The 8 best National Parks on the east coast
The best National Parks on the east coast deliver jaw-dropping landscapes, from rugged mountains to coral reefs
From the rainforests of Olympic National Park down to the iconic desert landscape of Joshua Tree, it sure seems like the National Parks out west get all the glory, but the best National Parks on the east coast offer plenty to write home about, too. Though your first thought might be old-growth forests – and you won’t be disappointed in that regard – the best National Parks on the east coast also deliver jaw-dropping geographical and ecological diversity, from rugged mountains to coral reefs, housing wildlife from black bears to manatees. Plus, since over one third of the country’s population lives on the east coast, these parks are often within easy traveling distance from major airports.
Our pick of the best National Parks on the east coast does go just a little inland, but spans the country from north to south and delivers some of the most iconic landscapes and inspiring nature you can find in North America. Grab your best hiking boots, load up your backpack and check out these gorgeous east coast parks.
1. Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina and Tennessee
Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the sprawling Great Smoky Mountains National Park houses seemingly endless acres of lush old-growth forests, cascading waterfalls, rocky bluffs and ancient mountains to explore. If hiking boots are your vehicle of choice, you have over 800 miles of hiking trails to choose from including a 71-mile stretch of the world-famous Appalachian Trail.
It’s best known for being the country’s most-visited National Park, so you might be quite surprised to discover that Great Smoky Mountains is also one of the National Parks that is free to enter. However, plans are being floated to charge for parking starting in 2023.
- Fun fact: A train of llamas has been carrying supplies such as food and linens to LeConte Lodge which, just below the summit of Mount LeConte at an elevation of about 6,400ft is the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States.
2. Acadia, Maine
Acadia National Park protects areas of coastal Maine, including 19 of its outlying islands and the highest rocky headlines of the Atlantic Coastline. The majority of the most popular spots are to be found on Mount Desert Island which at 108 square miles is the largest off the coast of Maine. The best hikes in Acadia National Park take you from salty sea to soaring summit, with 158 miles of extraordinarily scenic hiking trails making it one of Advnture’s picks for best National Parks for hiking. It also sports fabulous rock climbing, and historic motor roads and carriage roads for those who prefer to explore on bicycle or horseback.
- Fun fact: Acadia boasts the highest viewpoint on the entire east coast. Though some other parks on this list that are a little more inland house taller peaks, Acadia is officially host to the tallest mountain on the east coast, Cadillac Mountain. From the summit, you can enjoy views of Bar Harbor and even Mount Katahdin and Nova Scotia on a clear day.
3. Shenandoah, Virginia
With over 500 miles of trails to explore in hiking boots, it’s no surprise that scenic Shenandoah National Park made our list of the best National Parks for hiking. The best hikes in Shenandoah National Park deliver shaded forest trails, cascading waterfalls, rocky lookouts, and ample opportunity to explore sections of the historic Appalachian Trail. Just 75 miles from DC, Shenandoah delivers you from the hustle and bustle of the capitol to the startling tranquility of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains in just over an hour. This long, narrow park is centered around a 70-mile stretch of those mountains, which make up part of the Appalachian Range. Intersected by Skyline Drive, the park protects part of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Virginia Piedmont to the east.
- Fun fact: If you’re a geology nerd, get yourself to Shenandoah immediately. Some of the exposed rocks in the park are approximately 1.1 billion years old, making them roughly a quarter of the age of the Earth!
4. Congaree, South Carolina
Congaree National Park is one of the least crowded National Parks in the country, lying down in South Carolina along the Congaree River. Congaree protects the largest portion of old-growth floodplain forest remaining in North America and the tallest trees in the eastern United States. The Boardwalk Loop Trail is the main hiking attraction, taking you on a raised wooden path through the swamp and diverse forest, but you can explore deeper into the backcountry with trails made for tree viewing and bird watching, all for free. And it’s also a dog friendly National Park – dogs are allowed on all trails here, including the boardwalk, as well as in the campgrounds.
- Fun fact: Congaree is home to a lot of giant trees! The climate and soil of the floodplain are especially hospitable for trees such as American elm, bitternut hickory and swamp chestnut oak. The park is home to 25 documented Champion Trees – trees that have been judged to be the largest of their species.
5. Everglades, Florida
Everglades made our list of top National Parks for families and is a wetlands preserve on the southern tip of Florida made up of grassy marshlands and mangroves that move slowly and are home to hundreds of subtropical species. Though you might think of grizzly bears and moose when you think about National Park wildlife viewing, in Everglades National Park you can kayak or take a boat cruise through the tropical wetlands for glimpses of snapping crocodiles, alligators, manatees and turtles and even seek out the elusive Florida panther on the trails.
- Fun fact: Everglades is one of the only places in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist, while all such places are in south Florida.
6. Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Most people go down to southern Kentucky for the mammoth-sized caves, and while you should certainly slow down and check out the world’s longest cave system, there’s plenty of above ground adventure to be had here too. Mammoth Cave’s backcountry trail system offers nearly 40 square miles of forest ridges, rugged valleys, and scenic river vistas meaning lots of rolling hills through ancient, wild forest that landed this park on our list of best National parks for trail running.
- Fun fact: Not only is the cave system here twice as long as the next longest one (in Mexico), it might be even longer than we think. Some 400 miles of it have already been mapped out, but geologists think there may be another 200 miles of undiscovered cave system to go.
7. Biscayne Bay, Florida
Though the other parks on this list are hikers’ havens, it’s impossible not to include Biscayne Bay in any roundup of the best National Parks on the east coast – even if you do need to trade your hiking boots for flippers in order to explore it. Biscayne Bay protects one of the largest coral reefs in the world and a large mangrove forest just south of Miami. The park is 95% water and is a paradise for wildlife viewing of species like albatrosses, sea turtles, whales, manatees, crocodiles and alligators – all of which you can enjoy while snorkeling, canoeing and kayaking.
- Fun fact: The average depth of Biscayne Bay is just six to 10 feet, while the highest elevation in the entire park is only nine feet above sea level.
8. New River Gorge
New River Gorge is the country’s newest National Park but the New River is actually one of the oldest rivers in the world and flows from south to north. Over some 360 millions years, the New River has carved a deep gorge through the Appalachian Mountains that is home to rugged whitewater currents. The park protects 53 miles of the river and its splendid canyon walls, high cliffs, dense forests and spectacular views that make a natural adventureland for hikers, rafters and bikers, all without paying to get in.
- Fun fact: At 876ft tall and over 3,000ft long, the New River Gorge Bridge is the second largest single span steel arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.