Attractions

7 East Coast National Parks that You Can’t Miss

Photo Credit: National Park Service

When you think of visiting a US National Park you probably think about heading out west, right?

I know I do. But that isn’t your only option.

In fact, there are 7 US National Parks on the East Coast.

Whether you live on the East Coast and are looking for a weekend getaway, or you are looking for reasons to visit the East Coast, I think you’ll love what these East Coast National Parks have to offer.

Make sure you don’t miss out on some of the national parks that make up the best caves in the US either.

7 Best East Coast National Parks

Picking the “best” East Coast national park is kind of impossible.

How do you compare the swamps of the Everglades to the mountains in Shenandoah?

You can’t! That’s why this list is in no particular order!

1. Acadia National Park

Absolutely don’t miss: Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park and has an elevation of 1,528 feet. Because of its elevation and location, Cadillac Mountain boasts our nation’s first sunrise.

Acadia National Park is located on the coast of Maine.

It is the oldest National Park east of the Mississippi River.

Acadia is comprised of islands, mountains, coastal views, wooded areas, and lakes.

There are hiking trails and a paved road for driving to the top if watching the sunrise in Acadia is something that interests you.

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park Photo Credit: National Park Service

2. Shenandoah National Park

Absolutely don’t miss: Skyline Drive and the scenic views along the 105-mile road. It is the only public road through the park and it has 75 different scenic lookout points.

Shenandoah National Park is located in Virginia and is only 75 miles away from Washington, D.C.

The Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the larger Appalachian Mountain Range, span 8 states all the way from Georgia to Pennsylvania and contain two US National Parks.

Shenandoah is one of those National Parks, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (below) is the other.

There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails within the park (including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail) that lead to waterfalls and scenic views.

If you would like to stay over night, the park offers accommodations including a lodge, a resort, cabins, and camping.

Shenandoah is especially wonderful for families with young children, elderly, or anyone with limited mobility. Of course most national parks offer strenuous activities like hiking for nature lovers.

Shenandoah certainly has its share of difficult hiking paths, but the views you can see directly from Skyline Drive are what make this national park special to me.

Skyline Drive

My family made a trip out to Shenandoah when my son was only 6 weeks old. We had been locked up in the house feeding and changing the baby all day long and needed some new scenery.

Shenandoah was just perfect. We were able to rent a cabin near Luray, Virginia and enjoy spectacular views while tending to our newborn.

When we had energy to venture outside of our cabin, we found that just driving Skyline Drive was perfect.

The scenic lookouts were great for stopping and snapping some pictures and enjoying some fresh air without walking away from the car. When our son was sleeping we didn’t even need to take him out of the car seat.

The park rangers were very helpful with giving recommendations on short hikes so that we could go explore without getting too far from the car in case baby started crying and needed to go back home. One of the hikes was even suitable for strollers or wheelchairs.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park Photo Credit: National Park Service

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Absolutely don’t miss: Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and offers fantastic 360 degree views.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located between North Carolina and Tennessee.

It is the most visited of all US National Parks.

Auto touring is a great way to see the park, especially in the fall when the leaves start to change colors. When you are ready to get out of the car there are plenty of outdoor activities to participate in such as hiking, bicycling, fishing, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing.

There are no Great Smoky Mountain cabin rentals in the traditional sense. Nothing that you can drive up to and check in for the night at least.

The only Great Smoky Mountain lodging available inside the park, other than camp sites, is the LeConte Lodge on top of Mount Le Conte.

The shortest hiking trail to get to the Lodge is over 5 miles, and the easiest trail to get there is 6.5 miles. Once you get to the top there is no electricity and no showers, but if roughing it is your style then you’ll certainly consider the view from the top worth the stay.

If you are looking for more traditional accommodations (hotels, cabins, B&Bs), your best bet is to plan to stay in one of the communities outside of the park and travel into the park during the days.

Clingmans Dome

4. Congaree National Park

Absolutely don’t miss: The Boardwalk Loop is 2.4 miles long and an excellent way to see the hardwood forest and wildlife without ever getting into the swamp. It has benches along the way and is wheelchair and stroller accessible.

Congaree National Park is located in South Carolina and only recently became designated a National Park in 2003.

The park has the largest stretch of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the United States.

Kayaking or canoeing on Cedar Creek is a great way to see the park.

Keep your eye out for wildlife such as river otters, turtles, birds, or even an alligator.

5. Biscayne National Park

Absolutely don’t miss: Snorkeling at the third largest coral reef system in the world.

Unlike the parks mentioned above, Biscayne National Park is 95% water and is best explored by boat.

Biscayne is south of Miami and is on the northernmost part of the Florida Keys.

There are no entrance fees for the park but there are fees associated with overnight docking of your boat or tent camping on one of the islands in the park.

Access to most of the park, such as the coral reef, requires boat access.

Speaking of coral, the park protects the northern most part of the Florida Reef, which is the third biggest living coral reef in the world. The Florida Reef is the only one of its kind in the continental US.

Take a boat out or book a guided tour and go explore the park and all that it offers. Keep an eye out for wildlife such as birds, fish, crocodiles, manatees, dolphins, and maybe even a shark.

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park with Miami Skyline in the Background Photo Credit: National Park Service

6. Dry Tortugas National Park

Absolutely don’t miss: All 299 species of birds. Seriously, they give you a checklist. I bet you can’t find all of them!

Also in Florida, but on the other end of the Florida Keys, is Dry Tortugas National Park.

The park is located about 70 miles west of Key West and is primarily water, but also includes seven small islands.

It is only accessible by boat or sea plane, and there are no services available on the islands. Camping is allowed but all food, water, and necessary supplies must be brought with you and taken home when you leave.

Although a trip to Tortugas National Park requires a bit of planning, once you get in the teal waters you’ll definitely consider the trip worthwhile.

Whether you prefer snorkeling or diving, you’re bound to see a variety of brightly colored fish throughout the coral reef and numerous shipwrecks throughout the park.

7. Everglades National Park

Absolutely don’t miss: The alligators and crocodiles. On second thought, do miss them, and instead, observe them from a distance.

The final National Park located in Florida is, of course, the Everglades.

The Everglades National Park protects a very fragile ecosystem and is home to many endangered species such as the Florida Panther, West Indian Manatee, and American Crocodile.

There are many ways to enjoy the park and to search for wildlife.  

Everglades National Park offers opportunity for hiking down boardwalk trails, canoeing, kayaking, boating, and bicycling.  Many of these activities are also available through Park Ranger led programs or through guided tours to help you learn more about the park during your visit.

Everglades National Park

Alligator and Young in Everglades National Park Photo Credit: R. Cammauf / National Park Service

Which East Coast National Park is your favorite?

Which is your favorite of these East Coast National Parks?  Are you surprised to learn that there are so many to choose from?  

Let me know in the comment section below and be sure to check out my favorite West Coast National Parks too!