Our family loves to plan vacations around national parks. Our kids love the Junior Ranger programs, they’re budget-friendly and nature is simply stunning. Planning on broadening up your national park bucket list this year? If you’re on the lookout for destinations that aren’t on the usual radar, or you want to string together park trips, this list of must do east coast national parks is just what you’re looking for!
Even though most of the popular national parks are located on the western side of the United States, the east has a pretty cool array of them as well. Here are the best national parks on the eastern side of the USA that you’ve got to pinpoint on your map.
7 Must See U.S. National Parks On The East Coast
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
As Ohio’s only national park, Cuyahoga is a true gem on the east coast national park trail. Cuyahoga National Park stretches from Cleveland all the way to Akron, following gorgeous forest trails along the Cuyahoga River.
Outdoor activities like hiking and biking are what visiting this east coast national park is all about. There are over 125 miles of stunning trails available throughout the park. While doing them ALL would be virtually impossible, a must-do for newbie visitors is the Virginia Kendall Ledges Trail, which takes you through a forested path lined by giant limestones, mossy cliffs, and mysterious caves.
Another of the best things to do at Cuyahoga National Park is checking out Brandywine Falls, an awe-inspiring 65-foot-tall waterfall that will leave your jaw on the ground.
If you’d rather not break a sweat or want to cover as much ground as possible in one visit, you can opt to see the park from the comfort of a train that takes you through some of the most scenic spots in the park. Kids love this train ride and it’s an unforgettable family experience if you’re traveling with little ones.
If you want to do a combination of relaxation and adventure, the railroad actually offers a Bike Abroad Program, which allows you to ride the train one way and bike your way back to the trailhead!
Shenandoah National Park
Nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah is one of the most beautiful east coast national parks.
If peaceful hiking trails backdropped by green valleys, roaring waterfalls, and sky-high peaks sound like your jam, a trip to Shenandoah is just the ideal escape for you.
A few must-dos while visiting include hitting a few of Shenandoah’s hiking trails (Dark Hollow Falls, Hawksbill, and Old Rag are favorites), going wildlife spotting, spending a night stargazing, and riding along the epic Skyline Drive for some seriously stunning views.
Aside from the trails, another of the aspects that makes Shenandoah so special is the cozy mountain vibes and the endless array of wildlife that call the park their home.
While here, make sure you’re on the lookout for wildlife. Kids love to camp in the park and tour with a park ranger to see all of the wildlife. Shenandoah National Park is home to over 50 species of mammals, including white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, and chipmunks.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Location: North Carolina and Tennessee
Home to enchanting forests rising from the mountains, over 100 waterfalls, and gorgeous treelines, there’s plenty to see at Smoky Mountains National Park.
The great smokies is a pretty huge place that spans from Tennessee into North Carolina. While it’s impossible to see it all in one visit, there are many things to do for first-timers.
Hike to see the tallest waterfall in the park (Ramsey Cascades), or summit Mount Cammerer to get your visit started. To see as much as possible, drive your way through the park to hit as many viewpoints in a short amount of time (Cades Cove and Newfound Gap Road are two of the best scenic drives in the park).
If you’re up for some serious waterfall exploring, other must-do hiking trails include Laurel Falls, Abrams Falls Trials, and Grotto Falls Trail.
One of my favorite parts of visiting Smoky Mountains National Park (on the Tennessee side) is that you still have access to all of the amazing Pigeon Forge attractions. You can even visit Dollywood – do half a national parks trip and half amusement park trip!
Acadia National Park
Scenic drives, rocky coastlines, unparalleled hikes, and trail summits are just a few of the factors that make Acadia National Park such a joy to visit. Another amazing thing? It’s one of the best east coast national parks in the USA for fall foliage!
An easy hike to get you started is the Jordan Pond, which has an easy and flat paved trail that goes around a 3.3-mile loop. You also can’t miss hiking up to the Bubbles, a really cool rock formation that seems to be teetering off the side of the mountain. If you’re up for a challenging, less-trafficked hike, check out Acadia’s Pemetic Mountain Trail.
Another popular activity is watching the sunrise at Cadillac Mountain (make sure to plan ahead and arrive early to ensure a good spot). If you want a seriously amazing drive, hop on your car and follow the Park Loop Road, which is the main road in the park; it’s absolutely breathtaking, and one of the best things to do in Acadia National Park, especially if you’re short on time during your visit.
Congaree National Park
Location: South Carolina
Located in the heart of South Carolina’s Lake Murray Country, Congaree National Park is one of the most unique mountain forests you’ll ever see. Think towering trees, winding waterways, and floodplain ecosystems to get an idea of what visiting this epic park is all about.
A few of the best things to do in Congaree include exploring its hiking trails, canoeing, and spotting wildlife and flora. Turtles and river otters are usually the stars of the show when it comes to wildlife sightings and you’ll also get the chance to see some of the largest Chestnut Oaks and Loblolly Pines in the United States.
Even though the park is relatively small and definitely not the most popular east coast national park, there’s plenty to see at Congaree and I’d highly recommend visiting if you’re up for exploring some of the lesser-known national parks in the US.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is one of the largest national parks on the east coast. It protects 15 million acres of Floridian wilderness. The park covers a humongous array of subtropical ecosystems, including marine, mangroves, and pinelands.
Even though alligators are probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Everglades, there is an insane range of wildlife that also calls this national park their home. Fun fact: Did you know that Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators co-exist?
The best way to explore Everglades is by booking a boat tour in the Gulf Coast area. You might even spot manatees or dolphins. If you’re up for a unique adventure, you can also take part in a ranger-led program! This is where you’ll get to dive deep into the park on a canoe or during a night trek.
To check out the Everglades independently, you can always go on a hiking trail or opt for a scenic drive. The best hiking trails for beginners include the Eco Pond Trail (a flamingo hot spot) and the Anhinga Trail to alligators.
If you’d rather see alligators from the safety of your car, you can drive down the two main roads in the Everglades: Royal Palm to Flamingo and the Tamiami Trail from Shark Valley to Everglades City. These are two incredibly scenic drives that will have you covering a ton of ground in a short time.
7. Cape Lookout National Seashore
Location: North Carolina
If relaxing on the beach is your favorite way to experience east coast national parks, then head to Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina. It’s part of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast and it’s one of the only places where you can be on a primitive island, with nothing on it but beaches and wild horses.
North Carolina’s wild horses are famous and oftentimes depicted in art. When you arrive to Cape Lookout, take a ferry to Shackleford Banks to spend all day long on the beach – with the horses. Or you can go directly to Cape Lookout to climb the lighthouse and see the light keeper’s museum. It’s an amazing and unforgettable experience that our family loved!
Your family is sure to have an amazing time at any of these east coast national parks. Don’t forget that 4th grade students can sign up for the Every Kid Outdoors pass and receive FREE access to any National Park System park. There’s something for everyone at national parks and they’re a great way to vacation as a family, on any budget!