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Why These 7 East Coast National Parks Deserve a Spot on Your Bucket List

Heading to the East Coast and thinking you’ll only find skyscrapers and traffic jams? Think again! Hidden among the hustle and bustle are some of the most jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring national parks you’ll ever lay your eyes on.

And guess what? We’re not just armchair travelers dishing out advice from the comfort of our living rooms. Nope, we’ve laced up our hiking boots, packed our trail mix, and personally explored several of these natural wonders.

So for you fellow adventurers curious about where to get their next green fix, you’re in the right place. Trust us, we’ve got the muddy boots to prove our point.


1. Acadia National Park, Maine

jordan pond in acadia national park at sunrise with a purple sky
© Depositphotos

Imagine a place where the ocean tries to kiss the mountains but ends up splashing around – that’s Acadia National Park for you. It’s not just a park; it’s like nature’s own amusement park, minus the long lines and overpriced snacks.

Here, you can climb Cadillac Mountain – the first spot to catch the sunrise in the U.S. during most of the year. And for those who thought Maine was just lobsters and lighthouses, Acadia’s 47,000 acres of stunning terrain will have you eating your words.

The park boasts over 158 miles of hiking trails, making it a playground for anyone with a pair of sturdy boots and a disdain for treadmills. Seriously, who needs a gym membership when you’ve got Mother Nature offering a full-body workout with views that can make you forget about the burning in your lungs?

What To Do In Acadia NP On A Visit:

  • Take a Scenic Drive along Park Loop Road: Buckle up for this 27-mile ride that offers incredible views at every turn. Warning: You may experience an overwhelming urge to stop every 5 minutes for photos. Don’t resist it.
  • Go Star Gazing at Sand Beach: After a day of hiking, lay back on Sand Beach with a blanket and gaze up at the starlit sky. It’s like a planetarium show but without the sticky floors or the kid kicking the back of your seat.
  • Kayak in Frenchman Bay: Paddle out on the waters of Frenchman Bay and have a “seal” good time admiring the coastal scenery and wildlife. Just remember, if you’re expecting to stay dry, you’re probably doing it wrong.

2. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

view of the cypress forest looking up to the tops of the trees filling the frame
© Depositphotos

Now, if you’re someone who thinks size matters, Congaree National Park will challenge your beliefs. This park is like the quiet kid in class who turns out to be a superhero. It’s not the biggest, but it packs a punch with the tallest trees on the East Coast and a biodiversity that could make a biologist weep with joy.

Walking through its famed boardwalk, you’re not just taking a stroll; you’re time-traveling through an ancient floodplain forest that’s been around longer than your favorite sitcom reruns.

And for those who think darkness is just for sleeping, Congaree’s firefly synchronization display in late May to early June is like a natural rave you didn’t know you needed. No glow sticks are required; these tiny light-up bugs put on a show that’ll definitely light up your life.

What To Do In Congaree NP On A Visit:

  • Become a Night Owl at the Owl Prowl: Who says nothing good happens after dark? Join a ranger-led nocturnal adventure to discover who’s hooting in the night. Perfect for those who’ve always wanted to live a day in the life of an owl, minus the mice diet.
  • Canoe Down the Congaree River: Grab a paddle and hit the Congaree River for some good old-fashioned canoeing. It’s like bumper cars, but with canoes and without the whiplash. Who knows, you might even make friends with a fish or two.
  • Attend the Big Tree Hike: Feeling competitive? See how you measure up against some of the tallest trees on the East Coast. Spoiler alert: the trees win.

3. Everglades National Park, Florida

an alligator floats in the water next to lily pads in everglades national park
© Discover Parks & Wildlife

Think swamps are just for gators and mosquitoes? Think again! Everglades National Park flips the script, offering an epic expanse of wetlands that are more diverse than your uncle’s questionable stew.

Covering a vast area of over 1.5 million acres, it’s a sanctuary not just for gators but also for manatees, panthers, and a dizzying array of bird life. It’s like the ultimate episode of “Survivor,” except with fewer torches and more natural beauty.

And this park isn’t just about being big; it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasting landscapes so unique that you’ll forget you’re still in Florida. But don’t just take our word for it; over a million visitors each year wade through its wonders, probably making it the most popular swamp meet in the world.

What To Do In Everglades NP On A Visit:

  • Wrestle With a Camera at Shark Valley: Grab your camera and take the tram or bike along the Shark Valley loop. You’ll come face-to-face with wildlife that usually only stars in your “Florida Man” headlines. Just remember, snapping photos—not jaws.
  • Paddle Through the Mangrove Tunnels: Haul out your canoe or kayak for a serene paddle through the mangrove tunnels. It’s like entering a secret world…if that world was filled with birds, fish, and the occasional lurking gator.
  • Join the Anhinga Amble: Walk the Anhinga Trail and witness an array of wildlife in their natural soap opera. It’s a boardwalk empire where the drama between birds, fishes, and reptiles unfolds before your very eyes.

4. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

the mountains of shenandoah national park in fall with oranges and yellows covering the hillsides
© Discover Parks & Wildlife

With over 200,000 acres of protected space that is a playground for deer, black bears, and birdwatchers, Shenandoah National Park is pretty much a real-life Narnia without the talking animals (or at least none that we know of).

Just picture yourself cruising down Skyline Drive, every turn a postcard-worthy view, with 105 miles of scenic views.

And here’s a fun fact for your trivia night – the park boasts more than 500 miles of trails, including a portion of the Appalachian Trail. So, if you’ve dreamt of hiking the Appalachian but can’t take six months off work, Shenandoah offers a compelling sneak peek you don’t want to miss.

What To Do In Shenandoah NP On A Visit:

  • Stargaze at Big Meadows: On a clear night, Big Meadows becomes more star-studded than a Hollywood premiere (minus the paparazzi). Unroll a blanket and play spot-the-constellation, or just make up your own. Who’s going to argue? The deer?
  • Waterfall Trail Marathon: Not an actual marathon, but with all the waterfall trails available, it might as well be. Pick from Dark Hollow Falls, Whiteoak Canyon, and more. Each has its own charm, like Snow White’s dwarfs, but wetter and less grumpy.
  • Picnic with a View at Skyline Drive Overlooks: Pack a picnic that’s way better than your average school lunch and head to one of the many overlooks. Enjoy your meal with views that are so stunning; your sandwich might just take a selfie. 

5. Virgin Islands National Park, St. John

a view of trunk bay, part of the U.S. virgin island national park, with a picturesque white sand beach and turquoise water next to green trees
© Depositphotos

In the world of national parks, Virgin Islands National Park is the cool kid who doesn’t even try but still manages to blow everyone away.

Over 60% of the island of St. John is wrapped in this park’s lush, green arms, offering a royal flush of beaches, forests, and historical ruins. Here, the ruins aren’t from your last house party; they’re genuine sugar plantation relics telling tales from the 18th century.

And the beaches? They’re not your average sandy stretches but postcard-perfect paradises with clear turquoise waters that could make even the most overworked screen saver jealous. It’s a place where sea turtles chill, and cultural history stands as proud as the natural beauty surrounding it.

What To Do In Virgin Islands NP On A Visit:

  • Snorkel at Trunk Bay: Pull on those fins and plunge into the crystal-clear waters of Trunk Bay. It’s touted as one of the world’s best snorkeling spots, where you can flirt with colorful fish and marvel at the underwater snorkeling trail.
  • Hike the Reef Bay Trail: Lace up for a trek down the Reef Bay Trail. You’ll wander through a living museum of petroglyphs and lush rainforests, and, if luck has it, you might just bump into some deer who didn’t get the memo about social distancing.
  • Explore Annaberg Plantation: Step back in time at the Annaberg Plantation ruins. This place is like your grandpa, full of stories from the good ol’ days. Except here, the stories are etched into stone walls and old windmills, speaking volumes of the island’s sugar plantation past.

6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina & Tennessee

a young black bear feeds on seeds and berries in the grass in great smoky mountains national park
© Discover Parks & Wildlife

Brace yourself for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the trees wear mist like a cozy blanket, probably because they’re fashion-forward and know it looks fabulous. Covering the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee, this park boasts more species of trees than the entire European continent. Isn’t that a fun tidbit to share at parties?

And for all you hiking aficionados salivating for a challenge, the park doesn’t disappoint with its 800 miles of trails. Among these, the Appalachian Trail struts through the park for 70 miles, showcasing panoramic views that could very well make your followers swoon.

As for black bears, this has to be one of the best national parks to see them. Yep, our last visit was a bear-packed adventure, with 20 sightings in just three days! From protective moms with their fur babies to lone adolescents and even a few doing their best tree ornament impersonations, it was like a furry meet-and-greet out there.

What To Do In Great Smoky Mountains NP On A Visit:

  • Chase the Ghosts of the Past at Elkmont: Ready for a stroll through a real-life ghost town? Head to the Elkmont area, once a bustling resort town. Now, it’s more like a scene from a spooky, yet oddly inviting, movie set.
  • Discover the Depths of Cades Cove: Take a drive through Cades Cove, the valley where history doesn’t yawn in textbooks but leaps out at you from every log cabin and grist mill. It’s like a Renaissance Faire, but the authenticity is through the roof, and the characters are all black bears and wild turkeys.
  • Autumn Leaf Peeping Extravaganza: Visit in the fall to experience a color explosion that’ll make your jaw drop and your camera weep with joy. The Smokies turn into a painting of fiery reds, vibrant oranges, and golden yellows. It’s a leaf peeper’s paradise, so bring your best camera.

7. New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

sunset at the new river gorge bridge with the sun shinging thru the metal bars of the bridge
© Depositphotos

New River Gorge National Park is where the rivers run wild, and the bridges are high enough to give acrophobia to an eagle. I mean, this place is so stunning that it’ll make your ex’s social feed look dull.

Here, the ancient New River, a misnomer that would make any geologist chuckle, winds its way through the gorge, creating a landscape that’s a feast for the eyes and a playground for the adventurous.

And did we mention the New River Gorge Bridge? It’s the poster child for engineering marvels in these parts, towering at an awe-inspiring 876 feet above the river, making it a hotspot for BASE jumpers and those who just like to feel their stomachs drop.

Not into adrenaline? The park’s 70,000 acres are a paradise for hikers, bird watchers, and anyone who appreciates scenery so beautiful it’s almost offensive.

What To Do In New River Gorge NP On A Visit:

  • Tackle the Endless Wall Trail: Gear up for a hike that’s less “walk in the park” and more “jaw-drop at nature’s grandeur.” The Endless Wall Trail is your pass to some of the most breathtaking cliffside views in the park. Just remember, it’s called the Endless Wall, not the Endless Fall, so watch your step.
  • Whitewater Rafting on the New River: Strap on a helmet and hold on tight because the New River is about to show you its wild side. Whether you’re a seasoned rafter or someone who thinks a kayak is a new kind of yoga, there’s a whitewater adventure waiting just for you.
  • Bridge Day Festival (if you time it right): Imagine a festival where the highlight is watching people willingly leap off a bridge. No, it’s not a metaphor for adult life; it’s the annual Bridge Day Festival. If your visit aligns, witness or join the insanity of hundreds of BASE jumpers throwing themselves off the New River Gorge Bridge. It’s like a lemming migration but with parachutes and more screaming.

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