11 of the Best National Parks on the East Coast

January 25, 2024

Many of the most famed national parks are located in the west, typified by roaring geysers, cavernous canyons, and cascading waterfalls. But on the East Coast, national parks are distinctly their own. Not only are there plentiful — and oft underrated — parks to be found, but they boast their own singular brand of history, their own mountainous backdrops, and their own meandering waterways. From wartime battlefields to rivers of grass, here are 11 of the best national parks worth traveling for on the East Coast.

If You’re Exploring the East Coast, Visit These National Parks

The Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park, Maine1. Acadia National Park

A marquis park on the east coast, and one of the most visited national parks in the country, Acadia National Park is a shining jewel in New England. Situated on a few gnarly islands off the coast of Maine, it’s a beacon of misty mountains, pristine lakes, and miles upon miles of cliff-lined oceanfront. This is where the first glimpse of sunlight hits the U.S. each morning, atop Cadillac Mountain, and where loons set the soundtrack at bucolic Jordan Pond. It’s where 125 miles worth of hiking trails traverse the nautical terrain, and where waves crash against Sand Beach. Mount Desert Island, easily accessible via a drive from Bar Harbor, is the main hub of the oceanic park, with plenty of scenic drives, hikes, and beachfront, along with epic wildlife like whales, seals, moose, and black bears.

Nearby KOAs:
Bar Harbor / Oceanside KOA Holiday

A springtime sunrise at Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania, USA.The National Memorial Arch is a monument dedicated to George Washington and the United States Continental Army.

2. Valley Forge National Historical Park

From the Liberty Bell to Gettysburg, Eastern Pennsylvania is filled with national parks that delve deep into American Revolutionary and Civil War-era history. Chief among them is Valley Forge, the home turf for the Continental Army during the winter of 1777-78. Across 3,500 acres of peaceful woodland and meadows, monuments stand to commemorate the Revolutionary War and the guidance of General George Washington. A turning point during the war, and framing the burgeoning forces as a unified nation all its own, Valley Forge was where Washington calcified his troops and rallied against the British occupancy in nearby Philadelphia. At one time, more than 12,000 people lived here, making it one of the largest settlements in the entire colonies.

Nearby KOAs:
Philadelphia / West Chester KOA Holiday
Philadelphia South / Clarksboro KOA Holiday

3. Colonial National Historical Park

Some of the earliest origins of America can be found at Colonial National Historical Park, a site that commemorates the 1607 settlement of Jamestown, and the convergence of European, African, and Virginia Indigenous cultures. Years later, Yorktown is where American troops dealt the final blow to British troops during the culmination of the Revolutionary War. A seminal destination for American history, the park is home to historical reenactments in Jamestown, the Yorktown Battlefield, and scenic Colonial Parkway. Guided tours delve deeper into the mythology, including archaeology tours through 17th-century Jamestown, and artifacts galore at the Ed Shed.

Nearby KOAs:
Cape Charles / Chesapeake Bay KOA Resort
Emporia / I-95 KOA Holiday

An aerial view of the Florida Everglades with rich green marshland among waterways.

4. Everglades National Park

The closest thing to real-life Jurassic Park that exists, Everglades National Park is not only the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist, but it’s a place where Florida panthers share turf with manatees, dolphins, sharks, and eagles. The third largest national park in the lower 48 states, measuring a whopping 1.5-million acres, this South Florida icon is as massive as it is wild, and a place of singular landscape. Its name, which means River of Grass, speaks to the distinct topography and terrain — an eternally slow-moving river that trickles through grassland and forest, culminating with brackish waters by the coast where American crocodiles can be seen floating along the jet-black surface. Enormous in size and scope, there is much to see and do here, but some highlights include the Anhinga Trail, a short paved loop where alligators can frequently be seen sunning along the trail, the Shark Valley observation tower that affords one of the best panoramas of the River of Grass, and the Flamingo Marina, where visitors can rent kayaks and paddle up Buttonwood Canal to wide-open Coot Bay.

Nearby KOAs:
Hollywood KOA
Davie / Ft. Lauderdale KOA Holiday
Naples / Marco Island KOA Holiday
Sugarloaf Key / Key West KOA Holiday

Sunrise and mist hang over antique cannons at Antietam National Battlefield.

5. Antietam National Battlefield

Described as “the bloodiest day in American history,” Antietam National Battlefield isn’t for the casual park-goer. But it’s one of the most important parks in the country, for its bold history, and the saga of sacrifice that helped pave the way for renewal. On September 17, 1862, this Maryland community saw 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing after 12 hours of combat. It also saw the demise of the Confederate attempt to invade the North, and President Lincoln’s subsequent Emancipation Proclamation. Nowadays, visitors can learn about it all via museum exhibits at the visitor center, embark on a tour of the battlefield, or go on a hike to Cornfield, the Final Attack, Sherrick Farm, or Snavely Ford Trails. The Pry House Field Hospital Museum is a newer addition, located in the historic Pry House, home to a theater and artifacts centered around healing and care for the wounded.

Nearby KOAs:
Hagerstown / Antietam Battlefield KOA Holiday
Harpers Ferry / Civil War Battlefields KOA Holiday

Sunset at the Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, USA.

6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is basically the Grand Canyon of the east. The most visited national park in the entire country, this mountainous mecca preserves and honors one of the most iconic ranges on the continent, lined with scenic roadways and charming towns like Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Knoxville. Free to visit, it’s become the de facto national park for scenic drives and sweeping valley views, but you’d be remiss not to dig a little deeper and spend time in this lauded land. Trek to Clingman’s Dome, where an observation tower offers striking views in every direction, or hike to any number of waterfalls. Alum Cave is a particularly worthwhile trail, a five-mile roundtrip route that traverses log bridges and old-growth hardwood forests, before weaving through an all-natural tunnel at Arch Rock and up Peregrine Peak to the aptly dubbed Inspiration Point.

Nearby KOAs:
Townsend / Great Smokies KOA Holiday
Pigeon Forge / Gatlinburg KOA Holiday
Cherokee / Great Smokies KOA Holiday
Gatlinburg East / Smoky Mountain KOA Holiday

Nauset Beach with Nauset Light, aerial view

7. Cape Cod National Seashore

Protecting 40 miles of pristine coastline in Massachusetts’ famed Cape, Cape Cod National Seashore is a nautical gem that contains everything from sandy beaches and lighthouses to marshes, ponds, and cranberry bogs. Quintessentially New England, the seashore is a playground for swimming, biking, and sandy hiking. One unique must-see is the marine debris art installation at Herring Cove Bathhouse, where Cindy Pease Roe turned marine debris into a giant shark. Another popular pastime is visiting the Cape’s historic lighthouses, of which there are several, like Highland Light in Turo and Three Sisters Light in Eastham. Especially popular in the summer, there are six designated swimming beaches in the park, like Nauset Light Beach, Coast Guard Beach, and Marconi Beach.

Nearby KOAs:
Boston / Cape Cod KOA Holiday

The facade of Castle Clinton is shown in New York. Castle Clinton, then called Castle Garden, served as the country's first immigration depot.

8. Castle Clinton National Monument

For urban lore, it doesn’t get more essential than Castle Clinton National Monument, a park that sits at the genesis of the nation’s most populous city. Located at the southern tip of Manhattan, Castle Clinton National Monument is the historical apex of where New York City began — a brick-clad sentinel that initially served as defense against British invasion in 1812, but has gone on to contain a theater, an aquarium, and an immigration center. In addition to guided tours of the castle and its grounds, visitors can do everything from listening to an open-air concert or board a ferry to the Statue of Liberty.

Nearby KOAs:
Delaware Water Gap / Pocono Mountain KOA Holiday
New York City North / Newburgh KOA Holiday

View of the New River Gorge National Park and Reserve from an overlook with green rolling mountains and a blue sky.

9. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

A recently designated national park, West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park & Preserve is so named for its New River, and the 53 miles worth of gorgeous gorge that falls within park boundaries. Ironically one of the oldest rivers on the planet, the New River carves a tree-lined canyon through the lush region, affording ample opportunity for advanced paddling and white-water rafting, along with scenic hikes on either side of the cascading waterway. Be sure to visit the mighty New River Gorge Bridge, a 3,000-foot steel-span bridge that’s as striking as the terrain it straddles.

Nearby KOAs:
Flatwoods KOA Journey

10. Shenandoah National Park

Flanked by the Shenandoah Valley on one side, and the fertile Piedmont on the other, Shenandoah National Park protects some 200,000 acres of mighty mountains, waterfalls, Appalachian Trails, and one of the most famed scenic drives in the country. Skyline Drive weaves along the mountain ridge for 105 miles, dotted with trailheads and viewpoints along the way. A hiker’s paradise, the park has more than 500 miles worth of trails to trek, from easy to strenuous, and from valleys to peaks. Horseback riding, fishing, and cycling are other popular pastimes, while Old Rag Mountain ranks as the most visited destination in the park, famed for its unparalleled views that take travelers above the clouds.

Nearby KOAs:
Natural Bridge / Lexington KOA Holiday
Lynchburg/Blue Ridge Parkway KOA Holiday

A wooden boardwalk winding through the forests of Conagree National Park.

11. Congaree National Park

Among the most underrated parks in the country, South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is where soaring trees meet epic rivers. Although small, clocking in at a mere 26,000 acres, the park is mighty — look for the tallest trees east of the Mississippi, and a vast floodplain of the Congaree River that turns the dense forests into a veritable labyrinth for kayaks and canoes. The main boardwalk trail, which is elevated off the forest floor to remain open even during floods, is the main attraction, zigzagging through surreal terrain and offering glimpses of the colossal river.

Nearby KOAs:
Santee / Santee Lakes KOA Journey

Born and raised in New Hampshire, Matt Kirouac grew up with a love for camping and the outdoors. Though he’s lived in Chicago since 2006, he’s always on the lookout for new adventures. He writes about travel and food for outlets like TripExpert, Money Inc, Upventur, DiningOut, Food Fanatics magazine, Plate Magazine and Zagat, and he currently serves as Chicago editor for What Should We Do?! He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago (2016) and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago (2017).


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