If you are looking for a summer road trip or outdoor vacation, consider the best National Parks on the East Coast for your summer trip. The United States National Park System is one of our country’s most valuable and precious resources. You are probably familiar with national treasures like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but did you know that there are many national parks on the east coast of the United States?
East Coast National Parks may not immediately come to mind when someone mentions a National Park vacation. But as an East Coaster who grew up on this side of the country, I can tell you the East Coast National Parks have plenty to offer nature lovers and enthusiasts alike.
From the rocky Maine coast to the island chains off the Gulf of Mexico, eastern national parks offer diverse and dynamic landscapes, stunning scenery, and fun activities for the entire family. East Coast National Parks have different offerings, depending on if you are in more of a coastal area like Maine or one like Shenandoah National Park. And, if you are headed to Florida, there are quite a few East Coast National Parks that make great Spring Break Destinations families love!
Although most offer something for all ages, some national parks on the east coast are more family-friendly than others, and this post is dedicated to just that. Join us for a tour of some of the most remarkable spaces this vast and varied land has to offer…and feel secure bringing the whole gang along!
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About Eastern National Parks
National parks on the east coast are some of the most magnificent places to have fun and make memories with the entire family. While they will certainly look different that the Western National Parks you may see often in images, like Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park or Glacier National Park (four of our favorites), East Coast National Parks have their own beauty.
For example, Shenandoah National Park is found along the Blue Ridge Mountains (remember the John Denver Song “Country Roads?”) It includes a vast selection of trails and is part of the famous Appalachian Trail, which is much different than the Glacier Skyline or Geothermal areas you may see in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Shenandoah National Park is more forested.
Acadia National Park is also unique with some of it including its coastline. It is also one of the country's most visited National Parks for its unique beauty. This is why visiting National Parks is so exceptional because each one is so unique and with its own wildlife to call it home.
Whether your crew is into hiking, camping, horseback riding, or exploring enormous caves, you will certainly find what you are looking for in one of these remarkable natural preserves. You’ll be amazed to learn just how much there is to explore, even just in our eastern national parks!
Planning is key, though, especially if you have children.
Some parks make an ideal day trip, while others may take a few days. Another thing to know is that some east coast parks are prone to flooding during certain months and are best visited at other times. Still, there are other parks are so massive that you absolutely need a map and a ranger to guide you. Don’t fret though — we got you covered!
10 Family Friendly East Coast National Parks
Here are our top 10 picks of the best national parks on the east coast and including a few family-friendly highlights about each.
You’ll learn everything you need to start planning your next epic adventure. Grab those hiking boots and let’s go!
Acadia National Park
Location: Bar Harbor, Maine
We start our tour of family-friendly national parks on the east coast way up north, on Maine’s rocky and pristine Atlantic coastline. This unique East Coast national park boasts a starkly beautiful landscape.
It offers a surprising variety of activities for the entire family and did you know it is the most visited National Park on the East Coast? You can take advantage of the extensive network of hiking trails, camping sites, and swimming holes or schedule a scenic carriage ride, boat excursion, or drive.
While this northeastern park is beautiful year-round, remember that the nights can get rather cold. If you are planning on camping in one of the park’s 5 impressive campgrounds, late spring to early autumn is the ideal time to visit, especially with young kids.
Acadia National Park has endless activities to offer, and it’s impossible to list them all. Some of our top kid-friendly picks include Park Loop Road, Cadillac Mountain, and the Bar Harbor Lighthouse. As a New Englander, this is one of my favorite East Coast national Parks because visiting it is one of the best things to do in New England in the fall with kids.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Location: Tennessee and South Carolina
The massive, magical Great Smoky Mountains National Park is approximately 522,426 acres large, making it the 19th largest national park in the United States. It goes without saying that this extensive, untouched Appalachian landscape is brimming with opportunities for adventure.
Offering way more than simple scenic drives, activities include everything from hiking and camping to horseback riding, fishing, cycling, and wildlife viewing. The kids even have the opportunity to earn a Junior Ranger Badge.
Upon arriving, be sure to stop at one of the 4 main visitor centers for up-to-date maps, weather advisories, and road closures in the park. If you want to add a road trip to this Tennessee National Park, consider adding a couple of days in Memphis with kid-friendly things to do. And, it's definitely worth it to visit Graceland while in Memphis.
Shenandoah National Park
Location: Luray, Virginia
Only 70 miles from Washington D.C. and nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Virginia, Shenandoah National Park makes a wonderful day-long or more extended excursion. It's such a beautiful place and definitely one the top East Coast National Parks to visit.
You will need a personal vehicle to take full advantage of this vast and sprawling landscape — beyond that, you are limitless. This park offers family-friendly activities ranging from whimsical waterfall hikes, rambunctious rock scrambles, and heavenly horseback rides. There are even several toddler-friendly hikes like Limberlost Trail, plus educational hikes like the Story of the Forest and the Little Stony Man Cliffs Hike.
Everglades National Park
Location: Homestead, Florida
Everglades National Park in Miami, Florida, is a wildlife lover's dream, complete with over 300 species of birds and a whole menagerie of other exotic species. While this massive 1,400,539-acre park is the world’s largest wetland preserve, it used to be even larger! Considering this, be sure to stop by one of the 5 visitor centers for current maps, weather, and road closures. You might also want to plan on at least 3 days of exploration.
While the park is open year-round, the most popular time to visit this park is in the dryer, milder season from November to April. The crowds of visitors will be bigger, but so will the opportunities for adventure. This is the best time for family-oriented activities like bird watching, hiking, and kayaking. It’s also the best time to explore main attractions like Shark Valley, Flamingo, and Everglades City, as well as take advantage of the exciting Junior Ranger Program.
Be sure and take an airboat ride to check out all of the Alligators. It's a unique experience and one of the best things to do when visiting the Everglades. It is definitely one of the best East Coast National Parks to visit.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Location: Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is an enigmatic entranceway into the largest known continuous cave in the world! Luckily, this twisting, turning subterranean wonderland has something to offer explorers of all ages.
The cave tours range from easy to hard. They offer everything from wheelchair and toddler-accessible tours to challengingly adventurous tours for the seasoned spelunker. This massive network of underground trails can accommodate family members of all ages from grandparents to new arrivals. All tours require children under 16 to be accompanied by an 18 years old or older adult.
Moving above ground, this park also features extensive camping, hiking, horseback riding, and stargazing opportunities. As below, so above!
Congaree National Park
Location: Hopkins, South Carolina
Visit Congaree National Park and behold the largest expanse of intact old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest left in the southeastern United States. This forested landscape is home to a diverse variety of plant and animal species and is a window into an enchanting, ancient world.
Plan on bringing the family to explore Congaree during the spring and autumn months to avoid humid, stormy weather and flooded conditions. By nature, bottomland forest is prone to flooding so planning with the seasons is essential.
When you arrive in the spring or autumn, some of the best kid-friendly hikes include the Boardwalk Loop Trail, the Bluff Trail, or the Fork Swamp Trail.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Location: Peninsula, Ohio
Moving a bit inland and located right between the cities of Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, we have Cuyahoga National Park. Following the Cuyahoga River and historic Towpath Trail, this park features paths winding through rolling farmlands, green hills, and thick forests while highlighting the history of the local waterways.
In addition to a vast network of family-friendly hikes, and dazzling waterfalls, you can also catch a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for a 3.5 hour tour the whole gang will love. This park is perfect when you are looking for a quick and fulfilling day trip.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Location: Near Key West, Florida
For a more adventurous family vacation, you can explore Dry Tortugas National Park located off the coast of the Florida Keys. While this excursion requires a bit more planning than some other national park adventures, you can absolutely do it with the whole family — even small kids.
If you and the family are willing to embark on a ferry boat or chartered seaplane to access this exquisite park, you will find a wealth of activities from swimming and snorkeling along the moat wall to exploring the historical Fort Jefferson from the Civil War.
Hot Springs National Park
Location: Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is set up a bit differently than other national parks with its main attractions (heated bathhouses) located in the center of the city. The bathhouses are limited to kids 14+, but the larger park has loads of fun activities or kids of all ages. And best of all, this national park is free to visit!
For younger family members, take a stroll down Bathhouse Row and explore the rich history of the area’s geothermal activity. The quaint little town of Hot Springs, AK offers an exciting display of restored buildings along with a rich historical tradition. The souvenir shops are top notch too!
Biscayne National Park
Location: Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park is another national park gem tucked away off the coast of the Florida Keys. Interestingly, this magnificent 172,971 acre reserve of mangrove forests, coral reefs, and sandy shorelines is actually 90% underwater. Even so, it still has endless opportunities for family friendly adventures.
Explore this pristine coastal landscape all while having a blast swimming, snorkeling, fishing, kayaking, or hiking to iconic lighthouses. For older family members, there is a whole underwater trail dedicated to exploring old shipwrecks. Fantastic!
Other East Coast National Parks You Might Like
New River Gorge National Park
Location: Glen Jean, West Virginia
The New River Gorge National Park is located in West Virginia in the Appalachian Mountains. What makes New River Gorge National Park so unique is it's home to the country's best white water rafting. This east coast national park has the longest and deepest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. A fan favorite for water enthusiasts, New River Gorge National Park is not too far to get to if you are visiting Pittsburgh with kids and is an East Coast National Park to include on your list.
Cape Cod National Sea Shore
Location: Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Another favorite East Coast National Park is the Cape Cod National Sea Shore. This is one of the most beautiful and visited East Coast National Parks.
Many do not realize that it is protected by the National Park Service. Miles of beautiful, untouched and protected sea shores are well worth visiting for enjoying the beautiful beach scenery, of course. But there are also hiking trails, biking trails, fishing, looking for wildlife like birds, whales, and sea lions and just enjoying a day at the beach.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Most Kid Friendly National Park?
It's hard to say which or the best East Coast National Parks for kids or the most kid-friendly. The answer to this question depends on a few factors. The ages of your kids and the types of activities they are interested in play a part in which are the most kid-friendly.
Each of the East Coast National Parks on this list has something to offer families. Some may be better than others depending on your kids' ages. Refer to the list above for some great kid-friendly national parks on the east coast.
Which National Park Should I Visit First?
Start with the ones closest to where you live to get an idea of what the experience is like and what you may need to bring with you. Then, start working your way to farther parks or head straight to the ones that look most interesting!
As you have learned, east coast national parks have something for everyone. The exciting thing is, there is way, way more we didn’t cover. We have only scratched the surface of what these eastern national parks and the greater National Park Service has to offer.
What a gift it is to have wide open, natural spaces to explore and preserve for future generations! We hope this list of the best national parks on the east coast is helpful and inspires your family to get out there and see our vast and wild world.
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