Today we want to talk about East Coast National Parks and why they deserve a place on your vacation radar.
So! Out of 423 National Park sites across the US, KIND OF strictly speaking, only 7 of those are on the East Coast. And yet, there are 13 on our list of East Coast National Parks that you need to visit. How come, you might ask?
Well, we KIND OF don’t do strict here, so we’ve widened the search area. Today, we’re going to refer to the eastern part of the USA as the ‘East Coast’. When we say East Coast, we are talking about any place east of the state of Michigan, and soon you’ll see why.
Some of these parks are smaller than their western counterparts, and further away from big cities. No, that’s definitely not a disadvantage! Further off the beaten track often means fewer crowds, and fewer crowds mean more pristine environments for you to enjoy.
We know that the West Coast has the superstar National Parks, and rightly so. They’re incredible. But we think this list of our favorite East Coast parks can more than hold their own. Read on to discover a UNESCO protected site, island clusters, a super-new National Park, and two National Seashores!
National Park Pass for Visiting the East Coast
If you’re thinking about visiting some National Parks this year, you might want to consider purchasing an annual pass, which is officially known as ‘America the Beautiful— National Parks Pass’.
While you can get this directly from the National Park websites, getting it from REI saves you extra $$ for shipping as REI offers free shipping for items above $50.
The standard price of $80 (there are discounts and free options available, which we detail below) is really good value and even better, it can be ‘owned’ between any two people. That means with two named pass holders, you are reducing the cost even further.
The pass gives you access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites. You’re covered for entrance fees into national parks and wildlife refuges as well as day use fees (amenity fees) at national forests and grasslands.
By ‘you’, we mean a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle (where the area is a per vehicle fee paying site) or up to four adults (at sites that charge per person). Good news ― children aged 15 or under are admitted free!
If you’re a senior aged 62 and over, a Lifetime Senior Pass costs the same as a standard annual pass for everyone else. You can buy it online or by mail once you have proof of age and United States residency.
In some cases, free passes are available to some citizens or residents.
If you are one of the amazing volunteers (thank you so much!) working at a recreation site, you may qualify for the annual Volunteer Pass. Some restrictions apply, so check if you qualify with your local federal recreation site.
A Free Access Pass is also available to citizens or residents who are disabled, and the good news is that it’s a lifetime pass. Proof of residency and disability will be required, and this is another one you can apply for online or by mail.
To honor our US military members (past and present) and their families (including Gold Star family members), a free annual Military Pass is also available. You can also apply for this if you or a family member is a member of the Reserve or National Guard.
If this sounds good to you, the pass can be purchased online at the link below. This is also a ‘give back’ opportunity ― buying your card here ensures that 10% of your purchase will go directly to the National Park Foundation!
With that being said, you’ll soon see why we think these East Coast National Parks should make your list of ‘must see’ places in the east of the country. So, in no particular order, let’s get started!
13 of the Best East Coast National Parks
Acadia National Park
Best Known For: Cadillac Mountain, Thunder Hole, Park Loop Road
Welcome to the first national park on the east coast! It really is all here at Acadia National Park — you’ve got your forest, your mountains, your coastal cliffs…and the wildlife! Frogs, toads, otters, crabs, raccoons, foxes, deer and very occasionally, moose, all call Acadia home.
Situated on the coast of Maine, most of the park’s 47,000 acres are spread over Mount Desert Island and parts of the mainland. This provides the stunning and varied landscape we mentioned. And one of the park highlights is Cadillac Mountain.
Cadillac Mountain’s peak is the highest point on the Atlantic Coast at 1530 feet, or 466 meters. But one of the coolest facts about this peak is that from about mid-October to the start of March, this is the first place to see sunrise in the continental United States. And you can drive to it!
Take a ride along the 27-mile Park Loop Road on the east side of Mount Desert Island. It connects the park’s shorelines and mountains and will get you up to Cadillac to witness those first few rays of sunrise.
You can also climb one of Acadia’s other mountain ranges (there’s 20 in total), but wait, there’s even more on offer. Witness (and listen to!) Thunder Hole, a natural inlet of waves crashing against the rocks, causing that thunderous sound!
Something more calming might be photographing the cliffside Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, constructed in 1858 and marking the entrances to Bass Harbor and Blue Hill Bay.
A side path will bring you next to the lighthouse viewing area for all-encompassing views of the harbor and in the distance, the islands. What an amazing view for any keen shutterbug!
Feeling energetic? You can hike or run one of the 57 miles of carriage roads, perhaps passing carriage rides organized by the Visitor Center!
There’s also fishing, wildlife spotting and 5 minutes drive away, the town of Bar Harbour, with its many shops and eateries. No matter what level of energy you’ve got, you’ll find something to enjoy in Acadia National Park.
Shenandoah National Park
Best Known For: Old Rag Mountain, Skyline Drive
Only 75 miles from Washington DC, and spread along the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah is Virginia’s first National Park. In amongst its 200,000 acres you’ll find stunning natural landscapes of forests, waterfalls, and mountains.
Below ground, there’s the Shenandoah Caverns, which have been attracting visitors since 1922. These formations are so fantastic they were featured in the National Geographic Magazine, and you too can take a look on a guided tour.
If you think you’re tough enough, try hiking Old Rag Mountain. This one is tough — prepare for rock scrambling — and maybe not for children, but the 360 degree views at the exposed summit are very worth it.
For a much more sedate experience, cruise the 105-mile Skyline Drive for epic views, and catch glimpses of park residents such as deer, black bears and songbirds. Oh, and you will absolutely fall in love with the flower meadows!
Great Smokey National Park
Location: Tennessee, North Carolina
Known For: No admission fees and stunning scenic drives
This is the big one — welcome to the most visited park in the US.
Why? Because over 500,000 acres you’ll find forests, waterfalls and hiking routes that include part of the Appalachian Trail. There are year round wildflowers and my-mind-is-blown scenic drives (Cades Loop and Roaring Forks to name but two).
Look out for the famous fog that gives the park its name alongside roaming wildlife such as black bears — it’s estimated there are approximately two per square mile here!
For all of these reasons, Great Smokey National Park gets crowded, and be prepared to perhaps coast rather than speed through those amazing drives. But if you get there early, or travel outside the crazy-busy summer months, you will be well rewarded at Great Smokey National Park.
Everglades National Park
Known For: Wetlands and diverse wildlife
This is the home for biodiversity. The Everglades comprises 1.5 million acres of wetlands — it’s nearly all water here folks! — and it’s the only place ON EARTH where alligators and crocodiles live together.
The wildlife here is staggering and we don’t just mean the animals. The oldest Mahogany trees in the US live here, with wildflowers, orchids and many other plant varieties for company.
You don’t just have to hit the water to experience the Everglades. You might prefer to take it easy on a tram tour from Shark Valley. There’s also the option of walking one of the boardwalk trails or overseeing everything from the Observation Deck!
Our top tip for a more comfortable trip: repellant! Aside from some reprieve during December to March, you will 100% get bitten in the Everglades. Bring repellent for the mosquitoes and consider wearing long sleeved shirts and long pants for the biting flies.
Congaree National Park
Location: South Carolina
Known For: Cedar Creek Canoe Trail
Okay, we get it, it’s a swamp and it’s got lots of bugs in it. That’s the not-so-great part. The absolutely great part is: everything else!
Do you love trees? What about really, really big trees? If you like to get your tree hug on, you’ll be in good company at Congaree National Park. This is the home of champion trees. Meaning, the largest living tree of its species — and many of them are right here.
To really explore these swamplands, grab a kayak or canoe and do your mind a favor. Paddle slowly down the 15 mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, surrounded by (even more!) trees on your watery route.
And those bugs we mentioned earlier? Prepare to change your mind because between May and June, an event takes place at Congaree that only happens in a select few locations around the entire world with those very same bugs.
Those few weeks play host to mating season for the fireflies, and during this time, they light up simultaneously giving a breathtaking lightshow like you’ve never seen. All we can say to that is — thank you, bugs!
Biscayne National Park
Known For: Being 95% water
The thing about Biscayne National Park is that it’s harder to access than most other parks. There’s no road to drive on because, well, it’s practically all water!
To really get a taste of Biscayne, expect to be water-borne. Options include boating, canoeing and kayaking, scuba diving and yes, you can even fish. You’ll be rewarded with island clusters and coral reefs, and shoreline mango forest with Miami views in the distance.
There is evidence in Biscayne National of 10,000 years of human activity so come for a dip and be a part of history!
Mammoth Cave National Park
Known For: The longest known cave system in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Things are different at Mammoth Cave National Park. While we may know its size above ground (80 square miles) we actually haven’t worked out the underground part yet! We just don’t yet know how far its underground cave structure actually runs for.
We are still exploring Mammoth — and if you want to join in, the only way to access this UNESCO protected site is with a guide.
There’s about 16 miles of caves available to explore and you can take it easier on a shorter (1 hour) excursion or go all out and take the Wild Cave tour for 6 hours. There are child-friendly options available and folks with limited mobility are taken care of too.
Above ground, there are plenty of options for hiking, fishing, boating and camping.
Check out the Visitor Center (up the hill from the Historic Entrance) for permits, tour tickets and information about this truly unique East Coast National Park.
Cape Cod National Seashore
Known For: Miles of protected sand dune and pristine beaches
The Cape Cod National Seashore is one of our not-so-obvious East Coast National Park claims. Okay, so park-wise it’s actually 40 miles of (spectacular) sandy beach protected by the National Park Service, but let us make our case!
The Cape Cod National Seashore was created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, when he signed a bill to create it. His mission was clear — conserve the area, but still allow people to use it for recreation. And who are we to argue with a president?
There are six beautiful swimming beaches managed by the Cape Cod National Seashore. Resting on what looks like a curved arm stretching out into the Atlantic Ocean, they are a refuge from the noise and considerable development often found in the area.
With a visitor center at each end, sightseers can walk, bike, ride horses and take part in everything water-based. If you’re interested in the biodiversity found in the marshes and dunes, you can join a ranger talk in the evenings and learn from the masters.
Bring a camera and capture historic lighthouses at Chatham and Truro or if you’re lucky, whales — yes whales! — at Race Point Beach from June to September. It’s humpback season but you might also catch the Atlantic white-sided dolphin too.
We are lucky that President Kennedy had the foresight to protect this area in 1961. That decision provides us with an opportunity to experience beach life at its most natural.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Known For: Fort Jefferson and five types of turtle inhabitants
On our East Coast National Park voyage of discovery, we won’t get to travel much further south than Dry Tortugas. Located in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles west of Key West, this park is 100 square miles of mostly open water.
Comprising seven islands and all that water, the only way to reach this park is by chartered boat, ferry, or seaplane. At Dry Tortugas, this is where solitude and quiet reign.
There’s just one (kind of) built structure here. At 16 million bricks, the unfinished Fort Jefferson is the largest brick structure in the western hemisphere. It’s simply huge! And we think it’s worth taking a tour of.
Also worth looking out for are those turtles! Dry Tortugas National Park is home to five species — Green, Loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, Hawksbill, and Leatherback. In fact, this is the most productive nesting area in the Florida Keys region for some turtles.
As getting here is an adventure in itself, Dry Tortugas is not overrun with visitors. There are no amenities so bring what you need for the day or for camping on Garden Key Island.
When you get here, expect white, powdered sand and seclusion as you swim, snorkel, surf or kayak and really get away from it all.
New River Gorge National Park
Location: West Virginia
Known For: Being a Newbie!
Say hello to the baby of the group — New River only became a National Park in December 2020.
Paradoxically, New River might be the oldest river on the continent, clocking in at a mind-boggling 360 million years of age. Unlike many rivers, it flows south to north and rafting is one of the most popular activities here, with spring being the best time to take part.
If you’re interested in staying on land, the Endless Wall Trail winds through forest and gives you cliff-side views of the river and New River Gorge Bridge. The annual Bridge Day Festival takes place in the fall and it’s the only day you can legally walk across it!
Rock climbers will be very happy too, with thousands of established routes across 60 miles of sandstone. The sandstone is full of cracks, slabs, overhangings and roofs. There’s drilled bolts and gear placement spots for added security too.
So whether you want to get soaking wet, keep warm on land or hang off a sandstone cliff, New River Gorge National Park is a very welcome addition to this selective club!
Canaveral National Seashore
Known For: Pristine Nature and Rocket Rumblings
On 58,000 acres of land, you’ll find 24 miles of beach that might look quiet, but are actually home to several animals including reptiles, birds and mammals, and some protected species, like the marine turtles who nest here.
Welcome to Canaveral National Seashore, which protects Timucua Native American burial mounds and turtles alike, and where nearby, you might hear rockets taking off into space! That’s the nearby Kennedy Space Center we’re talking about, which you can take a guided tour of.
Generally, this national park is a place that’s untouched, wild and quiet. So if you’re coming here, you gotta prepare. Bring plenty of food and water, as there are no restaurants or vendor stalls. There are drink machines at Apollo and Playalinda Beach, but that’s it.
Camping is very basic at the Mosquito Lagoon islands, and you will need a pass and permit to go further backcountry. These must be obtained online or by using the Recreation.gov app.
The rewards are there though — this is a place to truly get away from the fast pace of city living. Hikers will love the trails amongst the wilderness, and fishers will appreciate the constant supply of redfish and ‘gator’ trout.
There’s boating and swimming too, but also the more relaxing option of taking a seat (bring one with you!) to watch a rocket launch at Apollo Beach.
Whichever outdoor adventure you pursue, enjoy it as nature intended at Canaveral National Seashore.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Known For: Trailheads and waterfalls
True fact: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exists because of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. After decades of toxic waste dumping, the ‘Crooked River’ (its Mohawk name) caught fire in 1969.
The levels of pollution caused outrage and the EPA was born out of a need to protect our environment. Today, the 33,000 acres here have been a designated National Park since 2000 and that river is better known for its canoeing, kayaking and fishing options.
Secluded forest trails will delight hikers here, where you will be surrounded by amazing fauna, waterfalls (there are over 100 in the valley!) and sandstone cliffs. There’s also biking through trails once used by mules who towed boats along the old canal trails!
Did you know freight trains ran here in the 1800s? Today, the Cuyahoga Scenic Valley Railroad uses those same tracks to carry visitors through the valley and by the river with opportunities to spot wildlife along the way. Perfect if you’re traveling with kids!
Located just 30 minutes from Cleveland, this is adventure and nature at its most accessible.
Isle Royal National Park
Known For: Complete seclusion
Close to the Canadian border and situated in Lake Superior, you’ll find Isle Royal National Park, which is actually a cluster of islands in the north-west of the lake.
Over 850 square miles, prepare to ditch the car, meet (tame!) wolves and moose, and check out some really cool lighthouses — there are four here because these waters have historically been major shipping lanes.
Access to this unique National Park is only by boat or float plane. Don’t let that put you off — you will be rewarded with miles of hiking trails, 36 campgrounds with water sources and restrooms (get your permits first) and a lot of welcome silence.
If you’re experienced and certified, you might want to scuba dive and view one of the many shipwrecks beneath the dark waters of Lake Superior. Check permissions for this at the visitor centres on the northeast and southwest ends of the park.
If you don’t meet the criteria, don’t worry, because you can join a shipwreck tour on a glass-bottomed boat! Or canoe through one of the many waterways and bays. If you make it to Hidden Lake Dock, stow the canoe and hike upwards for 1km to Lookout Louise for magnificent views.
Funny fact: Isle Royal National Park gets fewer visitors all year than Yellowstone gets in a year. What a bonus for those who make the trip!
Of all the National Parks in the whole of the US, we hope we’ve made a good case for you to visit this small but amazing group along the East Coast. From breath-taking scenic drives to scrambling over rocky climbs and right back to the basics of nature, you’re sure to find one that is just right for your vacation. Go East Coast!
FAQ on East Coast National Parks
How many national parks are there in the US?
Currently, there are 423 national park sites in the US, but only 63 of them are called ‘National Parks’ by name. The rest fall into various designated categories but the National Parks Service refers to all of them as ‘parks’.
How many national parks are on the East Coast?
There are 7 National Parks on the east coast of the US. All of them are included in our list above, but we’ve pushed the envelope slightly by highlighting our favorites on the eastern side of the US.
What’s the best way to see the East Coast National Parks?
We’ve mentioned that we’ve bumped up the number a little on our list of the East Coast National Parks that you have to visit. And even still, that is a small and exclusive list, spread right across the east of the country.
Because of the distances between them, we recommend driving as the best way to get around this part of the country’s National Parks. Consider flying into one area as your base and renting a car for the trip.
What about a flight into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, and driving to Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains and Mammoth Cave?
Or take any opportunity to go to Miami, taking in Biscayne, the Everglades and Dry Tortugas in Florida.
Looking at east vs west, there might be more planning involved in an East Coast National Park trip. Out west there are so many that if you find yourself in one area, you probably have access to several parks nearby which you can visit over a shorter period of time.
But for something different, maybe it’s a good thing to spend more time in fewer places. Sure, you may not get to visit all of these parks all at once, but we think that’s part of the attraction. It leaves more to be explored next time!
Bonus Tip: Get a National Park Passport or Scratch Map
If you’re into collectibles and are looking for a way to keep track of the different parks you’ve visited, the National Park Passport is a booklet that acts as your own personal travel document and memory keeper.
How does it work? Well, each time you visit a National Park, you can collect an ink cancellation at the visitor center stamp station (yes, you get to stamp your own passport!), or buy a sticker collection to also place on a page.
There are three types of passports to choose from, and even a Junior Ranger version. It’s not an entry pass but it will give you a warm cosy feeling to look through after your vacation.
Alternatively you can also look at our article on the best National Park Scratch Maps for the ultimate fun activity to help you keep track of your National Park pursuits!
Looking for national park travel inspiration? Check out these articles:
- 10 National Park Scratch Off Maps for Outdoor Lovers
- USA National Parks That You Need to Add to Your Bucket List