When it comes to U.S. national parks, most people think more about the West than the East Coast. Rightfully so, the American West is home to some of the nation’s best-known national parks, including Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Utah’s Mighty 5, and the ten parks of the Grand Circle.
But the East Coast states are home to a selection of must-see national parks offering a wide variety of landscapes and experiences. From paddling the Everglades in Florida, to Shenandoah National Park camping and hiking, to whitewater rafting at New River Gorge National Park, and discovering Acadia National Park. Each park offers something slightly different, so we’ve put together a short summary of national parks on the East Coast, organized north to south, to help you decide which ones to visit.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Located on a mountainous island off the east coast of Maine, Acadia NP is known for granite domes, forested valleys, and scenic coastlines. Most visitors focus on the east side of the park, using the 27-mile Park Loop Road to access viewpoints and trailheads. There are over 150 miles of hiking trails in the park, with one favorite being the Beehive Loop, an adventurous 1.4-mile route involving exposed cliff faces, granite stairs, iron rungs, and rock scrambling.
The highest point in the park, Cadillac Summit, can be reached by hiking trail or park road, with online vehicle reservations required from mid-May to mid-October. Another highlight is the 45 miles of crushed-gravel carriage roads, built by John D. Rockefeller Jr., which are car-free and open to bicycles, horses, and pedestrians. Averaging around 3.5 million visitors in recent years, Acadia is regularly one of the top ten most visited national parks.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah is a long and narrow national park located 75 miles west of Washington D.C. The best-known feature is the 105-mile Skyline Drive, which roughly follows the centerline of the park and connects with the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway to the south. Unlike the parkway, which sees about 14 million visitors per year, Shenandoah sees less than 2 million people, annually, and offers comparable scenery. The park is popular from spring through summer with visitation peaking for fall color trips during October.
In addition to scenic driving tours, the park is known for camping, hiking, and visiting waterfalls and wilderness areas. There are five campgrounds in the park, with over 600 sites, that can be reserved up to six months in advance. Around 500 miles of hiking trails can be found in the park, which includes 101 miles of the long-distance Appalachian Trail. When it comes to Shenandoah hikes, many point to the Old Rag Mountain Loop as the top trail—a strenuous 9.4-mile loop to the Old Rag summit involving rock scrambling and 2,348 feet of elevation gain. And plenty of shorter trails and waterfall hikes can be found just off Skyline Drive.
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve, West Virginia
Redesignated in 2020, New River Gorge was previously a national river administered by the NPS. Located in West Virginia, inland from the actual East Coast, the gorge is within striking distance of other parks on this list and definitely worth a visit. A little different than your typical national park, here the focus is on whitewater rafting, fishing, and climbing. The upper river includes long pools and relatively easy rapids up to the Class III in difficulty. The Lower Gorge is an advanced section known for Class III to V whitewater. Visit the park webpage for commercial outfitters.
Many short trails throughout the park focus on views of the gorge, including those in the Grandview area, like Grandview Rim, and the Fayetteville area, like Endless Wall. The park is famous for Bridge Day, the third Saturday in October, when pedestrians and BASE jumping are allowed on the New River Gorge Bridge.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the country. While it’s far inland from the actual East Coast, located in Tennessee, it should definitely be considered for your Eastern road trip. With over 12 million annual visitors, this is about two to three times the visitation at the next busiest parks, typically Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. There are several reasons for this remarkable popularity. To start, Great Smoky Mountains is the southern terminus for the Blue Ridge Parkway, which sees over 14 million visitors annually. Unlike most other parks, this one is free, and it’s located within a few hours’ drive of many large cities. The scenic and forested park protects the Smoky Mountains, a subrange of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with some of the highest peaks and tallest waterfalls in the Appalachians.
Most visitors focus on driving tours on park roads, while others opt for hiking. With over 850 miles of trails and dirt roads to hike, including 70 miles of the long-distance Appalachian Trail, selecting a hike is challenging. A few favorites include the easy paved path to the park’s highest point at the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower, the steep 2-mile hike to the Chimney Tops, and the moderate 5.4-mile round-trip hike to 80-foot-tall Rainbow Falls. Camping in Great Smoky Mountains is also popular, with ten front-country campgrounds to choose from.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Averaging about 150,000 visitors per year, with a size of only 23 square miles, Congaree is one of the smallest and least-visited national parks in the country. Here the focus is on hiking and paddling through a blackwater swamp with towering, old-growth forests of bald cypress and water tupelo.
There are about 25 miles of trails and two miles of boardwalks. The most popular hike is the 2.6-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail, which leads through some of the swamp’s tallest trees that reach over 100 feet tall. For paddlers, there are several sections of water trail to explore. The most common is the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, which runs for 15 miles through the park to the Congaree River. The park also has a small tent-only campground and a walk-in backcountry camping area, both of which must be reserved online.
Biscayne National Park, Florida
Perhaps one of the most unique national parks, this one includes mostly underwater features and a few small islands. Located within sight of downtown Miami, the park protects a strip of coastal mangrove forest, Biscayne Bay, and several undeveloped Florida keys. The only way to reach the islands is by private or concessionaire boats. Activities within the park include paddling, motor boating, fishing, snorkeling, island camping, and exploring the beaches of Elliot Key.
Everglades National Park, Florida
The best-known and biggest of Southern Florida’s three national parks, Everglades includes the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. At 2,358 square miles, it is the tenth-largest national park, and averages about 1 million visitors annually. The park’s busiest time is the winter dry season, between November and April, when the average daily high is 77°. In addition to short hiking trails, paddling is a popular activity in the park, which offers a variety of shorter and longer water trails. And with over 300 species, bird watching is another favorite pastime.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Located 68 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas protects the seven most isolated islands of the Florida Keys, plus 100 square miles of open water. Known for the seaside Fort Jefferson, coral reefs, and marine life, the park can only be reached by boat or seaplane. Seeing an average of only 60,000 people per year, the highlights include visiting Garden Key, which is home to the visitor center, fort, and campgrounds. The fort was built in the mid-1800s, becoming a prison during the Civil War and a national monument in the 1930s. Expanded into a national park in 1992, modern activities include paddling, boating, swimming, and camping. And a favorite among many visitors is snorkeling at Dry Tortugas. Reaching the island by ferry requires online reservations, which often sell out months in advance.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief overview of East Coast National Parks. Of course, there’s much more to share about each park, so please feel free to leave a tip or comment below!
Cover photo: Bass Harbor Light Station at Acadia National Park. NPS/Kent Miller