Are you an outdoor enthusiast or nature lover in search of the best National Parks on the East Coast? Look no further than this guide!
When most people conjure up imagery of the best US National Parks the west of the country certainly gets most of the attention. It’s easy to see why, you simply have to think of parks such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Joshua Tree, or Yellowstone, all of which are constantly featured on the must-visit places!
With the US National Parks system comprising of around 423 sites, it’s no surprise then that the East Coast has its fair share of beautiful parks to explore that’s teeming with wildlife and natural beauty that’s also equally as thrilling to explore.
Here you can find awesome Upstate New York hikes, admire the stunning fall foliage, or take a dip in the pristine beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore, to name but a few.
So, whether you’re a wildlife or birding aficionado, or you’re on the hunt for the perfect hiking trail, you’ll definitely not be disappointed by this selection provided by these 8 incredible National Parks on the East Coast.
8 Beautiful East Coast National Parks
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
By Jenny from Global Game Plan
Consistently ranked as one of the most visited U.S. National Parks, you will find Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.
Spend your time enjoying the great outdoors through activities like hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing, wildlife viewing, and river tubing. Visiting June through August will offer you beautiful weather (along with some crowds), waterfalls, and picnic opportunities, while fall is the best time to see the outstanding colorful leaves throughout the area.
Stay in the nearby cities of Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, or Asheville in a variety of types of accommodations ranging from Airbnbs high in the mountains to camping in the park, glamping, resorts, log cabins, and lodges.
Do not miss one of the most scenic drives in the country, the Blue Ridge Parkway, during your visit to this region. As a family-friendly destination with no entrance fee, the Great Smoky Mountains is the perfect choice for first-time visitors to the U.S. National Parks or those who can’t wait to return.
Acadia National Park
By Krisztina from She Wanders Abroad
Although there are many beautiful East Coast national parks, Acadia National Park is surely one of the best. Located on Mount Desert Island in Maine, the national park offers stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean and the rocky coastline.
Spending 2 days in Acadia National Park is ideal for seeing all of the highlights, doing some of the finest hiking routes, and exploring Bar Harbor. The park is also home to some beautiful wildlife, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for moose, deer, and bald eagles.
Driving the scenic loop road is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Acadia. If you’re an avid hiker, you should also check out the Beeline Trail and possibly the Precipice Trail. It’s important to note that both these trails are very strenuous so it’s only recommended for really seasoned hikers.
If you’re looking for easier hikes, you can try the Bowl Trail or the Ocean Path which is a completely flat trail and offers some of the best views of the ocean. Alternatively, you can go biking on the carriage roads or just enjoy the sights from your car.
Although the park is technically open year-round, it’s best to visit from spring to fall. October is particularly beautiful with the colorful fall foliage. The closest town to the park is Bar Harbor, where you can find plenty of options for accommodation.
Cape Cod National Seashore
By Kerri from Bon Voyage With Kids
One of the best East Coast National Parks is the Cape Cod National Seashore. Cape Cod is about an hour to two-hour drive from Boston, Massachusetts (depending on which town is your final destination). 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 stunning stretches of beach in America. It is part of the US National Parks because of its pristine and natural shores. But it is popular for vacations because of its fun beach vacation activities and picturesque New England towns.
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 including Macroni Beach and Cahoon Hollow. Eastham, also known as “Old Cape Cod” is where you’ll find Coastguard Beach and Nauset Light Beach, both favorites amongst locals and visitors alike. 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.
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, 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.
You can also enjoy surfing, fishing, whale watching, kayaking, hiking, bike riding, and a variety of other water activities. 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 very nice and clean campgrounds for those who want a full National Park experience.
Our family loves the outstanding seafood and family restaurants, often located right at the beach, and no trip to the Cape is complete without some of their famed local ice creams.
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. But no matter where you visit on the Cape Cod National Seashore, it is definitely one of the best US National Parks on the East Coast.
Everglades National Park
By Debbie from World Adventurists
Everglades National Park is one of the most fascinating National Parks on the East Coast of the USA worth exploring. One of the great biological wonders of the world, Everglades National Park, is classified as a world heritage site, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of international importance, as well as the largest subtropical wilderness in the USA. Has that piqued your attention yet?
The most popular reason to visit the park is to find alligators, and one of the most fun ways to do that is to take an Everglades airboat ride. However, searching for these prehistoric-looking creatures is not all there is to discover. You will find a variety of hiking and biking trails, boating, and bird watching. Shark Valley is one of the top places within the park to admire wildlife, including several threatened species.
A fantastic way to get to know the park well is to camp. If you prefer other accommodations, Everglades City sits on the park’s western border.
Give yourself two to three days to get a feel for the park. December through April is the best time to visit the Everglades for comfortable weather and the dry season.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
By Soumya from Stories by Soumya
One of the lesser-known yet impressively beautiful national parks on the US East Coast is the Congaree National Park in South Carolina. Easily done as a day trip from Charleston or Columbia, Congaree is a must-have on every Southern US itinerary.
Congaree National Park is a storehouse of astonishing natural diversity. Here, you’ll find the famous Champion trees, which are one of the tallest plant species in Eastern North America. Congaree is also home to large tracts of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest.
There are several interesting things to do at Congaree. You can canoe, fish, take a stroll on the boardwalk, or choose to hike through one of the park’s many hiking trails. Bluff Trail is an easy one. If you are looking for something harder, try Oakridge.
You can camp at Congaree or stay at the nearest city of Columbia, just 30 minutes away. Alternatively, you can also visit Congaree from the historic city of Charleston which is less than 2 hours away.
New River Gorge – National Park on East Coast
By Lydia from Lost With Lydia
New River Gorge was officially designated a national park in 2020 and has activities for every outdoor lover. The top things to do in the park include hiking the Long Point and Kaymoor Miner’s Trail, walking on the catwalk below New River Gorge Bridge on a Bridge Walk, learning about mining history at the Thurmond Ghost Town, and taking in a sunset at the Concho Rim Overlook. Entry to the park is free!
The closest town to the park is Fayetteville, West Virginia. Fayetteville has limited hotel choices but there is a variety of Airbnb options. The closest major airport is in Charleston, West Virginia, located about an hour away. Charleston also has more hotel options if the Fayetteville area accommodations are sold out.
The best time to visit the New River Gorge is in the fall. It’s a great time to raft on the white waters of the Gauley River, see fall foliage, and experience Bridge Day when thousands of visitors come to watch daring adventurers base jump and rappel off of the bridge. No matter when you visit, New River Gorge is a wonderful place to add to your national park bucket list.
Shenandoah National Park
By James from Parks Collecting
Shenandoah National Park sits atop the northern end of the Blueridge Mountains in Virginia. The park centers around the 105-mile Skyline Drive, which runs along the top of the ridge. Here you’ll find all the visitor services, accommodations, and most of the hiking trails.
There are four entrances to Skyline Drive, spaced evenly apart. The main town near the southern entrance is Charlottesville, while Washington DC is only an hour or so away from the northern entrance. In the middle are the two main lodges – Big Meadows Lodge and campground and Skyland, where there is another lodge and cabins.
The national park is open all year, but the most popular time to visit is in the fall when the woods pop with vibrant fall color. There are 75 scenic overlooks along Skyline Drive. There are also plenty of hikes to do, including the fun Bearfence Rock Scramble and the hike to the highest point in the park, Hawksbill. The park is also famous for its many waterfalls, which are best seen in spring.
Assateague Island National Seashore
By Denise from Chef Denise
Assateague Island National Seashore is a beautiful place with lots to do at any time of the year. As a barrier island, the Atlantic Ocean lies on its east coast and the bay between the island and the mainland. Popular activities include biking, fishing, clamming, crabbing, kayaking, and canoeing, But if you’re coming to swim or surf the pristine beaches, summer is the best time to visit.
Stop at the visitor’s center for maps and brochures before you take the bridge to the barrier island. They provide information on which activities are permitted and where. Nowhere on the island are you allowed to feed the animals, especially the wild horses that roam freely.
The horses may be on the entrance road, the sand dunes, the beaches, or the trails. In addition to wild horses, the 3 nature trails Life of the Marsh, Life of the Dunes, and Life of the Forest afford lots of opportunities for bird watching. Eagles, osprey, great blue heron, and egrets have all been spotted.
Assateague Island National Seashore is easily accessible from Berlin and Ocean City, Maryland, and unless you want to camp, those are the best options for nearby hotels and dining.