12 Best East Coast National Parks You Need to Visit At Least Once

Last Updated on February 11, 2024 by Nikki Jain

The western half of the United States always gets all the praise for having some of America's best national parks. That often leaves the national parks on the East Coast unrepresented when it comes to the most beautiful national parks.

However, the East Coast national parks are iconic in their own way, having features like rolling tree-covered hills or are great spots to experience the Atlantic Ocean. One park on the list is even America's most visited national park. In this article, we'll take a closer look at some of the best national parks on the East Coast.

We'll explore their unique features and attractions, as well as provide tips for making the most out of your visit. So whether you're planning a family vacation or a solo trip, get ready to discover the incredible East Coast national parks.

Best National Parks on the East Coast, US

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1: Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park, Maine
Dreamstime/F11photo

Every morning, the first rays of sunlight spill over the deep blue Atlantic Ocean, marking the start of a new day in the United States. Acadia National Park in Maine is the Easternmost national park in the continental United States.

The national park's muted, jagged rocks border the vast Atlantic expanse, setting the scene for memorable outdoor adventures. Lighthouses, fall leaves, and the New England coastline are why Acadia National Park is consistently rated as one of the best East Coast National Parks.

Best Things To Do in Acadia

1. Cadillac Mountain

Arguably, the best place to see the sunrise in all of the American national parks is on the top of Cadillac Mountain. This 1530-foot perch is known as a famous sunrise destination because visitors can witness the first rays of sunlight shine upon American soil.

2. Thunder Hole

Boom! Crash! The sounds of a violent thunderstorm are replicated by Acadia’s Thunder Hole. During high tide, the Atlantic brings in waves that fill the cave that is Thunder Hole. This results in the unique occurrence of bone-rattling thunder.

3. Park Loop Road

A quick overview of Acadia National Park can be done via the Park Loop Road. This 27-mile scenic drive goes past highlights of the park like Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Otter Cliff. This drive is the best to get a tour of the whole park.

Best Time to Visit Acadia

A general rule when visiting Acadia National Park is to go between May and October. Weather during this time is pleasant for spending time outdoors. Yet, the best time to experience Acadia National Park is in the month of October when the fall leaves are at their peak. New England is known for its autumn foliage, and Acadia makes for quite a colorful scene in the fall.

Also Read: Best Things To Do in Acadia National Park

2: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
Dreamstime/Daveallenphoto

Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a stunning natural wonder located in the heart of the Eastern United States. With over 500,000 acres of pristine wilderness, it's no wonder that this park is one of the most visited national parks in the country.

Dense forests and rolling hills of the national park cover parts of Tennessee and North Carolina.

Visitors come to experience the best of every season at the park. Although, this forest is at its best when autumn has the leaves turning deep reds, varied colors of oranges, and pops of yellow.

Best Things To Do in the Great Smoky Mountain

1. Hike the Appalachian Trail

The most important activity every visitor needs to do during their trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park is to hike part of the Appalachian Trail. Around 72 miles of the famous trail is located in the park leading through main attractions or deep into the forest.

2. Climb Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is the tallest peak in the national park. To get to the top of the peak, there is a drive and a quick hike up the rest of the mountain. Once visitors have reached the top, an observation tower offers 360-degree views of the surrounding national park.

3. Elk Spotting

Great Smoky boasts an active and lively wildlife population. It is not uncommon for a trip to one of the best parks on the East Coast to result in an exciting time of animal spotting. The bigger animals, like the fan-favorite elk herd, frequent the Cataloochee Valley making it a popular destination in the park.

Best Time to Visit the Great Smoky Mountain

Most people agree that the months of June, July, and October are the best times to visit the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It is important to note that these are often busier months. Great Smoky is the busiest of all the US National Parks, with over 14 million visitors annually. People who prefer a less crowded time must visit during winter and spring.

Also Read: The Best Things To Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

3: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Shenandoah National Park is one of the best national parks on the East Coast due to its breathtaking views, abundant wildlife, and endless hiking trails | Dreamstime/Sborisov

Often overshadowed by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park has under-appreciated natural beauty. Much like its sister park to the south, Shenandoah preserves acres of deciduous forests along the Appalachian Mountains.

Ridges covered with deep green trees as far as the eye can see and miles of trails to explore the forest are why Shenandoah National Park should be added to every East Coast national park's road trip.

Best Things To Do in Shenandoah

1. Hit the Trails

The best way to experience a national park is on the trails; Shenandoah is a testament to that. If visitors of Great Smoky Mountain National Park miss out on the Appalachian trail, they get another chance to explore it in Shenandoah.

The 105 miles of the famous trail wind through the park with numerous access points. Also, the national park flaunts over 500 miles of hikes, some of the most popular being Old Rag Mountain Loop, Dark Hollow Falls Trail, Dickey Ridge Loop, and Mary's Rock.

2. Catch a Sunrise or Sunset

Every morning fog lingers just above the forested hills lining the valleys and the gorges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This haze sets the scene for the iconic sunrise over the Appalachians and is among the most amazing sunrises on the East Coast.

Best Time to Visit Shenandoah

Shenandoah sees an influx of visitors during the summer and fall months. Summer allows for exploring the national park in perfect weather conditions, whereas fall turns Shenandoah into a spectacular array of fall colors.

4: Everglades National Park, Florida

Everglades National Park, Florida
Dreamstime/Giovanni Gagliardi

Everglades National Park in Southern Florida protects a highly influential area of wetlands made up of marshes, mangroves, and pine flatwoods. Everglades are widely regarded as a crucial ecosystem because of the diverse wildlife species that rely on the land.

Everglades National Park is a haven for swamp-like species like the American Alligator, American Crocodile, Floridian Panther, and manatees, along with 360 different species of birds. Everglades is a biologically rich national park that is unlike any other national park on the East Coast.

Best Things To Do in Everglades

1. Shark Valley

Since Everglades National Park is famous, or infamous, for its gator and croc population, visitors must add a sighting to their list. Visitors are almost guaranteed to spot these reptiles during their trip, but to see a congregation of alligators, head to Shark Valley.

2. Take An Airboat Ride

Glide on the waters of the marsh on an airboat ride. An airboat ride is a perfect fun-filled and informational way to experience the Everglades and is an iconic must-do while visiting the park.

3. Anhinga Trail

The most popular trail in the entire park is the short but fruitful Anhinga Trail. This 0.8-mile trail is known for being the best spot to see an extensive array of parks and wildlife, like snapping turtles, anhinga, gators, and more.

Best Time to Visit Everglades

The most enjoyable time to visit Everglades National Park is between November and April. Along with the dry season, visiting the national park during the winter and spring means warm temperatures, fewer pesky bugs, and more wildlife.

5: Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Dreamstime/Serge Skiba

Congaree National Park is a small part of the Congaree Biosphere Reserve, which protects one of the largest bottomland old-growth forests along the East Coast. Most of the National Park is submerged by the Congaree River, and the rest of the park is the floodplain of the river. Although Congaree may be one of the smallest National Parks in the National Park System, it certainly does not disappoint.

Best Things To Do in Congaree

1. Boardwalk Loop Trail

Visitors to Congaree National Park must make sure not to miss the Boardwalk Loop Trail. A total of 2.6 miles roundtrip introduces tourists to the ecosystem of Congaree through information planted throughout the hike. It should also be noted that the Boardwalk Loop Trail is a boarded path accessible to all.

2. Canoeing and Kayaking

The opportunity to explore Congaree up close is too good to pass up. Bring a kayak or canoe to enter the waters at Cedar Creek boat launch, then glide through the National Park on a water adventure. Although the water is slow moving, watch out for fallen trees and other debris.

3. See the Fireflies

For a short two-week period, Congaree National Park experiences the mating ritual of fireflies.

Once a year, fireflies synchronize a flashing pattern in an eye-catching natural phenomenon. This event does draw in a crowd, so spots are limited by the national park via lottery.

Best Time to Visit Congaree

March through May is considered the best time to visit Congaree National Park because of warm temperatures and less humidity. Visitors must be aware of the possibility of rain and/or thunderstorms during this time, as it would be spring.

6: Biscayne National Park, Florida

Biscayne National Park, Florida
Dreamstime/Caleb Lawson

Palm trees, mangroves, white sand, blue waters, reefs, and turtles all in one place sound too good to be true. Believe it or not, this beautiful East Coast national park has it all. Biscayne National Park in southern Florida is the definition of a tropical getaway mixed with some of the nation's best shipwrecks, coral reefs, and sea life.

Best Things To Do in Biscayne

1. Snorkel By The Coral Reefs

Since a vast majority of Biscayne National Park is under the water, visitors must take to the seas to experience it. A common place to go snorkeling is by the "Eye of Miami," also known as Fowey Rock Lighthouse, a historic landmark located in the National Park.

Schools of tropical fish swim around the metal columns at the base of the Lighthouse, making it a perfect spot to enjoy some snorkeling. Another option for snorkeling is by the coral reefs near the Keys or the number of shipwrecks that dot the sea floor.

2. Go Kayaking Or Stand-Up Paddle Boarding in Jones Lagoon

An alternative to snorkeling is kayaking or paddle boarding in the park. Whether tourists choose to be in or on the water, it is essential to gain the full experience of Biscayne.

A popular destination to paddle around is the calm waters of the Jones Lagoon. Tucked away from the motorboat traffic, this serene area brings aquatic life seeking refuge among the mangroves. It is common to see wildlife, like sharks, sea turtles, and fish, swimming about the lagoon.

Best Time to Visit Biscayne

The best time to visit this national park paradise is from November to May. Going to Biscayne through the winter and spring is generally safer because visitors do not have to worry about being at the national park during hurricane season.

7: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Dreamstime/Jiawangkun

Laying claim as the longest-known cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave is truly a wonder of the US National Park System. Mammoth Cave has over 400 miles of explored limestone passages with a potential for having over 600 miles more.

Adventuring through the dark halls of Mammoth Cave, visitors will come across cave features like stalactites, stalagmites, evaporites, helictites, gypsum formations, travertine dams, and more. Mammoth Cave National Park is one of the remarkable East Coast national parks that does not fail to impress all who explore it.

Best Things To Do in Mammoth Cave

1. Historic Tour

At the top of the list of best activities to do in Mammoth Cave National Park is to tour Mammoth Cave. One of the best-rated tours to take through the cave is the Historic Tour.

Mammoth Cave has been subjected to many different uses throughout the years because of its sheer size. This tour takes visitors through the story of the cave and the many beauties hidden inside the cave's darkness. The Historic Tour is the best ranger-led overview of the cave. This tour does fill up quickly, so be sure to book tickets as soon as possible.

2. River Styx Spring

As the rainwater absorbs into the ground and drips down the limestone walls of Mammoth Cave, it is collected and forms rivers throughout the cave system.

One of these caves rivers leaves the cave, and visitors can hike to this point on the River Styx Spring Trail. This beautiful 1.2-mile hike through the Kentucky forest is perfect for anyone wanting to see more of the national parks' distinctive features.

Best Time to Visit Mammoth Cave

Tours through Mammoth Cave National Park are held all year round, and the weather in Kentucky is usually quite mild. However, visiting the national park in the winter is generally better. The park's off-season is from February to November, and during this time, Mammoth Cave experiences fewer visitors making it one of the best parks on the east coast that much more enjoyable.

Also Read: Best Caves & Caverns in the USA

8: New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia
Dreamstime/Jon Bilous

As of 2020, the newest national park to be added to the United States National Park System is New River Gorge National Park. New River Gorge National Park is a steep tree-lined valley that follows a stretch of the New River. Looming over the valley below is the New River Gorge Bridge which is one of the main attractions of the park.

Best Things To Do in New River Gorge

1. Bridge Walk

The Bridge Walk is a spectacular experience only available at the New River Gorge National Park. Get the best view in the National Park while walking on the Bridge Walk that runs underneath the New River Gorge Bridge. Visitors to the park have a unique opportunity unlike anything else in the National Park System.

2. Visit on Bridge Day

Bridge Day is another must-see of the park. Once a year in October, the New River Gorge Bridge is closed to traffic and open to pedestrians. Base Jumpers then jump from the bridge down into the gorge. Bridge Day is one of the reasons that New River Gorge National Park is a remarkable national park on the east coast.

Best Time to Visit New River Gorge

Summer is a good time to visit New River Gorge National Park because the weather is perfect for hiking and sightseeing. On the other hand, the fall brings the National Park into its most picturesque season. During September and October, the trees that cover the park turn beautiful fall colors that accentuate the beauty that is New River Gorge National Park.

Also Read: Essential Things To Pack When Visiting National Parks

9: Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Dreamstime/Maisna

Dry Tortugas National Park off the coast of Florida is one of the most beautiful national parks on the East Coast because it is an island paradise. Every person dreams of sailing on crystal blue waters to come ashore on white sands. Dry Tortugas not only offers this but more incredible island adventures like snorkeling with tropical aquatic life or exploring an abandoned prison.

Best Things To Do in Dry Tortugas

1. Explore Fort Jefferson

Touring Fort Jefferson is one of the most unique things to do in Dry Tortugas. With its many uses throughout its past, including fort, prison, and coating station, Fort Jefferson has a rich American history.

Construction on the Fort began in the 19th century but was never finished. From the three floors, Fort Jefferson offers 360-degree views of the surrounding island and ocean. Learn more about the fort on a ranger-led tour or explore on your own.

2. Snorkel Near the Reefs

Snorkeling is very popular in the Florida Keys, and Dry Tortugas National Park has some fantastic spots to do some underwater exploring. The National Park is known for its snorkeling because of its shipwrecks, coral reefs, tropical aquatic life, and clear waters.

Best Time to Visit Dry Tortugas

Another perk to this Floridian National Park is that it has no off-season. With warm sunny weather year-round, visitors to Dry Tortugas can expect an enjoyable trip to the park. Albeit, the best time to visit Dry Tortugas National Park is from February to April. This time offers the best weather with a lower chance of a hurricane.

10: Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Dreamstime/Kenneth Keifer

Just minutes outside the bustling city of Cleveland, Ohio, are the green and lush forests of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This national park was originally created to combat pollution and the urban expansion of Cleveland and now serves the community as an area to escape the concrete jungle and get into nature.

Although Cuyahoga Valley National Park may not be as jaw-dropping as other national parks in the system, it does have historical and environmental significance making the park worth the visit.

Best Things To Do in Cuyahoga Valley

1. Travel the Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail

The Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail is almost 90 miles of paved trail that follows the Cuyahoga River. Bring bikes or walking shoes and travel the same path the mules did when they pulled boats up and down the Erie Canal. From 1827 to 1913, the Ohio and Erie Towpath was used as such, but now it is a popular walking path for local Ohioans.

2. Visit the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

Another must-see in the National Park is the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. This railroad runs from Akron to Rockside Station, and visitors to the park can ride the train if they wish. There are different ways to experience the railroad, like themed rides, dinner on the train, or riding the entire length of the tracks.

Best Time to Visit Cuyahoga Valley

Cuyahoga Valley National Park experiences lots of snow and cold temperatures during the winter. It can also experience very hot and humid weather during the summer because of its proximity to the lakes. This means the best time to visit one of the most unique East Coast national parks is from September to October or April to May.

11: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Flickr/Joe Ross

Near the Michigan-Canada border is an island in the middle of Lake Superior. This remote piece of land is protected as Isle Royale National Park. Isle Royale is among the best East Coast national parks because the isolated isle preserves untouched America. With few amenities and even less cell service, visitors can fully immerse in flora and fauna at Isle Royale National Park.

Best Things To Do in Isle Royale

1. Take a Hike

To fully experience the wilderness of Isle Royale, it is best to take a hike. The island has over 165 miles of trails that offer scenic views of forests, lakes, and waterfalls. From beginner trails like Rock Harbor Trail to challenging ones like Greenstone Ridge Trail, hikers can choose from a range of options based on their fitness level and preference. Along the way, visitors might come across moose, wolves or even foxes.

2. Kayaking

Another popular activity is kayaking around Isle Royale's coastline. Kayakers can explore deserted beaches and hidden coves while enjoying crystal clear waters under blue skies without any distractions from modern-day technology.

Best Time to Visit Isle Royale

The biggest limitations that are put on visitors when they try to visit Isle Royale National Park are the weather and transportation to and from the park. Because of its geographic location on the water, Isle Royale gets brutal winters.

These conditions make getting to the island difficult, so the ferries only run at certain times of the year. April to September is generally the best time to visit Isle Royale, National Park.

Also Read: 15 Least Visited National Parks in the USA You Must Explore

12: Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park is among the best East Coast national parks with its historic bathhouses | Dreamstime/Zrfphoto

In the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas, there is a national park that combines America's natural beauty with its historic past. Hot Springs National Park is a series of preserved historic bathhouses that use the hot springs that are naturally there. Hot Springs is truly unique among the national parks because nothing else is like it.

Best Things To Do in Hot Springs

1. Explore the Historic Bathhouse Row

If visitors do one thing while visiting the park, they should wander around Bathhouse Row. There are eight bathhouses to explore, each with its history and charm.

2. Hiking

Take a hike up to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower for breathtaking views of the Ouachita Mountains and downtown Hot Springs. The tower stands 216 feet tall and provides visitors with an observation deck that offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding area. It’s an easy hike up to the tower that takes you through beautiful gardens and forests.

3. Garvan Woodland Gardens

Visit Garvan Woodland Gardens, which sprawls over 210 acres of woodland forest along Lake Hamilton's shores. The garden has over six miles of walking trails where guests can view various landscapes on foot or by golf cart tour.

Best Time to Visit Hot Springs

Since most of the attractions in the park are water, it is probably best to visit when it is not cold out. The best time to visit Hot Springs National Park is from August to October or February to April.

Tips for visiting the East Coast national parks

It is essential for people who are planning to visit these national parks to be prepared and knowledgeable about the national park itself.

There are a few general rules to follow regarding one's visit so that they are not only safe but also get the most out of their exploration of the East Coast national parks.

Leave No Trace is a practice that is enforced by the US National Park System. This motto is the simple yet effective policy to leave the park like it is and not leave behind trash or other human waste that would disturb the delicate balance of the environment.

The best way to experience a national park is on the trails, but it can also become dangerous if a hiker is unprepared. If visitors plan to do any hiking in the parks, be sure to pack layers of clothing, bring extra water, and be sure to be aware of their surroundings at all times.

Another valuable piece of information is to grab a map at the park entrance or research before you get there to know how best to spend time. Both of these will be very helpful when navigating national parks.

Looking for extra information or wanting to learn more about the park? Stop in a visitor center. National Park Rangers are the best people to refer to for guidance at the park because they know the most current conditions for roads and trails and can also give you recommendations on what they think is the must-sees of the national park.

Rounding up the best East Coast national parks

The East Coast has some phenomenal national parks that often get overlooked for some of the more grand parks in the system. But this list of the best East Coast national parks goes to show that the East Coast has its fair share of incredible national parks worth seeing. Whether you live on the East Coast or just visiting, be sure to add exploring one of the beautiful national parks on the eastern half of the United States.

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