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Even though most travelers will flock to the west coast to see some of America’s natural beauty, you may be shocked to learn that there are some incredible east coast national parks! (Seriously, it’s true!)
All up and down the east coast there are some national parks and forests that are just waiting to be explored. What’s even better is that these tend to be a lot less visited than the parks on the west coast (especially compared to places like Arches, Zion, and Rocky Mountain National Park), meaning that you can enjoy quite a bit more peace than you would on the west coast.
So, what are you waiting for? Keep reading to learn all about the best east coast national parks.
For the purpose of this post, any national park on the eastern half of the United States is considered a park on the east coast.
New River Gorge National Park
First up is New River Gorge National Park, one of the best east coast national parks. It’s located in Glen Jean, West Virginia, established in the 1970s. This park spans more than 70,000 acres and is filled with great outdoor activities, like camping, hiking, and even rock climbing for those who seek an adrenaline rush.
Best Things to do in New River Gorge National Park
- Stop by one of the four different visitor centers to get acquainted with the park! This is the perfect spot to chat with rangers too to see what the latest happenings at the park are.
- Go white water rafting with a tour group! This option, in particular, is an excellent option with high ratings at an affordable price. The trip lasts around six hours, and you can choose whether you’d like to go in the morning or in the afternoon!
- Hike the Long Point Trail. This trail in particular is known for having some of the best views that you can get in the entire park of the New River Gorge Bridge, one of the park’s highlights! It’s a moderate trail with three miles of walking that takes around two hours or less to do.
- Do the Bridge Walk! This is not for the faint of heart but will give you incredible views. Don’t worry, you wear a harness while walking across the bridge.
- Walk the Canyon Rim Overlook Boardwalk Trail. Don’t worry; this is an easy .6 mile trail perfect for all hiker levels and experiences!
Cuyahoga River National Park
Another of the best national parks on the east coast is Cuyahoga River National Park! This park is located in Ohio and officially became a national park in 1974. It’s located somewhat in between both Akron and Cleveland, so if you’re visiting Ohio, it shouldn’t be super difficult to get to this national park! It’s one of the best parks on the east coast that tends to be pretty underrated.
Best Things to do in Cuyahoga River National Park
- Hike the Erie Towpath Trail or at least part of it. It would take forever to hike the entire thing because it’s 87 miles! However, getting outside and just walking or hiking a part of it is a great way to enjoy the true beauty that the park has to offer.
- Walk to Brandywine Falls, one of the very best spots to visit in the entire park. The waterfall is around 65 feet tall and there’s a great viewing platform where you can check it out.
- Stop by the Canal Exploration Center! This is the perfect spot to stop and learn more about the Ohio and Erie Canal.
- Take in the view from Tinker’s Creek Overlook. This view is breathtaking and is quite accessible compared to other spots throughout the park.
- Ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad! There are a few fun options when it comes to riding this train. Opt to ride it round trip, or if you want to enjoy the outdoors more, consider getting a one-way ticket so that you can hike back!
Shenandoah National Park
One of the more well-known east coast national parks is Shenandoah National Park! Located in Virginia, this park is near one of the most beautiful parts of the United States: the Blue Ridge Mountains. The area is super forest and has some of the most incredible sunsets that you can see in the entire country.
Best Things to do in Shenandoah National Park
- Go on a self-driving audio tour of the park! This is one of the best ways to get introduced to Shenandoah National Park, especially if you’re visiting for only a day or two. This drive takes around three hours and is incredibly scenic.
- Hike Dark Hollow Falls! It’s a short hike that’s pretty easy and is truthfully one of the most popular hikes in the entire national park, so it’s one that you won’t want to miss. The waterfall will take your breath away when you see it in person.
- Stop by the Shenandoah National Park’s visitor center! There are a few to choose from but each one is a great place to go to learn more about the park itself.
- Have lunch with a view at one of the many overlooks. Along the scenic drive, there are lots of spots where you can pull over and take in the view. These are perfect spots to set up a picnic blanket and munch while staring at the view in awe!
- Spend the night in the park at one of the campgrounds. There are a few to choose between but by doing this, you’ll be the first to the trails in the early morning! Plus, the sunrise over the mountains is truly scenic.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best national parks to visit on the east coast! You won’t want to miss it. It’s one of the most visited in the country, and for a good reason. I mean, just look at that view in that photo above!
The park is between North Carolina and Tennessee and even includes a small part of the Appalachian Trail. The views are incredibly scenic no matter where in the park you visit and it’s truly an adventure lover’s paradise.
Best Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Learn more about the park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. This is the very first thing you should do when visiting the park! There’s even a short film you can watch to get acquainted with the park before exploring it on your own.
- Hike to the top of Clingmans Dome! This trail is paved but is relatively uphill. It’s the highest point in the entire state of Tennessee. There’s a tower at the top where you can see out for 100 miles, and sometimes even more, if the day is really clear.
- Walk near Fontana Lake which is the perfect tranquil spot in the park if you want to get away from the crowds. It’s near the more southern part of the park.
- Snap a photo at Newfound Gap Overlook, one of the most beautiful spots in the entire park. From here, you can capture the true beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Go on a tour of Mingus Mill, which dates back to the 1880s. This is a historic spot that’s still in use today.
Congaree National Park
Another of the best national parks along the east coast is Congaree National Park! This is one that’s not often visited but it is completely unique compared to other national parks in the United States like Arches or Rocky Mountain National Park.
It’s located in Hopkins, South Carolina, and covers just shy of 30,000 acres of land. Plus, out of everywhere in the United States, you can find the most extensive collection of hardwood forests in this very park.
Best Things to do in Congaree National Park
- Go on one of the incredible hikes that the park is known for, like River Trail (long but worth it), Bluff Trail (easy with great views), or even Boardwalk Loop Trail (a must-do).
- Bring your own boat and go on the Congaree River. Note that you must bring your own and don’t forget to bring all the proper equipment in case anything happens on your trip. You can also book a canoe tour with a ranger for safety!
- Spend the night at one of the campgrounds. This is the perfect way to experience nature in the area without many others around.
- Look out for the fireflies which come out between May and June. This is truly one of the most impeccable things to witness in the park.
- Go fishing. This is a popular activity among families visiting the park!
Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royal National Park is one of the best east coast national parks! It’s located in Michigan and is actually situated on an island, somewhat near Canada. There are no cars allowed but the area is absolutely breathtaking and is incredibly unique.
Best Things to do in Isle Royale National Park
- Go on a hike! Obviously, hiking is a must-do at pretty much every national park on this list of national parks along the east coast. The most popular trail is The Greenstone Ridge Trail which can take a few days to hike, but it could be worth it to even just hike a small part of it out and back.
- Visit the three lighthouses on the island! Many of them also have their own exhibits and allow for tours so you can go inside.
- Stay at the Rock Harbor Lodge on the island! This is an extremely remote experience but is incredible. Plus, there’s a dining room that serves mouth-watering food and the living quarters are very cozy and rustic.
- Go boating to experience the island from the outside. There are quite a few tour companies that allow you to do this.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Located in Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park is one that most people don’t go out of their way to visit, making it somewhat of a hidden gem. However, the people that do know about it, absolutely love it. As the name suggests, the best thing to do at this east coast national park is to check out the caves, but there are many more fun activities.
Best Things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park
- Go on a tour of the caves. Note that these do require reservations if you want to be guaranteed a space on a tour. The caves are also known to get cold, so be prepared!
- Stay the night at one of the campgrounds. There are a few different ones to choose from like Maple Springs Group Campground or even Mammoth Cave Campground.
- Rent a kayak or a canoe and go out on the water! This is a great activity if you want to stay moving during the day.
- Visit the churches that were left behind within the park. There are three to explore that is open for all guests and were run by those who used to live in the park before it got national park status.
- Hike the Cedar Sink Trail, a one-mile trail shaped like a loop. It’s a rather interesting hike around a sinkhole.
Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park
What used to be known as a national monument is now a national historical park! It’s located in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and is an incredibly family-friendly east coast national park to add to your must-visit list.
Best Things to do in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
- Visit the many museums throughout Lower Town where you can learn more about Harpers Ferry’s history, like the John Brown Museum or the Civil War Museum.
- Take in the view from The Point where you can see both the Potomac River and Shenandoah River.
- Go hiking to fully enjoy how beautiful the area is! Some great hikes in the area include Loudoun Heights, Bolivar Heights Trail, and Maryland Heights.
- Rent a bike and explore the area on it. This is a great way to stay active throughout the day and is perfect for getting around without a car.
- Attend a Ranger Program where you can learn more about the history and even join in on a workshop about a historic trade!
Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park is one of the most well-known east coast national parks, so you definitely won’t want to miss it. It’s located on the coast of Maine and feels like a treasure because of how beautiful it is, especially compared to other parks in the area. It’s definitely not a hidden gem by any means, but serves as the perfect city escape.
Best Things to do in Acadia National Park
- Go on a 2.5-hour narrated bus tour of Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor! This affordable tour includes pick-up and is perfect if you want to avoid crowds while learning more about the area. Includes stops at Cadillac Mountain, Thunder Hole, and Sieur de Monts Spring. Click here to learn more.
- Take in the view from Cadillac Mountain. It’s the tallest mountain in the national park and can be reached by either driving or hiking the Cadillac Summit Loop Trail! Try to get there early in the morning to avoid the crowds that come later in the day.
- Drive the incredible Park Loop Road, a 27-mile road that leads you through all of the popular spots throughout the park like Otter Cliff and Sand Beach.
- Snap a photo at Jordan Pond, one of the most tranquil and picturesque spots in the whole park. It can be reached via either the Jordan Pond Shore Trail or the Jordan Pond Nature Trail, both of which are great hikes.
- See the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse! This is a beautiful spot to catch the sunrise and the lighthouse dates back to the 1800s, making it one of the most historic lighthouses that you can find in this area.
Hot Springs National Park
Located in Arkansas, Hot Springs National Park is definitely one of the east coast national parks that you won’t want to miss out on. This park is a little bit different than your average park and was created to protect the incredible hot springs that are unlike those you’ll find anywhere else in the United States.
Best Things to do in Hot Springs National Park
- Learn at the Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center, a museum that takes visitors back in time to what it was like when the bathhouses were still in use. Be sure to catch the short video that they play too!
- Walk along Bathhouse Row, one street that is impossible to miss because it’s where everything is pretty much located. There are many historic buildings along the street where you can stop and learn more.
- Take in the view from the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. This tower is best reached via the short Peak Trail near the visitor center. From there, you can look out and see tons of sweeping scenery. There is a small fee to go to the observation deck if you’d prefer to go there instead of the general lookout area.
- Pretend to be in a fairytale at the Garvan Woodland Gardens. This is a top attraction and is best visited during the spring or summer. It’s incredibly tranquil and will take your breath away!
- See Anthony Chapel up close. This architectural marvel is unlike any other chapel that you’ve ever seen before and really utilizes the beauty of nature!
The Everglades National Park is one of the more well-known national parks along the east coast. It’s located in Florida and is absolutely massive at around 1.5 million acres, made up mostly of wetlands. There are also many endangered animals who live within the park.
Best Things to do in Everglades National Park
- Go on an airboat tour, the best way to explore the park! This tour, in particular, is one of the most popular tours that you can book to see the park and lasts approximately one hour. It includes a BBQ lunch (if you purchase a half-day package), gator feed, and more.
- Have fun trying to find birds! There are hundreds of different bird species throughout the park including pelicans and other bird types that you may not find elsewhere.
- Hike or walk the Gumbo Limbo Trail, an accessible tour that’s just shy of half a mile long. It’s definitely one of the easier trails to explore in the park and allows you to see a gumbo limbo tree up close.
- Learn at Shark Valley Visitor Center and consider going on the Shark Valley Tram which is about two hours long. This ride will also include a stop at a scenic overlook that you won’t want to miss which is normally accessed via a trail that’s pretty long.
Indiana Dunes National Park
One of the most picturesque east coast national parks to visit is none other than Indiana Dunes National Park! This is an incredibly scenic park on the coast that features tons of birds, miles of hiking trails, and breathtaking views everywhere you look.
Best Things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park
- Go on a photo tour with a professional photographer who knows the park inside and out as a local! This unique two-hour tour is perfect if you want to be able to have beautiful photography of your visit. It includes stops at the park’s must-visit locations as well as instructions on how to take photography.
- Hike the Dune Succession Trail! There are many different hikes in the park, but this one is under a mile long and has diverse beauty the entire way. Note that sometimes the hikes can be a bit more difficult here because of the sand.
- Marvel at the Century of Progress architecture. There are a few different homes that were moved to this national park and many people don’t even know about them! They’re from the Chicago World Fair back in the 1930s and are incredibly unique.
- Relax by the water! Because there are beachy areas here, be sure to sit on the sand and look at the beauty of the waves crashing on the shore. This can also be a great picnic spot.
Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park is another breathtaking national park located in Florida. It’s known for its coral reefs and it’s right within the Florida Keys, one of the top spots to visit within the state. This park is also extremely historical with evidence going back 10,000 years.
Best Things to do in Biscayne National Park
- Hike along the Convoy Point Jetty Trail! This trail is just shy of a mile long and only takes about thirty minutes or so to do. It’s also fairly easy making it great for all ages and experiences of hiking!
- Snorkel to see underwater. There are a few different spots throughout the park where you can go snorkeling and it offers some of the best views you can get in the park and some of the most unique.
- Go kayaking! The best spot to go kayaking is in Jones Lagoon which is a historic spot within the park. Most people say that it can be very buggy, so make sure to bring bug spray.
- Stop by Boca Chita Key, one of the most popular places in the park. You have to take a boat to get there. Be sure to look out for the breathtaking lighthouse that’s one of the more unique lighthouses you can find in the United States.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Betcha thought that there weren’t any more national parks in Florida! The last Florida national park is Dry Tortugas National Park, which is one of the lesser-known parks in the state. It’s near Key West and has seven different islands that make it up.
Best Things to do in Dry Tortugas National Park
- Book a Catamaran tour from Key West! This is a super fun way to explore the park and the tour is ten hours long, including breakfast, lunch, the National Park service fee, and even snorkeling equipment so you can snorkel while there.
- Visit Fort Jefferson which is the main place to visit when at Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s had many purposes over the years and is try a marvel of a structure situated on an island. For more history, consider booking a guided tour with a ranger.
- Swim or snorkel to enjoy the water! Most people will go snorkeling but if you’re not interested in that, don’t worry. There are so many beaches around where you can just pop in the water to swim!
Gateway Arch National Park
Last but not least is the smallest national park in the United States, Gateway Arch National Park! It’s located in St. Louis Missouri, and because of it’s size, iti’s near impossible to miss. Because it’s a smaller park, there are fewer activities, but it’s still a must-visit along the east coast.
Best Things to do in Gateway Arch National Park
- Visit the museum in the visitor center to learn tons of history about the arch and the surrounding area. This is one of the most in-depth and largest museums that I’ve personally ever seen at a national park!
- Take in the view from the top of the arch. So many people don’t know this, but you can actually book an elevator ride to the top of the arch! The view from the top is beautiful.
- Go inside the Old Courthouse! This courthouse dates back to the 1800s and has been the location of quite a few historic trials.
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