11 Incredible East Coast National Parks in the USA
Planning on broadening up your national park bucket list this year? If you’re on the lookout for destinations that aren’t on the usual radar, this list of east coast national parks is just what you’re looking for!
Even though most of the popular national parks are located on the western side of the United States, the east has a pretty cool array of them, too! From the white-sandy beaches of Dry Tortugas to the dubious history behind Hot Springs, here are 11 of the best national parks on the eastern side of the USA that you’ve got to pinpoint in your map!
About this Guide to the Best East Coast National Parks
In this massive guide to the best East Coast national parks, you’ll find the following:
- Reasons to plan an east coast national park travel bucket list
- A list of the 11 best national parks on the east coast
- A map of every national park on the list
- Tips for visiting national parks and making the most of it (including how to beat crowds)
Reasons to Create an East Coast National Parks Bucket List
Even though most national parks on the east coast may not be on your travel radar yet, there are PLENTY of good reasons to start planning a trip to check a few of them out! Here are three top reasons to focus your national park bucket list on the east:
I was super surprised to find out that a ton of east coast national parks are cost-free. No need to pay for entry or permit fees, which is awesome considering how expensive it can be to visit a few of the more popular national parks in the USA!
Not ALL of the national parks on the east coast are free, but a few of them are, including many of my favorites such as:
- Mammoth Caves National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Hot Springs National Park
- Congaree National Park
I never really thought about it, but most of the top famous national parks are located on the west coast (Yosemite, Joshua Tree, etc), which means many of them tend to get pretty darn crowded.
If you wouldn’t mind sharing a kickass hiking trail or viewpoint with barely anyone, then right there is the best reason to focus your national park bucket list on the east coast of the United States!
They’re SO Different To Each Other
From the fall foliage of Acadia National Park to the underwater goodness of Dry Tortugas and the eerie caves of Mammoth Cave, the national parks on the east coast are super unique and have plenty of things to offer.
If you’re planning a road trip to visit a few of the best east coast national parks, rest assured you’ll never get bored!
The Best National Parks on the East Coast
Here is my list of the best national parks on the east coast, including popular ones like the Great Smoky Mountains as well as a few you may have never even heard of!
1. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
As Ohio’s only national park, Cuyahoga is a true gem on the east coast national park trail. Cuyahoga National Park stretches from Cleveland all the way to Akron, following gorgeous forest trails along the Cuyahoga River.
Outdoor activities like hiking and biking are what visiting this east coast national park is all about. There are over 125 miles of stunning trails available throughout the park. While doing them ALL would be virtually impossible, a must-do for newbie visitors is the Virginia Kendall Ledges Trail, which takes you through a forested path lined by giant limestones, mossy cliffs, and mysterious caves.
Another of the best things to do at Cuyahoga National Park is checking out Brandywine Falls, an awe-inspiring 65-foot-tall waterfall that will leave your jaw on the ground.
If you’d rather not break a sweat or want to cover as much ground as possible in one visit, you can opt to see the park from the comfort of a train that takes you through some of the most scenic spots in the park. If you want to do a combination of relaxation and adventure, the railroad actually offers a Bike Abroad Program, which allows you to ride the train one way and bike your way back to the trailhead!
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO CUYAHOGA VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: Free
- Best time to visit: Fall is one of the best seasons to visit Cuyahoga when the forests of the park turn into a rainbow of orange, yellow, and red hues.
- Closest airport: Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Find cheap flights here.
- Where to stay: Stanford House and The Inn at Brandywine Falls offer lodging inside the park. If these are fully booked during your visit, there are many cities to base yourself at as the park runs through several cities, including Akron, Hudson, and Peninsula.
As of 2021, Cuyahoga National Park no longer offers camping facilities inside the park. However, there are several state parks nearby with campgrounds available (Nimisila Reservoir Metro Park, Punderson State Park, and Portage Lakes State Park to name just a few).
2. Shenandoah National Park
Nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah is one of the most beautiful national parks on the east coast. If peaceful hiking trails backdropped by green valleys, roaring waterfalls, and sky-high peaks sound like your jam, a trip to Shenandoah is just the ideal escape for you.
A few must-dos while visiting include hitting a few of Shenandoah’s hiking trails (Dark Hollow Falls, Hawksbill and Old Rag are favorites), go wildlife spotting, spend a night stargazing, and ride along the epic Skyline Drive for some seriously stunning views.
Aside from the trails, another of the aspects that makes Shenandoah so special is the cozy mountain vibes and the endless array of wildlife that call the park their home. While here, make sure you’re on the lookout for wildlife. Shenandoah National Park is home to over 50 species of mammals, including white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, and chipmunks.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: $30 per vehicle
- Best time to visit: Any time of the year is pretty good to visit, but you can expect the most crowds during the summer months while winters see practically no people. For fall foliage, visit during fall. Additionally, this is one of the best national parks to visit in spring, especially if you’d like to see bear cubs and roaring waterfalls.
- Closest airport: Dulles International Airport or Reagan National Airport. Find cheap flights here.
- Where to stay: Shenandoah National Park has three lodges (Big Meadows Lodge, Skyland Lodge, Lewis Mountain Cabins) and four designated campgrounds within its boundaries. Reservations are highly recommended, especially if you’re visiting during the summer. If you don’t manage to snag a spot, you can find plenty of options in the nearby towns of Luray or Sperryville (Hopkins Ordinary Bed Breakfast Aleworks is an excellent option.)
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Location: North Carolina and Tennessee
Home to enchanting forests rising from the mountains, over 100 waterfalls, and gorgeous treelines, there’s plenty to see at Smoky Mountains National Park.
The great smokies is a pretty huge place that spans from Tennessee into North Carolina. While it’s impossible to see it all in one visit, there are many things to do for first-timers. Hike to see the tallest waterfall in the park (Ramsey Cascades), or summit Mount Cammerer to get your visit started. To see as much as possible, drive your way through the park to hit as many viewpoints in a short amount of time (Cades Cove and Newfound Gap Road are two of the best scenic drives in the park).
If you’re up for some serious waterfall exploring, other must-do hiking trails include Laurel Falls, Abrams Falls Trials, and Grotto Falls Trail.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: Free
- Best time to visit: For fall foliage, visit The Smokies in October. Spring is another lovely time to visit for wildflower hikes and the chance to see bear cubs. For fewer crowds (this is the most visited national park in the USA), winter is your best bet!
- Closest airport: Knoxville McGee Tyson Airport, Asheville Regional Airport, Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. Find cheap flights here.
- Where to stay: The only lodge available within the national park is the Le Conte Lodge, which is only reachable via hiking. Moreover, there are several campsites spread all over The Smokies, including developed campgrounds as well as backcountry campsites if you’re feeling up for an outdoor adventure.
For more amenities, you can look for lodging in the nearby town of Gatlinburg (Greystone Lodge on the River is a great mid-range option and for a super comfy stay, Blackberry Springs Lodge is a must).
4. Acadia National Park
Scenic drives, rocky coastlines, unparalleled hikes, and trail summits are just a few of the aspects that make Acadia National Park such a joy to visit. Another amazing thing? It’s one of the best national parks in the USA for fall foliage!
An easy hike to get you started is the Jordan Pond, which has an easy and flat paved trail that goes around a 3.3-mile loop. You also can’t miss hiking up to the Bubbles, a really cool rock formation that seems to be teetering off the side of the mountain. If you’re up for a challenging, less-trafficked hike, check out Acadia’s Pemetic Mountain Trail.
Another popular activity is watching the sunrise at Cadillac Mountain (make sure to plan ahead and arrive early to ensure a good spot). If you want a seriously amazing drive, hop on your car and follow the Park Loop Road, which is the main road in the park; it’s absolutely breathtaking, and one of the best things to do in Acadia National Park, especially if you’re short on time during your visit.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: $30 per vehicle
- Best time to visit: The best time of the year to visit Acadia is during the fall (September through November) when the summer crowds have significantly lowered. Another huge plus of visiting during these months is that you’ll get to see the gorgeous fall foliage that makes Acadia so special.
- Closest airport: Hancock County Airport and Bangor International Airport. Find cheap flights here.
- Where to stay: There are several campgrounds around Acadia (two on Mount Desert Island, one on the Schoodic Peninsula, and five lean-to shelters on Isle au Haut). For lodging options with more amenities, look for accommodation in the nearby Bar Harbour (Bar Harbor Inn and Spa and Quality Inn Bar Harbor are both amazing options depending on your budget!)
5. Hot Springs National Park
Out of all the national parks on the east coast, Hot Springs National Park is probably one of the most interesting stops.
Aside from ancient thermal springs and sweeping views of mountains, this national park has quite an interesting history backing it up… The entire area is known for its history of gambling and gangster fugitives (it was one of Al Capone’s favorite vacation destinations, eek!).
The area is now much more peaceful than it was back in Al Capone’s era, and it makes for a wonderful place to visit if what you’re after is a relaxing getaway. During your time here, make sure to stroll through the Garvan Woodland Gardens, tick as many historical thermal baths as you can at the Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs, and hike a few of the 26 trails on the Northwood system.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: Free
- Best time to visit: The best time for camping and great weather is during the fall months. For hiking, spring is ideal and to avoid crowds, winter just does the trick! That said, though, any time of the year is pretty good for a Hot Springs getaway.
- Closest airport: Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport. Find cheap flights here.
- Where to stay: There is one campground inside the park (Gulpha Gorge Campground) – make sure you reserve in advance. There is also an amazing hotel inside Hot Springs called the Hotel Hale. It’s set inside a historic bathhouse, which makes for a super interesting experience!
6. Mammoth Cave National Park
There’s something eerily magical about exploring subterranean worlds, and this is exactly what visiting Mammoth Cave National Park is all about. This national park is one of the world’s longest cave systems, with more than 365 miles and five levels mapped out already (but the exact length still remains unknown!). While visiting, you’ll get to explore underground passageways, humongous chambers, and buried cathedrals.
The most popular thing to do at this east coast national park is well, exploring caves! There are a variety of cave tours on offer that range from easy to challenging and fit for every age (yes, children can explore Mammoth Cave, too!).
Aside from exploring the national park’s underground world, you can also do plenty of things right above it, with activities ranging from hiking and biking trails, horseback riding adventures, and an adrenaline-inducing zipline!
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: Entry is free of charge, but you’ll need to pay for cave tours & other activities. Prices for cave tours vary (there are a ton of them available and they’re all very different from each other, so you might want to do several of them during your visit to explore as much as possible). Here’s a table with prices for 2021.
- Best time to visit: Mammoth Cave has two seasons of operation: summer and winter. For more available tours, summer is the best time to visit, but note that it tends to get pretty crowded. During winter, not all tours are offered, but you’ll also see fewer people.
- Where to stay: If you’re up for camping, there are three developed campgrounds and several backcountry camping spots inside the park (reserve in advance). For more comfort, opt to stay at the historic cottages of The Lodge at Mammoth Cave, which is the only lodging available inside the national park.
- Nearby airports: Louisville International Airport and Nashville International Airport. Find cheap flights here.
7. Congaree National Park
Location: South Carolina
Located in the heart of South Carolina, Congaree National Park is one of the most unique mountain forests you’ll ever see. Think towering trees, winding waterways, and floodplain ecosystems to get an idea of what visiting this epic park is all about.
A few of the best things to do in Congaree include is exploring its hiking trails, canoeing, and spotting wildlife and flora. Turtles and river otters are usually the stars of the show when it comes to wildlife sightings and you’ll also get the chance to see some of the largest Chestnut Oaks and Loblolly Pines in the United States!
Even though the park is relatively small and definitely not the most popular east coast national park, there’s plenty to see at Congaree and I’d highly recommend visiting if you’re up for exploring some of the lesser-known national parks in the US.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: Free
- Best time to visit: Fall and spring are the best time to visit (late spring brings in a unique activity at Congaree: Firefly light shows!). Winters are good to avoid humidity and mosquitoes, but you’ll miss out on the green hues that make the park so special.
- Closest airport: Columbia Metropolitan Airport and Charleston International Airport. Find cheap flights here.
- Where to stay: Congaree National Park has two campgrounds: Longleaf and Bluff. For more lodging options, you can find plenty in the nearby town of Columbia, which is only 30 minutes away. For a super comfortable stay, Hyatt Place Columbia is a good option and TownePlace Suites Columbia Southeast is another great stay if you want a kitchen to prepare your own meals.
8. Biscayne National Park
If what you’re looking for is an escape that combines beach and nature, Biscayne National Park is definitely your go-to! Located in the Florida Keys, what makes this national park so special is the fact that it’s 95% underwater, which means you have to go below the surface to really get to fully explore it.
Naturally, the only two ways to get to explore under its waves is by going on a snorkeling or scuba diving expedition. If you’d rather not get wet, you can also book a sailing or glass-bottom boat tour.
After exploring the sea, you’ll also want to explore the 5% of the park that isn’t water-based, and that includes exploring islands spread out all over and going on a hike in search of wildlife and unparalleled nature!
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: Free, but there are plenty of tours available (sailing, snorkeling, boat trips to islands, etc) that you’ll need to pay for in order to make the most out of your time at this national park.
- Best time to visit: Winter (December to February) is the best time to visit in terms of weather. The downside is that it tends to get busy, but not nearly as crowded compared to spring.
- Closest airport: Miami International Airport and Key West International Airport. Find cheap flights here.
- Where to stay: There are two campgrounds at Biscayne National Park (Elliot Key and Boca Chica). For proper lodging, you can find plenty of options in the nearby Homestead, Florida City, or Miami.
9. Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is one of the largest national parks on the east coast, protecting 15 million acres of Floridian wilderness. The park covers a humongous array of subtropical ecosystems, including marine, mangroves, and pinelands. Even though alligators are probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Everglades, there is an insane range of wildlife that also calls this national park their home.
Fun fact: Did you know that Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators co-exist?
The best way to explore Everglades is by booking a boat tour in the Gulf Coast area for a chance to spot manatees and dolphins. If you’re up for a unique adventure, you can also take part in a ranger-led program, where you’ll get to dive deep into the park on a canoe or during a night trek.
If you want to check out the Everglades independently, you can always go on a hiking trail or opt for a scenic drive. A few of the best hiking trails to get you started include the Eco Pond Trail, which is a flamingo hot spot, or the Anhinga Trail to see tons of alligators going about their business.
If you’d rather see alligators from the safety of your car, you can drive down the two main roads in the Everglades: Royal Palm to Flamingo and the Tamiami Trail from Shark Valley to Everglades City. These are two incredibly scenic drives that will have you covering a ton of ground in a short time!
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: $30 per vehicle
- Best time to visit: Everglades National Park basically has two seasons: The dry season (November to March) and the wet season (April to October). The dry season is the best time to visit the Everglades for the best chances of spotting wildlife and bird-watching. Moreover, you can see a lot more of the park when the water levels are low (including the ranger-led programs).
- Closest airport: Miami International Airport. Find cheap flights here.
- Where to stay: There are two accessible campgrounds inside the Everglades which are easy to reach by car. Moreover, there are several “Wilderness Campgrounds”, but note that you’ll need to hike or canoe to reach them and you need to get a permit the day before your visit.
For lodging, you’ll need to look just a bit outside the park’s multiple entrances (Shark Valley, Royal Palm, Gulf Coast, and Flamingo).
10. Dry Tortugas National Park
Think white sand beaches and crystal-clear turquoise water are only found in the Caribbean or the Maldives? Think again!
If you’ve never heard of Dry Tortugas National Park, that’s totally fine. Dry Tortugas is one of the least-visited national parks in the USA, and probably also the most beautiful ones. This stunning national park in Florida is only accessible by ferry or seaplane, which makes it super remote and the chances of having it all to yourself are pretty darn high.
Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of 99% water, and the remaining 1% consists of seven islands. During your visit, you can snorkel to see untouched coral reefs and spot unbelievable marine life. Moreover, another great way to explore Dry Tortugas is by simply doing nothing and lounging at the most beautiful beaches in the entire USA.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: $15 per person. Note that you’ll also need to fly or take a seaplane to get there (the entry fee is included for both options!).
- Best time to visit: May through October usually sees great weather conditions and excellent snorkeling opportunities. Do keep in mind, though, that it’s also hurricane season, so make sure you pay close attention to the park’s official weather page in case of any closures due to severe weather conditions.
- Closest airport: Miami International Airport or Key West International Airport. Find cheap flights here.
- Where to stay: There is a campground is located on Garden Key. Note that it’s a primitive campsite and you’ll need to bring your own gear. Moreover, make sure to bring enough food, water, and supplies for your stay. This is an incredibly remote spot and there are no restaurants or shops at the national park.
11. Isle Royale National Park
Set in the middle of Lake Superior in Michigan, Isle Royale National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the USA and the perfect escape for those looking to dive deep into a wilderness paradise. Despite its beauty, the reason Isle Royale remains pretty much untouched by mass tourism is due to its remote location and the fact that the only way to reach it is via seaplane or boat.
If you’re up for the journey, though, you’re in for a real treat! This east coast national park boasts over 175 miles of hiking trails as well as a huge array of exploring options, including both over the ground as well as underwater.
For epic hiking, start your bucket list at Rock Harbor and the Windigo area – it’s virtually impossible to cover every trial in one visit, but those are two pretty good places to start ticking trails off. While hiking, you might just stumble across plenty of sites to look out for wildlife, including moose, wolves, foxes, and beavers.
Something that makes this east coast super unique is the fact that there are numerous shipwrecks sites that divers can explore! Aside from the hiking trails and scuba diving opportunities, there are also a ton of ancient copper mining sites and historic lighthouses to check out as well as a myriad of islands and bays that you can get to on a canoeing or kayaking adventure.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK
- Price to enter: $7 per person, per day
- Best time to visit: July or the beginning of August.
- Closest airport: Houghton County Memorial Airport. Find cheap flights here.
- Where to stay: Isle Royale has 36 campgrounds spread all over the park. A fun way to experience the park is to hike or paddle to a different campground every day. For more comfort, stay at the Rock Harbor Lodge or the Windigo Camper Cabins which are also inside the park’s boundaries.
East Coast National Parks Map
As you can see, every national park on the east coast is vastly different from the next, and that’s because they’re actually spread all over. No two national parks are equal, so here’s a handy map of every national park’s location. (Click here to save it in case you want to plan a road trip out of this list!)
Pro Tips for Visiting East Coast National Parks
Even though every national park is different and there’s no one-size-fits-all list of tips that apply to each and every one of them (pretty sure visiting Dry Tortugas is a completely different experience to exploring Mammoth Cave lol), here are a few tips to make the most out of your visit to these east coast national parks:
Practice Leave No Trace
Strive to leave the national parks as you found them, if not better. Take your garbage, don’t feed wildlife, follow signage and always listen to ranger instructions in order to protect the national parks and the nature in them. The Leave No Trace mantra is a learning experience, so make sure you try to continue some of those habits even back home.
Get a National Parks Passport
If you’re on a mission to visit all the national parks in the US, you must get yourself a National Parks Passport. Even though it’s not an official passport per se, it’s super fun to get stamped every time you get to explore a new national park.
Save money by getting an America the Beautiful Pass
At the start of this roundup of national parks, I mentioned that many of the national parks based on the east coast are free to visit (woohoo!). However, a few of them do have entry fees and if you’re an outdoor buff and plan on visiting several of these parks (alongside others around the USA), then I highly recommend buying the American the Beautiful Pass.
The American the Beautiful Pass allows you to enter over TWO THOUSAND federal recreation parks (including national and state parks) for a one-time fee. Click here to read more about the pass.
Arrive just before sunrise.
Even though a ton of the national parks on the east coast don’t see nearly as many crowds as those on the west, a few of them do tend to get crowded, especially during high season (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for instance). To avoid crowds and get more solitude during your visit, start your day as early as possible.
Did you know that over 90% of visitors to national parks never go further than two miles from the road? Research the park well and plan to go deeper in order to see the hidden beauty of every national park. Plus, this is also the best way to avoid crowds. A great tip is to befriend the rangers and ask them about their favorite secluded spots!
I hope this massive guide to a few of the best east coast national parks served you as inspiration for your USA travel bucket list! There are so many incredible nature spots spread all over the east of the United States, but these are a great way to get you started.
Have you ever visited any of these national parks on the east coast? I’d love to know all about your time there and any tips you might have for making the most out of a visit!