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13 Best East Coast National Parks Ranked

Charlotte Bailey

There are thirteen East Coast national parks out of the sixty-three designated national parks in the US, which highlights the fact that the East Coast has more than its fair share of beauty, diversity, and fantastic places to visit!

If you’ve always thought of visiting some of the national parks on the East Coast but haven’t had the time, well, you’re about to take a whirlwind tour of all thirteen parks with me as your guide.

Some East Coast national parks are among the oldest in the country, and others are recently designated.

They all have one goal – to protect and preserve the historical landmarks, national monuments, unique landscapes, and flora and fauna of the area. 

Each park is unique, but they all offer a variety of activities and entertainment for everyone, young and old. Let’s begin the tour! Oh, and there is an interactive map at the bottom of this article!

Pssst: if you’re visiting 3 or more national parks in a 12-month period, you might want to check out the America the Beautiful Pass. This national park pass can save you some serious money in entry fees. Here’s our America the Beautiful Pass review.

We Consider as “East Coast”…

All states east of Michigan, but we agreed on including Hot Springs in Arkansas because it is such a fantastic place to be left out.

However, the only national parks on the East Coast, strictly speaking, are Acadia, Biscayne, Congaree, Dry Tortugas, and Everglades. 

13 Best East Coast National Parks Ranked

Here are the best national parks on the East Coast.

Note: this article is about the incredible East Coast national parks only, so if you want to learn more about the West Coast national parks, check out this other article.

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park; North Carolina and Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is easily one of the best east coast national parks with its forests, rivers, and waterfalls accessible on the many hiking and biking trails
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is easily one of the best east coast national parks with its forests, rivers, and waterfalls accessible on the many hiking and biking trails

Our first stop is the most visited national park in the United States, with a record-breaking 14 million visitors in 2021. 

Over 500,000 acres in extent, the park is split by the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. 

Straddling the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountain range, the park has some of the highest peaks in eastern North America, making it one of the best places to visit in the US.

The scenery is spectacular, with forests, rivers, and waterfalls accessible on the many hiking and biking trails. Try the 3-mile hike to Grotto Falls, or take it easy by doing the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail by car. 

The Appalachians also have a rich human history, and sites such as Cades Cove give visitors an insight into the lives of mountain men and their families. 

The best time to go to the park is around April and May as it comes alive after winter, but before the summer, crowds descend. 

November and December, when the snow changes the landscape, is also a magical time, but not all roads will remain open, and activities are limited.

2. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Old cannon on Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park in Key West, Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida was designated in 1992 to preserve the seven islands of Dry Tortuga, the pristine coral reefs and blue waters that surround them, and the historically significant Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. 

Although it is the most remote of the Florida keys, with access only by boat or seaplane from Key West, over 80,000 visitors make the journey every year, showing this is one of the best places to visit in Florida.

The park is unique among the east coast national parks, being famous for its abundant marine and bird life as well as its colorful coral reefs. 

It attracts visitors who enjoy snorkeling and scuba diving, as well as those who love bird watching. 

Historical artifacts include several shipwrecks, some with fabled treasure, as well as Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry construction in the western hemisphere (although never completed). 

Don’t visit Dry Tortugas National Park in winter – it’s too cold for scuba diving, and strong winds and heavy seas make it dangerous. Summer is great, but it’s hurricane season and very humid. Early spring, around mid- to end-April, would be my choice.

Needless to say but Dry Tortugas is one of the most beautiful places in the US!

3. Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park makes it to the list of the best east coast national parks with its stunning views of the Maine coastline
Acadia National Park makes it to the list of the best east coast national parks with its stunning views of the Maine coastline

The northernmost of the national parks on the east coast, Acadia National Park is located on Mount Desert Island and the Schoodic Peninsula, near Bar Harbor and Isle au Haut.

Highlights of a visit to this east coast national park include going on a scenic drive on the Park Loop Road, one of the best East Coast road trips, and being the first to watch the sun rise over the country from the top of Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak on the Atlantic seaboard. 

Another favorite is The Great Long Pond on Mount Desert Island, 4 miles long, 113 feet deep, and perfect for boating, kayaking, or fishing. There are also 120 miles of trails for hiking and biking enthusiasts. 

Once the summer retreat of America’s wealthiest families, Acadia boasts 45 miles of paved carriage roads built by John D. Rockefeller, which are still used today, although motor vehicles are not permitted. 

Winters are icy, so the best time to visit Acadia is between June and October – and make sure to be there in late October when the autumn colors are at their most magnificent. 

Over 4 million people visit the park yearly, so be prepared for crowds.

4. Everglades National Park, Florida

Awesome airboat tour along the Everglades National Park in Florida

Only an hour out of Miami, Everglades National Park is home to plants and animals not found anywhere else on Earth. This Florida national park covers 1.5 million acres of subtropical wilderness and includes mangroves, sawgrass prairies, and coastal lowlands. 

Also, Everglades National Park is home to alligators, the American crocodile, the manatee, and the Florida panther, as well as 360 species of bird life.

Adventurous visitors can take a ranger-led 7–10-day kayaking trip along the Wilderness Waterway or go “slough slogging” with a ranger in the waist-deep water to discover the secrets of the Everglades. 

Much of the park is only accessible by boat, but there are many short trails and hikes that can be enjoyed, and other activities such as camping, tram tours, and bicycle trips. 

The summer months are unpleasantly humid and wet. Winter, the dry season, is the best time to visit when summer rains have ended, waters have receded, and temperatures have cooled.

5. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia is one of the best places to visit in the South, USA

Over 200,000 acres of protected land in a tranquil setting only 75 miles drive from the hustle and bustle of Washington, DC  – this is Shenandoah National Park. 

The home of black bears and deer, the park has some awe-inspiring scenery, forests, fields of wildflowers, and tumbling waterfalls.

One way to traverse the park is on Skyline Drive, the only public road in the park. It’s 105 miles long and has a speed limit of 35mph, so it will take at least three hours, but there are seventy-five viewpoints along the way, overlooking waterfalls and the Blue Ridge Mountains, so give yourself an entire day.

If you prefer to be out and about on foot, there are 500 miles of hiking trails (with 100 of those miles being part of the Appalachian Trail), some easy and others, like the Old Rag Mountain loop trail, which is pretty challenging.

And if you have the time and the energy, watch the glorious sunset from The Point outlook at the halfway milestone on Skyline Drive.

April and May are “shoulder” seasons in Shenandoah National Park before the summer crowds arrive and the best time to visit the park, but the autumn colors in mid-to-late October are also a must in your diary.

6. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

A boardwalk through the enchanting Congaree National Park

Bottomland hardwood forests occur in swamplands that are regularly flooded by rivers. Congaree National Park in South Carolina houses the largest of these in the US, covering 26,200 acres.

Congaree National Park is rich in its biodiversity and is also known for having one of the world’s largest concentrations of champion trees (a champion tree is special because of its height, size, and significance).

There are eight different hiking trails to choose from, or one can take a ranger-led canoe trip on Cedar Creek Canoe Trail to get a close-up look at the park’s flora and fauna. The most popular trail is the 2.4-mile raised Boardwalk Loop to Weston Lake.

Congaree is one of the least visited East Coast national parks, but in April and May, before it gets too hot, a visit is well worthwhile, particularly to see the synchronized dancing of the famous fireflies.

7. Biscayne National Park, Florida

Biscayne National Park is one of the national parks in Florida to visit

And now something completely different on our tour – an East Coast national park protecting the coral reefs of Biscayne Bay and its mangrove swamps. 

Ninety-five percent of the park is water. While Biscayne National Park is in sight of Miami, it’s a world on its own, offering visitors the chance to dive, fish or snorkel in the bay, to view the abundant marine life or the many shipwrecks that are relics of the past.  

If you want to stay above water, a boat trip to some of the keys is always fascinating – Boca Chita Key is the most popular one in the park.

The best time to visit Biscayne National Park is spring – temperatures are still moderate, mosquitos are bearable, and it’s not hurricane season. Avoid summer for all the same reasons!

8. New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

Awesome landscape of New River Gorge National Park

Protecting fifty-three miles of the river and 70,000 acres of the gorge through which it runs, this national park in West Virginia was only designated as a national park in 2020, but it has a rich history. 

Active coal mining in the 18th and 19th centuries, the coming of a railroad, and subsistence farming have all left relics which make for fascinating viewing.

White water rafting is a major attraction, with kayaking and canoeing also popular. Hikes through the gorge and climbing are also major drawcards, with over 1,400 established climbs in the area.

Summer is the time most people visit the park, and it does get crowded, so late spring and autumn would be better if you would like to have some quiet time in this amazing location.

9. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

The spectacular Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Of all the national parks on the East Coast, this must be the most unusual. But it is a visionary one, as it exists surrounded by busy highways and includes a road network, small towns, and private business operations within its boundaries. 

It has reclaimed the rural land along the Cuyahoga River between two cities, Akron and Cleveland. 

The park has many attractions within its 32,500 acres of preserved land. 

Historic trails such as the Towpath trail, which follows the route of the old Ohio and Erie Canal, historic buildings such as Stanford House, Hale Farm and Village, which is an outdoor living museum, and the Brandywine Falls. 

In addition to these relics of the past, visitors to the park can enjoy forest walks, ravines, and over one hundred waterfalls.

Visit the park in the fall – temperatures are moderate, the crowds have thinned out, and it’s still warm enough to enjoy the walks. Spring is also recommended, if only for the spectacular display of spring flowers.

10. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Kentucky is home to only one of the national parks on the East Coast, and most of it is underground.

Explored by inquisitive people for over 4000 years, the caves in Mammoth Cave National Park remain the main drawcard in the park, and various tours of the accessible ten miles of caverns are conducted daily. 

These range from wheelchair-friendly to strenuous crawling tours, so you have plenty of choices to make.

Above ground, there are over 80 miles of hiking trails through the rolling hills and valleys, the diverse flora and fauna of the area, as well as kayaking and canoeing on the Green River. 

Summer is the busiest season in this east coast national park, but because the ambient temperature in the caves is pretty constant, they remain cool throughout the year. 

If you’re keen to do some hiking or exploring the Green River by canoe, we recommend spring or fall as the ideal times to do so – beautiful days and smaller crowds make it the best experience.

11. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

relaxing hot springs in Hot Springs National Park

This east coast national park is the oldest in the US and one of the smallest, but well worth visiting because of its unique charm and character. 

For a start, it incorporates part of the city of Hot Springs, so while it boasts beautiful forest walks, mountain views, and abundant creeks, it’s all in the middle of town! 

The hot springs which give the park and the town its name were first protected by law in 1832, but this national park in Arkansas was only designated a national park in 1921, so it is now officially a century old.

Bath House Row is a complex of eight bathhouses built between 1892 and 1923, each with its own character. 

One is now a brewery, but others are still operational, offering healing spas, hydrotherapy, and old-fashioned hot tubs. Not to be missed!

12. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Interesting Rock Harbor Lighthouse in the Isle Royale National Park

Consisting of Isle Royale and 400 smaller islands, this east coast national park is the only one that is closed for part of the year (November through April), which explains why it is the least visited national park on the east coast, and in fact, of all sixty-three national parks.

Isle Royale Is the fourth largest lake island in the world, being 45 miles long and 9 miles wide, surrounded by the waters of Lake Superior, and accessed only by boat, ferry, or seaplane.

It offers visitors a host of backpacking and hiking adventures as well as fishing and boating in a remote and tranquil setting.    

Between May and September is the ideal time to visit Isle Royale, as the daytime temperature averages a comfortable 24 degrees, and there is little rainfall.

13. Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana

The Amazing Indiana Dunes National Park

We complete our tour with a visit to Indiana, the last on our list of national parks on the east coast. 

Stretching along fifteen miles of the southern shoreline of Lake Michigan, the park covers 15,000 acres of dunes, wetlands, prairies, and forests. 

Its diverse nature makes it a perfect place for a family vacation, with beaches, sailing, and hiking. It attracts 3.5 million visitors every year. 

The main aim of the authorities is to protect the nature of the dunes, which are home to 369 species of flowering plants, but it also serves a broader community and is increasingly popular all year round – even in winter, when the snow-covered dunes are perfect for skiing.

Best National Parks on the East Coast Map

Here’s an interactive and free map of all the East Coast national parks mentioned in this article. You can open it on your smartphone or desktop. Click here to open the map.

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13 Best East Coast National Parks Ranked

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park 
  2. Dry Tortugas National Park
  3. Acadia National Park
  4. Everglades National Park 
  5. Shenandoah National Park 
  6. Congaree National Park
  7. Biscayne National Park
  8. New River Gorge National Park
  9. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
  10. Mammoth Cave National Park
  11. Hot Springs National Park
  12. Isle Royale National Park
  13. Indiana Dunes National Park