Gentler mountains than the jagged peak of the west, cozy-rustic high country culture and impressive underground cave systems, to tropical kayaking havens and alligator laden waters, a National Park road trip of the Eastern United States serves up some serious variety. Beginning far north in Maine, the route weaves on an ever-changing journey, all the way down to the Florida Keys. While Dry Tortugas and Virgin Islands National Parks are in the East, they are not reachable by car, so, therefore, they didn’t make the list. But we’ve mapped out a road trip of the other seven that will leave you with legendary stories.
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Acadia National Park
Located near Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park is a beautiful destination in Maine. Mountains meet the deep blue sea, and at various sites the water crashes against the rocks, putting on a natural water show. Schoodic Peninsula is a too often overlooked site on the less populated side of the island (try tasty pickled wrinkles and fiddleheads if in season). The Park Loop is going to be your overview route, but Sand Beach, Cadillac Mountain (at sunset especially), and Jordan’s Pondhouse (be sure to try popovers with jam) are going to be highlight stops. Venturing beyond the car via bike along the old Carriage Roads rewards with a closer perspective, and bikes can be rented in downtown Bar Harbor. This is a stop you’ll want to make in the late spring, summer or early fall.
Shenandoah National Park
Just 13 hours south is Shenandoah National Park, an idealistic destination for mountain lovers. During the fall, the tree line dazzles in hues of gold and red—the natural show draws in a hefty amount of visitors come October. A lot of the lodging facilities close in the winter, so this is truly the last Big Bang for the season. Booking months in advance is suggested. However if just passing through, the park’s best loop, Skyline Drive, can be accomplished in three hours. Keep in mind, this doesn’t account for hikes or stops.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Around 9 hours later and you can be in Mammoth Cave National Park, which seems like it belongs to another world. One doesn’t expect to suddenly find the largest cave system on the globe in good ole Kentucky. But 400 miles of caverns and tunnels, once used by native Americans, are open year-round to visitors. Hiking trails and bike routes above ground show off indications of what is beneath, be it a sinkhole or disappearing river. Prepare for the year-round 50-degree temps in the cave by bringing closed-toe shoes and jackets. Spring and summer are busy, but that’s when the wildflower-covered landscape is at its best.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Only four hours from Mammoth Cave is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which stretches in all its glory through both Tennessee and North Carolina. There’s a rustic feel amongst the rolling mountains, and many overlooks waiting to be appreciated. Cades Cove Loop Road is a good starting point for those wanting to drive, and see a lot quickly. Make sure to take a couple of scenic hikes to the many beautiful waterfalls. Fall is a crowded, but memorable time to visit, as the trees are vibrant and the weather perfect.
Congaree National Park
In less than four hours away, Congaree National Park in South Carolina is not a swamp but is classified as an “intact old-growth bottomland hardwood forest”—in fact, the largest in the US according to National Geographic’s Guide to National Parks. Visitors won’t find roads to drive, but rather a smooth boardwalk loop that allows even wheelchairs. Photos taken along the path are sheerly stunning. Designated trails let explorers detour from the boardwalk, as do the abundance of kayaking locations.
Biscayne National Park
A long 10-hour drive south will take you to Biscayne National Park. Most of the park is water, which means kayaking will be your best source of sustainable transportation through the unique ecosystem. Biscayne’s reef, which happens to be part of the world’s third-largest, is accompanied by an interweaving mangrove forest protruding from the bay, both of which are rich with marine life.
Everglades National Park
Lastly, Everglades National Park is known for an overwhelming large accumulation of wetland that sits on Florida’s southern tip, just an hour away from Biscayne National Park. Alligators and panthers are two of the more frightening creatures lurking about, but the beloved manatee is protected throughout the park. Being another water-centered destination, kayaking is a phenomenal way to see things up close, but if you’ve never been on an airboat, you got to try it! Not including in-park driving time, this epic route of East Coast National Parks entails roughly 40 hours.