If you want to enjoy the most-visited national park in the United States or go exploring in the longest cave system on the planet, look no further than the Southeast. In fact, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, there are 61 national parks in the southeastern area of the United States. Here are six that you’ll want to add to your bucket list.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The breathtaking beauty of autumn foliage on the mountains of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is something everyone should see at least once. Fun fact: The Tennessee Department of Tourism Development installed a unique viewfinder at the Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort & Amusement Park in the Smokies to correct colorblindness. When people with red-green colorblindness look through the high-tech viewfinder, many get to enjoy the vivid colors of fall leaves for the first time.
No matter what time of year you visit the park, it’s easy to find fun things to do. Watch for wildlife like black bears and coyotes. (Around 1,500 bears live in the park, according to the National Park Service.) Wander among the historic buildings of Cades Cove. Ascend Clingmans Dome. Hike to the park’s beloved waterfalls such as Grotto Falls and Laurel Falls. Also, spend time in the charming town of Gatlinburg that’s called the gateway to the Smoky Mountains and visit the nearby Dollywood theme park for some added fun in the Smokies.
Biscayne National Park
The Biscayne National Park has the distinction of being 95 percent water, and the water portion of the park is open 24 hours per day. This gorgeous park encompasses everything and more that you could want in a national park in Florida. Take it easy and take a stroll along the shoreline beneath mangroves. You can even spend the night in the great outdoors at the park’s two campgrounds.
For an active adventure, canoe, or kayak along the pristine bay waters. Then snorkel and dive along the Maritime Heritage Trail, where you can discover what’s so special about the park’s old shipwrecks. Don’t miss the living coral reefs and emerald islands that you access via boat in the park. It’s best to visit this park that’s south of Miami during Florida’s driest season from around the middle of December to the middle of April.
Congaree National Park
Located in central South Carolina, the Congaree National Park is an excellent place for hiking, kayaking, and canoeing. The majority of the park is designated wilderness, so it’s essential to have an itinerary, stick to it, and make sure someone knows where you are if you are going to be exploring on your own here. You can take a short, easy hike along the Boardwalk trail or delve into the backcountry where camping is allowed.
This 26,276-acre natural wonderland that’s a joy to visit during any season. However, spring and fall are the best seasons to hike and explore in beautiful weather. On the other hand, if you want to see the park’s unique synchronous fireflies, visit during the summer months. Since the majority of the park is located in the floodplain of the Congaree River, flooding is sometimes an issue here, and it’s most frequent during the winter months.
Everglades National Park
You may have heard Thomas Dolby wax poetic about Florida’s Everglades National Park in the classic song “I Love You Goodbye,” and this dreamy park has the most expansive subtropical wilderness in the United States. You may find a rare Florida panther here. With only 120 to 130 left in the wild, many of those panthers make their home in the park, which has 1.5 million wetland acres.
Be sure to hike the Anhinga Trail to see wildlife like alligators and herons. Also, take the time to climb its 65-foot-tall observation tower to take in the vast beauty of the park. The best time to visit is from November to March, when you can enjoy more moderate weather and abundant wildlife.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Explore to your heart’s content at Mammoth Cave National Park since it has the longest known cave system in the world. Ranger-led programs are available to teach people of all ages about the fascinating history and current wonders of the park. Also, the park’s 90-minute, self-guided tour will walk you through visiting such sites as a Methodist church, a historic mining site, and a stone used to treat tuberculosis in the 1800s.
Since the cave temperature remains relatively consistent (around 54 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the year, you may want to try going in the winter to save money and avoid crowds. However, if you want to explore the rolling hills and more than 80 miles of hiking trails in the park, try the spring or summer, but be prepared for lots of other tourists.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Situated around 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, the Dry Tortugas National Park is on the small side for a national park at 100 square miles, and it is a special one that’s made up of mostly water and seven small islands. These islands are part of the coral reef around Key West, and they consist of sand and reef. The park offers what’s considered to be the best snorkeling in the Key West area. Guests are cautioned that the coral free is extraordinarily fragile and shouldn’t be touched or mistreated. When you’re near the islands, you may see turtles, fishes, lobsters, and sponges in the waters beneath the Gulf of Mexico. While you’re at the park, visit Fort Jefferson on Garden key to get a glimpse into local history and also enjoy some of the most pristine white sand beaches in the country.
Overall the best time to go to the Dry Tortugas National Park is between November and April. With its subtropical climate, summer tends to be hot and humid. No matter what time of year you visit, though, sunscreen, sunhats, and sunglasses are recommended.