If you’re planning on broadening up your national parks list this year, one of the best ways to do that is by focusing on the USA’s East Coast, which harbors some of the coolest parks in the whole country!
Most of the famous national parks of the USA are located on the western side of the country and particularly concentrated in the Southwest, but the few that are on the East Coast stand high above the crowds when it comes to variety and unrivaled beauty.
What we love above the East Coast national parks of the United States is that many have no entry fee! That’s right, you can drive straight on in at any time of year – though there are a few exceptions we’ll note below.
We’re going to share with you here 5 of the best National parks on the east coast you’ve got to keep on your radar!
This post is part of our series Discover the USA
East Coast National Parks Map
Best East Coast National Parks USA
From Maine to the Midwest and the Carolinas, here are our top picks for East Coast National Parks worth the drive.
1. Acadia National Park, Maine
Rocky coastlines, unbeatable hikes, trekking to mountains, and insanely beautiful scenic drives are just a few of the staples that make Acadia one of the best national parks to visit on the East Coast.
Known for being one of the best places in the United States to see fall foliage, the park is a treat to visit year-round as well. One of the best ways to explore Acadia is by driving the Park Loop Road, which is the main road in the park and provides glorious views of some of the highlights of the park.
For hiking, a recommended trail is Jordan Pond, which is a very easy 3.3-mile loop perfect for getting an introduction to Acadia. Another great one is Bubbles, which will take you to a rock formation that seems to be hanging off the edge of a mountain.
Summer camping is also incredibly popular within the park, offering some of the most beautiful beach camping on the east coast. Note that campgrounds can only be booked 60 days in advance.
Whatever you do, make sure not to miss out on seeing the sunrise at Cadillac Mountain. Get there as early as possible in order to grab a good seat! It’s undoubtedly the best thing to do in Maine and the northeast of the United States.
Entry: $30 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days.
Note that in order to ease congestion in the park, you will need a timed entry permit for Cadillac Mountain from June-October, they are available up to 90 days in advance and cost $6 – see recreation.gov for booking details.
2. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
As the only national park in Ohio, Cuyahoga is an absolute treat to explore. This beautiful national park stretches all the way from Cleveland to Akron and harbors some pretty amazing hiking trails along the Cuyahoga River.
It may be the smallest National Park in the US, but it packs in a lot of impressive natural features.
Hiking and biking are the main things to do at Cuyahoga, with over 125 miles of trails available all over the park. One of the best trails for first-timers is the Virginia Kendall Ledges, which will take you across the forest through gigantic limestones, cliffs draped in moss, and several caves.
Checking out Brandywine Falls is another must-do. This 65 feet tall waterfall is one of the most beautiful in the state and is guaranteed to leave you awestruck. Moreover, scenic driving is possible here as well for those not too keen on hiking or who want to see as much as possible in a short amount of time.
Another way to explore is by joining the Bike Abroad Program, where you can ride a train across the park with your bike and make your way back via a wonderful cycling trail!
Note that, unlike most US National parks, there’s no camping in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
3. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Sitting in the middle of the alluring Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Shenandoah is a mecca for alpine hikes, waterfall-chasing, and beautiful mountain views.
Here, you’ll find a cozy mountain charm unlike anywhere else in the state, which comes paired with wonderful wildlife viewing opportunities as well as great stargazing programs. A few of the species you might see include white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, and chipmunks.
Entry: $30 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days.
Campgrounds in Shenandoah can be booked up to 6 months in advance, additional fees apply. Note that the timed entry system for Old Rag Mountain may be re-introduced for summer 2023.
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, and Tennessee
Straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a haven for all things nature. Home to over a hundred waterfalls, treelines, and mountains galore, incredible hiking and glorious views are pretty much a guarantee at this incredible East Coast national park.
While it would be impossible to explore the entire park in one visit due to its humongous size, a few of the best things to do for first-time visitors include hiking to Ramsey Cascades (the tallest waterfall in the park), scenic driving around the park (Cades Cove and Newfound Road are two gorgeous drives), and hiking to the top of Mount Cammerer.
Laurel Falls, Cataract Falls, and Grotto Falls are three beautiful hiking trails to see waterfalls that are well worth checking out and fairly easygoing. Spruce Flat Falls and Abrams Falls await for those up for a more challenging hike with the kids!
Note that some of the campgrounds here can be booked up to a year in advance, so plan early!
5. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Sitting in South Carolina, Congaree is home to one of the most unique mountain forests in the world.
Here, you’ll find mazes of looming trees, floodplain ecosystems, and winding waterways, which provide a ton of variety when it comes to landscapes and scenery.
Some of the best things you can do at Congaree include canoeing, hiking, and going in search of different plant and animal species. A few of the species you may get to see during your visit include turtles and river otters for fauna and the largest Chestnut Oaks and Loblolly Pines in the country for flora.
Even though Congaree is pretty small and definitely not the most popular national park on the East Coast, it provides plenty to see and do and makes for a great place to visit for those who want to explore beyond the most popular national parks in the system and experience something truly unique.
The park is best explored in late spring and early summer; it’s open year-round, but parts of the park can be flooded and closed in winter, and late summer can bring intense humidity.
Entry Fee: Free – camping is walk-in only and must be reserved. We recommended hiring kayaks to get the best views of the park.
Have you ever been to any national parks on the East Coast? What are some other amazing ones you feel deserve a spot on this list? Let me know in the comment section below!
More East Coast USA Inspiration
Looking to continue your exploration of the USA East Coast? You may be interested in reading next :
- 26 Best Family Beaches Along the East Coast
- Where to Go Beach Camping on the US East Coast
- Train Journey’s on the East Coast USA
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