These must-see east coast national parks are ones to add to your travel bucket list. While the east coast may not always come to mind when thinking of a national parks trip, these 11 parks have so much to offer. The diverse landscapes in these national parks are expansive, from mountain top views to hot springs and protected coral reefs. Many can be grouped on a road trip or explored on their own. We’ll cover the best national parks east of the Mississippi plus a bonus park, so come along for the fun.
Must-See East Coast National Parks
Acadia National Park
Ale, Sea Salt & Fog
Located in Bar Harbor, Maine
Acadia National Park is a quintessential east coast national park known for its wild, rocky shore, pristine lakes, and colorful fall foliage. The two best seasons in the park are summer and fall. During the summer months, you can enjoy a dip in the icy New England waters, hike or bike the miles of carriage roads, and watch the most stunning sunrises. Meanwhile, the fall months bring vibrant shades of reds and oranges to the park and make for spectacular vistas. There are many things to do in Acadia, but you can’t leave the park without experiencing the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain. Get up early, pack some blankets, and snuggle up as you watch the sun begin to dance above the shore, illuminating the mountain in shades of pink.
When visiting, make the town of Bar Harbor your home base – the park entrance is right outside making for a convenient home base. Note that the park is popular, especially during the summer and fall months so you’ll want to book your Acadia vacation rental or hotel in advance. Additionally, if you plan to drive to Cadillac Mountain for sunrise, you’ll need to make reservations. Spend the rest of your time in Acadia driving or visiting the sights along the Park Loop Road, a picturesque stretch of road that includes Thunder Hole, Sand Beach, and Jordan Pond.
Stick around Cadillac Mountain after sunrise for an hour or so. Most people leave right after the sun shows up, but there’s a little loop at the top of the mountain you can walk with breathtaking views and you’ll have it mostly to yourself.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Umiko from Two Worlds Treasures
Located in Peninsula, Ohio
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a green space between Cleveland and Akron in northeast Ohio. The park is a mix of deep forests, rolling hills, farmland, and rivers on a 33,000-acres of land. Cuyahoga Valley National Park may be little known, but it is one of the most visited national parks in the U.S. Fall is the best time to visit Cuyahoga Valley when the leaves change color and average temperatures are in the low 70s. Summer is also a favorite, too, especially for out-of-town visitors who come during school break and people looking for outdoor adventures.
A visit to Brandywine Falls is a must when you visit the park. A short walk on the boardwalk will take you to a roaring 60-foot waterfall. Try to arrive before 10 am or after 4 pm as this is the most popular location in the park. The Ledges Trail is a popular hike with striking rock formations and stunning views. The most unique feature of this national park is the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad that runs through the park. Kids love it and it’s a great way to explore the park in a new way.
Peninsula, Brecksville, Independence, and Richfield are a few of the towns nearby that are convenient to stay in when visiting this great east coast national park. You can stay at the Stanford House or Inn at Brandywine Falls inside the park or check out nearby hotels. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a great family-friendly national park. Even better, there are no park reservations or park fees required. As with other favorite destinations, start early in the morning to beat the crowds. Furthermore, it is one of the most dog-friendly national parks, just like Acadia National Park in Maine.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Almost There Adventures
Located in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave National Park includes almost 53,000 acres in southcentral Kentucky. The park has rolling hills, historic buildings, and river valleys, but it’s best known for having the world’s longest cave system. There are 80 miles of hiking and biking trails as well as fishing and stargazing programs above ground within the park.
The main sight to see is underground with the impressive network of cave systems. To view the caves a tour is required, and reservations are strongly recommended as they frequently sell out weeks in advance. There are quite a few options for cave tours, with varying lengths of time, as well as ones that are good for kids and accessibility limitations. There’s a summary of the cave tours as well as how to make a reservation here.
For accommodations, while visiting the park there are historic cottages and the Lodge at Mammoth Cave within the park. There is National Park Service managed camping, hotels in Cave City as well as vacation rentals. There is no entrance fee to explore the above-ground areas of the park, only a fee for the cave tours.
Shenandoah National Park
Erin Gifford, Go Hike Virginia
Located in Luray, Virginia
Shenandoah National Park welcomes visitors with spectacular mountain panoramas, verdant green meadows, and mesmerizing waterfalls. This east coast national park has more than 75 pull-offs and overlooks along the 105-mile Skyline Drive implore park-goers to stop and take in the views.
Every season gives the park a new look. Colorful wildflowers line the trails in spring, while amber and fiery orange leaves drape the mountainous landscape in fall. More than 500 miles of hiking trails allow visitors to explore the park on foot. Plan a hike to Dark Hollow Falls, the most popular waterfall in the national park.
Book a stay at one of the two in-park lodges, including Skyland and Big Meadows Lodge. Both have outdoor patios, on-site restaurants, and easy access to hiking trails. There are also four family campgrounds. Outside the park, look to the towns of Front Royal, Luray, or Waynesboro for plenty of hotels or vacation rentals close to the park entrances.
Kids can pick up a Junior Ranger activity booklet at either of the two in-park visitor centers to complete and earn a Junior Ranger badge. Plan to arrive at hiking trailheads early as this is the most popular activity in the park and parking lots can fill up quickly. Post-hike, stop in either of the two restaurants on Skyline Drive for a slice of the park’s signature mile-high blackberry ice cream pie.
New River Gorge National Park
Almost There Adventures
Located in Glen Jean, West Virginia
This is the newest, 63rd national park and for a very good reason, it protects 53 miles of the New River and 70,000 acres of gorges. The park offers breath-taking views from the rim of the gorge, white water rafting, as well as hiking and climbing you can’t get elsewhere.
The New River is one of the oldest rivers on the continent and is one of the only rivers that flows from south to north.
The canyon rim is one of the main areas of the park. This is where you will find the New River Gorge Bridge as well as hiking and biking trails. Stroll along the Canyon Rim Boardwalk from the visitor center for two minutes to the upper lookout and you get a beautiful view of the gorge and bridge. A great thing about this park is the hikes are short and perfect for families with kids. The most popular hikes are the Long Point Trail and the Endless Wall Trail but other favorites are the Castle Trail as well as the Grandview View Loop. If you want more adventure check out the Kaymoor Miners trail where you can see some unique old mining structures. While this hike is only 1.6 miles it does include lots of stairs and is more strenuous than the others. The Grandview Overlook is a great spot in the morning to view the mist and cloud-filled valley while hearing the sounds of the train below.
There is no lodging inside this park. Fayetteville is the most convenient nearby town to stay in to be close to the park and has some hotels, but options can be limited. Beckley (30min drive to most sights) has more lodging options and you can find hotels here. There currently are no entrance fees for this park but it’s always good to check the National Park Service website as this can change.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Michelle Stelly, The Wandering Queen
Located in Tennessee and North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. It’s a popular east coast national park because it’s so accessible to many surrounding communities. The park is filled with stunning mountains, fantastic waterfalls, wildlife, and much more. It got its name because of the whitish-blue mistiness that you can see from Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome, or Charles Bunion in the early morning.
To experience the unique fall colors, you have to go during the middle of October. The trees turn bright orange and yellow. Every hike you do is filled with colorful trees. One of the best hikes to do is Abrams Falls. The hike is pretty moderate and has excellent fall colors. You can hike this trail right after visiting the popular Cades Cove. Find more info on hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The best place to stay near the national park is in Gatlinburg, and it has many restaurants, hotels, and bars. There are many great hotels and vacation rental homes in Gatlinburg. The best way to beat the crowds in the Great Smoky Mountains is by getting up early. Sunrise has fewer crowds and less chance of being in standstill traffic for hours. This is also a great way to see the foggy mist at Cades Cove.
Congaree National Park
Almost There Adventures
Located in Hopkins, South Carolina
Congaree National Park contains over 20,000 acres of federally designated wilderness that visitors can explore either on foot or by kayak or canoe. It’s an easy park to see in one day as it’s one of the smallest national parks in the US. The best time to visit Congaree is either in the spring or fall. During the summer months, temps can be high and mosquitos are at their peak.
The majority of the hiking trails begin from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. The most popular trail, the Boardwalk Loop Trail, is great for those short on time as well as families with kids. It’s an easy, 2.6 miles raised boardwalk trail that is accessible and provides a nice overview of the park. If you have more time canoeing or kayaking Cedar Creek is another great option. Congaree National Park lies within the floodplain of the Congaree River and flooding can happen frequently. It’s a good idea to check the National Park Service website before a visit as they post any alerts.
If you happen to be visiting Mid-May through Mid-June there is the Congaree Fireflies Festival where fireflies synchronously flash their light while searching for a mate. To protect the habitat of this rare species of fireflies, the park can only be accessed with tickets at night during this time. Tickets are made available through a lottery system through recreation.gov typically at the end of March but it varies yearly.
There is no fee to enter the park and it’s open 24hours. Camping is the only overnight accommodation available in the park. Nearby hotel accommodations can be found in the city of Columbia, approximately 20 minutes from the park.
Hot Springs National Park
Disha Smith, Disha Discovers
Located in Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park is known for its forty-seven natural hot springs and beautiful mountain views. The water in the springs is filled with minerals that can help relieve minor ailments. Also, there are over thirty miles of hiking trails that zig-zag through the Ouachita Mountains. Hot Springs National Park is the oldest protected area within the national park system, and it’s also the smallest national park in the system at 5,500 acres. The best time to visit this east coast national park is from fall through spring. You’ll get to see gorgeous fall foliage, stay cool while hiking, see the wildflowers in bloom in spring, and avoid the summer crowds.
One of the best hikes in Hot Springs National Park is the Hot Springs Mountain Trail. This 3.3-mile hike takes you to an observation tower that offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valley. In fact, hiking this trail is one of the best things to do in Hot Springs. There are kid-friendly trails within the park, and kids will enjoy seeing some of the cascading springs. Something to keep in mind is that visitors can’t soak in the hot springs inside the park. Soaking is only allowed in two bathhouses – Quapaw and Buckstaff.
The park is located in the city of Hot Springs, and there are plenty of hotel or vacation rental options there. Entrance to the park is free and reservations are not required. An insider tip is to park in the free parking garage located at 128 Exchange Street. Street parking near the park is hard to find and is paid parking. This is our bonus park just west of the Mississippi River, but it’s a great one to group on a road trip with some of the surrounding parks.
Biscayne National Park
Jami, Celiac Travel Pack
Located in Homestead, Florida
Biscayne National Park is different from most other east coast national parks because it’s 95% underwater. The only part of Biscayne accessible from land is the visitor center. The park is home to four distinct ecosystems; the mangroves, the bay, the keys, and the coral reef. Guides will boast that the park is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems you can visit. Biscayne protects one of the largest reef systems in the world. Since the park is in south Florida it is busiest from December to April when park-goers are escaping cold weather. Unfortunately, that means the busiest time is also the best time to visit the park. Afternoon thunderstorms and hurricane season could impact your trip if you come from May-November.
There is no fee to enter the park but you’ll need to book a tour if you want to see more than the visitor center. All tours are operated by Biscayne National Park Institute, a non-profit partner of the park. There are tours suitable for any age if you’re traveling with kids. Many of the guides grew up around the park so be sure to ask for their restaurant recommendations when your tour is over. I’d recommend kayaking around the mangroves where you’ll hopefully see a manatee or other wildlife. If you’re more adventurous you can go snorkeling at the reef or along the maritime heritage trail of shipwrecks. Since you’ll be in water that is home to protected coral reefs make sure to wear reef-safe sunscreen as many are not. There are vacation rentals or hotels in Homestead or Florida City to be close to the park.
Stay in Homestead, FL, and explore both Biscayne and Everglades National Park in one trip. Dry Tortugas is also close by.
Everglades National Park
Debbie Fettback, WorldAdventurists.com
Located in Homestead, Florida (three park entrances in various cities)
Everglades National Park is well-known for searching for alligators, but there is also so much more to discover than most realize. Everglades National Park is one of the great biological wonders of the world and is classified as a world heritage site. It is the largest subtropical wilderness in the US, a wetland of international importance, and an international biosphere reserve.
With four unique visitor centers to explore, you could easily plan several different adventures. Each visitor center offers different things to see, learn and experience, providing plenty to keep the kids engaged. Everglades National Park has three entrances in three different cities and the entrances are not interconnected. The best time to explore Everglades National Park is between December and April when the low humidity and dry season provide the most comfortable weather.
Don’t miss taking an Everglades airboat ride to search for modern-day dinosaurs and other wildlife. This is a fun way to get out on the water and experience everything this east coast national park has to offer. If you are visiting the Everglades with kids they will love this. You will also find many hiking and biking trails, boating, and bird watching opportunities within the park.
For accommodations, Everglades City is located on the park’s western border and has hotel options. You can also camp in the park for added adventure.
Alligators may look lethargic as they relax on dry land. Do not let that tempt you to get too close; they can react faster than you realize.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Nicole Miller, A Florida Traveler
Located West of Key West, Florida in the Gulf of Mexico
With clear turquoise water and a historic fort, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most unique destinations in the United States. It is located 70 miles off the coast of Key West and is only accessible by boat or plane. The best time to visit the park is anywhere from November to April.
Fort Jefferson is at the heart of the island featuring brick walls that once used to play a crucial part in the Civil War and even earlier history of combating piracy in the Caribbean. You can explore the fort or jump straight into the water activities. The park is home to some of the best coral reefs in Florida. Snorkeling and diving are some of the most popular things people love to do while at the park. There are dozens of species of wildlife that can be spotted including fish, turtles, birds and so much more. One of the most unique experiences you can have is to camp on the island under the stars. You can find more information on camping in Dry Tortugas here.
Since the island is so remote, you can only get there by boat or plane. There is a ferry from Key West to Dry Tortugas that takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes. The ferry cost and hours can be found here. If you have your own boat you can travel down to the keys and access Dry Tortugas, but you will need a free boat permit at the park. The Key West Seaplane is also an option to get to Dry Tortugas and only takes about 40 minutes. You will be able to see the gorgeous crystal blue water and if you’re lucky can spot wildlife from above. There is a limited number of spots for either the ferry or seaplane so you will want to make reservations months in advance.
Which East Coast National Park will you visit?
Lastly, this list of the best east coast national parks has so much to offer and many can be grouped into a multi-park road trip or take more time and visit them each on their own. If you’re looking for more information on visiting the national parks with kids check here or our road trip tips with kids. Find us on social or comment below and let us know which east coast national parks are your favorite!