The East Coast National Parks range from Acadia in Maine to the Everglades in South Florida. Not only are these great and wild places in distinct locations, but they're also ecologically disparate, with everything from windswept mountains to steamy swamps. All are terrific travel destinations, but here are five of the region's best.
1. Acadia National Park, Maine
Stunningly beautiful Acadia has craggy coastline to spare, thanks to its location on Mount Desert Island. At the turn of the last century, the area was a retreat for tycoons like John D. Rockefeller Jr., who built gravel carriageways on the island, banned cars on them and later donated 11,000 acres to help create the park. Today, the automobile ban remains in place: you can only tour the 57 miles of Carriage Roads and their stone bridges on foot, by horseback or bicycle — or carriage.
2. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
One of the least-visited east coast parks is, nevertheless, one the region’s most unique. It has North America’s largest old-growth floodplain forest, where the canopy rises to more than 100 feet and several trees are recognized as the largest of their species in the U.S.
Follow the 2.4-mile raised boardwalk and get a sense of why this swampy ecosystem is favored by a wide variety of wildlife — from owls to otters. To delve deeper, reserve a spot on the free ranger-led walks or guided Cedar Creek canoe trips.
3. Everglades National Park, Florida
Spread over almost 2,500 square miles, from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, the Everglades essentially consist of a body of water slowly advancing through a maze of mangrove forests and impenetrable jungle. This one-of-a-kind subtropical environment is the only place in the United States where you'll find crocodiles — and here, they coexist with alligators. You'll also find manatees, rare panthers and dozens of exotic bird species. You can get a feel for the landscape on the self-guided, half-mile West Lake Trail boardwalk or on a guided tram or boat tour.
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina
It's easy to understand why so many people travel to the Smokies, a beloved East Coast National Park. With 800 miles of trails, this thick forest has more than enough elbow room for everyone. It's also home to roughly 1,500 black bears, which top most lists of the park's must-spot wildlife. The great hikes, which include options for all fitness levels, and scenic drives yield an array of attractions: historic churches, Civil War sites, waterfalls and wildflowers.
5. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The rugged Blue Ridge Mountains and lush Shenandoah Valley below were once inhabited by thousands of people, who were resettled when this park opened in 1935. The forests here have since recovered from the scars of civilization, which included a century of logging. The 105-mile Skyline Drive runs along the Blue Ridge and has some 75 overlooks. At Milepost 43, you can stop and hike the Limberlost, a gentle 1.3-mile loop trail.
See Also: See Utah's 5 national parks in 5 days.