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The Best National Parks on the East Coast USA

I love spending time in the great outdoors – and if you’re reading this, I bet you do too.

If you’ll be visiting the Eastern coast of the United States, I highly recommend checking out one of the beautiful US national parks nearby.

Keep reading for my list of the best national parks on the East coast, from Maine all the way down to Florida.

Best national parks on the East coast

If we consider the literal definition, there are 5 national parks on the east coast: Acadia, Biscayne, Congaree, Dry Tortugas, and Everglades.

However, for the purpose of this post, I’m going to split the US in half and include any state surrounding the Mississippi River and over to the east.

The National Park Service manages multi-state trails, historical sites and monuments, seashores, and other important landmarks. That said, I’m only listing national parks within this list.

With the guidelines above, there are 14 national parks on the east coast.

OK, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into this list of the best national parks on the east coast USA.

1. Acadia

Photo of the Bubble Mountains from across a pond with red trees framing the photo.

By far my favorite national park on the east coast is Acadia National Park in Maine.

Acadia was initially created as Sieur de Monts National Monument on July 8, 1916. It became Lafayette National Park on February 26, 1919 and renamed Acadia National Park on January 29, 1929.

This gorgeous New England park holds a special place in my heart, as it is located in the Bar Harbor, Maine area, where my grandmother grew up. 

I’ve spent many family vacations at Acadia – and in fact, as I write this post, I’m preparing for yet another trip in a week.

Acadia National Park encompasses much of Mount Desert Island, Isle au Haut, and the Schoodic Peninsula in Knox and Hancock counties.

It is made up of many beaches, rocky coastlines, miles of hiking trails, and epic views from atop Cadillac Mountain. Biking is also a very popular activity here.

Key facts

  • Location: Maine
  • Size: 49,075 acres
  • Highest Point: 1,528 ft at Cadillac Mountain
  • Nearest Airport: Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport (BHB)
  • Top Spots: Cadillac Mountain, Carriage Roads, Jordan Pond House, Little Hunters Beach
  • Entrance Fee: $15-30 for 7 days; $55 for annual pass
  • Additional Resources: Maps / Activities / Lodging / Restaurants & Cafés / Bars

2. Biscayne

Photo of Boca Chita Key Lighthouse at Biscayne National Park in the Florida Keys.

Biscayne National Park in the Florida Keys is great for kayaking, fishing, boating, and other water activities. It was established on June 28, 1980.

However, the most unique thing to do at Biscayne National Park is the Maritime Heritage Trail, an underwater trail that links historical shipwrecks and lighthouses.

Yes, that’s right: underwater. Leave your hiking boots at home and pack your scuba gear instead!

Bottom line: If you love being out or in the water, Biscayne National Park is perfect for you. In fact, 95% of this park is water!

Key facts

  • Location: Florida
  • Size: 172,971 acres
  • Highest Point: 9 feet above sea level
  • Nearest Airport: Miami International Airport (MIA)
  • Top Spots: Boca Chita Key, Elliott Key, Maritime Heritage Trail, and Stiltsville
  • Entrance Fee: Free
  • Resources: Maps

3. Congaree

Photo of a boardwalk-style hiking path through Congaree National Park in South Carolina.

Located about 18 miles southeast of Columbia in South Carolina, Congaree National Park is filled with hiking trails, water trails for canoeing, and hike-in campsites. It was established November 10, 2003.

Congaree National Park also includes a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve due to its unique natural resources that have developed one of the highest forests in the world. 

Its long cultural history, including indigenous American life, the freedom of enslaved African Americans, and the Revolutionary war was also a major factor in the protection of this land.

Perhaps its most unique feature is that for approximately 2 weeks between May and June, it becomes home to synchronous flashing fireflies that put on a show while trying to find a mate. It’s as if you’re on the planet of Pandora!

Key facts

  • Location: South Carolina
  • Size: 26,693 acres
  • Highest Point: 140 feet above sea level
  • Nearest Airport: Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE)
  • Top Spots: Bluff Trail, Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, Congaree River Blue Trail, Firefly Trail
  • Entrance Fee: FREE
  • Resources: Maps

4. Cuyahoga Valley

Photo of a red covered bridge over a river.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located just outside Cleveland, Ohio.

It was established December 27, 1974 as a national recreation area and upgraded to a national park on October 11, 2000.

Popular activities include biking, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, horseback riding, and questing (like geocaching, but sans-GPS).

It is also well known for its scenic railroad, which is stunning in the Fall season.

Key facts

  • Location: Ohio
  • Size: 32,572 acres
  • Nearest Airport: Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE)
  • Top Spots: Brandywine Gorge Loop, Cuyahoga River Water Trail, Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, Ledges Trail, Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail
  • Entrance Fee: Free
  • Additional Resources: Maps

5. Dry Tortugas

Photo of a walkway parallel to Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida.

Dry Tortugas National Park is a tiny (100 square miles) park located in the Florida Keys. It was established on January 4, 1935. 

It is made up of a handful of small islands, with only 1% of the park on dry land. Thus, it can only be reached by seaplane, ferry, or private boat.

Swimming, snorkeling, boating, and fishing are all popular activities at Dry Tortugas. Coral reefs are prevalent in the area, which can be seen when partaking in water activities.

A small campground is also available on Garden Key. Unlike most campgrounds at US national parks, the campground on Garden Key at Dry Tortugas National Park does not accept reservations, except for its group sites. Therefore, it’s first come, first serve!

Lastly, Dry Tortugas National Park is home to Fort Jefferson. Fort Jefferson is a large abandoned fort built in the 19th century as a rest stop for boats and ships to refuel, protect themselves during storms, or for the US military to launch attacks if needed.

Key facts

  • Location: Florida
  • Size: 64, 701 acres
  • Highest Point: 10 ft.
  • Nearest Airport: Key West International Airport (EYW)
  • Top Spots: Bush Key, Fort Jefferson, Garden Key, Loggerhead Key lighthouse, Windjammer shipwreck
  • Entrance Fee: $15 per person for 7 days. Free for all visitors ages 16 and under.
  • Resources: Maps

6. Everglades

Photo of the sun setting behind trees and coastline with water in the foreground at Everglades National Park.

Everglades National Park is the last of 3 national parks in Florida. It was established on December 6, 1947.

Located in the southern tip of the state, the Everglades is a great spot for hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, bird watching, and camping. 

It is made up of over 1.5 million acres of wetlands and is the third largest national park in the US.

The Everglades is arguably one of the most unique national parks on the east coast, maybe even in all of the National Park Service system!

If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of an alligator, Florida panther, Loggerhead turtle, or West Indian manatee.

Lastly, like Congaree National Park, much of the land in the Everglades is a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve.

Key facts

  • Location: Florida
  • Size: ~1.5 million acres
  • Highest Point: 25 ft.
  • Nearest Airport: Miami International Airport (MIA)
  • Top Spots: Flamingo Visitor Center, Shark Valley Bike Trail, Shark Valley Observation Tower, Tamiami Trail, Wilderness Waterway
  • Entrance Fee: $15-30 for 7 days; $55 for an annual pass
  • Resources: Maps

7. Gateway Arch

Photo of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, reflecting in the river nearby.

Gateway Arch National Park is located in St. Louis, Missouri. It was established on December 21, 1935 as Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and upgraded to a national park on February 22, 2018.

The park consists of 2 main attractions, the Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse. 

The Gateway Arch is an enormous arch with sweeping views of greater St. Louis. It represents a gate to the West. 

The Old Courthouse is the site of the Dred Scott v. Sanford case in 1846. Dred, a Black enslaved man, sued for the freedom of himself, his wife Harriet, and their 2 children, but lost. However, they were ultimately freed a few months later.

The park grounds and a museum are free to access, but there is a fee to access the Gateway Arch, Old Courthouse, river cruise, and a film.

AttractionAdult (16+)Child (3-15)America the Beautiful Pass
Monument to Dream$7$3$4
Gateway Arch tram ride$15+$11+$12+
St. Louise riverboat cruise$24+$14No discount
Tram & film$19+$14+$16+
Tram & cruise$37+$23+$34+
Tram, film & cruise$41+$26+$38+

Key facts

  • Location: Missouri
  • Size: 91 acres
  • Nearest Airport: St. Louis
  • Top Spots: Gateway Arch, Old Courthouse, Tucker Theater
  • Entrance Fee: varies, see chart above
  • Additional Resources: Maps

8. Great Smoky Mountains

Photo of the Oconaluftee overlook in the Great Smoky Mountains during sunrise on a cloudy day.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park crosses between North Carolina and Tennessee. It was established June 15, 1934.

It is well known for hiking, camping (both hike-in and car camping), fishing, and landscapes. 

Speaking of landscapes, if you’re ever in the southeastern part of the US in the Fall, head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for prime Fall foliage viewing.

Aside from multiple campgrounds within park grounds, LeConte Lodge provides housing for hikers who reach the top of Mount LeConte.

That said, if you’re not into roughing it, check out the nearby town of Gatlinburg, TN.

Gatlinburg is packed with adorable cabins, bed & breakfasts, and hotels to rest your head.

BONUS: Just 30 minutes north is Dollywood, a theme park partially owned by Dolly Parton.

Key facts

  • Location: between North Carolina & Tennesee
  • Size: 522,419 acres
  • Highest Peak: 6643 ft at Clingmans Dome
  • Nearest Airport: McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS) in TN & Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) in SC
  • Top Spots: Alum Cave Bluffs, Blue Ridge Parkway, Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Laurel Falls Trail, Ramsey Cascades Trail, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
  • Entrance Fee: $5 for 1 day; $15 for 7 days; $40 for an annual pass
  • Resources: Maps

9. Hot Springs

Photo of a hot spring in Arkansas.

Hot Springs National Park is a unique park in that its premiere attraction are its bathhouses, rather than its land.

It was originally created as a recreation area on April 20, 1832 and upgraded to national park on March 4, 1921.

In its heyday, there were 2 dozen bathhouses that utilized thermal spring water from the nearby land. 

Today, 8 of the buildings stand, with only 2 of them still operating as a bathhouse: Buckstaff and Quapaw. Buckstaff is the only bathhouse to remain open since its inception.

Guests cannot bathe in the thermal springs directly, but you can visit them and touch the water.

Entrance to the park is free, but there are fees associated with services at the Buckstaff and Quapaw Bathhouses.

  • Location: Arkansas
  • Size: 5,550 acres
  • Nearest Airport: Little Rock National Airport (LIT)
  • Top Spots: Bathhouse Row, Display Spring, Hot Springs Mountain Tower, Hot Water Cascade
  • Entrance Fee: Free
  • Additional Resources: Maps

10. Indiana Dunes

Photo of a sand dune at a beach.

Indiana Dunes National Park sits on the southern shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana. 

It was originally established as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on November 5, 1966 and upgraded to a national park on February 15, 2019.

Indiana Dunes National Park’s name is a bit misleading, as it is made up of more than just sand dunes. 

It also includes prairies, bogs, a marsh, woods, and swamps. There’s also a pioneer homestead, a farm, a cemetery, and 3 Lustron prefabricated homes from the post-World War II era.

This slept-upon park preserves history just as much as it does nature!

  • Location: Indiana
  • Size: 14,349 acres
  • Nearest Airport: Midway International Airport (MDW) & O’Hare International Airport (ORD)
  • Top Spots: Bailly Homestead, Chellburg Farm, Paul H. Douglas Trail, Portage Lakefront & Riverwalk, and West Beach Dune Succession Trail
  • Entrance Fee: $15-25 for 7 days; $45 for an annual pass
  • Additional Resources: Maps

11. Mammoth Cave

Photo from inside the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky.

Mammoth Cave National Park is the longest cave system in the world with 426 miles of caves – nearly double the length of the second longest cave system.

It was established as a national park on July 1, 1941, nearly 20 years after local citizens started campaigning for it to be bestowed with this honor. 

Mammoth Cave National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1981), an international Biosphere Reserve (1990), and an International Dark Sky Park (2021).

Popular activities include stargazing, canoeing, kayaking, boating, and touring the caves.

Key facts

  • Location: Kentucky
  • Size: 52,830 acres
  • Nearest Airport: Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF) & Nashville International Airport (BNA)
  • Top Spots: Cedar Sink Trail, Green & Nolin Rivers Blueway, 
  • Entrance Fee: Free, except cave tours
  • Additional Resources: Maps / Cave Tours

12. New River Gorge

Photo of the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia.

New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia is the newest national park on the east coast.

It was originally established as a national river on November 10, 1978, but was upgraded to a national park on December 27, 2020.

Popular activities include fishing, hiking, hunting*, rock climbing, and white water rafting. 

It is also the home to Bridge Day, where people go BASEjumping from the New River Gorge Bridge. 

If you’re not brave enough to jump off the bridge, but still want to witness its magnificence, add the Canyon Rim Visitor Center or Long Point Trail, both of which have great views of the bridge, to your itinerary.

*Permit required.

Key facts

  • Location: West Virginia
  • Size: 72,808 acres
  • Nearest Airport: Raleigh County Memorial Airport (BKW)
  • Top Spots: African American Heritage Auto Tour, Endless Wall Trail, Long Point Trail, New River Gorge Bridge
  • Entrance Fee: Free
  • Additional Resources: Maps

13. Shenandoah

Photo of a small waterfall in a wooded area at Shenandoah National Park.

Last up for this list of the best national parks on the east coast is Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, which was established December 26, 1935.

This lovely park is located a little over an hour from Washington, DC, making it an excellent day trip for those visiting the capital of the US

As with other national parks, hiking, fishing, biking, and hike-in camping are all popular activities at Shenandoah National Park.

In addition to camping, rustic cabins and lodges are also available within the park.

Finally, Shenandoah National park is also well-known for its 9 waterfalls.

The east coast isn’t exactly well-known for waterfalls, so this is a rare find on the east coast!

Key facts

  • Location: Virginia
  • Size: 199,173 acres
  • Highest Peak: 4050 ft at Hawksbill Mountain
  • Nearest Airport: Washington Dulles International (IAD) with smaller, less accessible regional airports available
  • Top Spots: Dark Hollow Falls, Rose River Loop, Skyline Drive
  • Entrance Fee: $15-30 for 7 days; $55 for an annual pass
  • Resources: Maps

14. Voyageurs

Photo of the Northern Lights above a lake at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota.

Voyageurs National Park is in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border, and much of the park is only accessible via water. It was established on April 8, 1975.

Popular activities include boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, houseboating, stargazing, and snowmobiling.

Its most unique feature is that it is one of few places where you can see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. 

Voyageurs National Park gets its name from the French-Canadian fur traders, known as voyageurs, who frequently traveled through the area in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Key facts

  • Location: Minnesota
  • Size: 218,055 acres
  • Nearest Airport
  • Top Spots: Blind Ash Bay Trail, Ellsworth Rock Gardens, Kabetogama Peninsula, Kettle Falls
  • Entrance Fee: Free
  • Additional Resources: Maps

BONUS: The Appalachian Trail

Photo overlooking mountains from the Appalachian Trail in the Roan Highlands in North Carolina.

While the Appalachian Trail is not a US national park, it is a national trail. 

Plus, if you’re interested in national parks on the east coast, then I bet you’ll be interested in learning about this famous trail!

Why, you ask? 

The Appalachian Trail stretches along nearly every state on the actual east coast, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. 

It is the longest trail in the world, measuring a total of 2,181 miles.

The Appalachian Trail also runs through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. 

TIP: The Appalachian Trail runs through Shenandoah National Park for approximately 115 miles and 71 miles through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

What is your favorite national park on the east coast?

I hope you’ll be visiting national parks on the east coast sometime soon.

Drop a comment below to let me know which park you’ve visited!

This post was originally published August 6, 2021. It was last updated November 12, 2022.

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