Discover the Spirit of Adventure in National Parks of Eastern U.S.

Explore the wild terrain of the Eastern U.S. with these stunning national parks

When one envisions a U.S National Park, one thought may take them west to Joshua Tree in California, Grand Canyon in Arizona, or Arches in Utah. Those three are among the most iconic national parks in the United States but one does not need to travel across the country to observe the natural beauty, geological features, and unique ecosystems or to experience the numerous recreational opportunities a national park offers.

The mainland of the eastern United States features only 10 of the 63 national parks in the country but wherever a person might live east of the Mississippi River there is a park within a reasonable drive.

Continue reading to learn about the history and unique features of the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Congaree, and New River Gorge. Acadia, Cuyahoga Valley, Everglades, Mammoth Cave, and Indiana Dunes are on my bucket list.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

At 522,419 acres, the Smokies are among the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. Located in Tennessee and North Carolina, the park features some of the highest mountains in eastern North America, including Clingmans Dome which at 6,643 feet is the highest point in the park, in Tennessee, and along the 2,192-mile Appalachian Trail. Chartered by the United States Congress in 1934 and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt six years later, Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in the United States and saw 12,095,720 recreational visits in 2020. The park is nearly 95 percent forested and more than 187,000 acres have been deemed “old growth forest” with many trees predating European settlement of the area.

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has a large black bear population of around 1,500. Black bears inhabit all elevations within the park and while seeing a bear is exciting it is important to remember these bears are wild animals that can behave unpredictably. Willfully approaching within 50 yards or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear is illegal. Visitors should also keep watch for some of the more than 200 species of birds in the park including the black vulture, pileated woodpecker, and red-tailed hawk. Fishing is permitted year-round in the park, rainbow trout and smallmouth bass being among the most sought-after quarry.

Cades Cove, Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic attractions in the park include Cades Cove, an isolated valley that was home to numerous settlers before the formation of the national park. Cades Cove still has a number of preserved log cabins, barns, and churches.

With 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads, the Smokies are a great place for hikers. Bicyclists can travel on most roads within the park but due to the steep terrain, narrow road surfaces, and heavy automobile traffic, many roads are not well-suited for safe and enjoyable bike riding. A notable exception is the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road which provides bicyclists with excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing and touring 19th century homesites.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintains developed campgrounds at 10 locations in the park. Cades Cove and Smokemont Campgrounds are open year-round. All other campgrounds are open on a seasonal basis. Each campground has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers, electrical or water hookups in the park. Dump stations with potable water are located at Cades Cove, Cosby, Deep Creek, Look Rock, and Smokemont campgrounds. In addition, there is a dump station located across the road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, approximately six miles from Elkmont Campground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park was established almost 35 years after a freshman Virginia congressman named Henry D. Flood first introduced legislation to create a national park in the Appalachian Mountains. The 199,000-acre park located in Virginia was certainly worth the wait and today sees approximately 1.26 million visitors annually. Among Shenandoah’s most popular attractions is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that runs the entire length of the national park in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A can’t-miss spot on Skyline Drive is Mary’s Rock Tunnel, a 610-foot long tunnel that was created by blasting through Mary’s Rock Mountain.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is also home to dozens of waterfalls with the highest being 93 feet high and located near the Hogback Overlook. Hikers who traverse through the 9.5-mile White Oak Canyon Trail will have an opportunity to view six waterfalls including one that is 86 feet high.

The 5.8-mile Cedar Run Falls Trail is a tough but rewarding hike that has elevation gains of 1,000 feet per mile. Hikers will see several waterfalls and plenty of wildlife along the way. The park is home to more than 200 species of birds including the barred owl, red-tailed hawk, and Carolina chickadee.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All 70 streams within Shenandoah National Park are open for catch-and-release fishing. Thirty-two species of fish have been found in the park including trout and bluehead chub. Shenandoah also features more than 1,400 species of plants with cardinal flowers, marsh willow herb, and blue flag iris among the more common.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No trip to the park would be complete without taking in the beauty of Hawksbill Mountain on the border between Madison and Page counties. With an elevation of 4,050 feet, Hawksbill is the tallest mountain in Shenandoah and in both Madison and Page counties.

Nothing compares to sleeping under the stars and with five campgrounds there’s no better place to do it than Shenandoah. All campgrounds are open seasonally from early spring until late fall. Reservations are highly recommended on weekends and holidays. Backcountry camping is also available.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Located in Richland County, South Carolina, Congaree encompasses more than 26,000 acres and preserves the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. In addition to being immersed in trees, visitors can canoe, hike, fish, and camp in Congaree which was designated as a national park in 2003.

Canoeing on Cedar Creek is a great way to experience Congaree. The waterway passes through a primeval old-growth forest that contains some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. There are ample opportunities to spot wildlife including river otters, deer, turtles, wading birds, and alligators.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether looking for a short hike or a longer trek into the backcountry, there are a number of trails for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on the trail, visitors may experience oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or a plethora of old-growth trees. Guests with a South Carolina fishing license may cast their line in the park and fish for bluegill, bowfin, catfish, bass, and sunfish among others.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree has two designated campgrounds—Longleaf and Bluff—with guests being permitted to stay for up to 14 days. The Longleaf campground which has 10 individual and four group camping sites is located adjacent to the park entrance. The Bluff campground has six individual campsites and it located on the Bluff Trail approximately one mile from Longleaf campground. Only tents are allowed in the campgrounds. However, the South Carolina State Park Service has a number of state parks in the region that can accommodate RVs. An important note to remember about Congaree is that no roads travel through the park and all activities require a certain amount of walking or canoeing.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

John Denver was on to something when he declared West Virginia “almost heaven” in “Country Roads”. The state is a place of dizzying beauty. And now, it has one more notch on its belt with the designation of New River Gorge as America’s 63rd national park.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses over 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of the New River from Bluestone Dam to Hawk’s Nest Lake. A rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep and spectacular canyons, the New River is actually among the oldest rivers on Earth. The New River has carved and continues to carve the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is renowned for its excellent recreational opportunities: whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, bird watching, camping, picnicking, biking, and simply enjoying the solitude the natural world. White-tailed deer, river otters, and bald eagles are among the wildlife regularly spotted here. The park provides visitors with an opportunity to learn more about the cultural history of the area and visit some of the historic sites within the park. There are many possibilities for extreme sports as well as a more relaxing experience.

If you’re a big fan of whitewater rafting or climbing, you’re probably already familiar with the New. The canyon has 53 miles of whitewater—considered some of the best in the country—while climbers enjoy 1,500 routes on sandstone walls throughout the gorge. There are over 3,000 established routes along 60 miles of cliff line on the hardened Nuttall Sandstone of the New. Routes there are characterized by spread-out holds and spread-out bolts.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Hiking a ridge, a meadow, or a river bottom, is as healthy a form of exercise as one can get. Hiking seems to put all the body cells back into rhythm.

—William O. Douglas, Justice, United States Supreme Court