Best National Parks on the East Coast That Are Stunning
When it comes to US national parks, we immediately think of the western half of the United States. Somehow, we forget that the eastern half also has national parks. Quite a diverse offering, too, as these best national parks on the east coast will prove.
Epic coastlines, unbelievable scenic drives, underground labyrinths, underwater adventures, pristine wilderness, and stunning wetlands are just some of why the following 10 parks are among the best national parks on the east coast.
If they aren’t already on your bucket list, they soon will be.
Acadia National Park, ME
The indigo sky fades as a faint line of orange emerges from the horizon. The sky turns into a pastel watercolor until finally the sun’s rays bathe the scenery in bright orange. Witnessing sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, the first view of sunrise on the east coast, is the perfect start to any visit to Acadia National Park.
What isn’t there to love about Acadia National Park? It has a dramatic coastline, serene lakes, lush forest growth, stunning vistas, fear inducing hikes, sandy beaches, and a scenic drive. It may not be one of the largest US national parks, but it certainly is one of the best national parks on the east coast.
Be prepared to fall in love with Acadia. If sunrise doesn’t do it, walking along the Ocean Path with the incredible coast line views will surely do it. Ambling around the charming Jordan Pond or strolling along the miles of carriage trails prove that you can active outdoors while feeling completely relaxed without a care about you. And views from South Bubble and Bubble Rock are some of the best in the park.
For the more adventurous who fears not heights, there are several short trails that challenge that fear with barely there trails along rock faces with only rungs for safety. The Beehive and Precipice Trail are standouts for getting the adrenaline pumping.
And an impressive but quiet way to end the day is witnessing sunset at Bass Harbor Lighthouse. Acadia National Park stays with you long after you’ve left. And it won’t be long until you’re planning your return visit!
Highlights – Sunrise at Cadillac Mountain, Jordan Lake, Bass Harbor Lighthouse, Carriage Trails
Top Tip: For sunrise at Cadillac Mountain, get there early as parking fills up fast! And bring breakfast with you. Afterwards, most of the crowds go back into Bar Harbor to eat. So if you go directly into the park, you’ll have some of the more popular spots completely to yourself for a few hours!
Where to Stay – Bar Harbor
Closest Airport: Bangor International Airport (BGR), 46 miles
Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
Journey underground and explore the natural artistry found in the world’s largest cave system. Stepping into Mammoth Cave National Park, you know this will not be your average visit to a national park. With over 400 miles of caves and underground passages, you can bet that there is a lot to see!
And what you see and how you experience Mammoth Caves is wholly dependent on what tour you take. The variety is unexpected making Mammoth Cave one of the best national parks on the east coast. How daring are you? Are you afraid of the dark? Not afraid to get dirty crawling around?
If adventure is your game, tours to consider include the Wild Cave Tour where you will be crawling through tight passageways, and Violet City Lantern Tour where you will only have the light of a lantern to guide you underground.
For a tamer experience, there’s the Frozen Niagara Tour or Domes and Dripstones showcasing the most visually stunning portions of the cave.
But there’s more to the park than the caves. Just above the caves, an abundant Kentucky forest thrives. There are several small hiking trails to enjoy, and several bike paths to explore. Or you can go paddling down the Green River. Playing in the open-air feels freeing after a visit in the vast subterranean halls.
Highlights – Cave tours, Hiking Trails, Green River
Top Tip: If there is a tour that you really want to do, it’s best to make a reservation in advance as tours often sell out during spring and fall. And take warm layers with you as inside the cave it is generally around 54°F.
Where to Stay – Brownsville
Closest Airport: Louisville International Airport (SDF) 72 miles; Nashville International Airport (BNA), 80 miles
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN & NC
Venturing into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park feels like stepping into a bygone era, where life was easy and simple things were appreciated. Endless vistas of rolling hills and mountains fill the eye. Rustic reminders of the pioneer days linger. It’s easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountains is one of the best national parks on the east coast as well as the most visited in the whole US!
The entire park is a playground for nature lovers. Wildflowers of every variety blanket the landscape making the 900 miles of hiking trails a joy to experience. You can even do a short trek on the famed Appalachian Trail that passes through the park. Or, stop to appreciate any of the 100 spectacular waterfalls in the park including Abrams, Grotto, and Laurel. And if you want color, the park is bursting at the seams with vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows come fall.
But you can still enjoy the Great Smoky Mountains at an easy pace with several jaw-dropping scenic drives including Newfound Gap, Cades Cove, and Roaring Fork Motor Trail. Or, drive up the tallest peak in the park (and in Tennessee), Clingman’s Dome, and walk to the summit for simply unbelievable 360° views. On clear days, the view stretches for 100 miles in every direction over seven states!
Highlights – Hiking trails including Appalachian, waterfalls, scenic drives, Clingmans Dome.
Top Tip: Go early! The park gets crowded year-round, though January is the least visited month. Late May is best to visit for the wildflowers while mid to late September is best for fall colors.
Where to Stay – Gatlinburg
Closest Airport: Knoxville McGee Tyson Airport (TYS), 42 miles
Congaree National Park, SC
Sunlight cascades down through the thick canopy of the largest bottomland hardwood forest while a symphony of bird calls fill the air. Welcome to Congaree National Park. There’s a calmness about the park. You don’t rush through it, rather you take your time and appreciate the simple beauty surrounding you.
A majority of the trails are flat boardwalks highlighting the spectacular trees and Congaree River. While hiking, you won’t go very far without catching a glimpse of wildlife from turtles to owls, from deer to turkeys. And, on a very rare chance, an alligator!
But to really fall under Congaree’s spell, grab your kayak and head for Cedar Creek. Here you will find the start of the remarkable Cedar Creek Canoe Trail. 15 miles of unbridled beauty await as you weave through the watery path protected by an unending sentinel of trees.
When you visit, you just have to get over the fact that there are bugs everywhere. Yes, everywhere. It’s a swamp. Mix that with the humidity and floodplain, the conditions are right for spiders, millipedes, beetles, caterpillars and mosquitoes (in droves). But that’s all a part of being in the great outdoors.
But bugs are also part of the allure. Between May and June, a rare occurrence takes place in Congaree National Park that is seen in only a handful of places in the world: synchronous fireflies. For one month during mating season, the fireflies light up at the same time putting on a light show like none you have ever seen before.
Highlights – Boardwalk hikes, Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, Synchronous fireflies
Top Tip: Bring the bug repellant! And being in the floodplain, trails can flood after heavy rains so it’s a good idea to bring water shoes with you, though flooding is more common between November and February. Spring is the best time to visit with mild temps and lower bugs on patrol.
Where to Stay – Columbia
Closest Airport: Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE), 25 miles; Charlotte Douglass International Airport (CLT), 111 miles
Isle Royale National Park, MI
A visit to Isle Royale National Park is unlike any other visit to the best national parks on the east coast. First, it’s a remote island cluster in Lake Superior very close to the Canadian border. Secondly, it is untamed wilderness at its most glorious. Cars are not permitted on the island. And doesn’t that sound wonderful?
But with no cars, how do you explore the park? You explore by embracing the outdoors. Isle Royale is a haven for those wanting to kayak. You can rent kayaks and paddle in some of the harbors where quieter waters are found. There are even diving spots where you can explore shipwrecks.
To get around the island, you have to hike. And there are 165 miles of hiking trails on the island so you will always be spoiled for choice. And while hiking, you may encounter moose that inhabit the island.
With no cell service, no Wi-Fi, and no cars, Isle Royale is a place where you go to escape from the world and lose yourself in nature.
Highlights – Pristine Wilderness, Kayaking, Hiking, Moose
Top Tip: Extensive planning is necessary to visit. Ferries must be booked well in advance and you need to have all the proper camping gear with you. August is the best time to go as the temperature is comfortable and less bugs are present. And, the park is completely shut down in winter with no access between November 1 and April 15.
Where to Stay – Rock Harbor Lodge or camping
Closest Airport: Thunder Bay International Airport (YQT), 67 km (Canada/US border crossing), Duluth International Airport (DLH), 149 miles (both to Grand Portage to catch the ferry to Isle Royale).
Shenandoah Valley National Park, VA
No matter your fitness level, it is easy to experience the grandeur of nature at Shenandoah Valley National Park nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Regardless of how adventurous you want to be jumping into nature, you cannot visit Shenandoah Valley without driving the Skyline Drive. This epic drive makes Shenandoah Valley one of the best national parks on the east coast. Traversing the entire length of the park, the 200-mile drive is full of overlooks that make you feel like civilization is light years away. Its only you and green stretching into the horizon.
But to truly get to know Shenandoah Valley National Park, you have to go hiking. And, the 500 miles worth of trails range from short and easy to more difficult hikes. If you are really feeling up to it, you can hike the 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail that runs the entire length of the park!
Can’t miss visits include the hike down to the gorgeous Dark Hollow Falls, the view from Blackrock Summit and the vista from the exposed summit of Old Rag Mountain. And always be on the lookout for wildlife! Deer are popular in the early mornings, and you may be lucky to chance a black bear sighting.
You’ll be wearing a smile the entire time in Shenandoah Valley National Park. Daily life is forgotten and nature envelopes you as you return the embrace.
Highlights – Skyline Drive, Dark Hollow Falls, Old Rag Mountain
Top Tip: For a one-day visit, you need an early start if you plan on driving the entire length of the Skyline Drive. Be sure to add a few short hikes to your itinerary. But to do the park justice, you need to spend 2-3 days to not rush and hit more trails.
Where to Stay – Harrisonburg, any smaller town or camp on the river
Closest Airport: Dulles International Airport (IAD), 57 miles; Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), 71 miles
Everglades National Park, FL
It’s nearly impossible to see everything in the third largest national park in the lower 48 states, but no matter how much time you spend in the Everglades National Park, you are sure to see something spectacular. One of the best national parks on the east coast, the Everglades is an enormous area of wetlands brimming over with wildlife.
If you are staying on land, there are two main areas of the park that you can drive to: Flamingo and Shark Valley. While driving through the park, there are multiple short nature hikes (mostly on boardwalks) that give you glimpses into the varied and immense vegetation and wildlife in the park. Highlights include the Anhinga Trail, where if you are lucky (or unlucky!) you may see alligators, and Mahogany Hammock where the oldest Mahogany trees in the US reside.
In Shark Valley, you can take a tram tour (reservations required) to hear more about the bio-diversity of the Everglades. But the real highlight is the views from the Observation Deck. Not only do the Everglades stretch out all around you, but the immensity of wildlife you see is staggering!
But if you really want to see more of the Everglades, you need to get on the water. Kayaking is a great option or you can take an airboat tour to see the area from the other side. Flying in? Be sure to add one day in Miami if you have a chance.
Highlights – Anhinga Trail, Shark Valley Tour & Observation Deck, Boat Tour
Top Tip: Always have mosquito repellant with you no matter when you visit. But if you visit between December and March, there are fewer bugs. It’s best to wear long pants and long sleeve shirts not just because of the mosquitos and for sun protection, but in some portions of the park, there are biting flies, too.
Where to Stay – Miami
Closest Airport: Miami International Airport (MIA), 43 miles
Dry Tortugas National Park, FL
This unique park is comprised mostly of water, stunning blue water that is also home to coral reefs and marine life. Laying 68 miles off the coast of Florida, the Dry Tortugas National Park also has seven small islands making it one of the most unique and best national parks on the east coast.
Accessible only by ferry or water plane, the Dry Tortugas National Park makes for an unforgettable day or overnight trip. Most visits begin with a ranger led tour of Fort Jefferson. This architectural gem was built as protection for the US. Hearing its history, you will leave in awe of the place.
If going for a day trip, you will have time to grab some snorkeling gear and take advantage of the clear blue waters and abundant sea life. But, with some advance planning, you can camp overnight on the sandy beach and bask in the remoteness of the place.
And, before heading back to our beloved Key West, you can enjoy walks around the island. Or, do some diving with a popular spot is to the wreck of the Windjammer. But to access some truly amazing diving spots to reefs, you need to book your overnight visit with a dive company.
Highlights – Fort Jefferson Tour, Snorkeling, Diving
Top Tip: Summer is the best time to visit even though that is when it’s the hottest (90F/30C). But the waters are calm making for a smoother boat ride as well as easier time enjoying very clear water for all water activities.
Where to Stay – Key West
Closest Airport: Key West International Airport (EYW), 3 miles
Biscayne National Park, FL
Biscayne National Park is in a league of its own when it comes to US national parks and its easily one of the best national parks on the east coast. Water is life in the park. Actually, water is the park. It seems crazy but 95% of Biscayne National Park is water. The rest of the park is mostly keys, small islands off the Florida coast.
So, unless you book a boat tour, you’ll be able to see the tiniest fraction of the park from the short nature trails surrounding the visitor center. After that, you must get on the water as it’s from the water, and in the water, that the astounding beauty of the park becomes evident.
Explore the waters at your own pace by renting a kayak or canoe at the visitor center. Or, hop on a boat and tour the individual keys. From atop the Boca Chica Lighthouse on Boca Chica Key, Miami appears, a distant world away. On Elliot Key, several small hiking trails are available as well as spots for camping. And don’t forget to pack your swimsuit and towel!
Or, you can sail past Stiltsville and stare at the remaining relics of a series of shacks built on the water. But a true gem lies underwater. If you love snorkeling or diving, you can follow along the Maritime Heritage Trail where you can see the final resting place of many shipwrecks from throughout the years.
Biscayne National Park is not your typical national park, but if you give it a chance, it will be one you won’t soon forget.
Highlights – Boca Chita Key, Elliot Key, Stiltsville, Maritime Heritage Trail
Top Tip: No matter when you visit, it’s impossible to escape the mosquitoes so always have repellent with you. And, keep in mind that hurricane season is typically between June and November.
Where to Stay – Miami
Closest Airport: Miami International Airport (MIA), 35 miles
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH
You’re not alone if you had no idea that there was a US national park in Ohio. Most people don’t. But a stone’s throw from Cleveland is the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And it’s an understated park. There’s no showstopper here, no jaw-dropping unbelievable sight to behold. Nope, instead what you get is a celebration of the outdoors. And that is why it’s one of the best national parks on the east coast.
The Cuyahoga Valley is rich in thick forest growth making autumn a perfect time to visit as the entire area explodes in color. And the park follows the Cuyahoga (crooked) River providing serenity and stunning waterfalls to admire. The most picturesque waterfalls include Brandywine Falls, Buttermilk Falls, and Blue Hen Falls.
If you love the outdoors, then this is the US national park for you. There’s over 125 miles of trails to explore. For the more true-to-nature hikes, you can’t miss the Ledges Trail lined with fun rock formations, the Boston Run Trail for its tranquility, and the nature trail through Beaver Marsh where you may see small wildlife.
But the main trail that the locals love is the Towpath Trail. This path runs the entire length of the park and follows the old Ohio & Eerie Canal route. This mostly flat and paved trail is perfect for hikers, bicyclists, and runners.
But what makes the Cuyahoga Valley National Park so unique is that small towns are found inside the park. And, there’s even a short scenic railroad that you can ride on your visit to leisurely enjoy the park.
Yes, Cuyahoga Valley may not be your traditional national park, but it’s still worth the visit.
Highlights – Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway, Towpath Trail
Top Tip: Most of the visitors to the park are locals as less than 30% of visitors are from out-of-state. Many trails are used for daily exercise, especially the Towpath Trail. So, visiting on a week day may mean less people on the trails.
Where to Stay – Cleveland
Closest Airport: Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE), 22.5 miles
Are you still not done adding things to your bucket list? Don’t worry, our guide to 18 national parks on the West coast will keep you traveling for a lifetime. We’re always eager to hear from you: which one of these beauties do you wish to visit first?