The United States has over 420 beautiful and historic national park sites covering almost every state and territory. The crown jewel are the the country’s 63 designated national parks – offering visitors natural beauty with stunning scenery, unique wildlife, and plenty of adventure activities.
The best part about them? You don’t need an appointment! Most national parks welcome walk-in visitors (well, mostly drive-in visitors), and many of the east coast national parks of the United States are amazingly free to enter!
National parks are a natural compliment to a family road trip across the United States. So whether you want to explore the beauty of nature or enjoy outdoor recreation, let’s see what’s in store at each of these national parks so you can plot out your next east coast family road trip.
Plot Your Road Trip Route for East Coast National Parks
- Plot Your Road Trip Route for East Coast National Parks
- Acadia National Park, Maine
- Biscayne National Park, Florida
- Congaree National Park
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
- Everglades National Park, Florida
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina
- Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
- New River Gorge National Park
- Shenandoah National Park
Before we dive in, don’t forget to check if any of your family are eligible for a 4th Grader Pass – this is an ideal time to take on a family road trip to any of these incredible US National Parks – for free!
|National Park||Camping||Best Season||Entry|
|Acadia, ME||Campgrounds – book 60 days in advance||Apr – Oct||$30/$25/$15 + camping $|
|Cuyahoga Valley, OH||Not allowed||Year Round||Free|
|Shenandoah, VA||Campgrounds – book 6 months in advance||Mar-Nov||$30/$25/$15 + camping $|
|New River Gorge, WV||Primitive sites – first come||May-Oct||Free|
|Mammoth Cave, KY||Campgrounds – book in advance||Year Round||Free + Tours $ + camping $|
|Great Smoky Mountains, TN/NC||Campgrounds – book 6 months/ 1 year in advance||Jun-Oct||Free + camping $|
|Congaree, SC||Walk in tent sites – reservation required||Mar-May||Free + camping $|
|Biscayne, FL||Campgrounds by boat only – first come||Nov – Apr||Free + Transport $ +Camping $|
|Everglades, FL||Campgrounds & wilderness – some need reservation||Nov – Apr||$30/$25/$15 + camping $|
|Dry Tortugas, FL||Primitive sites, first come but ferry reservation needed||Nov – Apr||$15 + Transport $ + camping $|
Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park is located in Maine and protects the coastal region of Mount Desert Island. The park has many family-friendly hiking trails, including Acadia Mountain Trail, which takes you to a peak above the ocean. The park also has many scenic drives, including Schooner Head Loop Road and Cadillac Mountain Drive.
Families with children of all ages can enjoy activities such as swimming, boating, fishing, golfing, kayaking, bird watching, camping, horseback riding, hiking, snowmobiling, and ice skating at the park campgrounds or lodges.
The best time to visit the Acadia National Park is from April through October when camping is also possible, though many of the scenic roads and picnic grounds remain open year-round.
The easiest way to get there is taking I 95 North from Boston to Bar Harbor. If you want to avoid parking problems, order an Uber or other online car services. It is recommended that visitors bring warm clothing during the winter season.
Acadia National Park Entrance Fee: The admission fee is $30 per vehicle, $25 for motorcycles and $15 for cyclists and pedestrians.
- Note timed entry permits are needed for Cadillac Mountain Drive over the busiest months of summer and fall.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is among America’s smallest but most beautiful parks. The park stretches across various regions, including Cleveland, Akron, and surrounding areas. The 33,000 acre park includes several lakes, miles of water trails, and hundreds of roads parallel with the Ohio River.
Once of the most scenic driving routes in the state of Ohio, some of the highlights of this incredible place include the Great Cedar Swamp Nature Preserve, the Akron Canal Trail, the National Road, the Horseshoe Bend Trail, the Rocky River Greenway, the John Hay Memorial Carriage House & Museum, and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
Once you’re out of the car, the park offers visitors a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities such as walking, bicycling, boating, and horseback riding.
There are two ways to enter the park, by using the Ohio Turnpike or the I-271 northbound out of downtown Cleveland.
Top tip: If planning a family trip during the spring and summer months, be sure to bring mosquito repellent because there are many mosquitoes here!
When visiting Cuyahoga Valley, be sure to visit the park’s visitor center located at 575 W. Pioneer Ave. in downtown Norwalk. Here, you can learn about all the different activities offered within the park. The visitor center also provides maps to help you navigate your way around the park.
Note that camping an overnight RV Parking used to be allowed in this east coast national park but this is no longer permitted.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park Entrance Fee: Entrance fees are free for day visitors.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Situated at the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia is the scenic Shenandoah National Park. It is renowned for its spectacular views of the Appalachian Mountains, wildlife, historical sites, hiking, biking, canoeing, camping, fishing, and swimming.
There is so much to see here! Highlights include the Skyline Drive, the Luray Caverns, Big Meadows, Natural Bridge, and Rockfish Gap. Visitors can experience this park’s natural beauty and history by visiting the visitor center, museum, nature center, and trails.
Eight campsites accommodate up to 25 people each. In addition to these campsites, two group shelters are located near the Big South Fork River. These shelters have cooking facilities, restrooms, showers, tables, benches, fireplaces, grills, and electric service.
Some of the recreational activities that families, small and large groups can participate in include bird watching, hiking, mountain biking, picnicking, and rock climbing.
The famous Blue Ridge Parkway passes through this park. It connects many scenic attractions such as Harpers Ferry, Front Royal, Rockfish Gap, Mount Rogers, and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. If you plan to go hiking, biking, boating, or horseback riding, be sure to stop and hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Shenandoah National Park Entrance Fee: The admission fee is $30 per vehicle, $25 for motorcycles and $15 for cyclists and pedestrians.
New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve is one of the country’s largest national parks covering about 1.4 million acres. It’s the third-largest National Park in the US. – and the newest!
Previous a designated National River, it was redesignated to national parks status in 2020.
The park is home to scenic gorges, including the New River Gorge, the Little Kanawha River Gorge, and the Tug Fork Gorge.
New River Gorge is also known for its beautiful scenery, lush forests, and cliffs. Some of the plants and animals in the area include salamanders, bats, butterflies, American robin, otter, woodpecker, chipmunk, wild turkey, elk, whitetail deer, and more.
Filled with over 50 miles of hiking trails, the park is also a popular rock climbing area with over 1400 established rock climbs. It is also a premier white water rafting location on the east coast – home to several Class III to Class V rapids!
You can plan a road trip to this popular east coast national park at any time of year, however, the best season is from May through October – the shoulder seasons being less crowded than the summer.
Highway access to the park is from Route 19, between Beckley and Hico, and from I-64, between Mossy and Sandstone.
There are no designated drive up campgrounds in this national park but the adventurous might be able to sling on a backpack and make use of the backcountry campsites for a unique nature experience.
New River Gorge National Park Entrance Fee: There is no fee to enter this national park. Recreation activities with licensed operators will cost extra.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
The Mammoth Cave National Park was established in 1925, and it’s among the oldest parks in the U.S. Situated near Jackson, Kentucky, this park covers about 740 square miles and was also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
With over 400 miles of excavated caves, you can be fairly sure what the main activity is to enjoy in this popular east coast national park!
The park also has several natural features like springs, waterfalls, lakes, streams, and ponds. Mammoth Cave National Park is home to more than 50 bird species, including the bald eagle, osprey, blue heron, black hawk, white ibis, brown pelican, and great egret.
You can visit the park any time of year, though the shoulder seasons in Spring and Fall are considered best for fewer crowds and milder weather. The summer is the busiest, but you may be surprised that the caves maintain a consistent and chilly 54°F year-round.
The park is located near to Interstate 65. To get from north to south inside the park, the best way is to take the Green River Ferry, adding an element of fun to the journey.
Mammoth Cave National Park Entrance Fee: Entry to Mammoth Cave National Park and its surface features is free of charge. However, there is a fee to tour the cave, stay in campgrounds, or reserve picnic shelters. Cave fees range from $8 through to $66 depending on length and complexity of the tour.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina
The beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park, established in 1934, is situated in the eastern portion of North Carolina and Tennessee. The park covers 522,419 acres of land and hosts about 500 different plant and animal species.
This incredible national park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere reserve.
One of the best national parks for hikers, visitors will find a large number of trails throughout the park. The Appalachian Trail, which runs along the border of Georgia and North Carolina, is the longest in the United States.
Aside from hiking the trails, the park offers plenty of recreational activities including biking, camping, golfing, horseback riding, rafting, boating, hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing.
In addition to these, there are also numerous festivals and special events held within this vast east coast national park. These include arts and crafts fairs, concerts, and outdoor movies.
Getting into the park there are three main entrances, from Gatlinburg and Townsend in Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina.
Once inside the national park, visitors can use bike rentals, electric carts, horses, motor vehicles, and their own two feet. The park also has a fleet of buses throughout its various attractions and destinations. Some shuttles provide service to the different lodges and cabins located inside the park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Entrance Fee: No entrance fees for this fabulous east coast national park.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Congaree National Park is found in South Carolina, about 60 miles southwest of Columbia.
This small but important east coast national park consists of rivers, swamps, and giant pine forests. It is home to the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the USA, making it one of the more unique national parks on the east coast.
Also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the Congaree River that flows through the park has tributaries including Black Creek, Little Congaree Creek, and Middle Creek. The largest lake in the Park is Lake Wateree.
The park features more than 2200 species of plants and animals making it a nature lovers paradise; some of these include bald eagles, white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, opossums, herons, egrets, geese, turtles, snakes, and salamanders.
The Congaree National Park is a great spot for camping, swimming, bird watching, day hikes, kayaking, canoeing, and mountain biking. With the kids, we’d suggest you tackle the boardwalk trail and grab a canoe or kayak on Cedar Creek to enjoy the best of the park up close.
The park has two entrances. The first is at the western end, where the river crosses. The second is at the eastern end, where the road leads to the visitor center.
Open year-round, the best time to visit is the late spring, and early summer as summers can be quite humid. Fall can also be pretty, but you can hit hurricane season. Winter can result in many trails being flooded out.
Congaree National Park Entrance Fee: Entry is free to this national park. Additional activities such as kayak hire or camping will have extra fees.
Biscayne National Park, Florida
Biscayne National Park, home to coral reefs and mangrove forests, is located on Florida’s south coast between Miami and Key Biscayne.
This unique national park, which is more than 95% water, has a great range of recreational opportunities available including snorkeling, diving, canoeing, sailing, scuba diving, wildlife viewing, hiking, bicycling, boating, windsurfing, and parasailing.
The park was established in 1970 and covers approximately 5,500 acres along the north side of the Delaware Water Gap. This protected land includes woodlands, meadows, wetlands, streams, ponds, and other habitats.
The Biscayne National Park Institute offers guided boat tours and nature programs.
You can visit the park year-round, with the best time to visit falling in Florida’s dry season from late November through to April.
To get to Biscayne National Park, you will need to drive down US1 South towards Key Biscayne. Turn right into S.W. 8th Street when you reach the causeway and follow it until you see the park sign.
The Homestead National Parks Trolley runs every weekend from November through April. It drops visitors off at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center and the Homestead Bayfront Marina.
Biscayne National Park Entrance Fee: This east coast national park has no entrance fees, however there is $25 fee for each overnight stay at Elliott Key or Boca Chita Key. Fees are waived May 1 to 30 September.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Everglades National Park is among the most visited national parks in Florida. It is not only considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site but also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Located on land covering approximately 3,500 square miles in southern Florida, Everglades National park is home to many birds, fish, reptiles, mammals, plants, and insects.
The park consists of three distinct regions: the mangrove forests, coastal prairie, and freshwater wetlands. The park’s main attraction is the vast network of waterways called the “River of Grass.” This river comprises five interconnected rivers that flow from Lake Okeechobee to Mexico.
Some animals found here include American alligators, raccoons, otters, turtles, herons, eagles, owls, snakes, frogs, butterflies, and other migratory birds.
The park also offers a variety of recreational opportunities including camping, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, and wildlife viewing.
With over 200 miles of paved roads, visitors can choose between exploring the park on foot, bicycle, boat, car, tram tour, or ATV. You can also take advantage of guided tours and special events hosted by the park staff.
The park is perhaps most famous for it’s airboat rides which can be enjoyed (at an additional charge) with one of the parks authorized operators that you’ll find along the Tamiami Trail, between Miami and Shark Valley.
Best enjoyed during the dry season – roughly November to May are the best time to explore the Everglades, one of our favorite winter national parks!
Everglades National Park Entrance Fee: The admission fee is $30 per vehicle, $25 for motorcycles and $15 for cyclists and pedestrians. Tours are at additional charge with private licensed operators.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Situated nearly 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, Dry Tortugas National Park was established by Congress on March 3, 1898. This park covers 1,852 acres and has also been designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
One of the most remote of the US National Parks, Dry Tortugas, as you might expect, has a huge variety of natural habitats, including mangroves, coral reefs, salt marshes, grasslands, beaches, and marine life.
Some popular marine spotting here include endangered sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, gray nurse shark, brown pelican, roseate spoonbill, osprey, and American alligators.
This park also offers many water-based recreational activities including diving, snorkeling, surfing, kayaking, parasailing, sailing, fishing, scuba diving, shelling, and hunting.
Dry Tortugas has a fascinating history in addition to its natural beauty. It was once home to an extensive collection of Spanish treasures and artefacts brought here in the late 16th century. Today, visitors can visit Fort Jefferson and explore the fort’s underground tunnels.
To get to Dry Tortugas, you will need to head by to the very tip of the Florida Keys. You then take a ferry from Key West which takes around 2 hours each way, or a seaplane. Stay for the day or the adventurous might like to try the primitive camp sites
Dry Tortugas National Park Entrance Fee: $15 per person (under 16’s free); when travelling by ferry entrance is included in your ferry ticket.
Fitting it all in – East Coast National Park Road Trip
A road trip from Acadia National Park in Maine all the way to Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida adds up to an incredible 5,140 miles of driving (+ a ferry ride!).
Unless you have many weeks to spend, it’s not the easiest road trip to tackle in one go (with kids at least!) We’d suggest breaking this journey down into smaller sections to tackle as independent road trips.
|Park to Park||Road Distance||Drive Time|
|Acadia to Cuyahoga Valley||916 miles||14 hours 8 mins|
|Cuyahoga Valley to Shenandoah||319 miles||5 hours 20 mins|
|Shenandoah to New River Gorge||158 miles||2 hours 40 mins|
|New River Gorge to Mammoth Cave||366 miles||5 hours 56 mins|
|Mammoth Cave to Great Smoky Mountains||218 miles||4 hours|
|Great Smoky Mountains to Congaree||205 miles||3 hours 30 mins|
|Congaree to Biscayne||655 miles||10 hours + boat|
|Biscayne to Everglades||18 miles||30 mins|
|Everglades to Dry Tortugas||134 miles||2 hours 40 mins + boat|
Know Before You Go – Planning a National Parks Road Trip in the USA
- There are 63 National Parks in the USA, 51 of them in the lower 48 states.
- Get yourself an America the Beautiful Annual Pass. Even if you’re only a short term visitor to the USA, we’re sure you’ll find within just a few stops you’ll get your money’s worth out of the pass. It covers not just National Parks but National Monuments, Historic Sites, recreation reserves and so much more!
- Never forget an important item again on your next family road trip! Check out our complete family road trip checklist before your next vacation – or download a printable copy here!
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