Best National Parks East of the Mississippi

May 21, 2024

Forget the famous phrase, “Go West, young man.” While it’s true that states like California, Colorado, Arizona, Montana, and Idaho are absolutely stunning, there are plenty of states east of the Rockies that are just as picturesque, albeit in their own way. And looks aren’t everything. While it’s cool to see things; it’s even cooler to do things. I.e. Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park may not be as scenic as Yosemite, but it does offer spelunkers the longest cave system in the world. Claustrophobic? No worries! There are more than a dozen National Parks all within a day’s drive from Washington, D.C. Of course, some are more worthwhile than others. So, whether you’re looking to stargaze or snorkel, here are the best National Parks east of the Mississippi.

Here Are the Best National Parks East of the Mississippi

The sunset along the waters of Voyageurs National Park as seen from the Ash Visitor Center.

1. Voyageurs National Park,  Minnesota

Spanning nearly 220,000 acres along the Canadian border, Voyageurs is north of the Mississippi, but it’s also solidly east. Almost 40% of the park is water, so while you can hike, birdwatch, and camp on land, what makes this park unique is the ability to “camp” on the water. Rent a houseboat to explore over 900 islands and 30 lakes linked by waterways, and enjoy sleeping in a new spot every night without having to set up or tear down. Visit in the winter during Boreal Stargazing Week, their annual star party, for night sky tours, snowshoe hikes, telescope observation sessions, and more. Voyageurs might just be the National Park System’s best kept secret. It is wholly unlike anything else, and yet it sees fewer than 250,000 visitors annually..

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Fall foliage and beautiful water on the Beehive Trail in Acadia National Park in Maine.

2. Acadia National Park, Maine

Do you like sunrises? Be the first in North America to see the dawn from Acadia’s crown jewel, Cadillac Mountain. The kids will never forget the hike-by-headlamp leading up to it. And if you thought birdwatching was boring, think again. Acadia is home to several pairs of peregrine falcons, which can dive up to 240 mph. Are you a fan of fall foliage? This park is an explosion of the brightest reds, yellows, and oranges. Drive the 27-mile scenic Park Loop Road to stop at iconic spots, including Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Jordan Pond, or ride the Island Explorer propane-powered bus, which takes you everywhere for free. When it’s warm, go hiking, biking, or trail riding on land. For water-based fun, go kayaking, canoeing, or tidepooling. And if you visit when the park is covered with a white blanket, choose from cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing.

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

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited National Park in the US, drawing over 13 million visitors in 2023. It covers more than 520,000 acres between North Carolina and Tennessee, with over 848 miles of trail (including 74 miles of the Appalachian Trail), 2,900 miles of streams, and 16 mountain peaks exceeding 6,000 feet of elevation. If statistics don’t get you excited, a visit to Clingman’s Dome will. As the highest spot in the park, it boasts incredible views of the surrounding mountain range, and its ever-present morning fog, from which the name of the park is derived. Hike in Cades Cove to take in the fall colors and see wildlife. Plus, the park is home to a plethora of waterfalls: Abrams, Laurel, Rainbow, Ramsey-Cascades, and Grotto Falls. Still not sold? How about this? Great Smoky Mountains is one of only 16 free National Parks in the country.

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An aerial view of the waterways and marshland of the Florida Everglades. An airboat moves through the water at the right of the photo.

4. Everglades National Park, Florida

The Everglades isn’t impressing anyone with its elevation gain of a whopping eight feet. However, it is home to the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, attracting some pretty unique wildlife. Bike Shark Valley, and you’ll be sure to spot dozens (or hundreds) of alligators, or strap on your headlamp for a ranger-guided 15-mile Full Moon/New Moon Bike Ride in the dark. If getting within a few feet of crocodilians by moonlight sounds a bit unsavory, how about flamingos? There are ample bird-watching spots from which you might see a flamboyance (yes, that’s the word for a group) of the bright pink birds. You won’t want to miss the canoe and kayak trails through the mangroves either. South Florida doesn’t experience four seasons like the rest of the continental US, so they say it’s best to visit during the “dry season,” from December to April.

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Loggerhead Key Lighthouse, located in Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys, is one of the most isolated lighthouses in the United States.

5. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Less than 1% of Dry Tortugas National Park is dry ground, so it’s only accessible by boat or plane. Originally named Las Tortugas by Ponce de León because of the large sea turtle population, British sailors changed the name of the islands because they have no natural source of freshwater (hence, they’re dry). Five different species of sea turtles are commonly seen in the park, as well as sharks, lobsters, squid, and octopus. Scuba dive and explore the Windjammer Shipwreck, or snorkel around the wall of the 19th-century Fort Jefferson to see colorful coral and tropical fish. Or, meet the diverse marine life from the safety of a kayak or paddleboard. When night falls, camp on Garden Key for top-notch star-gazing, far from any urban light pollution. While nearly 300 species of birds have been spotted at the park, you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for the magnificent frigatebird, which nests nowhere else in the continental US. Google how they get food (hint; they’re the pirates of the sky).

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

6. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Two words: synchronized fireflies. Only three North American firefly species can completely synchronize, and one of those lives in Congaree. Every year, the park holds a special viewing event for two weeks in May. You have to win the lottery to get a pass, but throw your name in every April, and eventually you’ll probably get a chance to see these lightning bugs flash in unison. May the odds be ever in your favor! Even if they aren’t, you should still visit. It’s the largest old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeast, as well as the tallest deciduous forest in the country. Here, you’ll find North America’s highest concentration of “champion-sized trees,” the tallest of which is a 170-foot loblolly pine. One of the best ways to view the sky-scraping trees, and the cypress knees that keep them in place, is from the 2.4-mile beautiful Boardwalk Loop. Or canoe or kayak the 50-mile River Blue Trail. Look out for bobcats, wild pigs, alligators, and river otters. Congaree’s unique ecosystem of floodplain forest is home to a breathtaking variety of life, so it doesn’t really matter if you lose in the firefly lottery. If you visit Congaree, you still win.

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

East Coast National Park Honorable Mentions

Every National Park is spectacular and worth visiting – that’s why it’s a National Park – so choosing the “best” ones isn’t easy. There’s just so much to explore. Here are a few more ideas: take a cave tour at Mammoth Cave, hike a TRACK trail with your kids at Shenandoah, or go whitewater rafting in New River Gorge.


KOA Author Katie JacksonKatie Jackson is a writer and media specialist based in Montana’s Big Sky Country. Living and working everywhere from New York to Nicaragua, Katie is no stranger to adventure. When she’s not traveling the world (or writing about it!) she’s busy chasing after a Leonberger named Zeus. Follow Katie’s travels on Instagram @katietalkstravel.


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