12 Stunning East Coast National Parks You Have to Visit

If you’re looking for an unforgettable outdoor adventure, then be sure to add one (or all!) of these East Coast national parks to your list. From the rugged and wild beauty of Acadia National Park in Maine to the majestic Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. So pack your hiking shoes and get ready for an unforgettable journey!

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Tips for visiting the best East Coast National Parks

Before we start talking about each national park in detail, here are a few tips to make the most of your visit.

  • Entrance fee: Many of the national parks on the East Coast charge an entrance fee, so be sure to bring cash or a credit card with you. Unlike the most popular West Coast national parks, you can actually find many parks on the East Coast that are free to visit. Be sure to check the info box below each national park on this list to find out more about the fees.
  • Entrance fee-free days: Even the East Coast national parks that normally charge a fee can be visited for free on specific days throughout the year. These days include the first day of National Park Week and Veterans Day, among others. You can learn more about the free days on the National Park Service website.
  • National Park Pass: If you’re planning to visit a few of the parks on this list, it might be worth investing in a National Park Pass. Buying the annual America the Beautiful Pass is the best option, which gives you access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks and national forests. It costs $80 and is valid for 12 months.
  • National Park Passport: A unique and fun way to commemorate your visits to these national parks is with a National Park Passport. These handy booklets are super affordable and they include room for you to collect stamps from each park you visit, as well as space to write down memories and highlights from your trip.
  • Leave No Trace: As with any outdoor activity, it’s important to practice Leave No Trace principles when visiting the East Coast national parks. This means leaving the park as you found it and respecting the natural resources around you.
  • Camping: If you’re looking to spend a few nights in the park, camping is a great option. Many of the East Coast national parks have campgrounds available, and often offer great deals on camping during the offseason. You can find more information about camping in each park below.
  • Food and drinks: Most of the East Coast national parks have a few food options available, but they’re often quite limited. It’s best to bring your own snacks and drinks with you, especially if you’re planning on spending a few days in the park.

Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s dive into each of the stunning national parks on the East Coast!

Best National Parks on the East Coast You Can’t Miss

1. Acadia National Park, Maine

View from the summit of the Beehive Trail in Acadia National Park in the fall

Recommended by Kriszti from She Wanders Abroad

Entrance fee: $30 per vehicle (valid for 7 days)
Best time to visit: May – October
How many days to spend there: 2 days
Highlights: Cadillac Mountain summit, Carriage roads, Jordan Pond House, Beehive Trail
Where to stay: Camping inside the park or in Bar Harbor

Acadia National Park is one of the most popular East Coast national parks and for good reason. The park is home to some of the most stunning coastline in the USA. It’s also one of the best places in the country for hiking. With over 120 miles of trails, there is something for everyone.

The Cadillac Mountain Summit is a can’t-miss destination within Acadia National Park. At 1,532 feet, it is the tallest mountain on the Eastern Seaboard. You can drive up to the summit (it requires a reservation from May to October though) and take in the gorgeous views at any time of the day.

If you’re looking for some easy hikes, check out the carriage roads. These roads were originally built in the early 1900s by John D. Rockefeller Jr. The gravel roads are perfect for biking, hiking, and horseback riding.

Another popular attraction within Acadia National Park is Jordan Pond House. The restaurant serves traditional New England fare like popovers and chowder. It’s worth stopping in for a bite to eat or just to take in the incredible views of Jordan Pond.

Plan to spend at least 2 days in Acadia National Park to really get a chance to explore everything the park has to offer. It’s best to visit the park from late spring through fall and it’s also a great addition to a New England fall road trip to see the famed fall foliage.

2. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Recommended by Kriszti from She Wanders Abroad

Entrance fee: $15 per person (valid for 7 days)
Best time to visit: October – January
How many days to spend there: 1 day (a few hours is enough)
Highlights: Fort Jefferson, Bush Key, snorkeling
Where to stay: Key West, Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most unique East Coast national parks and yet, it is one of the least visited ones in the US. The park is made up of seven small islands located about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida.

The main attraction in the park is Fort Jefferson. The fort was built in 1861 and it’s the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere. It’s also home to some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the country. Snorkeling is a popular activity in the park thanks to the abundance of coral and marine life.

If you’re looking for a unique camping experience, Dry Tortugas National Park is the place for you. You can camp at Garden Key which is a rustic, but unforgettable experience with amazing stargazing opportunities.

Plan to spend at least a few hours or one full day in Dry Tortugas National Park to explore Fort Jefferson and go snorkeling. The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, however, Bush Key is only open from mid-October to mid-January.

3. Everglades National Park, Florida

Everglades National Park, Florida

Recommended by Debbie from World Adventurists

Entrance fee: $30 per vehicle (valid for 7 days)
Best time to visit: December – April
How many days to spend: 3 days
Highlights: Airboat ride
Where to stay: Camping or Everglades City on the park’s western border

Everglades National Park, one of the great biological wonders of the world, is one of the most fascinating East Coast national parks to explore.

Classified as a world heritage site, an international biosphere reserve, a wetland of international importance, and the largest subtropical wilderness in the USA, there is plenty to discover.

The most popular reason to visit Everglades National Park is to search for alligators. Taking an Everglades airboat ride is a fun way to rip through the sawgrass in search of these modern-day dinosaurs and other wildlife.

Finding alligators is exciting. However, there is so much more to discover than just alligators. The Everglades is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist. It is also home to several threatened species, like the Florida panther.

You will also find a great variety of hiking and biking trails, boating, and bird watching within the park.

With the combination of low humidity and the dry season, December through April is a great time to explore the Everglades. Allow for at least a couple of days to explore. If you are strapped for time though, do not pass up the chance to visit for the day.

There are camping options within the park. If you would prefer some extra creature comforts, Everglades city is located on the park’s western border.

4. Biscayne National Park, Florida

Biscayne National Park, Florida

Recommended by Candice from CS Ginger

Entrance fee: Free
Best time to visit: December to April
How many days to spend there: 1 day
Highlights: Biscayne National Park Institute Tour
Where to stay: TownePlace Suites by Marriott in Homestead

One of the best East Coast national parks is Biscayne National Park. This is a very unique national park in the way that it is mostly water.

In fact, it’s 95% water making a boat the best way to explore this park. It is a very unique national park experience as the water there is beautiful and there are small keys that are fun to explore.

The park waters are open 24 hours a day, but the visitors center and kayak launch are usually open from about 7 am to 5.30 pm. You can use your own boat, kayak, or paddleboard to explore the park.

If you don’t have your own boat, a Biscayne National Park Institute tour is a great option. They offer a variety of tours ranging from kayaking to snorkeling to a Heritage Tour.

You will only need one day to explore the best things to do in Biscayne National Park unless you are wanting to go on different kinds of tours like snorkeling and kayaking. One day is enough to see the highlights of the park and enjoy the beautiful water.

5. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

The boardwalk at Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Recommended by Kriszti from She Wanders Abroad

Entrance fee: Free entry
Best time to visit: Late March – Early June, September – Mid November
How many days to spend there: Half a day or 1 day
Highlights: Boardwalk, swamp tours
Where to stay: Columbia, South Carolina (20 minutes from the park)

Congaree National Park is the largest remaining old-growth floodplain forest in the USA. At 22,200 acres, it’s also one of the smallest national parks. The park is located in central South Carolina and is only a short drive from Columbia.

The main attraction in Congaree National Park is the boardwalk, which is an easy 2.6 mile long loop trail. The elevated boardwalk gives visitors a chance to explore the park’s lush forest without getting wet. The boardwalk is also a great place to spot wildlife like alligators, deer, and birds.

If you’re looking for a more immersive experience, consider renting a kayak or a canoe, which gives you a chance to see the Congaree River from a different perspective.

Plan to spend at least half a day in Congaree National Park to explore the boardwalk and go on a swamp tour. The park is open every day of the year and admission is valid for 7 days.

6. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Recommended by Erin from Go Hike Virginia

Entrance fee: $30 per vehicle (valid for seven days)
Best time to visit: Spring and fall. In winter, the main park road closes sporadically due to ice and snow.
How many days to spend there: 3-5 days
Highlights: Dark Hollow Falls, Compton Peak, Stony Man
Where to stay: There are two in-park lodges: Skyland and Big Meadows Lodge. There are also four family campgrounds.

Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park awes with scenic mountain vistas, cascading waterfalls, and bucolic meadows. Flowering trees and colorful wildflowers delight in spring, while leaves of amber, gold, and fiery orange drape the landscape in fall.

Drive along the park’s famed 105-mile Skyline Drive that gently winds north to south across the park. More than 75 overlooks and pull-offs implore visitors to stop and ogle far-reaching views, including Spitler Knoll Overlook (milepost 48.1) and Big Run Overlook (milepost 81.2).

More than 500 miles of hiking trails enable visitors to explore this national park on foot. Trailheads along Skyline Drive make it easy to stop for a hike, whether up for scenic views from atop Compton Peak or down to see tumbling Doyles River Falls, one of the more popular waterfalls at Shenandoah National Park.

There are two visitor centers along Skyline Drive: Dickey Ridge Visitor Center and Harry S. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center. Both educate visitors on the park by way of short movies and historic photos. For kids, pick up a Junior Ranger activity booklet to complete and earn a badge as a newly-minted Junior Ranger.

Stay the weekend in a rustic cabin or modern guest room at one of two park lodges. Both have a restaurant, outdoor terraces, and access to hiking trails. No visit is complete without a slice of the park’s signature mile-high blackberry ice cream pie. Delicious!

7. New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

Recommended by Lydia from Lost with Lydia

Entrance fee: Free entry
Best time to visit: Fall, but it’s nice year-round.
How many days to spend there: 2-3 days
Highlights: New River Gorge Bridge, Long Point Trail, Kaymoor Miners Trail, white water rafting 
Where to stay: Fayetteville

New River Gorge National Park is located in West Virginia and was officially designated a national park in 2020.

The park is known for white water rafting, its rich mining history, and the New River Gorge Bridge (the third-highest bridge in North America!). The park has multiple units so it’s best to have at least two or three days to explore what it has to offer. 

Spend the bulk of your time exploring the most popular area of the park near the town of Fayetteville and the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. Popular hiking trails in the area include the Long Point Trail, the Kaymoor Miners Trail, and the Endless Wall Trail.

In addition to hiking, take in the views of the bridge from the visitor center. If heights don’t scare you, you can also go on a Bridge Walk, where you’ll harness up to walk across a catwalk below the bridge.

In addition to the Canyon Rim area, you can go on a white water rafting trip on the New River or the Gauley River, visit the Thurmond Ghost Town to learn about mining history, or hike the trails in the Grandview unit of the park.

After spending your days exploring, visit the many restaurants in Fayetteville for dinner and stay in a local Airbnb to be centrally located in town. New River Gorge is one of the most unique and beautiful East Coast national parks that has something to offer for every type of traveler.

8. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee

Recommended by Megan from Virginia Travel Tips

Entrance fee: Free
Best time to visit: Summer and fall (known for its fall foliage)
How many days to spend there: 2-3 days
Highlights: Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, driving the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Rainbow Falls, Grotto Falls, Newfound Gap
Best places to stay: Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, cabins in the mountains

Tennessee and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most beautiful and relaxing national parks on the East Coast and is the most-visited national park in the US.

You will find plenty to do there and should set aside a minimum of 2-3 days for the park itself and another couple for the surrounding cities and towns since you’ll find many incredible things to do in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (including Dollywood)!

The best place to start your Smokies trip is at Sugarlands Visitor Center. It has exhibits featuring nature history as well as a 20-minute film about the park that will set you up for an insightful and fun trip. You can also take part in their ranger-led programs there.

One of the park’s main highlights is Cades Cove, a lush valley that was home to many Appalachian settlers back in the day. You will find old cabins, a grist mill, and many other historic attractions there.

The 11-mile road that goes around Cades Cove is also a great place for wildlife viewing and is often noted to be one of the top scenic roads in the state.

If you’re into hiking, don’t miss out on a chance to hike the Abrams Falls Trail! The falls are not tall (only 20 feet) but they are mighty and worth the 5-mile round-trip hike to them! This trail is moderate but truly a worthwhile experience for outdoor enthusiasts.

Alternatively, you can take to the Trillium Gap Trail and check out Grotto Falls. It is the perfect place to cool off deep in the woods during the hot, summer months.

9. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Recommended by Francesca from Homeroom Travel

Entrance fee: Tours start at $8
Best time to visit: Late Spring – Early Summer
How many days to spend there: 1 day
Highlights: Cave Tours and Hiking Trails
Where to stay: Cave City, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park is one of the best east coast National Parks to visit. It is known as the world’s longest cave system with over 420 miles of passages. The park itself sits on 52,830 acres of land in western-central Kentucky about 80 miles south of Louisville.

The main highlight of a trip to Mammoth Cave is taking a cave tour. There are a variety of choices available. In the summertime, there are more options than in the wintertime. The Frozen Niagara and the Historic Tour are two of the more popular tours.

Cave tours last an hour or more. Keep in mind that some of the areas inside the cave are tight so if you are claustrophobic, a cave tour is not for you. There are also lots of bugs inside the cave so keep that in mind as well. 

Outside of cave tours, Mammoth Cave has over 60 miles of hiking trails. None of the trails are too strenuous and offer a peek at the picturesque landscape of the area. The River Styx trail is popular as it leads you to a natural cave entrance.

Overall, there is plenty to do at Mammoth Cave National Park to keep you busy for a day.

10. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Recommended by Samantha from PA on Pause

Entrance fee: Free
Best time to visit: Spring for flowing waterfalls, fall for beautiful foliage
How many days to spend there: 2-3 days
Highlights: Brandywine Falls, Ledges Trail, Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail
Where to stay: Inn at Brandywine Falls, Stanford House, nearby hotels in Cleveland

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, located between the cities of Cleveland and Akron in northeast Ohio, has beautiful natural areas to explore. It’s really easy to access via a short drive by car from those major Ohio cities.

You can see the main points of interest and explore a couple of the trails in a weekend, but there is more to see if you you want to stay longer. Be sure to stop and see Brandywine Falls, the largest waterfall in the park at 65 feet high.

Then, spend some time exploring the nooks and passageways of the Ledges Trail and the huge rock formations it features. Bring your bicycle and ride along the Towpath Trail, an important historic trade route along the Ohio & Erie Canal.

Of all of the things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, you’ll want to make sure you can ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. This train ride through the park gives you a fantastic glimpse at all of the beautiful scenery.

There is plenty of space for a picnic should you pack your own lunch, but there are also great restaurants in the neighboring towns to visit for dinner.

Be sure to arrive at the main attractions, especially Brandywine Falls and the Boston Mill Visitor Center, early in the morning. On nice days and weekends, parking lots often fill up by late morning because they aren’t very big at all.

There is also no camping of any kind in this national park. You’ll have to consider a nearby state park or private campground.

11. Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Macroni Beach at Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Recommended by Keri from Bon Voyage with Kids

Entrance fee: $20 per vehicle at selected beaches (valid for one day only)
Best time to visit: Summer, but spring and fall are great as well
How many days to spend there: 1-2 days
Highlights: Cahoon Hollow, Macroni Beach, Coastguard Beach, Nauset Light Beach
Where to stay: Cape Codder, Chatham Bars Inn, the Red Jacket Resorts, or the Ocean Edge Resort

One of the best East Coast National Parks is one that might surprise you. It’s the Cape Cod National Seashore!

About an hour or two drive from Boston, Massachusetts (depending on where you go on the Cape), Cape Cod is known for being a fantastic beach vacation full of quaint New England seaside towns, beach and outdoor activities, and its seafaring culture.

But it is on the “forearm” – or Upper Cape – part of Cape Cod where you’ll find the US National Park’s Cape Cod National Seashore.

This national treasure includes some of the most beautiful stretches of beach in America. As part of the US National Parks, it is protected and boasts some of the most pristine and natural shorelines in the United States.

The town of Wellfleet, also known as the headquarters of the Cape Cod National Seashore, is where you will find some of the best beaches on the Cape. Favorites among locals and regulars include Macroni Beach and Cahoon Hollow. 

Eastham, also known as “Old Cape Cod” is where you’ll find Coastguard Beach and Nauset Light Beach, both known for being two of the best beaches in all of Cape Cod. Truro is home to Meadow and Ballston Beaches, and Provincetown is home to Race Point Beach. All of these are some of the best beaches on the Cape Cod National Seashore.

One note about visiting Cape Cod beaches is that parking is limited and usually has a fee. Do get to the beaches early in the morning and get in line. Some of the beaches are “closed” once parking reaches capacity, so getting there in the morning is key to enjoying an epic beach day on Cape Cod National Seashore.

From spending the day on one of the Cape’s famed beaches to enjoying old-fashioned activities like mini-golf, go-karts, hiking, biking, visiting lighthouses, whale watching, and drive-in movie theaters, Cape Cod is fantastic for families and couples alike. There is also a great deal of history on Cape Cod.

The beautiful New England seaside towns are great for shopping and dining, and be sure to try some of the freshest seafood at one of the restaurants. And, you can take day trips to Martha’s Vinyard Island from the Cape.

The Cape is home to a large seal population, who are often seen bobbing up and down from shore. It is also home to the White Shark Conservation Center, which is a fascinating experience for kids.   

Cape Cod hosts many family-friendly resorts. But our favorites include the Cape Codder, Chatham Bars Inn, the Red Jacket Resorts, and the Ocean Edge Resort to name a few. There are also lovely bed and breakfasts, and very nice and clean campgrounds for those who want a full National Park experience. 

The best time to visit the Cape is in the summer when you will be able to maximize your beach time. But it is also lovely and less crowded in the spring and fall, and there are residents year-round.

No matter where you visit the Cape Cod National Seashore, it is definitely one of the best US National Parks on the East Coast.

12. Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia/Maryland

Wild horse at Assateague Island National Seashore

Recommended by Denise from Chef Denise

Entrance fee: $25 per vehicle (valid for 7 days)
Best time to visit: Summer
How many days to spend there: 1-3 days
Highlights: Wild horses, birding, unspoiled beaches
Where to stay: Camp on the island

Located off the coast of Eastern Shore Maryland, Assateague Island National Seashore is a wonderful place to spend the day, or to camp overnight during a long weekend.

There are no hotels on Assateague, so, if you’re not a camper, buy the yearly pass for $40, and stay and eat in nearby Berlin or Ocean City.

Although the barrier island offers beautiful scenery all year round, summer is the best time to take advantage of its harbor and ocean. Popular activities include clamming, kayaking, fishing, canoeing, and crabbing.

The unspoiled beaches on the Atlantic are perfect for swimming, surfing, and long walks on a sunny day. You may even see the famous wild horses on the shore or dunes.

As the horses roam freely, you can see them anywhere in addition to the beaches: on the hiking trails, in the marshes, on the street, even in parking lots. The horses are free to do as they please, but you are not. You must stay 40 feet away and must not feed them!

Actually, you cannot feed any of the wildlife on the island, but spotting deer, great blue herons, egrets, and eagles are often a highlight. For bird watching, the best trails are Life of the Marsh and Life of the Forest. Don’t forget your binoculars!

Map of the Best East Coast National Parks

On the below map you can see all the East Coast national parks mentioned in this article with their retrospective number. The numbers don’t reflect any ranking order, they are just simply there to make it easier for you to find all the best national parks on the East Coast on the map!

You can also save this map to your Google Maps app on your phone if you click on the bracket in the upper right corner. Super convenient, right?

Final Thoughts

Each park on the East Coast offers its own unique attractions and experiences that are worth exploring. Whether you’re a nature lover or just looking for a unique outdoor adventure, the East Coast national parks are sure to impress.

I hope you liked this article about the best national parks on the East Coast and you managed to put a few more national parks on your travel bucket list. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to share them below. I would love to hear from you!

xoxo, Kriszti

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