Since we recently wrote about the 10 Best National Monuments Out West, we figured it was about time to highlight some of the best national parks in the Eastern U.S. From Maine to Florida, there are plenty of national parks to visit — not to mention hundreds of other public land areas. (Want the nitty-gritty on what makes public lands, well, public lands? We’ve got a blog post all about it).
We’re highlighting some of the most-visited national parks east of the Mississippi below. If you're looking for solitude, you've got plenty of public land options — but these national parks Pack your bags and lace up your hiking boots!
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This national park along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee is the most visited national park in the U.S. — and for good reason! There are beautiful forested mountains, babbling rivers, and picturesque hiking trails surrounded by wildflowers.
The Great Smoky Mountains get their name from the haze above the forested, rolling mountains that is created by hydrocarbons in the air released from all the vegetation. One popular spot in the park is the Newfound Gap near the Charles Bunion Trail - it’s one of the park’s highest points and the most popular view. Clingmans Dome is another popular mountaintop (at 6,643 ft.) with a nearby visitors center. Lastly, there’s the ecosystems: the woodlands are filled with different kinds of trees, and there are over 1,600 varieties of wildflowers throughout the park.
WHAT TO DO: Some of the best hiking trails include the 2-mile Chimney Tops Trail, hiking to Mount Cammerer, the Alum Cave Trail, and even a taste of the Appalachian Trail! For driving, you won’t want to miss the Blue Ridge Parkway, a relaxing drive that stretches 469 miles through the Appalachian Highlands from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park.
2. Acadia National Park
Maine’s national park has over 47,000 of rugged coastline and is totally New England, full of charm and rad views. It’s home to Cadillac Mountain, which is the highest in the North Atlantic seaboard and the first place in the U.S. to see the sunrise.
WHAT TO DO: Even though it’s one of the smaller parks, there’s plenty to do in Acadia. You can hike through the woods, explore tidal pools, hop on granite boulders, and take a quick swim in the cold Atlantic. Hike up to Cadillac Mountain, or check out Wonderland Trail, Perpendicular Trail, and for a challenge try Precipice Trail. You can drive the 27-mile Park Loop Road for views of Jordan Pond, Thunder Hole, and Sand Beach.
3. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
This Ohio park that lies between Cleveland and Akron might not come immediately to mind when you think of Eastern national parks, but it should! This park in Ohio has beautiful waterfalls, blooming wildflowers and a super rich history.
WHAT TO DO: No visit to Cuyahoga is complete without a stop at Brandywine Falls, the 65-foot, beautiful cascade of water that falls down sandstone ledges into a gorge filled with spring wildflowers. In the fall, the nearby maples and beeches turn bright red and orange, making it a great stop when the weather gets crisp. Then check out Tinkers Creek Gorge and Bridal Veil Falls, too!
After you hike to Brandywine Falls, head out on the 1.8-mile Ledges Trail and catch a sunset at the Ledges Overlook. There’s also the Towpath Trail or the Beaver Marsh for bird-watchers. And don’t forget to go to the Canal Exploration Center to learn about the area’s rich history.
4. Everglades National Park
Known as the River of Grass, Everglades is the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi and one of the largest parks in the lower 48.The ecosystem itself is the main attraction of Everglades — these tropical wetlands are home to alligators, 350 bird species, cypress swamps, pinelands, reptiles and Florida panthers.
The park is an International Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and preserving the endangered species that call this ecosystem home was the basis for establishing the swamp as an important park.
WHAT TO DO: Everglades has phenomenal hiking and kayaking — just be ready to embrace the sticky humidity in the summer! Check out the Anhinga Trail / Gumbo Limbo Trail near the main entrance and the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. And don’t forget the binoculars to spot unique birds and alligators! There are a few canoe and kayak trails near the Flamingo Visitor Center, as well as the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
5. Shenandoah National Park
Over 40% of Shenandoah is designated wilderness, which makes it one of the best outdoor spots in all of Virginia! There’s Overall Run Falls, the park’s largest waterfall at 93 feet, and some incredible mountain summits like Old Rag, Stony Man, Hawksbill Mountain and Mary’s Rock. There’s also Skyline Drive, the famous scenic road through the park with miles and miles of forests, waterfalls, mountains and valleys.
WHAT TO DO: Drive Skyline Drive as it weaves through the highlights of the Blue Ridge Mountains. To check out Overall Run Falls, take the moderately difficult 6.5-mile round-trip hike from MM 21. About 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through the park, roughly running parallel to Skyline Drive itself. Be sure to check out the ranger programs at Dickey Ridge, Mt. Marshall, or Big Meadows.