National Parks of the East

The East offers a wide variety of ecosystems, from the rocky coastline of Maine to the sandy shores of the Virgin Islands. (The stuff in between includes a vast tropical swamp and a 356 mile-long cave system.)

The national parks in the eastern United States are generally smaller and more obscure than their western kin, but there are stand-outs. Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts more people per year than any other park in the system. Whether you're an eastern United States native looking for an adventure close to home or just visiting the region, each of these national parks has something beautiful to offer.

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    Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse
    fishermenpress / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

    It may be one of the smaller national parks, but Acadia is by far one of the most scenic and picturesque parks in the U.S. Whether you come in the fall to enjoy the stunning foliage or visit in the summer to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, Maine is a beautiful area to tour. Seaside villages offer shops for antiques, fresh lobster, and homemade fudge, while the national park houses rugged trails for hiking and biking.

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    Biscayne National Park
    National Park Service Digital Image Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Biscayne offers a complex ecosystem full of brightly colored fish, uniquely-shaped coral, and miles of wavy seagrass. It is the perfect destination for outdoor enthusiasts who seek aquatic adventures or those tourists looking to simply relax and look out over the bay.

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    Congaree boardwalk trail
    Ken Lund /Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Congaree Swamp preserves, in a wilderness state, the largest intact tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States as well as many other plant and animal species associated with an alluvial floodplain. It features some of the tallest trees in the East with one of the highest canopies in the world. Though not a true swamp, it is recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve and National Natural Landmark.

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    Brandywine Falls trail
    Boardwalk trail leading to Brandywine Falls Ken Lund / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Surprised? Yes, a national park is located in northeastern Ohio. What may be even more surprising is just how beautiful it is. Unlike vast wilderness parks, this national park is full of quiet and isolated trails, tree-covered hills, and serene marshes thriving with beavers and herons. It can be a relaxing getaway, yet offers numerous options for the active.

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    Dry Tortugas National Park
    Randy Wells / Getty Images

    In the Gulf of Mexico, located 70 miles west of Key West, lies a seven-mile-long chain of islands—the centerpiece of Dry Tortugas National Park. As a bird and marine life sanctuary, this park contains some of the healthiest coral reefs remaining in North American shores. The area is also known for its legends of pirates, sunken gold, and military past.

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    Everglades National Park, Whitewater Bay, elevated view
    Randy Wells / Getty Images

    Everglades National Park remains one of the most endangered national parks in the country. Build up of southern Florida has intensified diverting the water with levees and canals. And this creates a problem as watery habitats in the park are shrinking because not enough water is getting into the Everglades.

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    Newfound Gap Sunrise
    Tony Barber / Getty Images

    Great Smoky Mountains is the nation’s busiest park with more than nine million visitors every year. It covers 800 square miles of mountainous land and preserves some of the world’s most stunning deciduous forests.

    With 800 miles of hiking trails, it is surprising that most visitors choose the scenic view from their cars. But the designated international biosphere reserve is home to an incomparable variety of plants and animals and is worth more than just driving by.

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    Steam rises from a hot spring at Arlington Lawn in Hot Springs National Park.
    Richard Rasmussen / Getty Images

    While most national parks span hundreds of miles and feel far removed from cities and an industrial lifestyle, Hot Springs National Park challenges the status quo. The smallest of the national parks—at 5,550 acres—Hot Springs actually borders the city that has made a profit out of tapping and distributing the park’s main resource—mineral-rich waters.

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    On the lake looking at a rocky coast with evergreen trees
    Ray Dumas / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Rising out of the vast Lake Superior is an island that is isolated like no other national park. Instead of visiting for a few hours like some parks, visitors typically stay for three to four days at Isle Royale. And the 45-mile-long island fills up those days with much to do.

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    Frozen Niagara, Mammoth Cave
    Nancy Nehring / Getty Images

    With more than 365 miles of a five-layered cave system already mapped, it seems unbelievable that new caves continue to be discovered and explored. As the world’s longest cave system, this park has much to offer its visitors. Tours are actually hikes inside the Earth showcasing eroding limestone located 200 to 300 feet below the surface.

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    Shenandoah National Park
    Chris Murray / Getty Images

    Much of Shenandoah consisted of farmlands and growth forests used for logging. Today, it is sometimes hard to tell where farming, lumbering, and grazing occurred as much of the forests have grown back over time. It is now full of 500 miles of rugged trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and serves as a refuge for many wild animals.

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    Virgin Islands National Park, Caneel Bay and resort
    Michele Falzone / Getty Images

    You don't have to travel outside the United States to unwind on a white sandy beach surrounded by crisp, turquoise water. Located on the Caribbean land of St. John, Virgin Islands National Park is a small treasure offering pleasures of island living to its visitors.

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    Voyageurs National Park

    Cliffs of Voyageurs National Park
    Per Breiehagen / Getty Images

    One-third of Voyageurs National Park is water, mostly in four main lakes which are all linked by waterways. Scattered throughout are forest areas which, from the sky, almost look like a giant jigsaw puzzle. With over 30 lakes and more than 900 islands, Voyageurs is definitely a unique park experience.