17 Incredible National Parks on the East Coast You Can’t Miss (+Map)

Acadia National Park – One of the Best National Parks on the East Coast

When it comes to National Parks, most people automatically think of the epic vistas of the West Coast. Soaring mountains, snowy peaks, and epic canyons make the West Coast National Parks world-famous. But did you know that some of the most incredible (and my favorite) National Parks can be found on the East Coast too?

The East Cost is home to dozens of the best National Parks, National Forests, National Recreation Areas and more. Whether you enjoy mountain summits, quiet forests, hitting the trails, or snorkeling on the beach, there is an amazing National Park on the east coast perfect for you.

Before you plan your next trip, check out these 17 best national parks on the east coast that you simply can’t miss!

How Many National Parks Are on the East Coast?

The US is home to 63 National Parks, including 8 on the East Coast and 4 more in the Midwest.

But did you know there are hundreds more National Park service sites to explore? The National Park service manages 423 individual units across the country. These units include 12 National Recreation areas, National Monuments, National Scenic Trails, scenic Parkways, wild & scenic Rivers, and more. There are also 154 National Forests managed by the US Forest Service.

This list explores the 12 National Parks on the East Coast and Midwest, and 5 more of the best National Forests and Park Service sites that are absolutely worth exploring.

Map of the Best National Parks on the East Coast

Start planning your East Coast National Parks trip with this map of the 17 best National Parks on (and near) the East Coast.

How to Use This Map: Click the Icons on the map to see more information about each location. Click the star at the top of the map to add the map to your Google Maps account.

Best National Parks on the East Coast

Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park in Maine, one of the best National Parks on the East Coast.
Acadia National Park / Best National Parks on the East Coast

Located on the rocky and beautiful shores of Maine, Acadia National Park is one of the most famous National Parks on the East Coast. The Park is spread out between several islands along Maine’s stunning coastline. The main center of the Park is located on Mount Desert Island, near the quaint coastal city of Bar Harbor.

Location: Bar Harbor, Maine

Best Time to Visit: June – October. For the best experience, try and visit in September – October, when summer crowds disperse and stunning fall colors are visible.

Best Things to Do in Acadia National Park

Don’t miss sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, the one of the most popular things to do in Acadia National Park. Tip for Visiting Cadillac Mountain: Timed-entry reservations are required to drive up to the Cadillac mountain summit. Learn more about the Cadillac Summit Road reservations, here.

Driving or biking along scenic Park Loop Road will take you to many of the Park’s biggest highlights, including Sand Beach, Otter Point, Jordan Pond, and Cadillac Mountain.

Hikers, don’t miss the strenuous but rewarding Beehive and Precipice Trails. But beware – these hikes feature steep granite staircases and climbs along exposed granite cliff faces. The trails require you to navigate iron rung ladders to ascend. But the view, and experience, of conquering these strenuous trails is definitely one of the the most unique experiences in a National Park on the East Coast.

Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Georgia to Maine

View of the Great Smoky Mountains from the Appalachian National Scenic Trail
The Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The National Park Service protects more than just Parks! The Appalachian Trail is one of 11 National Scenic Trails throughout the country, and hiking even just a short section of this world-famous trail is one of the best National Park experiences on the East Coast.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, or “AT,” stretches 2,190 miles long from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katadhin, Maine. Over 3,000 people attempt to “thru-hike” the trek every year, walking the entire length of the trail from start to finish for 6 months (on average only 1 in 4 make it). Learn more about National Scenic Trails here.

Location: Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katadhin, Maine

Best Time to Visit: April to October

Best Day Hikes on the Appalachian Trail

Don’t have time to thru-hike all 2,190 miles on the Appalachian Trail? Check out some of these incredible day hikes and short section hikes to experience the best this National Scenic Trail has to offer.

In Georgia, visit Amacoala Falls State Park and hike to the official beginning of the Appalachian Trail on the Springer Mountain Approach Trail. Or hike to the eerily named Blood Mountain summit via the Appalachian Trail for a short but steep climb.

Appalachian Trail through New Jersey farmland
The Appalachian Trail through NJ Farmland

In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, fit hikers can take on the strenuous Charlie’s Bunion from Newfound Gap or visit Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail.

Climb the iconic McAfee Knob in Virginia as a day hike, or tackle it as part of a 2 or 3 day backpacking trip as part of “Virginia’s Triple Crown.”

Easily accessible day hikes on the Appalachian Trail abound in the NY/NJ/CT Tri-State area. As a former New Yorker, my favorite AT hikes here are the Pochuck Boardwalk and Stairway to Heaven in New Jersey and Bear Mountain in Bear Mountain State Park, New York.

In New Hampshire, the Appalachian Trail crosses the White Mountain National Forest (another National park that also makes an appearance on this list!). Here, day hikers can summit Mount Lafayette via the Franconia Ridge Loop Trail , or test your stamina (like I did in 2023 over 3 days) on the Presidential Traverse up and over Mount Washington (home of the worst weather in the world!)

Finally, the strenuous grand finale of the Appalachian Trail (for those following the traditional Georgia-to-Maine route), Mount Katadhin in Maine, belongs on every hikers bucket list.

Biscayne National Park, Florida

Lighthouse at Boca Chica Key in Biscayne National Park
Boca Chita Key in Biscayne National Park / Best National Parks on the East Coast

Just 40 miles south of Miami Florida, Biscayne National Park is an underwater wonderland in the Florida Keys. This park is 95% water and is famous for its coral reefs, mangrove forests, and sunken shipwrecks.

Location: Homestead, Florida, approximately 40 miles south of Miami, Florida.

Best Time to Visit: November to May. Hurricane season generally occurs between June and November.

Best Things to Do In Biscayne National Park

Biscyane National Park is ALL about the water, and most of the best things to do in Biscayne National Park will require you to rent or book your own water transportation.

Visit Boca Chita Key, the most visited Key in the National Park. What is a “key”? A Key is a small sandy island on the edge of a coral reef. Boca Chita Key is famous for its 1930’s lighthouse, which is closed to the public but can be visited with a Ranger-led guided tour. Relax on the beach, picnic in the beautiful designated Picnic area, or walk the easy path that surrounds the island.

For a more active adventure, go kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding in one of the Parks mangrove forests, like Jones Lagoon. Snorkelers and scuba divers can explore the Maritime Heritage Trail, an underwater trail that explores the many shipwrecks here. Snorkelers and SCUBA divers can also explore the lively coral reefs on their own, with a tour offered by the Biscayne National Park Institute, or hire a private charter.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia to North Carolina

Linn Coe Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Linn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Known as “America’s Favorite Drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway might be the ultimate East Cost National Park road trip.

This scenic drive managed by the National Park Service stretches 469 Miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Drive some or all of this iconic road while enjoying the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains scenery, experiencing colorful Appalachian culture and history, and hiking some of the best trails on the East Coast.

Learn more about driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, here.

Location: Waynesboro, VA, to Cherokee, NC. The Parkway passes through or near Roanoke, VA, Asheville, NC, and Boone, NC.

Best Time to Visit: May to October. Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway during the peak fall foliage is absolutely breathtaking.

Best Things to Do on the Blue Ridge Parkway

At 469 miles, driving the Blue Ridge Parkway straight through would take about 12 hours, but ideally you want to plan at least a week for the entire trip! Or pick one section to explore over 2-3 days, making it the prefect East Coast National Park weekend getaway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway begins just outside Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia. Briefly head north onto Skyline Drive, the main road through Shenandoah National Park. Make time to check out some of the Park’s most iconic hikes, like Hawksbill Mountain or Old Rag Mountain.

Driving south on the Parkway, don’t miss the Peaks of Otter, three stunning Blue Ridge peaks, at Mile 85. Further South, the Linn Cove Viaduct is an engineering marvel, and the area is particularly stunning during the vibrant fall foliage. Craft beer lovers must stop in nearby Asheville, North Carolina, a small but quirky mountain town that feels more like Brooklyn than rural Appalachia.

The Blue Ridge Parkway ends in Cherokee, North Carolina at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Continue driving onto the Park’s scenic Newfound Gap Road, and climb the short (but steep) paved trail to Clingmans Dome observation tower, the highest point in the Park and the perfect end to your epic road trip.

Looking for more things to do in Great Smoky Mountains? Check out my itinerary guide here!

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park in South Carolina
Congaree National Park in South Carolina / Best National Parks on the East Coast

Hidden in the cypress swamps of western South Carolina, Congaree National Park is a small but unique National Park on the East Coast. The park is home to the largest old growth hardwood floodplain forest in the country. Here the nutrient-rich rivers feed a forest of giant “champion” trees – trees that are the tallest and largest of their species.

Location: Columbia, South Carolina

Best Time to Visit: November – May. Beware – visiting in Summer can mean sweltering humid temps and horrendous mosquitos – you are in a swamp after all!

Best Things to Do in Congaree National Park

Canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek is a must-do activity when visiting Congaree National Park. Paddle between the towering old-growth forest and keep an eye out for river otter, turtles, even alligator. Bring your own boat, rent from a nearby outfitter, or join a guided tour.

Back on dry land, check out one of the boardwalk hikes in the Park, like the Boardwalk Loop Trail. Visitors in May and June are treated to nature’s light-show of synchronous fireflies (reservations may be required to enter the park during this time).

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Pennsylvania

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

Tucked between the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania on the Delaware River, the Delaware Water Gap is an oasis of hiking, river activities, and beautiful scenery, just a short drive from the densely populated areas of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

A “gap” is a regional term for a natural mountain pass or “gap” in the mountains, also called a “pass” or “notch” in other areas.

Location: Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania

Best Time to Visit: May – October

While living in NYC, the Delaware Water Gap was one of our favorite getaway destinations for day hikes and weekend escapes, and its one of the best National Parks on the East Coast.

Best Things to Do in Delaware Water Gap

For the best views, climb the moderately difficult Mount Minsi for views of the Delaware Water Gap, and nearby Mount Tammany and the surrounding Appalachian Mountains.

Check out some of the many waterfalls that make this a popular hiking destination, like Buttermilk Falls, Dingmans Falls, or Hornbecks Creek.

For a longer hike, explore the 28 miles of the Appalachian Trail that run through the Gap.

During the summer, heading to the river is an extremely popular activity here. Bring your own canoe or kayak or rent one from the nearby town and explore this calm and unspoiled section of river. Learn more about paddling in Delaware Water Gap, here.

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Fort Jefferson moat in Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida
Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park / Best National Parks on the East Coast

With powder white sand beaches and crystal clear blue water, Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles off Key West Florida is the deserted island paradise of your dreams. The Park is made up of the 7 westernmost and most isolated Florida Keys, as well as historic Fort Jefferson. Wondering what is a “key”? A Key is a small sandy island on the edge of a coral reef.

You can only access Dry Tortugas by ferry, sea plane, or private boat, and reservations can fill up months in advance. Dry Tortugas is the most remote and least visited National Park on the East Coast, but that just makes the journey all the more exciting!

Location: Key West, Florida

Best Time to Visit: February – April. Seas tend to be rougher and less clear October – January and there is a chance of tropical storms and hurricanes, usually May – October.

Best Things to do in Dry Tortugas National Park

The highlight of any visit to Dry Tortugas National Park is a visit to Garden Key, the second largest Key in the Park and the only one accessible by public transportation.

Tour the massive Fort Jefferson, the largest brick masonry structure in the western hemisphere, originally constructed in the mid-1800s to protect American interests after Florida was purchased from Spain. During the civil war the Fort became a military prison for deserters and captured Southern prisoners of war. The fort occasionally housed civilian prisoners, including several individuals convicted in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. A 45 Minute tour of the Fort is included with ferry transportation.

The shallow, calm, and clear waters make this one of the best snorkeling spots in Florida! No experience is necessary to explore the shallow waters around Fort Jefferson, and free snorkeling equipment is included in your Yankee Ferry ticket.

Most visitors stay on Garden Key for only one day, but don’t miss an opportunity to camp on Garden Key. Camping is first come first served, but all campers, once they arrive are guaranteed a spot. Learn more about camping in Dry Tortugas National Park, here.

Everglades National Park, Florida

wetlands in Everglades National Park, Florida
Everglades National Park / Best National Parks on the East Cost

When it comes to National Parks on the East Coast, it doesn’t get more iconic than Everglades National Park in Florida. This massive National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve for its ecological importance.

The Park is a wildlife-lover’s paradise, home to American Crocodiles and Alligators (the only place on Earth where both species live), and other endangered species like the Florida Panther and Manatee.

Location: Homestead, Florida

Best Time to Visit: November – April (Dry Season)

Best Things to Do in Everglades National Park

Like all of Florida’s National Parks, the best way to explore Everglades is on the water. Explore one of the Park’s many designated paddling trails on your own canoe or kayak, or hire a guide.

While the Everglades aren’t famous for hiking, the Park has dozens of trails and boardwalks to explore. Don’t miss the popular Ahinga trail, one of the best spots to observe alligators and other wildlife. Don’t be afraid to get a little dirty by joining a ranger-led scheduled “slog” walk through the submerged cypress forest.

Take a ride on the Shark Valley Tram (extra tickets required) and explore some of the Park’s wildlife areas during the 2 hour guided tour. You can also view the vast wetlands, and catch a sight of the rare wildlife that lives here, on the Park’s observation tower. You can also rent bikes and explore this 15-mile loop road on your own.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park in October
Great Smoky Mountains National Park / Best National Parks on the East Coast

Great Smoky Mountains National Park holds the record of being the biggest AND the most visited National Park on the East Coast. Sitting on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the greater Appalachian Mountain range, is a must-visit National Park on the East Coast.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a family-friendly destination with hikes for every skill level, scenic drives, and historic pioneer villages.

Planning a trip to Great Smoky Mountains? Check out my itinerary guides and travel tips for this most-visited National Park, here.

Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina

Best Time to Visit: May – October. While Great Smoky Mountains is virtually always crowded during non-winter months, avoid weekends and holidays. If you can, plan your trip before or after school summer breaks.

Best Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Newfound Gap Road, the main road that runs through the Park and takes you to many of the best scenic spots in the Smokies. Don’t miss stopping at Newfound Gap, and make the short but steep walk to Clingmans Dome Observation Tower, the tallest point in the Smokies.

Visit Cades Cove to see historic cabins and churches with 360-degree views of the surrounding peaks. Hikers can’t miss doing a short stretch of the world-famous Appalachian Trail, the 2,000+ mile hiking trail that crosses through the Park on the way from Georgia to Maine.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

New River Gorge Bridge in New River Gorge National Park
New River Gorge Bridge in New River Gorge National Park

Established in 2020, New River Gorge is America’s newest National Park, and one of the best hidden gems on the East Coast.

Nestled in West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, this National Park surrounds the New River and its breathtaking natural gorge, abutting the small but charming town of Fayetteville. The park, formerly a National River, is famous for it’s world-class whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and annual “Bridge Day” celebration, where dozens of daredevil BASE jumpers soar off the Park’s iconic steel bridge.

Learn more about planning a visit to New River Gorge National Park, here.

Location: Fayetteville & Lansing, West Virginia

Best Time to Visit: May – October. Bridge Day is held annually the third Saturday in October.

Best Things to Do in New River Gorge National Park

New River Gorge National Park is home to stunning whitewater rapids racing through deep canyons, sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, and vibrant rhododendron forests.

The park has more than 100 miles of hiking trails, ranging from 0.25 miles to 7 miles. Don’t miss the short Canyon Rim Overlook boardwalk from the visitor center, where you can learn about the Park and the iconic bridge that defines it. For the best views of the bridge, hike the Long Trail, and to scout some of the Gorge’s stunning sandstone cliffs, hike the Endless Wall trail. Climbers also use this trail to access some of the best climbing routes in the East Coast. Learn more about the best hikes in New River Gorge and planning a trip, here.

For a completely different view, put on your swimsuit and lifejacket and go whitewater rafting on the New River. Local guides offer beginner-friendly half-day tours and multi-day adventures.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Fall foliage in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Shenandoah National Park / Best National Parks on the East Coast

Famous for its fall foliage and forested rolling hills, Shenandoah National Park is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The Park is only 2 hours from Washington, DC, making East Coast National Park a popular weekend getaway.

Shenandoah National Park has dozens of hiking trails, ranging from easy to strenuous sections of the Appalachian Trail, which runs for 101 miles through the Park. Many of the Park’s scenic views are accessible directly from the Park’s scenic drive, making this one of the most accessible National Park son the East Coast.

Location: Front Royale, VA; Waynesboro, VA

Best Time to Visit: May – November

Best Things to Do in Shenandoah National Park

Visitors to Shenandoah National Park can’t miss driving some, or all, of Skyline Drive, the Park’s scenic drive and main thoroughfare through the Park. It takes about 3 hours to drive all 105 miles of Skyline Drive (one way) – but don’t miss an opportunity to stop and explore along the way.

Hiking is a popular activity in Shenandoah. Hikers up for a challenge must climb Old Rag Mountain, the Park’s most iconic summit! (The Park is currently reviewing a Day-Use ticket pilot program that went into effect March – November 2022, check the website for updates on 2023 tickets, here).

After you’ve worked up an appetite on the trail, stay the night at Big Meadows Lodge, or just pop in for dinner. Whatever you do, don’t miss their signature Blackberry Pie – I’m still thinking about it 10 years later!

Washington, DC National Monuments

It’s impossible to make a list of the best National Parks on the East Coast without mentioning our Nation’s Capitol, Washington, DC. With over 30 National Park Service sites throughout the city, the entire District is practically a National Park!

These National Parks are less about hiking and the outdoors, and more about exploring our Nation’s breathtaking, and often complicated, history.

Monuments range from the Neo-Classical temples honoring the legacy of our most famous Presidents, like Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson, to the solemn Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr memorial, and war memorials, and everything in between.

Location: Washington, DC

Best Time to Visit: April – May; October-November. The Annual Cherry Blossom Festival, usually in April, brings HUGE crowds to the Tidal Basin area monuments. Summers can be extremely hot and humid, as well as crowded.

Best Things to do in Washington, DC

With dozens of Monuments, museums, and Parks to explore, it’s best to visit Washington, DC over a couple of days. The National Mall and Memorial Parks area is home to many of the most famous “must-see” stops, including the FDR Memorial, the Korean, Vietnam, and WWII War Memorials, the Lincoln Memorial, the MLK Jr. Memorial, and the Washington Monument.

East of the National Mall, visit Ford’s Theatre, the site of Lincoln’s assassination. Or take in a show, Ford’s is still an active theatre after all!

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is situated along the banks of the Tidal Basin and surrounded by Japanese Cherry Blossoms. The blossoms were a gift from Japan in 1912, and springtime “peak bloom” , usually in April, is one of DC’s biggest annual events.

White Mountains National Forest, New Hampshire

Hiking in White Mountain National Forest / Best National Parks on the East Coast

Epic granite peaks, some of the most challenging and rewarding hikes in the United States, and the worst weather in world?! Would you believe me if I told you I was talking about New Hampshire?

Just 2 hours north of Boston, New Hampshire’s White Mountains National Forest is perhaps the most underrated National Park on the East Coast – and my personal favorite! This National Forest is home to dozens of alpine lakes, vast wilderness, breathtaking granite peaks, and over 1,200 miles of trails.

The summers here are warm and idyllic, and the fall foliage stunning – but don’t underestimate the weather here! Thanks to a confluence of weather systems and the exposed granite peaks, the White Mountains have recorded the highest wind speeds on earth and can experience severe winter conditions year-round. No wonder the Forest Service has dubbed the area here above the tree-line, “the Worst Weather in America.”

There are also multiple excellent State Parks within and around the National Forest, as well as ample camping and nearby charming New England towns.

Location: Lincoln, NH; Gorham, NH

Best Time to Visit: June – October. Note: Winter conditions are possible on the high peaks at any time of the year. Mt Washington records snowfall all 12 months of the year. Hiking here requires careful preparation – but is well worth the effort!

Best Things to Do in White Mountains National Forest

The White Mountains, often called “the Whites”, are home to some of the best hikes on the East Coast. From multi-day backpacking trips to exciting day hikes, the Whites have it all.

Explore Mt Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, and site of the highest recorded wind speeds on earth. Multiple trails lead to the summit, all of them strenuous.

Want to summit this famous peak without quite as much effort? Drive the winding Mt Washington Auto Road to the top (check conditions here) or ride the historic Mt Washington Cog Railway, the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway, and the second steepest in the world.

Experienced day hikers should try the Mt. Lafayette Franconia Ridge Loop Trail. This hike is a 9 Mile trek across 3 of New Hampshire’s peaks: Haystack Mountains, Mt Lincoln, and Mt Lafayette.

Explore the family-friendly Flume Gorge at Franconia Notch State Park, a picturesque granite gorge accessible by boardwalk.

Wondering where to stay? I highly recommend checking out the hike-in ‘lodging “huts” operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club throughout the region. In addition to hotel-style accommodations, AMC operates 8 hike-in huts situated high up on the mountains – a totally unique lodging experience and one of my favorite adventures on the East Coast!

Beyond the East Coast National Parks

While not technically on the East Coast (that is, in a state touching the Atlantic Ocean), there are a number of amazing National Parks in the Midwest and Southeast United States that are a short drive from the East Coast. Consider checking out these National Parks when planning your next trip.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Cuyahoga Valley National Park / Best National Parks on the East Coast

Nestled in the woods just outside Cleveland, Ohio, Cuyahoga National Park is the most popular National Park that you’ve probably never heard of. The Park protects the Cuyahoga river and surrounding valley, which once destroyed by industrialization. The Park is now a thriving forest ecosystem and popular recreation area.

The Park is conveniently located near several major midwest cities and multiple interstate highways, making it the perfect weekend day getaway or road-trip stop. Plus the Park is incredibly family-friendly, is FREE to enter, and is extremely dog-friendly.

Location: Boston, Ohio

Best Time to Visit: May – October

Best Things to Do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Visit Brandywine Falls, the largest waterfall in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and the Park’s most famous landmark. Here, Brandwine Creek falls over 60 feet through the picturesque gorge.

Exploring the Ledges Trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

The Park’s most unique hike (and our favorite to explore) is the Virginia Kendall Ledges Trail. Along the trail, you’ll circle the “Ledges” – a plateau of towering sandstone bedrock that has been eroded into a maze of cliffs and caves over millions of years.

Explore more of the best hikes in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, here.

Bike, walk, or run the historic Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath, an 87-mile long dirt and gravel path that travels from Cleveland to Akron, Ohio. The trail was once a towpath trail for mules towing boats through the canal. The Towpath trail is now open to hikers and bikers is a popular local recreation spot.

Don’t feel like walking? Check out the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, and take the train to points around the Park. The Railroad also offers a “hike-on” one-way option, so hikers, bikers, and even kayakers can explore the Park, and return to their car when they’re ready to call it a day. Learn more about the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, here.

Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

No doubt, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is the most unusual National Park on the East Coast. The park is home to naturally occurring geothermic hot springs that have been used for centuries for their supposed healing properties. In the the 1800’s, a bustling spa-town and elegant bathhouses were constructed around the Park, becoming known as “America’s First Resort.”

The Bathhouses functioned like elaborate resort-style hospitals, treating everything from skin conditions to rheumatism and even “nervous conditions” for veterans (what we would now call PTSD and associated mental health conditions).

In the 1920’s the town was a vacation-haven for gangsters like Al Capone, and the town is even considered the “birthplace” of baseball’s annual spring training.

Location: Hot Springs National Park, AR (yes, that’s the actual name of the town, too)

Best Time to Visit: Year-Round

Best Things to Do in Hot Springs National Park

Visit Bathhouse Row and the Fordyce Visitor’s Center. Touring the restored turn of the century bathhouses is like stepping back in time! Live your Gilded Age cosplay fantasy and learn about “America’s First Resort” in the completely restored Fordyce Bathhouse, which is also the Park’s Visitor Center.

See the Hot Springs in action on the Grand Promenade. Most of the mountain’s hot springs were capped to supply water to the spas, but several have been opened and restored by the Park to show off this steamy natural wonder.

Climb Hot Springs Mountain on the Peak Trail, and combine with other trails for as short or long a day hike as you want! Don’t miss Goat Rock (Easy to Moderate) for awesome views of the surrounding mountains. Don’t forget to bring fido – all trails in the Park are dog-friendly.

Of course, don’t miss a visit the Spa. Yes you can get pampered in a National Park. Two restored bathhouses offer services: the restored Quapaw bathhouse offers modern treatments and public pools, and the Buckstaff offers the “traditional” 1920’s bathing ritual.

When you’re hungry, visit Superior Bathhouse Brewery 🍺 this DOG FRIENDLY! restaurant is the only brewery inside a National Park! Great brews are poured here, kids are welcome, and there is a solid food menu. Our pup Coco got a free bandana when he sat inside with us, plus a water bowl and all the good-boy pets.

Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana

Indiana Dunes National Park / Best National Parks on the East Coast

You don’t have to drive all the way to the Atlantic Ocean to enjoy a sunny day at the Beach. Check out Indiana Dunes National Park, less than 1 hour from Chicago on Lake Michigan.

Summer is understandably a popular time to visit the 15 miles of pristine lakefront beaches in this Park. More than 50 miles of hiking trails wind through the Park’s sunny beaches, tall sand dunes, quiet forests and wetlands.

Location: Michigan City, Indiana

Best Time to Visit: June – September; April and October are great times to hike without the summer beach crowds.

Best Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park

Enjoying a sunny and sandy day at the 15 miles of beaches is by far the most popular activity at this park. West Beach is a popular destination for families and sunbathers. The beach is accessible from the large nearby parking lot and staffed by lifeguards Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Don’t miss the nearby Dune Succession Trail, a 1 mile loop that highlights the four stages of sand dune development along the boardwalk and stairs. History lovers and ghost-hunters can follow signs for the Diana Dunes Dare challenge: a hiking loop following the Dune Succession Trail that tells the story of conservationist Alice Mabel Gray aka “Diana of the Dunes” who lived an extraordinary life in the dunes in the early 1900s and advocated for their protection.

For a longer challenge, hike the 3 Dune Loop , summiting 3 massive dunes over 3.4 miles.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park / Best National Parks on the East Coast

You wouldn’t know it from the surface, but in the deep rolling hills of western Kentucky, hides the world’s longest known cave system. Mammoth Cave National Park is home to thousands of years of strange, and sometimes spooky, human history in addition to being a geologic wonder, making this one of the best National Parks on the East Coast.

The Mammoth Cave system is a unique ecosystem, earning UNESCO World Heritage and International Biosphere Reserve designation.

Location: Cave City, KY

Best Time to Visit: Year-Round. Caves are open year-round, although more tours are available in the busy summer months. The caves stay a constant 54° F year-round.

Best Things to Do In Mammoth Cave National Park

The highlight of any trip to Mammoth Cave National Park is obviously a tour of the massive cave system itself. The Park offers a number of cave tours, including accessible and seasonal tours. Bring your sense of adventure for the Historic Tour, a 2 hour tour that descends over 500 stairs into the wide cavern rooms and deep crevices of the caves.

For real history buffs, the Gothic Avenue Tour explores the cave’s human history, including early 1800’s tourism of the cave.

Self-guided tours may be offered in the summer season from Memorial to Labor Day holidays. Entrance to the caves is by ticket only, learn more about cave tours and tickets here.

On the surface, check out the aptly named River Styx Spring Trail, an easy 1.2 mile trail that leads past the historic cave entrance to the River Styx Spring, which flows out of Mammoth Cave and into the nearby Green River.

Ready to Plan A Trip to the Best National Parks on the East Coast?

Learn more about these amazing National Parks on the East Coast in these planning guides to Great Smoky Mountains, New River Gorge, and Cuyahoga Valley National Parks.

Want to learn more about planning an epic National Parks trip? Grab my free Ultimate National Parks Planning Guide below – including 70+ pages of National Park packing checklists, planning tips, and everything you need to know to start planning a trip to all 63 National Parks!