge is not for the faint of heart. Believe it or not, daredevils BASE jump from the bridge to the canyon. Others enter the gorge by rappelling from the bridge.
Mammoth Cave National Park
- Location: Kentucky
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, Mammoth Cave National Park comprises rolling hills, deep river valleys, and the world’s longest cave system. Explore above and below ground to discover the rich diversity of plant and animal life along with thousands of years of human history.
Things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park
What are popular activities in the park?
Most visitors aim to take a cave tour. Although the park entrance is free, you will pay fees to take one of the cave tours. The park offers many cave tours, and costs vary based on your chosen expedition. Excursions range from short and long walking to adventurous crawling and lantern tours. Park rangers suggest you make reservations during summer and early fall to ensure your spot.
Canoeing, Kayaking, and Fishing
With more than 30 miles of the Green and Nolin Rivers flowing through the park, you can canoe, kayak, and fish. Paddling through the serene park provides lovely views and the opportunity to spot wildlife. For those interested in fishing, bluegill, crappie, catfish, perch, bass, and muskellunge inhabit the waters.
Beneath Your Feet
You can learn about the geological wonders of the underground cave system even while walking the above-ground trails. Read wayside signs and scan QR codes with your smartphone to watch videos and learn about the caves.
Although the main attraction is underground, the park contains 11 miles of hiking trails through forested areas.
After a day of cave exploring, you can enjoy stargazing at night. The park regularly holds ranger-led programs throughout the year, providing telescopes and guidance on the stars and planets.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Location: Tennessee and North Carolina
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park blesses you with many scenic and recreational opportunities. America’s most visited national park houses misty mountains, rushing streams, lush forests, brilliant wildflowers, beautiful waterfalls, and fantastic wildlife. The park centers around “the Smokies,” a massive mountain range of forested ridges that straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. If you seek a mountain retreat, there is no better place to visit.
Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
What are the top things to do here?
You can drive to your heart’s content with 384 miles of roads within the park. On your journey, you will encounter hardwood forests, panoramic views, weathered historic buildings, mountain vistas, babbling brooks, and more.
If you love scenic drives, consider hitting the open road on Blue Ridge Parkway. The iconic highway connects Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Your 469-mile drive encompasses gorgeous scenery, two national parks, more than 200 overlooks, and 26 tunnels. No wonder it is dubbed “America’s Favorite Drive.”
An auto tour of Shenandoah National Park (Skyline Drive), Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the road trip of a lifetime.
With babbling brooks, rushing waterfalls, woodlands, and mountains, hiking is an absolute thrill. You can find trails to meet all skill levels in the park.
Seasonal changes highlight the beautiful settings in different ways throughout the park. Spring wildflowers add a splash of color, whereas summer paints everything in vibrant green. Autumn dabs splotches of red, orange, and gold, while winter blankets the region in pure white. Each season makes hiking special, giving you plenty of reasons to return.
With steep roads and many visitors auto touring, the main roads may be less than ideal for biking. The Cades Cove Loop Road solves that problem, delivering an 11-mile one-way route with beautiful scenery and opportunities for viewing wildlife.
Bursting with forested ridges and mature hardwood forests, the Smoky Mountains provide excellent opportunities for leaf peepers. During peak foliage, the fiery mountain vistas will take your breath away. You can enjoy the autumn colors on scenic drives and hiking. The Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects the park, is another excellent drive for those who love fall foliage.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park teems with wildlife like white-tailed deer, elk, black bears, turkeys, and woodchucks. One of the biggest thrills of my life was spotting black bears in the park. It was scary and exciting at the same time. Pay attention to your surroundings when exploring the park, whether driving, hiking, or going to the restroom facilities. We encountered black bears on the hiking trail and, very unexpectedly, near the restrooms. Talk about a surprise!
If you enjoy history, this is your park. It comprises more than 90 historic structures, including houses, barns, churches, schools, and gristmills.
The park offers frontcountry and backcountry camping. With ten areas containing developed frontcountry campgrounds, you have plenty of tent and RV camping options.
Cades Cove and Smokemont Campgrounds remain open year-round, while the other campgrounds offer seasonal availability. Each campground has cold running water and flush toilets. Individual campsites include a picnic table and fire grate. Unfortunately, the grounds do not have showers or electrical or water hookups.
Many visitors opt to stay in a cabin or chalet. The communities surrounding the park offer these accommodations.
Congaree National Park
- Location: South Carolina
Comprising diverse plant and animal life and the most significant intact stretch of old-growth floodplain hardwood forest in the southeastern United States, Congaree National Park often gets overlooked. Unfortunately, it is more known as a mosquito haven than anything else. Do not let that deter you from visiting the unique park.
Despite being a low-level flood plain, the park houses some of the tallest trees in the eastern United States. The average forest canopy height is more than 100 feet, containing the continent’s highest concentration of champion-sized trees.
You should find peace amongst the waterways, boardwalk trails, beautiful forests, and incredible biodiversity. Just know you will need insect repellent.
Things to do in Congaree National Park
What can you do here?
Congaree offers everything from a stroll along the Boardwalk Trail to challenging backcountry treks. While hiking, you can discover oxbow lakes, fantastic deciduous forests, and the Congaree River. Congaree National Park’s general terrain, located in a floodplain, is flat with minor elevation changes. The reason for trails with a “difficult” rating is the length of the hike or navigational challenges.
Canoeing and Kayaking
A great way to explore the park is by canoeing or kayaking. Paddling on Cedar Creek takes you through a peaceful, old-growth forest where you can view wildlife like otters, turtles, deer, wading birds, and alligators.
If you seek a more extended excursion, you can paddle the Congaree River Blue Trail, a 50-mile trek starting in Columbia. With campsites and sandbars along the course, rangers recommend two to three days for the journey.
You can fish in nearly all areas of the peaceful park other than on or within 25 feet of artificial structures like overlooks, boardwalks, and bridges. The National Park Service (NPS) requests that you release anything you catch to preserve the area’s biodiversity.
Everglades National Park
- Location: Florida
Many believe Everglades National Park is a swamp, but it is a 100 miles-long and 60 miles-wide slow-moving river of grass. The surreal ecosystem teems with wildlife and provides unique recreational opportunities. You should plan a visit based on the region’s two seasons. The wet season occurs from May through November, while the dry season runs from December through April. If you prefer fewer mosquitoes and more wildlife, visit during the dry season.
Things to do in Everglades National Park
What do visitors enjoy doing in the park?
Zigzagging at full throttle on the river of grass is a thrill ride where you gain close views of alligators and birds. Although an adrenaline rush, the fan-powered boats are noisy. Be sure to use the provided earplugs.
Birdwatching and Wildlife Viewing
The Everglades will feel like a dream if you enjoy birding or watching wildlife. More than 300 bird species inhabit the region. You may find birds like white ibises, great blue herons, anhingas, purple gallinules, barred owls, bald eagles, and many more.
Alligators and turtles regularly bask in the sun near walking paths. With crystal-clear water, you can spot turtles and fish swimming between lily pads in the river of grass. In the park’s southern section, visitors occasionally see manatees and crocodiles.
Although you can canoe or kayak in many other parks, Everglades National Park delivers a unique kayaking experience. You can tackle the mental and physical challenge of kayaking through a maze of mangrove islands in the park’s western area.
The park offers many trails, from boardwalk strolls to challenging hikes through jungle-like terrain. It is an excellent way to explore the park and view wildlife.
If you want to view wildlife from a distance, the park offers a tram tour guided by a park ranger or naturalist. On your ride, you can sit back, relax, and learn about the park’s ecosystem.
Dry Tortugas National Park
- Location: Florida
Located off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas National Park is a 100-square-mile park comprising seven small islands on the open water. It features turquoise waters, alluring coral reefs, shipwrecks, an old war fort, various birds, and vibrant marine life.
Since Dry Tortugas National Park sits 70 miles west of Key West, visiting the park requires additional planning. The only way to get there is by seaplane, ferry, or private boat. Before exploring the park, all private vessels must stop at the Garden Key dock house.
Although small and secluded, the park offers unique opportunities you will not find elsewhere.
Things to do in Dry Tortugas National Park
What can you do here?
With picturesque waters and sandy beaches, many visitors enjoy a day of walking the beach and swimming. Remember to look for marine life when taking a refreshing swim and enjoying the beautiful view.
With beautiful coral reefs, marine life, and shipwrecks, Dry Tortugas is an excellent place to snorkel. It is the best way to explore all the park offers. You will have close views of the Florida Keys reef system, the world’s third-largest.
Birding and Wildlife Watching
Dry Tortugas National Park is a resting spot for many birds migrating to and from North and South America in the spring and fall. Spring migration season is the best time for serious birders. Frigate birds and sooty terns nest here. These two unique birds do not nest anywhere else in the continental United States.
Sea turtles regularly swim in the waters and nest on the islands. Five turtle species inhabit the area:
- Kemp’s Ridley
Explore Loggerhead Key
The largest of the seven islands, Loggerhead Key, houses the Loggerhead Lighthouse. In the water, you will find Little Africa, a massive coral reef teeming with tropical fish. Not far from here, a famous shipwreck called the Windjammer Wreck is a favorite amongst snorkelers and divers.
Explore Fort Jefferson
One of the largest forts ever built, Fort Jefferson was never finished nor fully armed. Construction efforts persisted for nearly thirty years, from 1846 to 1875. Astonishingly, the massive fort consists of more than 16 million bricks, making it the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere. Touring the historic fort is surreal.
Biscayne National Park
- Location: Florida
Biscayne National Park is just 15 miles offshore from Miami, yet it feels a world away. The park, described as a watery wonderland, harbors aquamarine waters, emerald islands, and coral reefs teeming with tropical fish. You will also find remnants of human history, including shipwrecks and prehistoric tribal artifacts. Above the water’s surface, you can relish warm sunshine, gentle breezes, and peaceful vistas.
Things to do in Biscayne National Park
What can you do here?
A rare experience in a national park, you can go lobstering. Permitted methods include using your hands, handheld nets, bully nets, or other means of returning the lobsters to the water unharmed. We recommend you discuss this with a park ranger to ensure compliance before embarking on a lobstering excursion.
You can experience the park through various boat tours. Cruising through Stiltsville is one of the most interesting. In the 1930s, people constructed small buildings on stilts offshore of Miami, a place to party when gambling and alcohol were illegal. The buildings served as clubs, bars, and gambling halls. Only a few of the Stiltsville houses have survived due to extensive hurricane damage through the years.
Explore Boca Chita Key
The park’s most visited key contains a beautiful lighthouse. If you visit as part of a ranger-led tour or if a park ranger is in the area, you can climb the 65-foot tower to its observation deck. You will find a short hiking trail in the area and fantastic views, even if you cannot climb the lighthouse.
Canoeing and Kayaking
Paddling is an excellent way to explore the shallow waters and mangroves along the shoreline. Experienced paddlers may want to tackle a more extended expedition to Elliott or Boca Chita Key.
With coral reefs, shipwrecks, and diverse marine life, snorkeling is popular in Biscayne National Park. You can find various areas to snorkel, but Maritime Heritage Trail and Fowey Rocks Lighthouse deliver memorable experiences.
The Maritime Heritage Trail encompasses six shipwrecks. Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, supported by a pyramid-shaped skeleton with metal pilings, towers 130 feet above the water. Fish like to swim around the metal pilings. The “Eye of Miami” was first lit in 1878 to mark the reef. It still works today but now houses a solar-powered light visible for 17 miles.
Wrap-Up: East Coast National Parks
Although the west coast national parks are magical, the east coast houses some of the best national parks in America. Use our guide to the best east coast national parks to plan your adventures. You can find everything from relaxing on a white sand beach or a scenic drive to snorkeling and white water rafting. Get ready to update your bucket list.
About the author
Scott McConkey is a nationally syndicated travel writer and the founder of Miles with McConkey, where he provides vacationers and travel enthusiasts with trip ideas, travel guides, and inspiration. His travel articles have been seen in The Associated Press wire, ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC, MSN, and many more. He and his wife, Julie, left the corporate world after nearly 30 years for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year has evolved into a second act. She creates visual content while he utilizes the written word. Their goal is to create content inspiring others to travel more and live their best lives now.