Exploring America’s Gems: The 7 Best East Coast National Parks

Visiting a national park can, and usually does, change your life. For some, a whole new appreciation for nature and what makes it so special. For others, a heightened sense of internal peace or gratitude. There’s a myriad of reasons we cherish them as we do but you don’t need to be an outdoor enthusiast to appreciate the value and wonder these sacred lands hold. 

Best east coast national parks

Usually, the big names of Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Zion, and Rocky Mountain dominate the discussion of the best in the U.S. I’m here to challenge that notion. Yes, all those parks are gorgeous and shouldn’t be missed, but the East Coast has plenty of amazing public preserves worthy of your time. 

Which leads me to this article. What are the best national parks on the East Coast? How do they rank amongst themselves and why do people go visit them? What are the main attractions? Why should you go? So many questions! But don’t fear, because I am here to answer them all! 

In this piece, I’ll go over the top 7 and why they’re so distinct. I’ll start with the lower-ranked parks and work my way up to the top spot! I’ll even try to throw in a fun fact or two! Who knows, you might fall in love with a couple of these and head to one on your next vacation! 

So sit back, hang out, and learn a bit about the 7 best East Coast National Parks. There’s a load of info to go over, so let’s get into it, shall we?


Best East Coast National Parks

Before we get into the creme-de-la-creme, I have to go over a few honorable mentions that shouldn’t be ignored. Their borders might not fall along the coast, but they are equally brilliant in scope and nature. I just had to include them!

**HONORABLE MENTION #1** Hot Springs National Park (Arkansas)

Up to 4,000 years before Europeans arrived, the Indigenous people of modern-day central Arkansas used the warm therapeutic waters of native hot springs as sacred healers. Fast forward to today where these same natural fountains are still held in high regard and for similar reasons. I guess people never change! 

Hot Springs - Best east coast national parks

As you probably guessed, the main draw for the next entry on the list is the 47 hot springs located within the park. Even though you can’t soak directly in them, and for good reason since the average temperature of the spewing waters reaches 143° F, you can still receive their benefits.

The only real way to enter and bathe in the waters is in one of the two remaining fully functional bathhouses located on Bathhouse Row. There you have the option of a traditional bath (using facilities and amenities of the times) at Buckstaff Bathhouse or more modern techniques at Quapaw Bathhouse. If on the fence, try each! 

Besides the lure of the amazing springs, typical activities like hiking, biking, and general exploration litter the park. Come for a day or stay for a week. Either way, you will not regret it!

Fun fact – Hot Springs National Park is the oldest protected area in the National Park System! It first was designated a reservation in 1832, but that wasn’t enough. After years of pushing, it finally reached national park status in 1921, predating Yellowstone National Park by 40 years!

**HONORABLE MENTION #2** Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky) 

Another near miss qualifying as “East Coast”, yet still incredibly unique, this list would feel incomplete without including Mammoth Cave. What makes it so you ask? Let me tell you. The largest cave system in the world! Yep, that’s right, here in the good ole U.S. of A. Definitely wouldn’t have been my first guess!

It’s unthinkable how far these passages go but cave scientists (or speleologists, yes I had to look that up) have certainly tried! They have surveyed more than 400 miles throughout Mammoth Cave but estimate there could be upwards of 200 miles plus, waiting to be explored. That’s more than double the second-largest system, found in Mexico, comes in at. Not a place you want to get lost in. 

Mammoth Cave - Best east coast national parks

As you can imagine, the cave system dominates the activities found at Mammoth Cave National Park. There are numerous tours you can join, ranging from the ultra-mild to the ultra-wild! Here are a few that stand out – 

  • Historic Tour: This classic tour visits many historic spots that made Mammoth Cave famous. You’ll go through thousand-year-old tunnels, explore huge rooms, and descend deep into the cave. It’s ideal for those interested in history and want a sense of adventure!
  • Frozen Niagara Tour: If you’re not up to staying underground for too long, the Frozen Niagara tour might be for you. It’s short, fairly easy, and famous! In it, you’ll find the prominent Frozen Niagara flowstone. A seemingly frozen waterfall formed over millions of years! This tour is only a quarter of a mile long and contains 64 steps. Great for those with mild mobility issues. 
  • Grand Avenue Tour: Pick this if you want to know everything Mammoth Cave has to offer. It’s a 4-hour journey that’ll take you through slot canyons, tubular passageways, and narrow  tunnels. There are hundreds of steps and numerous steep sections. If you want to spend half the day inside a cave, sign up for this! 
  • Wild Cave Tour: If you want something “extreme”, the Wild Cave Tour has you covered! It’s so intense in fact, you’ll need to bring a buddy. Prepare to spend most of the day on your stomach as you crawl, slither, and squeeze your way through tight crawl spaces and the most physically demanding areas. Not for the faint of heart! Enter at your own risk! 

Fun fact – The Kentucky cave shrimp have evolved to live exclusively in pitch-black cave environments found only in the underground streams of Mammoth Cave. They’re eyeless and nearly transparent. I guess you don’t need to look your best in complete darkness! 

**HONORABLE MENTION #3** New River Gorge National Park (West Virginia)

New River Gorge is the last, but not least, of the bonus parks that don’t quite make the list. It’s situated in southern West Virginia and west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, excluding it from the East Coast. Almost New River!

If you’ve never heard of it, that’s understandable because It’s the 63rd, and newest, entry to the official National Parks list, recently making it in 2020. Some locals think 63 is West Virginia’s lucky number since it coincidentally became a state in 1863! There’s also a Route 63 that runs through the state but that might be a bit of a reach 🙂

This place is fantastic! No surprise to you or me, the chief attraction is the 1,000-foot-deep gorge that cuts through the park. Almost everything to see or do revolves around this impressive valley. From fishing in the New River below to exploring the hiking trails above, the massive ravine takes center stage.

Thrill-seekers from all over the world flock to the illustrious whitewater rapids contained within the park’s borders. The upper half of New River is mellow never passing class III rapids but if you want a gnarlier experience, class V lies in wait in the lower half. Either way, this is the place to strap in if you want some of the most challenging or scariest neck-breaking torrents east of the Mississippi.

Rock climbers rejoice! If you’d rather stay dry or want a different type of workout, look into climbing one of the 1,500 established climbing routes available along the rugged sandstone cliffs that line the gorge. This park has also quickly become one of the most popular climbing destinations in the country, especially for those who fall into the advanced/expert categories. If you’re new to the sport, don’t worry, I’m sure you can still find a few suited for your level!

Fun fact – Despite its name, New River is one of the oldest in the world. Geologists think it’s between 260 million and 325 million years old, making it possibly the second-oldest river on the planet!

7. Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)

There’s a reason so few people (80,000 visitors) come to this park each year, even though it’s arguably one of the most stunning on the list, and that’s its location. Dry Tortugas National Park is a group of seven islands roughly 70 miles west of Key West and 106 miles north of Cuba. No driving to this park, all visitors must travel by boat or seaplane. It doesn’t even have an airport! 

Dry Tortugas - Best east coast national parks

What it does have is unfathomable beauty! Everywhere you look there’s crystal clear waters, pristine coral reefs, a wide array of sea and avian wildlife and so much more. 

It’s prime for water lovers especially, containing some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the entire Gulf of Mexico, as well as fishing, general boating, and swimming. If you want to stay on land, that’s no problem, since you can camp here if you so choose.

One of the main things to see and learn about is Fort Jefferson. As the name implies it’s a 19th-century fort that was used sporadically as a military installation, re-fueling point, refuge, and prison throughout the 1800s. Its most famous guest?  Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth. Random! 

All-in-all, Dry Tortugas is a wonderful place you have to see with your own eyes to appreciate. If you have the chance to go, go! 

Fun fact – Fort Jefferson was built using over 16 million bricks! Talk about detail! 

6. Congaree National Park (South Carolina)

Next up is Congaree National Park situated 30 minutes southeast of Colombia, South Carolina. The park is on the smaller side, only about 40 square miles, but packed to the gills with a rich biodiversity that’ll make any ecologist blush. 

Congaree - Best east coast national parks

The standout feature of the park has to be the ancient trees that tower over the seasonal floodplain below. So named “Champion trees”, these goliaths are the largest of their species and dwarf any nearby competitor. The forest itself is the largest collection left of old-growth bottomland hardwoods in the U.S. Incredible! 

Speaking of the floodplain,10 times each year the nearby Congeree River floods the park, saturating it with vital nutrients and sustaining the local plant and animal life. One of the more popular ways to explore the park is by hopping in a canoe and paddling through the trees and temporary swamps. It’s like that famous swan scene in The Notebook! 

Another highlight is the boardwalk loop, a 2.6-mile self-guided footpath that’s perfect for those who love to meander in nature without getting their feet wet. It’s the perfect setting to get away from it all, meditate, daydream, or relax. Let the ambiance of woodpeckers drilling or owls hooting sweep you away from your day-to-day and allow you to reconnect with nature. 

Fun fact – The tallest tree in the park is the National Champion loblolly pine. It stands at 170 feet tall and has a circumference of over 15 feet! 

5. Biscayne National Park (Florida)

If venturing to Dry Tortugas National Park is troublesome, yet you still yearn for a sea-faring adventure, you need to check out Biscayne National Park, positioned only an hour south of Miami. It too is mostly ocean since 95% of the total area is covered in water, but unlike Dry Tortugas, this national park is close to shore and even comes with a bonus.

Biscayne - Best east coast national parks

Shipwrecks! 6 to be specific. All along the highly sought Maritime Heritage Trail. If you aren’t SCUBA qualified, don’t worry since only half require scuba gear to be fully appreciated. 3 of the 6 are perfectly fine with a mask and snorkel. 

Besides the seafloor attractions, there’s also a variety of marine habitats and ecosystems that make the park stand out. Here’s a quick breakdown of the 4 – 

  • Mangrove Forests: Like a jungle in the ocean, these mysterious trees sprout above the water, roots and all. Many visitors spend a few hours getting lost kayaking inside the rows that line the coast. 
  • Biscayne Bay: A boater’s paradise! If you want a glimpse at delicate wildlife, this is the place to be. The shallow waters of the bay host many animals, including manatees, sea turtles, and a collection of fish. Perfect for an afternoon swim! 
  • Coral Reefs: For even more beauty, dive under the surface and check out the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States! 
  • Florida Keys: If you need a break from all the water sports, spend some time on the northernmost island of the Florida Keys, Elliott Key. It offers scenic beauty, opportunities for exploration, camping, picnicking, fishing, and more! 

Overall, Biscayne National Park is a great choice for couples, families, or soloists looking for some fun in the water or relaxation under the sun! Next time you’re in Miami, give it a look! 

Fun fact – Several historic lighthouses call Biscayne their homes including the iconic Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, built in 1878. Without them, many more ships would have been lost to the treacherous seas and jagged coral reefs found miles away offshore. 

4. Everglades National Park (Florida)

First off, Everglades National Park is huge! Its 1.5 million acres comfortably place it 3rd  on the size scale of the lower 48. Know that you’ll need at least 3 days to see all the sights this park provides, so plan accordingly if you make the trip! 

The great thing about its size is there’s something for everyone. Bikers, hikers, bird watchers, boaters, campers, and everyone else will find something that interests them at Everglades. On land or sea, this place has it all! 

Everglades - Best east coast national parks

Wildlife enthusiasts are really in for a treat since over 750 different species make the park their home and there are plenty of ways to observe them all! 

Hikers will love the Anhinga Trail, full of alligators, turtles, fish, anhingas, and many other birds! If you’d rather go for a ride, check out the Shark Valley tram tour for a guided experience that’s sure to leave you stunned! 

My favorite is taking an airboat ride with Gator Park! They get you up close and personal with the more than 200,000 alligators estimated living here. Besides the abundance of those toothy reptiles, there are also plenty of snakes, fish, and maybe even a Florida panther waiting to be spotted. 

Other notable sites – Shark Valley, The Flamingo Visitor Center, the Gumbo Limbo Trail, and the Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook.

There’s so much to see and do, it’s truly hard to list them all! 

Fun fact – The Everglades is the only place in the entire world where alligators and crocodiles coexist. Not a place to get lost in! 

3. Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

At its very root, Shenandoah National Park is a nature lover’s paradise. Coming here is like submerging yourself into a 3 dimensional Bob Ross painting, especially during the autumn months. The yellows, oranges, and reds of the color-changing leaves are truly spectacular! Very few places in the world capture this type of organic magic like Shenandoah. 

Shenandoah - Best east coast national parks

SNP lies 70 miles west of our nation’s capital but is in a world of its own. It’s riddled with luscious waterfalls, panoramic views, spectacular vistas, endless wildflowers, and wooded hollows. Stepping into this park is like stepping back in time, it’s gorgeous! 

What’s even more amazing is you can experience all of it from the comfort of your car. Going down The Skyline Drive, one of America’s most charming road trips is not just a quick and lazy way to see some pretty things, it’s a journey in itself. There’s a reason this section of highway regularly makes most “Best Scenic Drive” lists. 

The park also ranks high with hikers and backpackers who love a challenge and the payoff for their hard work. Newbies and experts alike flock to Old Rag Mountain, the park’s most popular foot destination. There you’ll have a few trail options like the Old Rag Circuit or Berry Hollow. No matter which you choose, the summit of Old Rag feels like you’re on top of the world. Simply breathtaking! 

Other highlights includeDark Hollow Falls, the Appalachian Trail, and Whiteoak Canyon

Wherever you choose, you can’t go wrong! 

Fun fact – A section of the famous Appalachian Trail runs right through Shenandoah, stretching about 105 miles through the park. Every year you’ll find thru-trekkers attempting to complete the famous route! 

2. Acadia National Park (Maine)

Where the forest meets the ocean! This stunning park is almost completely located on Mount Desert Island, Maine’s largest, and the second overall on the eastern seaboard, but don’t let that fool you because there’s more than enough to see and do. 

For example, if you love a mesmerizing sunrise, Arcadia National Park is the place to be. As long as you’re there during Winter, the very first glimmer of light hitting the eastern U.S. shines brightly, high up on Cadillac Mountain. A blissful way to start your day. Even if you aren’t an early bird, the panoramic views at the summit will take your break away. Worth every second. 

Acadia - Best east coast national parks

If getting up before the crack of dawn isn’t your thing or heights give you the willies, check out another one of Acadia’s main hotspots, Jordan Pond. There you’ll find a pristine lake that’s ideal for active kayakers or peaceful explorers. While you’re there, stop over at Jordan Pond House for a delicious lunch or tasty treat!

Another true stand-out feature of ANP is stargazing. Amateur astronomers travel from all over for a chance to capture the magnificent night sky each year. Classified as a “Dark Park”, its location and lack of light pollution make it ideal for scoping out the Milky Way in July and August.  

If you love rugged scenery, epic views, and incredible landscapes, Acadia is not to be skipped! 

Fun fact – 45 miles of historic carriage roads, originally built between 1913 and 1940 by the infamous John D. Rockefeller, Jr., line the park. They were specifically designed so occupants of horse-drawn carriages could simultaneously ride in comfort and enjoy the view! 

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee/North Carolina)

Sitting at the top of the list is none other than Great Smoky Mountains National Park! This place is absolutely fascinating and the most visited national park along the entire eastern coastline. Each year, over 12 million visitors venture here, ready to explore the more than 800 square miles of raw countryside the park provides. 

Great Smoky Mountains - Best east coast national parks

Leading the way is Cades Cove, an area full of history and natural beauty. Here you can take the famous 11-mile loop road that tours the area, visiting some of the 90 historic buildings found in the park. The oldest, John Oliver’s cabin, was built over 200 years ago! There are also 3 churches, a working grist mill, barns, other houses, and more! Tourists can even buy some cornmeal ground out by the mill 7 days a week from April to October. Fascinating! 

If you’re searching for an adrenaline rush, look no further than the Gatlinburg Skybridge! A shocking, yet impressive feat of human achievement. It’s the longest pedestrian cable bridge on the continent! It stretches close to 700 feet across a deep valley and 150 feet above it! It’s sure to get your heart pumping! 

Other great spots for insane views are Clingman’s Dome and Mount LeConte. If you choose the latter, stay at the LeConte Lodge for a chance to wake up in the highest guest lodge in the eastern U.S. It’s the only place a visitor can sleep without pitching a tent in the entire park! 

Other popular attractions include – the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Sugarlands Visitor Center, Newfound Gap Road, Laurel Falls, camping, and Fireflies

Fun fact – As the picture shows above, The Great Smoky Mountains were named for the natural fog that frequently hangs over the range, resembling large smoke plumes, especially from a distance. Makes sense! 

Final Thoughts

The United States is an incredible place. It’s not without its faults as there are no perfect countries in the world, but the vast variety of astonishing landscapes and various wildlife found within comes pretty darn close! 

So if you’re looking for an incredible experience, consider planning a trip to any one of these East Coast parks. It’ll surely be a highlight of your year, and hopefully, you’ll get a chance to do so to more than one!

Each of them stands out with qualities hard-pressed found anywhere else. I promise you’ll not be disappointed. No matter which you choose, you’re going to have an amazing adventure! If you live too far, or can’t make it this year, give your local state park a visit. Maybe it’ll motivate you to broaden your horizons in the future!

Well, that’s about it. I bet at the very least sparked some interest in one or more of these intoxicating National Parks. Call me jealous if you get to experience all 8! 

I wish you the best of luck and as always, happy trails!

Author

  • James Ryan

    A seasoned hiker and adventurer who loves to travel and experience new things. An extrovert and creative at heart, James is most definitely a "People Person". He started this blog in the hopes of making somebody's day just a bit brighter!

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