While the dramatic landscapes of National Parks in the West often receive the lion’s share of attention, National Parks east of the Mississippi River have just as much to offer. Here are five of our favorite National Parks in the East that offer visitors plenty of adventure and spectacular scenery.
Mammoth Cave National Park
KentuckyDescend into the world’s longest-known cave system at Mammoth Cave National Park. Over the past 5,000 years, more than 400 miles of this water-formed labyrinth has been mapped and surveyed, but there is still so much left to explore. This uncharted territory lends a sense of mystery to the park. The best way to see the cave is by signing up for one of the many tours offered through the park. We recommend going on the Violet City Lantern Tour. For three hours and with only the soft light of a paraffin lamp, explore some of the cave’s largest passages just as early settlers did. Visitors will find evidence of prehistoric mineral mining and a forsaken underground hospital for TB patients.
While the cave is the largest draw for visitors of the park, there are so many other things to do and see! Some favorite sights include the Cedar Sink. By walking down inside this sinkhole, visitors can glimpse an underground river system as it snakes out of the cave. Or follow the River Styx Spring Trail, a leisurely stroll through the woods that brings you alongside the partly subterranean Green River as it wends its way from the cave.
Shenandoah National Park
VirginiaShenandoah National Park encompasses part of the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. The ever-popular Skyline Drive, a 105-mile National Scenic Byway that runs the entire length of the park, affords multitudes of scenic vistas. Skyline Drive is most popular in the Fall when trees at the park burst with colorful foliage. There are also many opportunities to hike the Blue Ridge Mountains, such as the park’s highest peak, Hawksbill Mountain. For the thrill-seekers, we recommend taking the trail up Old Rag Mountain. After a challenging rocky scramble to the summit, hikers will be rewarded with the most breathtaking panoramic views of Virginia.
In addition to beautiful mountainscapes, there are many beautiful waterfalls within the park. At 93 feet, Overall Run Falls is the tallest waterfall at the park and a must-see. South River Falls, the third highest waterfall in the park at 83 feet, is another favorite. Both of these waterfalls offer visitors rocky ledges, perfect places for visitors to sit and have a snack.
Everglades National Park
FloridaA watery labyrinth containing 1,100 species of trees and plants, Everglades National Park is the largest designated wilderness in the southeast. Within its miles of diverse ecosystem, travel winding paths through cypress groves, take a boat tour of the Ten Thousand Islands, or a tram ride through Shark Valley. With more than 40 species of bird inhabiting the Everglades, this national park is a must for birdwatchers. For optimum bird sightings, we recommend heading to the park’s verdant Mahogany Hammock Trail early in the morning. The park is also home to 14 endangered (and often reclusive) species, such as the Florida panther, American crocodile, Loggerhead sea turtle, and manatee. If you’re anxious to see some turtles and gators, check out the Anhinga Trail. A wildlife hotspot, this trail is perfect for families and is also wheelchair accessible.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
North Carolina & TennesseeStraddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the rugged peaks and old growth forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park make it America’s most visited national park. Home to 100 native tree species, the park contains the largest blocks of old-growth deciduous forest in North America. This is one of the many reasons why this beautiful park is honored as a World Heritage Site. The early Precambrian rocks are another popular feature at the park. These very ancient rocks are found at the bottom of the park’s Foothills. Head to the picturesque valley, Cades Cove to see these ancient rocks for yourself.
Since the Smoky Mountains are part of the Appalachian Trail, visitors will most likely run into thru-hikers journeying to either Maine’s Mount Katahdin or Springer Mountain in Georgia. A favorite hike is traveling the Alum Cave Trail up to the summit of the park’s third highest mountain, Mount Le Conte. Spend the night near the summit at the LeConte Lodge. For a more strenuous hike, take on the dual-humped peaks of Chimney Tops. This hike delivers jaw-dropping panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
Stay tuned for the Pocket Ranger® National Parks Passport Guide, a free new app that makes planning and visiting the National Parks easy and fun!