best national parks east coast
Last Updated: March 29, 2021

Best National Parks on the East Coast

The United States has a huge system of National Parks including monuments and historical sites, 423 to be exact. Sixty-three of them are considered as the “crown jewels” and are the most visited. While the lion’s share of them are on the west coast, the east coast National Parks are not to be ignored.

The east coast has a diverse geography from mountain peaks and a labyrinth of cave systems to swampy marshland. All of them have unique outdoor adventures and fascinating attractions.

You’ll find all types of lodging from primitive camping to luxury lodges either inside the parks or in nearby communities. And since RV camping is popular now, the following 10 can be visited with a well-planned lengthy road trip from Maine to Florida.

MaineAcadia National Park

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

If you want to see the first sunrise in the United States, head to Arcadia National Park off the rocky coast of Maine.

Then simply hike the trails to the top of Cadillac Mountain on the island of Mt. Desert where the U.S. gets its first beams between January 11 and March 6 and again from October 7 and November 29 thanks to an elevation of 1,528 feet. If hiking at that hour sounds unappealing, a paved road also leads to the site.

Acadia is one of the smaller National Parks but is definitely one of the most scenics. It’s also the oldest east of the Mississippi. The landscapes you’ll see include mountains, islands, lakes, and forests.

Coastal views are enchanting and plentiful. The fall foliage is stunning, and the Atlantic Ocean is nearby for a refreshing swim in summer, especially if you don’t like it bathwater warm like Florida.

The park has several camping and RV sites right inside the park with nearby trails for hiking and biking. The Blackwoods camping ground even provides free transportation inside the park and around the community.

Maine is a wonderful state to explore filled with sleepy seaside villages, antique stores, restaurants with fresh Maine lobster, and shops selling souvenirs and homemade fudge. And you’re sure to find a quaint B&B if you don’t want to camp inside the park.

Kentucky

A visit to Mammoth Caves National Park isn’t your ordinary park experience. Here you can explore nature’s sculpting work underground in the world’s largest cave system. While the above-ground area is around 80 sq. miles (129 sq km) it’s unknown just how extensive the limestone labyrinth is because it’s still being explored.

Tours are offered in about 10 miles (16 km) of the cave system. Sign up in advance for specialty tours such as a short tour at the Frozen Niagra Cave or the Wild Cave Tour, a six-hour excursion where you spend most of the tour crawling. On the Violet City Lantern Tour, the only light you’ll have is by lantern.

The Domes and Dripstones tour is the best one to admire the caves’ most breathtaking formations. But crawling through caves isn’t the park’s only activity.

The surrounding land is lush Kentucky forest with short hiking and biking trails. Paddling on the nearby Green River is an excellent way to embrace the open skies after a subterranean experience underground. Mammoth Cave Campgrounds and several area campgrounds offer camping and RV parking.

West Virginia

New River gorge NP

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

The New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia is centered around the New River which despite its name is one of the oldest rivers in the world. It’s an unusual river since it flows to the north rather than the south or east as most rivers. The park only became a part of the national system in 2020.

The river features 53 miles of open rapids for thrilling white water rafting. If you’re inexperienced and looking for calmer water, stick with the Class I and Class II rapids of the upper section. Experts can try the Class IV and V rapids at the Lower Gorge.

The park also has excellent hiking for those who prefer to stay dry. The Endless Wall Trail is a 2.4-mile hike through the forest with breathtaking views of the river and the New River Gorge Bridge. If you’re coming in the fall, check for the dates of the annual Bridge Day Festival, the only time you’re allowed to walk across the bridge or BASE jump off the side with a parachute.

The 12-mile (19 km) round trip Glade Creek hike has swimming holes along the way to cool off in the summer. For a scenic but shorter hike, take the Canyon Rim Boardwalk starting at the visitor center. The park also has rock climbing and biking baths, a bike ride ending in a cool pool of water.

Spring is the best time for white water enthusiasts to visit. The summer is more crowded, but the water and weather are perfect for swimming. Be sure to explore the charming small town of Fayetville nearby. Camping is limited with only two RV sites available, but you’ll find camping at some of the nearby State Parks such as Babcock State Park and Little Beaver State Park.

Virginia

The picturesque Shenandoah Valley has inspired American art, music, and literature for many years. See what it’s all about at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park located 75 miles from Washington, DC. It’s located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a part of the greater Appalachian Range.

The park has hundreds of miles of hiking trails and includes part of the famed Appalachian Trail. Park Rangers are plentiful and very helpful with information on the trails.

This National Park is perfect for the elderly, disabled, and families with small children. You can enjoy the scenery along the 105- mile long (169 km) Skyline Drive. The public road has 75 outlook points that are easy to access for enjoying the stunning scenery. For hiking, park rangers can direct you to easy walks, one is even suitable for wheelchairs or strollers.

There are lots of accommodation options right inside the park including camping, a lodge, a resort, and cabins. The nearby town of Luray also has cabins with great views of the surrounding mountains. It’s a good location to take a side trip to the nation’s capital.

North Carolina and Tennessee

Image courtesy of Michael Hicks

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the second one that’s nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, it’s the country’s most visited National Park and one of the few that doesn’t charge an entrance fee. Auto-touring is popular, especially in the fall making it another great trip for the elderly or disabled.

The park has an abundance of outdoor recreation such as hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, and wildlife viewing. Don’t be surprised to see a mama bear and her cubs saunter by. Bikes can be rented in the summer and fall seasons. If you’re an avid and abled hiker, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point and offers 360-degree unforgettable views.

The park maintains 10 front-country campgrounds for tent or RV camping. Each campground has flush toilets, cold running water, a fire grate, and a picnic table. The only other accommodation is the LeConte Lodge on top of Mount LeConte, and you have to hike there.

The shortest trail is around five miles and the easiest is 6.5 miles. There is no electricity, but if you like roughing it, the views make it worthwhile. For hotels, B&Bs, and cabin rentals, you can stay in the surrounding communities and visit the park during the day.

Arkansas

If you’re on a road trip to visit the east coast National Parks, you must veer to the west a bit, but a vacation stay at the Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is well worth the journey. It has the distinction of being the oldest Federal reserve in the States including Yellowstone.

The bathhouse at the ancient thermal springs here has been in operation since 1912 and is an absolute must while visiting. Reservations aren’t accepted so arrive early and be prepared to wait in line. Be sure to visit the Fordyce Bathhouse Museum and Visitors Center where rangers give insight into this special place.

Forested hikes afford mountain views, amazing geology, and bubbling creeks along the way. The Sunset Trail is an 8.9-mile long trail that is easy enough for beginners to average hikers.

The Hot Springs Mountain Tower has sweeping views of the Ouachita Mountains. Hot Springs has several campgrounds for tent and RV camping. The KOA campground is minutes away and offers unique amenities such as cable TV, Wi-Fi, a restaurant, a lending library, and a pet playground.

South Carolina

Explore the swampland by kayak or canoe among some of the largest trees in the nation. Slightly underrated, South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is for those who love gigantic old oak trees draped in Spanish moss.

Throw in a night paddle with the distinct mating call of a horned owl and glowing fungi s grows on certain trees, and you’ll be glad you discovered this gem an hour northeast of the Palmetto state’s beaches and historic Charleston.

An extended growing season, lots of moisture, and a warm climate resulted in one of the last and largest tracts of old-growth bottom hardwoods in the U.S. Experience it by hiking the leisurely 1.7 miles (2.7 km) Bluff Trail.

For a longer hike, try the Oakridge Trail, River Trail, or the challenging Kingsnake Trail. For paddling, the park offers the well-managed Cedar Creek Canoe Trail that winds through the wilderness for 15 miles (24 km). Watch for turtles, alligators, otters, and birds.

The park is accessible all year, but the summers are hot and humid, and you have to prepare for mosquitoes. Eary spring and late fall are when the conditions are best. Only tent camping is allowed inside the park. Two campgrounds near the park entrance offers tent camping with amenities like picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets but no running water. You can find RV camping at Poinsett State Park 45 minutes away.

Florida

everglades

On the tip of the Florida Peninsula, the Everglades National Park is in the 1.5 million massive wetland of the Everglades, the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. Its unique beauty is unparalleled and unforgettable.

The biodiverse region is home to flamingos, panthers, manatees, a variety of shorebirds, and is the only place on the planet where crocodiles and alligators live together. The park is almost entirely water, so the best way to experience it is by boat or canoe. Other outdoor adventures include walks on the Anhinga Trail, biking through the pinelands, scuba diving, and wildlife watching.

Get a bird’s eye view of the Glades atop Shark Valley, a 65-foot observation tower, and visit the  ​historic Nike Hercules missile base

Try to visit the Everglades National Park between December and April. This is the dry season when the insect population is the lowest. Summers bring lots of rain, high heat, and humidity. There’s camping for paddlers along the Wilderness Waterway, and RV parking at Flamingo and Long Pine Key campgrounds.  

The Dry Tortugas National Park located 70 miles (112 km) west of Key West carries the Spanish names for turtles after the five species of turtles that inhabit the cluster of seven Dry Tortugas Islands. The only access is by ferry, a chartered boat, or a seaplane. The park only sees around 60,000 visitors each year, so it’s an excellent place for seclusion and to “get away from it all.”

The sand is powdery white and the water is shallow and warm. You can swim snorkel, scuba dive, and kayak in paradise, and camp out for a Robinson Crusoe-style adventure.

Be sure to visit Fort Jefferson, an unfinished fort that was started in the 1800s and never completed. With over 17 million bricks, it’s the western hemisphere’s largest brick structure. Many visitors visit this park as a day excursion. You’ll find accommodations of all types in Key West.

If you plan to camp, stay two or three days to make the 2.5-hour ferry ride out worthwhile. There is no electricity, water, or other amenities in the park, so plan your camping trip accordingly.

Located in the Florida Keys, Biscayne Bay National Park is 95 percent water, but interestingly, it contains four different ecosystems: the Florida Key Islands, Biscayne Bay, mangrove trees, and the third-largest coral reef on the planet. Because of the water, it’s the hardest east coast National Park to access. With no road and no public ferries, you’ll have to charter a boat or join a tour.

A tour is best for those not familiar with the waters. Canoeing, kayaking, and paddleboarding are popular sports to enjoy here, and since the water is too shallow for large watercraft, paddlers are safe from speedboats.

Although the park is mostly for water lovers, there is a short nature walk that begins near the visitors center. The path is graveled, easy to walk for children and the elderly, and goes past magnificent mango trees to a bird sanctuary.

Visit subtropical Florida from mid-December to mid-April. Tropical storms are a threat from June to November, and the temperatures are hot and humid. The park has picnic areas and tent camping. The nearest RV park is inland at Miami Everglades RV Park.

About the Author Rebecca Mealey

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