14 Amazing National Parks on the East Coast for Families to Explore
Are you looking for national parks on the East Coast to explore? Well, you’ve come to the right place!
Move over West Coast national parks Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Yosemite because in this guide, we’re going to hand over the spotlight to some pretty amazing East Coast national parks; many of which you might have never even heard of.
To my surprise, the East Coast or eastern portion of the United States has a good amount of national parks to explore. In fact, there are so many I haven’t explored yet, I have asked other travel experts to help me with this guide.
My family and I still have a lot of exploring to do!
14 Amazing National Parks on the East Coast
The following 14 national parks on the East Coast and eastern portion of the United States vary much in geography, wildlife, and things to do.
You’ll find everything from breathtaking mountains, subtropical marshes, coral reefs, beautiful beaches, cave systems, and more!
Here are 14 amazing national parks on the East Coast that are great for exploring with your family.
TIP: Did you know if you have a 4th grader, you and your family can get into any of the national parks for free through the Every Kid Outdoors Program?!!
1. Acadia National Park [Maine]
Contributed by Krisztina from She Wanders Abroad
Acadia National Park is one of the most popular national parks on the East Coast, and for good reason. The park offers stunning scenery, plenty of hiking and biking trails, and a variety of activities that are perfect for families.
If you’re looking for a national park that offers a little bit of everything, Acadia is a great choice. The park is home to a number of different ecosystems, so you can explore forests, mountains, and coastlines all in one place.
There are also plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching, so keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, moose, and other animals.
There are a few things to keep in mind when visiting Acadia with kids. First, the park can be crowded during peak season, so try to visit during shoulder season if possible.
Second, some of the trails can be challenging, so make sure you pick an appropriate hike for your family’s abilities. Finally, be sure to pack for all weather conditions, as the weather can change quickly in the mountains.
Spending 2 days in Acadia National Park will give you a chance to see the highlights of the park, but if you have more time, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy for a longer visit.
Some of the best things in Acadia include hiking along the Ocean Path, having a hearty meal at Jordan Pond House, and seeing the sunset or the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain.
Entrance cost $30 for private vehicles or $15 per person in case you’re planning to visit without a car (passes are valid for 7 days).
Where to Stay
There are a number of lodging options available in Bar Harbor, which is the closest town to Acadia National Park. You can easily find a place to stay that fits your budget.
2. Everglades National Park [Florida]
Contributed by Debbie from World Adventurists
Everglades National Park is a must-see national park on the East Coast for any family visiting Florida. The park is especially impressive as it is one of the great biological wonders of the world. Everglades National Park is classified as a world heritage site, an international biosphere reserve, a wetland of international importance, and the largest subtropical wilderness in the USA.
Here, kids can get up close to alligators, explore sawgrass prairies, and take an airboat ride through the swamp. Alligators are one of the most popular attractions in the Everglades and for good reason! These massive reptiles are often seen basking in the sun or swimming in the waters of the park. Kids will love getting a chance to see these creatures up close.
You will also find a variety of hiking and biking trails, boating, and bird watching to enjoy within the park. There are several easy hiking trails in Everglades National Park that are perfect for families. Don’t miss walking the Anhinga trail, that winds through a sawgrass marsh. Keep a lookout for gators as you walk along the boardwalks, but you can also see turtles, vultures, herons, anhingas (the trail’s namesake bird), and egrets.
Give yourself two to three days to explore; there is plenty to see. The best time to visit is during the winter months, with the combination of low humidity and the dry season making exploring a little more comfortable.
The entrance fee for Everglades National Park is $30 and is valid for 7 consecutive days at all park entrances.
Where To Stay
There are camping options within the park. If you would prefer some extra comfort, Everglades City is located on the park’s western border. Everglades Adventures Hotel Suites By Ivey House is a great budget-friendly option.
3. Biscayne National Park [Florida]
Contributed by Candice from CS Ginger
One of the best national parks on the East Coast is Biscayne National Park. This national park is located in southern Florida just outside Miami. Biscayne is a very unique national park in that most of it is underwater. Ninety-five percent of the park is underwater and home to vibrant coral reefs, mangrove forests, and sea life.
There is no entry fee to the park and the park’s waters are open 24 hours a day, year-round. However, if you want to visit the Visitor Center or use the park’s boat launch, you will need to visit during normal business hours. The Visitor Center is open from 9 am – 5 pm and the launch is open 7 am – 5:30 pm.
Depending on how much time you want to spend out on the water, a half-day or full-day visit is enough time to spend in Biscayne National Park. Because the park is mostly water, the best way to enjoy the park is by going on a guided tour with the Biscayne National Park Institute or taking out your own boat if you have one.
The Institute offers a variety of different tours like snorkeling, kayaking, and a heritage cruise. If you don’t want to get in the water and you’re interested in the history of the park, the Heritage Cruise is a great option.
Where to Stay
There are no places to stay inside the park. Homestead is the closest city to stay in; however, the drive from Miami is not bad. If you are staying in the Keys or Miami, it is pretty easy to make a day trip over to visit Biscayne National Park.
4. Gulf Islands National Seashore [Florida]
Contributed by Roshni from The Wanderlust Within
The Gulf Islands National Seashore is America’s largest seashore and spans 160 miles. It is explored by over 5 million visitors a year and covers part of the Mississippi and the Northwest coast of Florida.
The seashore is found at the northern tip of the Gulf of Mexico, meaning there are emerald green waters, coupled with powder white sand beaches made up of quartz crystals, and even historical forts and landmarks.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore can be visited all year round, but as most of the activities are outdoors, it is more popular during the summer months.
The best things to do include family activities such as camping, bird watching, and hiking. You can also enjoy water-based hobbies such as sailing, snorkeling, diving, swimming, fishing, and boating.
Remember to look out for sea turtles and dolphins as they usually swim close to shore.
If you want to make the family trip more educational, visit the Fort Pickens Area of the seashore in Pensacola, Florida. This military fort has an interesting history going back before the American Revolution (remember to stop one of the knowledgeable park rangers and ask them for the full lowdown).
The Gulf Islands National Seashore has an entry cost of $15 per person and is valid for 7 days, which is a recommended amount of time to stay if you want to explore the entire area, including the Florida National Scenic Trail and the nearby city of Pensacola, Florida.
Where to Stay
There is an RV and campground inside the National Seashore, it is open year-round and costs a nightly fee of $40 for water and power hookups. Just remember to bring all your supplies as the nearest store is 15 miles away.
5. Cape Cod National Seashore [Massachusetts]
Contributed by Shobha from Martha’s Vineyard Tourist
Established in 1966 by President Kennedy in his beloved Cape Cod, the Cape Cod National Seashore was the first national seashore created in the USA.
With miles of sandy beaches, the Cape Cod National Seashore is great for families. There are two visitor centers at each end of the National Seashore, namely Eastham and Provincetown.
Bordering the Atlantic Ocean, the Cape Cod National Seashore is refreshing to swim in the height of summer which is July and August. If you are visiting Cape Cod in the cooler months, people visit to do other activities, like hiking, cycling, and kayaking.
There are regular dune buggy tours that take you to explore the sand dunes which have their own very interesting eco-system. Seals sun themselves on the shore after swimming over from the nearby seal sanctuary on Monomoy Island. Watching the sunset from Race Point Beach is a favorite way to end the day.
There are several lighthouses that you can visit as well. Massachusetts Audobon runs the Wellfleet Audubon Bay Sanctuary which you can visit as well.
You can spend either a weekend or a couple of weeks at the Cape Cod National Seashore because there is so much to do.
There is no entrance fee to the Cape Cod National Seashore. There are, however, fees for parking. Car parking can be expensive so many people use bikes to get to the beach.
Where to Stay
There are several towns that are connected to the seashores such as Provincetown, Chatham, and Wellfleet. Most of the accommodations tend to be rental houses. The Chatham Bars Inn in Chatham is a highly-regarded family-friendly resort located near the national seashore.
There is no camping allowed on the seashore. There are some private rental homes located on the national seashore that were already in place at the time of its designation.
6. Mammoth Cave National Park [Kentucky]
Contributed by Jami from Celiac Travel Pack
Mammoth Cave National Park has got to be one of the most unique national parks on the East Coast. It is home to the world’s longest cave system.
Over 400 miles of the caves have been explored. On the ground, Mammoth Cave National Park doesn’t seem like it would be anything extra-special. Once you’re underground, the cave system and massive underground domes are awe-inspiring.
There is no entrance fee for the park. To explore the caves you’ll need to take a guided tour. There are lots of tour options. Most tours are accessible for all ages but some require children to be at least 6 years old. The caves are the same temperature year-round so it doesn’t matter when you visit. The tour schedule changes throughout the year so plan accordingly. All cave tours aren’t offered every day and tours can fill up weeks in advance; make your reservations early.
The Frozen Niagara tour is the shortest option at just over an hour. It also requires only 12 stairs rather than the 100+ for many of the other tours. On the other end of the spectrum, the Violet City tour is longer, more strenuous, and done by lantern light. If you’re up for it, it would be a memorable experience! Take one tour in a day and see the caves or stay a few days.
Where to Stay
Lodging inside the park is available but limited; the lodge is under construction until late 2022 but there are some cabins and campsites. If being near the park is your priority, you’ll find a few hotels and restaurants in Cave City, KY. It’s 10 minutes from the visitor center.
Bowling Green is 30 minutes from the park but is a much bigger city. This is a college town with plenty of options to sleep and eat.
7. Dry Tortugas National Park [Florida]
Contributed by Erin from Super Simple Salty Life
Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most stunning national parks on the East Coast. It sits in a beautiful landscape in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida. This park preserves seven islands or “keys” covering 100 square miles of ocean, and 99 percent of the park is actually underwater.
The only way to get to Dry Tortugas is by boat or seaplane. The ferry to the Dry Tortugas is the only authorized tour operator traveling to the national park, providing day trips on an air-conditioned state-of-the-art catamaran to the park directly from Key West. The ferry serves breakfast and lunch. It has snacks like hamburgers and pizza on the return trip home, and has plenty of areas for a large group to sit together.
There are so many fun activities and experiences for all ages once you arrive in the Dry Tortugas. The main attraction is Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, built in the 1800s as a southern coastline defense system for the United States. You can hike inside the fort, walk on the top tier to see the amazing views of the turquoise ocean, read about the history of the fort, and walk along the moat walls.
After exploring the fort, most families spend the afternoon snorkeling and swimming around the moats in the clear blue waters. The ferry provides all of your snorkel equipment so all you need to pack is a towel and change of clothes for the return trip.
The Dry Tortugas has beautiful and healthy coral reefs, due to the secluded location and limited amount of visitors allowed. Look for brightly colored tropical fish and huge live conchs in the water! Once you are done snorkeling, rinse off in the heated freshwater showers on the ferry. Be sure to look for sea turtles and dolphins on your trip back to Key West!
The park entrance fee is $15 per person. Ages 15 and under are exempt from paying an entrance fee.
Where to Stay
Because of its remote location, Key West is the closest place to stay. There are a wide variety of hotel choices in Key West for every budget.
8. Wright Brothers National Memorial [North Carolina]
Contributed by Cynthia from Sharing the Wander
The Wright Brothers National Memorial is a small national park that is fantastic for families. It combines a visitors center with information about the physics of flight and a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer. It also has great outdoor spaces where kids can learn and explore.
The Wright Brothers Memorial is located in Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. This is the site where Orville and Wilbur Wright conducted their first flight tests on the sand dunes, and ultimately had their first successful flights. Five flight markers help kids visually understand where each flight landed, and how each flight lasted successively longer.
You can also visit a replica of where the Wright Brothers lived and worked while doing their tests. While this area in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is now built-up and full of modern conveniences, at the time, it was very remote and most of their meals were eaten out of cans.
After exploring the flight markers, head to the top of the hill for the Wright Brothers Monument and an amazing view of the park and nearby ocean.
Don’t forget to become a Junior Flight Ranger! Kids can fill out the Junior Ranger packet and return it on-site to be sworn in. As a part of the National Park System, you can use your National Park Pass to gain entry or pay individual entrance fees. Children 15 and younger can enter for free.
You can explore all the Wright Brothers Memorial has to offer in just a few hours. A few minutes down the road is Nags Head Beach, part of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Families can enjoy fantastic sandy beaches and family-friendly restaurants, and learn all about the Wright Brothers on the same weekend.
Where to Stay
We recommend staying at Sea Horse Inn & Cottages in South Nag’s Head. Located just across from beach access and Jeannette’s Pier, you have everything you need for a fun vacation at your fingertips.
9. New River Gorge National Park [West Virginia]
Contributed by Anwar from Beyond My Door
As one of the newest national parks, New River Gorge is often overlooked on people’s lists. The park was protected as a national river in 1978 and redesignated as a national park in 2020. The Park encompasses over 70,000 acres stretching about 53 miles along the river from Hinton, West Virginia to Hawks Nest State Park.
The Park is most famous for the river which runs through the park, which hosts great whitewater rafting opportunities. There are many outfits nearby that can bring you on trips down the river. Beyond rafting, there are plenty of opportunities such as hiking, climbing, biking, and camping that can be enjoyed within the park, for individuals or families.
Be sure to also check out the famous New River Gorge Bridge, which is the largest steel span bridge in the western hemisphere. The bridge is a popular spot to watch folks BASE jumping, in particular during “Bridge Day”, held annually on the third Saturday in October.
Unlike many national parks, there is no entrance fee to New River Gorge. Most folks can see and experience much of the park in 2 days especially if you take the opportunity for rafting on the river.
Where to Stay
There are opportunities for camping in the park and all of the campsites are first come first serve. So those who want to stay should try to reserve early.
There are also hotel options available in nearby towns such as Fayetteville, Beckley, or Hinton.
10. Assateague Island National Seashore [Maryland & Virginia]
Contributed by Melissa from Navigation Junkie
Assateague Island National Seashore is a barrier island found just off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. While boasting natural beauty like the rest of the national parks on the East Coast, Assateague has a little something unique to offer with the wild ponies roaming the shores!
The many easy hiking options, sandy beaches, camping options, and easy access to viewing the ponies make Assateague a great choice for a family adventure!
Spotting the wild ponies is one of the best things to do along the Assateague Island National Seashore and is a great option for families. There is a good chance that you will spot some ponies along the marsh on the right-hand side of the road as you enter Assateague Island National Seashore. Other options for viewing the ponies are the hiking trails, the boardwalks out over the marsh, and by boat.
Hiking is another must-do activity when visiting Assateague Island National Seashore. There are three family-friendly hikes under a mile round trip that will take you through the various habitats of the island. You will also want to save some time for beachcombing and relaxation!
You could enjoy the island easily in one day, but it is recommended to spend at least 2 to 3 days to allow time for relaxation and spotting the ponies. They are wild, so there is no guarantee you will see them on any given day.
There is a $25 entrance fee when visiting Assateague Island National Seashore, but this will give you access for seven days.
Where to Stay
If you are looking for overnight accommodations the best option is to camp right on Assateague Island National Seashore! You can choose between an oceanside or bayside campsite, but you will want to book way in advance as spots fill up quickly.
11. Cuyahoga Valley National Park [Ohio]
Contributed by Samantha from PA On Pause
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, located in the northeast corner of Ohio, is a fantastic family park. It’s easy to access from cities such as Cleveland, Akron, and even Pittsburgh. Many of the trails and activities have modifications or options for those with even the littlest legs.
One of the star attractions, Brandywine Falls, can be accessed via a short boardwalk to view the falls. Your children will also love to explore the rock nooks on the Ledges Trail.
The variety of activities offered in Cuyahoga Valley National Park will ensure none of your family members will be bored. Hike, kayak, take a bike ride, ride a train, learn history, or even downhill ski in the winter. There is no shortage of things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The best part is that there is no entrance fee for the park! There are fees for activities like the train ride, but visit and explore the trails for free.
You’ll need a car to get around this park, even though it’s one of the smaller national parks. With manageable hiking trails, activity variety, and easy access to city life, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a perfect way for your family to get their feet wet in the world of the national parks.
Where to Stay
Plan to stay nearby to get the most out of your visit to Cuyahoga.
While there are more options for overnight stays in the nearby cities of Cleveland and Akron, the town of Stowe is just 10 minutes from some of the most popular areas including the Ledges trailhead. The Staybridge Suites in Stowe is a great family option with its larger suite-style rooms.
12. Great Smoky Mountains National Park [Tennessee & North Carolina]
Contributed by Sarah from On the Road with Sarah
Out of all the National Parks on the East Coast, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular and most visited. It is an incredible national park nestled into the picturesque mountains of east Tennessee (with a little of the park branching into North Carolina too).
It is one of the only national parks in the country not to charge an entrance fee. As there is no entrance fee, the park is often busy, no matter the season.
In the summer, visitors can hike one or two of the hundreds of hiking trails located throughout the park. My family has also enjoyed leisurely playing in the streams as well as white water rafting with a guide. It never gets above 80 degrees in the park, thanks to the tremendous tree canopy, so hiking, biking, or even horseback riding can be pleasant experiences.
My family also enjoyed visiting Cades Cove, which is a driving trail through heavily wooded areas that seem to produce the most opportunity to view wildlife. We have seen wild turkey, deer, elk, and even a black bear on our past visits!
In the fall and early winter, the changing colors of the leaves are a sight to behold. Visit the highest point in the park, Clingman’s Dome, for a view that rivals any you might find around the country.
Where to Stay
Cabins are popular places to stay while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have plenty of cabin rentals and hotels to choose from as well as other non-park activities to round out your week-long trip to the Smokies.
13. Congaree National Park [South Carolina]
Contributed by Jami from Celiac Travel Pack
Congaree National Park in South Carolina is a bottomland forest that is perfect for families who like to hike and spend time on the water. Since the park is in the bottomland, most of the trails are flat making them a bit easier for smaller children.
For a stroller-friendly trail, check out the boardwalk trail and walk through the giant old-growth trees. There is a guide available at the visitor center to help you get the most out of your walk. There are several other trails ranging in length, from shorter day hikes all the way to backpacking trails.
In addition to the traditional hiking trails, there are canoe and kayak trails. Spend a day on the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail meandering through the old forest or take a long journey out to camp in the backcountry. No matter what, keep your eyes peeled for birds as you go. Woodpeckers, owls, and other birds can be found in the forest along the boardwalk.
If you can plan your trip in May, check the parks page for information about synchronous firefly viewing. It’s a lottery system though, so if you don’t get to view the fireflies consider visiting at a different time.
Congaree is a beautiful bottomland park with the bugs that come with it. Bring bug spray even if you’re only going for a half-day.
Entrance to Congaree is free. The park is small and you can see much of it in a day and could even make it a day trip if you’re visiting Augusta, Charleston, or Charlotte.
Where to Stay
There are only tent camping sites and no food options in the park. If camping isn’t your style, plan to stay in Columbia. This college town will have plenty to offer when you’re not at the park.
14. Shenandoah National Park [Virginia]
Contributed by Kim Swanson
Shenandoah National Park is one of the most beautiful national parks on the East Coast. It’s located about an hour and 24 minutes from Washington DC. Because of its convenient location to DC, this makes a great stop on an East Coast road trip or a great escape from all the museums in DC.
In Shenandoah, you will feel a world away from the city with breathtaking waterfalls and stunning vistas. Common animals seen here include deer, songbirds, and black bears.
There are over 500 miles of trails for hiking in Shenandoah National Park including many that are kid-friendly. Dark Hollow Falls is a great kid-friendly hike that leads you to a beautiful waterfall.
Skyline Drive is one of the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park. This road is the main road and thoroughfare throughout the park. There are many overlooks to stop at along the way and take in the breathtaking views.
The best times to visit Shenandoah are fall and spring. Fall brings amazing warm colors throughout the park. During spring you’ll see the wildflowers blooming.
Entrance fees for Shenandoah are $30 per vehicle and are good for seven consecutive days.
Where to Stay
Shenandoah National Park makes a great day trip from Washington DC. If your looking to spend more than a day in Shenandoah, the Shenandoah National Park cabins are a great place for a family to stay near it all.
The Wrap-Up: National Parks on the East Coast
From the northernmost coast of Maine, all the way down to the southernmost coast of Florida and everything in between, the East Coast and eastern portion of the U.S. offers great national parks to explore.
I hope this guide, 14 Amazing National Parks on the East Coast for Families to Explore has helped you discover and choose the perfect park to explore!
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