If, like me, you’re all about the Great Outdoors (yes, with capitals!), you will certainly want to explore the U.S. national parks. National parks are in my opinion one of the greatest inventions of the United States. These are places that protect, preserve and showcase the natural beauty of the country. Currently, there are 59 official national parks in the United States, including one in American Samoa and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The list of sites that are managed by the National Park Service is much longer, though, and numbers more than 400 sites, which include national monuments, national historic sites and national battlefields, in addition to those 59 national parks. Now, we will zoom in on the eastern part of the nation—that is, the part east of the Mississippi River—and take a look at the nine US East Coast national parks.
Overview of the 9 US East Coast National Parks (From North to South)
Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park is the only national park in New England. Comprising most of Mount Desert Island as well as a number of other, smaller islands in the Atlantic Ocean, just off the Maine coast, this coastal park is home to the tallest coastal mountain on the entire USA East Coast (Cadillac Mountain), beautiful rocky shores, forests, beaches, lakes and mountains. Acadia National Park a marvelous place for cycling, hiking, camping and boating and an immensely popular place in summer and fall.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Located in northern Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley National Park protects a beautiful rural area and landscape along the Cuyahoga River. The park is made up of old hiking trails, woods, waterfalls, hills, caves and fascinating displays on early rural life in the region. Major attractions include the excellent multi-purpose Ohio and Eerie Canal Towpath Trail, the Stanford House and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Shenandoah National Park comprises a part of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, a lively series of mountains home to numerous animals species and vast deciduous forests. This long and narrow national park is bisected by both the Appalachian Trail and the world-class Skyline Drive. Main attractions are waterfalls, hiking trails, stunning scenic overlooks and wildlife.Shenandoah National Park is connected to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (see below) by the phenomenal Blue Ridge Parkway.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is definitely appropriately named. More than 400 miles of caves, tunnels and passageways have been explored so far, making Mammoth Cave National Park the largest known cave system on earth. This unique place is an international Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unsurprisingly, the most popular thing to do in the park are cave tours. Above ground, visitors can also go hiking on dozens of miles of trails, boating on the Green River, and swimming in sinkholes.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
The most visited national park in the entire United States, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is absolutely extraordinary. It protects a large area of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a part of the larger Appalachian Mountains. It is home to an unusual diversity of both plants and animals. Around 10,000 species of plants and animals have been documented to live in the park, including one of the largest black bear populations in the country. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is particularly significant because of its vast deciduous old growth forests. It’s so valuable and remarkable that it has been declared as World Heritage by UNESCO.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Preserving the largest area of remaining old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U.S., Congaree National Park in South Carolina features some of the biggest trees in the eastern United States, rivers, floodplains and expansive wilderness areas. It is home to a few unique and rare species, including one of the largest champion tree concentrations in the world. This is a great park for outdoor pursuits such as hiking, canoeing, camping and wildlife watching. Animals that may be spotted during a visit are deer, bobcats, turkeys, armadillos, coyotes, alligators and snakes.
Biscayne National Park, Florida
Situated in the far south of the Florida panhandle, Biscayne National Park protects the shores, reefs and waters of Biscayne Bay. It comprises expansive coastal mangroves, Elliott Key (the largest island of the Florida Keys), shallow coastal waters and the northern part of the Florida Reef (one of the world’s most extensive coral reefs). Popular activities are camping, fishing, scuba diving, boating, snorkeling, sea kayaking and surfing.
Everglades National Park, Florida
The renowned Everglades National Park is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River and the most expansive tropical wilderness anywhere in the U.S. It’s huge. It’s the third-largest of all national parks in the continental United States, after Death Valley and Yellowstone. Popular things to do include hiking, camping and boating, but the most popular of them all is wildlife watching. Everglades National Park is home to iconic wildlife such as alligators, manatees, panthers and no fewer than 350 bird species.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Dry Tortugas National Park is the southernmost of the US East Coast National Parks, located approximately 68 miles to the west of Key West in southern Florida. It comprises the seven Dry Tortugas, which are the most remote islands of the Florida Keys, and historic Fort Jefferson. The park receives no more than about 60,000 annual visitors. This is due to its rather remote location and the fact that it’s only reachable by sea plane or boat. Dry Tortugas National Park is unique in the sense that it combines an enormous coastal fortress, shipwrecks and a pristine tropical coral reef. This is the kind of place that comes up in pirate stories.
The U.S. East Coast is a huge area to cover, but it is possible to see at least a couple of these national parks during a two-week vacation. As is the case almost anywhere in this immense country, you will need a rental car or, even better, a motorhome or RV rental to get from place to place. Luckily, road tripping is pretty much the perfect way to see the United States and taking in one or two US East Coast national parks on the way is strongly recommended.