Trying to figure out where precisely the Best National Parks on the East Coast of the United States can be a daunting task. So many factors go into such a list including location, attractions, camping facilities, hiking trails, proximity to other towns, and so much more.
Whilst the West Coast Parks tend to get all the acclaim, the East Coast Parks are equally jaw-dropping and most definitely worth a visit too! Fortunately for you, we have extensively studied and compared all the East Coast National Parks to give you a comprehensive guide when trying to plan a whirlwind tour of East Coast Parks.
While this list is certainly not comprehensive, and there are plenty of other great state parks not included here, we have found that these parks give a great variety for a wide range of locales and experiences.
Whether you like being in the mountains, by the coast, hiking, biking, camping, or anything in between, there is something for everybody on this list.
Because of that, it makes a great starting point to explore the natural beauty that the east coast of the United States has to offer and see why so many have been inspired to write inspiring nature and mountain captions whilst exploring the beautiful nature found here!
- Planning A Hike To One Of These Top National Parks On The East Coast?
- 13 Top East Coast Parks in the US
- 1. Acadia National Park
- 2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- 3. Congaree National Park
- 4. Shenandoah National Park
- 5. Everglades National Park
- 6. Dry Tortugas National Park
- 7. Baxter State Park – East Coast Parks
- 8. Mammoth Cave National Park
- 9. Isle Royale National Park
- 10. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- 11. Biscayne National Park
- 12. Adirondack Park, NY
- 13. Cape Cod National Seashore
Planning A Hike To One Of These Top National Parks On The East Coast?
Don’t forget to grab your hiking essentials if you’re planning a visit to one of these East Coast Parks!
- A hiking day backpack
- Comfy pair of men’s boots, or woman’s hiking boots
- Hiking water bottle for hydration
- A cosy men’s and woman’s windbreaker for those gusty summits
- A set of hiking poles
13 Top East Coast Parks in the US
1. Acadia National Park
Location: Bar Harbor, Maine
Acadia National Park is one of the top ten most visited state parks in the US, and for a good reason. With its wide variety of terrain, from beaches and hiking trails to its iconic Cadillac Mountain, this park truly has something for everybody.
Primarily situated on Mount Desert Island, the park encompasses 16 different islands along the Maine coast. Arguably, its most famous attraction is the summit of Cadillac Mountain. Standing at an imposing 1,527 feet tall, the mountain may not be that challenging for experienced hikers, but the views are definitely worth it.
Guests should also note that reaching the summit of Cadillac Mountain is a nice feather in the cap for mountaineers who would be cresting the tallest mountain within 25 miles of the Atlantic coastline in North America.
Before planning your trip to this park, you should be aware of a few things. Firstly, because of the high influx of visitors, this park requires all guests to register their vehicles beforehand and purchase a visitor pass.
Even more stringent, a parking pass is required to ensure adequate accommodations for all guests when visiting Cadillac Mountain during the peak season from May through October.
For those not wanting to drive, there are a variety of campgrounds and local hotels that have trailheads nearby that allow you to take in the park’s beauty on foot.
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
With its wide variety of activities to do, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranks as one of the best national parks on the east coast. Situated in the valleys and foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, this park truly has something for everybody.
While, of course, there are plenty of hiking trails and places to ride mountain bikes, it is the fishing, horseback riding, and waterfalls that make this park stand out.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has over 2,900 miles of streams. Because of its extensive size and location, it is also one of the last natural trout habitats left in the United States. Visitors are allowed to fish year-round and may do so from 30 minutes before sunrise and up to 30 minutes after sunset.
Those not wanting to fish can also ride horses here. Approximately 550 miles of the park are rated for horseback riding. Fortunately for visitors, several local companies are authorized to work in the park for a flat rate of 30 dollars per hour.
These companies allow visitors of all ages to take guided trips during most of the year. However, during the winter time, these trips are suspended due to trail safety reasons.
Perhaps one of the main attractions here is the over dozen waterfalls that dot the park. While there are too many to individually list here, seeing all of them is one of the highlights of a trip here. Because the park gets over 85 inches of rain per year and has a steep gradient, these are the perfect conditions to form a ton of beautiful waterfalls.
3. Congaree National Park
Location: Hopkins, South Carolina
Situated near the South Carolina state capital of Columbia, this park is arguably one of the best east coast parks for visiting the water. Because of its unique location in the coastal plain of South Carolina, there are dozens of miles of rivers to explore. While the park has a plethora of suggested canoeing and kayaking trips available on its website, the park encourages guests who have their own equipment to explore at their leisure.
Those who do not have gear can rent a canoe or kayak from any one of several vendors in the park. Guided tours are also available that take guests through some of the park’s most scenic routes and allow for the best chance at seeing some of the aquatic wildlife that calls this park home.
But if kayaking and canoeing are not up your alley, there is still plenty to do. There are numerous ways to enjoy the park’s beauty with almost 25 miles of hiking trails, year-round fishing, and several campsites.
However, if visitors truly want to experience the park, there is even an aquatic trail stretching from Columbia through the park called the Congaree River Blue Trail. Spanning an impressive 50 miles, this trail is probably the best way to see the park.
4. Shenandoah National Park
Location: Luray, Virginia
Shenandoah National Park is one of the best national parks on the east coast for hiking. Located in the Appalachian Mountains of northern Virginia, the park is a stark reminder of a natural beauty long lost in one of the country’s most populated areas.
But despite the hustle and bustle of the DC metropolitan area not far from the park, this place truly encapsulates what the glory of the American outdoors represents.
With over 500 miles of hiking trails and various campsites, there are plenty of ways for hikers of all skill levels to enjoy the park. Even those that do not want to hike but would rather drive through the park, will have a unique experience too.
Called the Driving Skyline Tour, this route is open year-round and takes guests through some of the park’s best highlights. While the park is great to visit any time of the year, the late summer and early fall are the most popular times due to the changing autumn leaves that make this national park on the east coast one of the best sites to see.
5. Everglades National Park
Location: Homestead, Florida
Everglades National Park is one of the best national parks on the east coast for birdwatching. Because of its unique environment of fresh, brackish, and saltwater species, dozens of different bird species call this habitat home. However, birds are not the only wildlife you can see.
With much of the park only accessible by boat, tons of aquatic critters dot the landscape. If you do not have your own boat, you can rent one or take guided tours from one of the park rangers by boat, canoe, or kayak!
Park rangers also offer tours deep in the brush of the park, known as slough slogging. For those who do not want to keep wet and muddy getting an up close and personal look at the wildlife, you can also participate in the park’s geocaching program!
Last but not least, the park has numerous shorter walking trails for less experienced hikers and includes some longer, more difficult ones for those desiring a challenge.
All in all, this park is one of the best national parks on the east coast, not only because of its size but because it offers a little bit for everybody!
6. Dry Tortugas National Park
Location: Monroe County, Florida
Located about 70 miles due west of the Florida Keys, this group of seven small islands represents the westernmost portion of the Keys. Fortunately for you, these islands are also one of the best spots for snorkelling and diving.
When not taking in the sites of the historic Fort Jefferson, a joint Army-Navy base meant to give early warning of any impending attack during the 19th century; visitors can snorkel or dive on any one of almost a dozen majestic coral reefs and other locations.
With these reefs being home to dozens of rare and exotic fish and the usual sea critters we are all used to, this park is arguably one of the best east coast national parks to see untouched coral reefs.
The park allows visitors both the option of daytime and nighttime diving in certain locations. Guests are reminded not to bring pressurized tanks on the seaplane or ferry that takes them there.
Those wishing to dive must bring their own boat or schedule a charter one. For those not wanting to dive or snorkel, you may also kayak or canoe around the islands along with camping on them.
Fishing is allowed, but keep in mind it is heavily regulated, so you would be wise to check the extensive list of regulations on the NPS website before going.
7. Baxter State Park – East Coast Parks
Location: Millinocket, Maine
Those looking for one of the best national parks on the east coast for hunting should look no further. Unlike Acadia National Park, Baxter State Park is situated much more inland. Because of this, it is a much more traditional park with mountains, camping, hiking, and fishing. What makes Baxter State Park stand out is that hunters can use the top northern and southern portions of the park for hunting during most of the year.
But besides hunting, fishing is actually the park’s main attraction. With its miles of streams and countless ponds, visitors can find a truly awesome hideaway for that perfect afternoon of fishing.
Baxter State Park also offers some of the steepest gradients in all of New England, so if you want to do this, you better plan on bringing a good bit of water!
8. Mammoth Cave National Park
Location: Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave National Park is probably the most famous of the east coast national parks on this list. That is because it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for having the most extensive underground cave structures known to man!
Due to the miles and miles of underground caverns, all the various nooks and crannies of the system seem to have a life of their own. Whether taking a journey down the River Styx or looking at the Star Chamber, visitors will be amazed at all the wonders the cave has to offer.
Because tours sell out quickly, those planning a visit should buy tickets weeks in advance. The park offers over a dozen tours that vary in difficulty, length, and amount of lighting.
When done exploring for the day, Mammoth Cave National Park offers plenty of the usual activities you would associate with other east coast parks listed in this guide.
Hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing are all available to guests year-round, making this the perfect destination for multiple trips!
9. Isle Royale National Park
Location: Houghton, Michigan
Located along the shores of Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park ranks among the best parks thanks to its wide range of activities and unique experiences.
Probably the most interesting part of the park is the fact that it holds the largest National Park Service collection of sunken vessels. Because of the cold temperatures of Lake Superior, ten different vessels from the 19th and 20th centuries can be explored by divers.
Please keep in mind that even though this is a fantastic opportunity, these dives are not for novices. Cold water and near zero visibility conditions combined with deep depths make these some rather difficult dives. All divers are required to check in with park staff before attempting any diving.
However, the island offers so much more than diving. Because of its proximity to Lake Superior, fishing, kayaking, and boating between islets and bays on the island are a great pastime.
The island also offers plenty of day hikes to take in the scenery, along with some more advanced backpacking routes. Also, just like some of the other east coast parks on this list, visitors must plan ahead for transportation. Due to its remote nature, only ferries and seaplanes can get people on and off the island.
10. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Location: Brecksville, Ohio
Cuyahoga Valley National Park takes the prize for having the most things to do and being the most family-friendly park on this list. While most national parks like to showcase around one central attraction like diving, hiking, or kayaking, Cuyahoga does it all. When the weather is warmer, visitors can hike on hundreds of miles of trails, ride horses, kayak, canoe, fish, and much more. The park also offers its own version of geocaching that does not use GPS transponders but rather rhymes and riddles to help solve clues to the hidden spots!
When the weather is colder, visitors can still have a blast by skiing, tubing, and sledging down the countless trails and hills at the park. And if that were not enough, there is even a train ride that goes through the park! Visitors can use it to do some quick sightseeing or as a fast and easy way to get to different parts of the park with their kayaking, canoeing, or skiing gear. Do remember that people choosing this option have to pay for the seats their gear takes up.
11. Biscayne National Park
Location: Homestead, Florida
Biscayne National Park is a great place for those who have an affinity for the water. Located on the southeast corner of Florida, the park has the distinction of being 95% water. Because of its aquatic nature, most of the park’s attractions centre around where you can swim, dive, and boat to.
One of the best parts of the park is its six shipwrecks. Consisting of a variety of locations and types, two of the wrecks are recommended for divers while the rest are best seen by snorkelling.
The park is also a great locale for fishing and lobstering, and many species of aquatic creatures make their home here. Unlike in other parks, the regulations regarding fishing here are pretty relaxed. Though still do check them out on the NPS website before going, anglers here will expect much more freedom to fish than in other spots.
Those that do not have a boat also have plenty of opportunities to explore the park. Guided tours are offered by park rangers year-round. There is also an extensive list of authorized vendors allowed to give tours in the park.
These offer a wide range of activities from sightseeing, to kayaking, fishing, and everything in between. For landlubbers who still want a little taste of solid earth, there are two islands accessible by boat where you can camp.
12. Adirondack Park, NY
Location: Lake George, New York
When the rapid expansion of American industrialization gripped the nation in the 19th century, New York conservationists in conjunction with state lawmakers, decided to carve out a slice of New York’s natural beauty for generations to come. The result was almost 2.5 million acres of land in the state’s northeast corner that became protected as a state park.
The park is unique in that, unlike most parks where those that come to visit have to travel to austere or far away places, Adirondack hosts over 100 different settlements with an average population of about 130,000 residents that call the area home.
Since there are so many things to see and do, it would be impossible to list everything here. In fact, taking Adirondack in its entirety would best be done in chunks.
Because of its expansive size, the park is a great blend of rural country life and outdoor adventure. With great guides for day hikes, museums, small towns to visit, and more, Adirondack will definitely take more than a day to visit.
13. Cape Cod National Seashore
Location: Wellfleet, Massachusetts
Combining the perfect mix of recreation and leisure, Cape Cod National Seashore is one of the best spots in New England to enjoy some of nature’s beauty.
As the name would entail, being on the coastline, the beaches are the main attraction here. With six different beaches to choose from, visitors have a wide range of places to take a dip in the Atlantic, run on the beach with their friends and family, and even have bonfires!
You heard that right; you can have bonfires that meet a certain threshold here. You can have a bonfire here if each party gets a fire permit. Visitors can also use grills for cooking out on the beach, and leashed pets are allowed on the sand depending on which one you go to.
While the beaches may be the main attraction, hunters will also find Cape Cod a welcome respite. Much of the park is open to hunting, and those who want to hunt deer, turkey, pheasant, and several other types of animals may do so. Hunters should be aware that there are plenty of rules regarding when hunting can occur and where people can carry and fire weapons.
It should also go without saying that every prospective hunter needs to be licensed before coming to the park. Hunters also require a permit which, depending on the season, will have to be applied for well in advance.