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8 of the Best National Parks on the East Coast

Visiting a national park can be quite the experience. One that might bring a whole new outlook. You could gain a greater appreciation for nature, lessen the stress of your day-to-day, or re-evaluate the important things in life. Or you could go because you love exploring! The point is that national parks are deeply rooted in what makes living so special. 

Normally when talking about the big sites, names like the Grand Canyon, Mt. Hood, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Yosemite are brought up, but there are so many more “lesser known” public preserves that are absolutely must-sees! Yes, the previously mentioned parks are awesome and all, but don’t forget, the East Coast has a lot to offer. 

Which brings me to the point of this article. What are the best national parks on the East Coast and why do people come to them? What are their main attractions? Why should you consider going? What makes them unique? 

In this piece, I plan to answer all of that and more! I’ll review the very best each has to offer and what makes them worthwhile. I’ll start with the least visited and work my way to the most popular spot! I bet after you finish reading this, you’ll fall in love with at least one of these and head to it on some future outing! You’re welcome in advance! 

Ok, enough stalling. There’s a load of info to cover, so let’s dive into the best East Coast National Parks. Ready? Great, let’s go! 

8 Must – Vist East Coast National Parks

8. Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)

Size: Approximately 64,701 acres (mostly water) 

Annual Visitors: Around 80,000

Dry Tortugas National Park - east coast national park

Few people (80,000 visitors), relatively speaking, come to this park each year, and for good reason. It’s extremely remote. Even though it’s arguably one of the most stunning on the list, Dry Tortugas National Park sits in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 70 miles west of Key West and 106 miles north of Cuba. No roads to this park, all travel to and from is by boat or seaplane only. 

What makes up for the trouble of getting there is the unfathomable beauty you’ll find! It’s surrounded by crystal clear waters, pristine coral reefs, a wide array of sea and avian wildlife and so much more. 

As you can guess, water lovers especially enjoy it since it contains some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the entire region, as well as fishing, boating, and recreational swimming. Staying on land is no problem either, you can camp here if you so want to. 

The highlight of the park is Fort Jefferson. The 19th-century fort has been used for many different purposes throughout the centuries as a military installation, re-fueling point, refuge, and prison, dating way back to the early 1800s. It even has a famous inmate.  Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who cared for John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg. Weird! 

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! 

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7. Congaree National Park (South Carolina)

Size: Approximately 26,276 acres

Annual Visitors: Around 160,000

Congaree National Park in Kentucky - one of the best east coast national parks

Congaree National Park is next up. It’s situated about 30 minutes southeast of Colombia, South Carolina, but feels like a different planet. It’s on the smaller side, only about 40 square miles, but it’s packed full of so much biodiversity, that it’ll make any ecologist blush. It kind of reminds me of Yoda’s home planet from Star Wars! Eerie! 

The standout trait of the park has to be the ancient trees that loom over the seasonal floodplain below. These goliaths, named “Champion trees”, are the largest of their kind and dwarf all nearby competitors. The forest itself contains the largest collection of old-growth bottomland hardwoods left in the U.S. Incredible! 

Speaking of the floodplain,10 separate times per year the nearby Congaree River floods into the park, soaking it with vital nutrients and sustaining the local plant and animal life. One of the most 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 main feature 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. 

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6. Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky) 

Size: Approximately 54,011 acres

Annual Visitors: Around 500,000

Mammoth Cave National Park

Kentucky might not qualify as “East Coast” for some of you but this park is so interesting, I had to include it! Unbelievably, this is the location of the largest cave system in the world. Yep, you read that right. Can you believe it’s here, in the good ole U.S.? Crazy! 

It’s unimaginable how far these passages go but cave scientists (or speleologists, yes I had to look that up) have certainly tried! So far, they’ve surveyed more than 400 miles throughout the Cave but estimate there could be somewhere around 200 more, waiting to be explored. Not it! For a frame of reference, Sistema Sac Actun the second largest cave, is a mere 234 miles long. What a difference! 

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! 

5. Biscayne National Park (Florida)

Size: Approximately 172,971 acres (mostly water) 

Annual Visitors: Around 700,000

Biscayne National Park

If flying or boating to Dry Tortugas National Park isn’t really an option for you, yet you’d still like a sea-based adventure, check out Biscayne National Park. It’s right off the coast and only an hour south of Miami. It too is mostly ocean since 95% of the total area is covered by water, but unlike Dry Tortugas, you can drive right up to this park. It even comes with a bonus.

Shipwrecks! 6 to be precise. All of which are placed along the highly toured Maritime Heritage Trail. If you aren’t SCUBA qualified, don’t worry, only half of them require scuba gear to be fully explored. Thankfully 3 of the 6 are perfectly fine to explore with a mask and snorkel. 

Besides the draw to the seafloor, many visitors seek out the variety of marine habitats and ecosystems available in the park. Here’s a brief breakdown of the main 4 – 

  • Coral Reefs: For incredible beauty, dip under the surface and witness the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States! A diver’s paradise!
  • Biscayne Bay: The bay is a boater’s dream. This is the place to go for local wildlife. The shallow waters host many animals, including manatees, sea turtles, and a vast collection of fish. Perfect for an afternoon swim! 
  • Florida Keys: If you need a break from the water, spend a few hours on the Florida Key’s northernmost island, Elliott Key. It’s packed with scenic beauty, exploration, camping, picnicking, fishing, and of course some of the best beaches in southern Florida.
  • Mangrove Forests: Saving the best for last, at least to me, are the mangrove forests that litter the coast of the mainland. Rent a kayak and spend a few hours getting lost inside the rows of puzzling trees. A strange but fantastic way to experience the park. 

Overall, Biscayne National Park is a great choice for everyone. Couples, families, or soloists, it doesn’t matter. If you’re looking for fun in the water or relaxation under the sun, this is a must. Give it a look next time you’re in the Miami area! 

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4. Everglades National Park (Florida)

Size: Approximately 1,508,976 acres

Annual Visitors: Around 1 million

Everglades National Park

Before I get into what to do, I have to say that Everglades National Park is huge! It’s the 3rd largest national park in the Lower 48. If you want to see all the sights and sounds, you’ll need at least 3 days to do so. Plan accordingly if you make the trip! 

The great thing about being so large is all the wonderful activities the park provides. Bikers, hikers, bird watchers, boaters, campers, and everybody else will find something to do at Everglades. On land or sea, this place has it all! 

If you’re a huge wildlife enthusiast, you’re in for a treat. 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 which is full of alligators, turtles, fish, anhingas, and many other birds! If you’d rather ride in style, check out the Shark Valley tram tour for a guided experience that’s sure to leave you impressed! 

A local favorite is hopping on an airboat tour! They’ll get you up close and personal with more than 200,000 alligators estimated to be living here. Besides the abundance of those fearsome creatures, there are also plenty of snakes, fish, and maybe even a Florida panther lurking in the bush, just waiting to be discovered! 

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

The Everglades is one of the most well-known east coast parks and for good reason. There’s so much to see and do, it’s truly hard to list them all! 

3. Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

Size: Approximately 199,223 acres

Annual Visitors: Approximately 1.4 million

Fall foliage skyline drive - Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is a nature lover’s nirvana. Coming here is like jumping into an impressionist painting, especially during the autumn months. The yellows, oranges, and reds of the color-shifting leaves will leave you speechless. Very few places in the country, let alone the world, capture the type of organic magic found at Shenandoah. 

Even though SNP lies 70 miles west of our nation’s capital, it’s in a world of its own. The entire park is riddled with delightful waterfalls, epic views, infinite wildflowers, gorgeous vistas, and wooded hollows. it’s wonderful!  

What’s even more amazing is you can experience all of it from the comfort of your car. If you do nothing else, you have to take a ride down The Skyline Drive, one of America’s most charming road trips! It’s not just a quick and lazy way to see some pretty things, it’s a journey in itself. If you look up the “Best Scenic Drives” in the U.S., you’re bound to spot it somewhere on the list. 

The park also ranks high with hikers and backpackers who love a challenge and the payoff for their hard work. Shenandoah National Park has some of the best hikes on the east coast.

Newbies and experts alike flock to Old Rag Mountain, one of Shenandoah National Park’s most popular hiking destinations. 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 to go, you won’t be disappointed!

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2. Acadia National Park (Maine)

Size: Approximately 49,052 acres

Annual Visitors: Approximately 4 million

Acadia National Park
Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

Where the forest meets the ocean! This stunning park is almost completely located on Mount Desert Island, Maine’s largest, and the second largest overall along the East Coast. Don’t let that fool you though, there are plenty of things to see and do. 

For example, if you love a mesmerizing sunrise, Arcadia National Park is the place to be. Between October and March, the summit of Cadillac Mountain is the very first place the shimmering light of the sun hits the U.S. What a way to start your day! If you’re not an early bird, no matter, the 360-degree views from the top are certainly worth the trip. 

If you’re afraid of heights or hate getting up early, check out another one of Acadia’s best hotspots, Jordan Pond. There you’ll find a pristine lake ideal for active kayakers or peaceful explorers. While you’re there, stop over at Jordan Pond House for a delicious lunch or tasty treat! It gets great reviews

Another stand-out feature of ANP is the staggering stargazing that fills the heavens each night. Every year, amateur astronomers come from around the world for a chance to capture the magnificent night sky. The reason? It’s location and the lack of light pollution. For fabulous views of the Milky Way, come in July or August!

If you love rugged scenery, glorious views, and phenomenal landscapes, don’t skip Acadia National Park! 

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

Size: Approximately 522,427 acres

Annual Visitors: Over 12 million

Smoky Mountains National Park

Taking up the number one spot is none other than Great Smoky Mountains National Park! A fascinating place and the most popular park on the entire East Coast. More than 12 million people explore 800 square miles of raw countryside each year. That’s a lot of people, and park! 

Leading the way is Cades Cove, an area full of history and natural beauty. If you are a history buff, you can take a tour through some of the 90 historic buildings found in the park on the famous 11-mile loop. 

The first, and oldest, is John Oliver’s cabin which was built over 200 years ago! You’ll also see 3 churches, a working grist mill, barns, different 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 an adrenaline junkie, the Gatlinburg Skybridge is calling your name. It’s a shocking, yet impressive feat of human achievement, that holds the record for the longest pedestrian cable bridge in North America! It stretches close to 700 feet across a deep valley and 150 feet above it! If that doesn’t get your heart pumping, I don’t know what will! 

Other great spots for compelling views include Clingman’s Dome, the forth highest point on the east coast, 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

Conclusion: Exploring the East Coast’s Best National Parks

The U.S. is an incredible place containing a vast variety of astonishing landscapes and various wildlife. It’s full of some of the most magical places in the entire world! It’s not a perfect country by any means, but some of the landscapes come pretty darn close to what I would call perfection. 

I use any one of these parks as an example. If you get a chance to visit, I’m sure you’d agree! They’ll surely be a highlight of your year, and probably, your life. Each stands out with qualities rarely found anywhere else, and I promise if you go, you’ll never forget it!

Well, that wraps it up. At the very least, I hope I sparked some interest in one or more of these inspiring National Parks. If you get to experience all 8, all the better! 

Best of luck and as always, happy trails!