When one envisions a U.S National Park, their thoughts may take them west to Yosemite in California; Yellowstone in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho; or Rocky Mountain in Colorado. Those three are among the most popular 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 what most would consider a reasonable drive.
After the COIVD-19 pandemic prompted many national parks to temporary close last year, all have reopened to the public with the caveat that visitors wear face masks when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
Continue reading to learn about the history and unique features of the Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, Cuyahoga Valley, Shenandoah, Everglades, Mammoth Cave, Indiana Dunes and Congaree.
Great Smoky Mountains
At 522,419 acres, the Smokies are among the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. Located in parts of 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, the Smokies are the most visited national park in the United States and saw more than 12,547,740 guests in 2019. 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.
The park may be best known for its 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. 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. For more information on the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, call (865) 436-1200.
If it is breathtaking views and soaking up the beauty of unspoiled nature one is seeking, Acadia National Park will not disappoint. Located in Hancock and Knox counties in Maine, Acadia is known as the “crown jewel of the North Atlantic Coast.”
The mountains of Acadia provide hikers with stunning views of the ocean, island lakes and pine forests. The tallest mountain in the park is the 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain, located on the eastern side of Mount Desert island. Cadillac is a great spot for hikers wanting to watch the sunrise.
Acadia anually welcomes 3.5 million visitors who can enjoy 27 miles of historic motor roads, 158 miles of hiking trails and 45 miles of carriage roads. Additional activities include kayaking and canoeing on the lakes and ponds; taking a dip in the waters along Sand Beach, a 290-yard strip of land nestled between the mountains and rocky shores on the east side of the park; and enjoying a guided boat tour on the ocean. Three lighthouses are located on the property, including the 145-year-old Bass Harbor Head Light. The 33-foot lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
Native Americans inhabited the area called Acadia at least 12,000 years ago and that is not lost on visitors who can view a replica of a wigwam and tour the Abbe Museum, which is dedicated to exploring the history and culture of Maine’s native people, the Wabanaki. Among the park’s flora are lowbush blueberry, Canadian bunchberry, hobblebush, bluebead lily and Canada mayflower. Wildlife that call the park home include black bear, coyote, moose, mink, porcupine, white-tailed deer, snakes, turtles and several species of bats. Call (207) 288-3338 for more information.
Cuyahoga Valley was designated as a national park in 2000, but that does not mean this 32,570-acre spot roughly midway between Akron and Cleveland is a member of Generation Z. Cuyahoga Valley was originally designated as a National Recreation Area in 1974, then redesignated as a national park 26 years later. It remains the only national park that originated as a national recreation area.
Cuyahoga Valley features numerous trails, including the 20-mile Towpath Trail, which follows a former stretch of the Ohio and Erie Canal and is used by hikers, bicylists and runners. The park is home to Brandywine Falls, which at 65 feet high is the tallest of the 100 waterfalls in the park. A visit to Cuyahoga is not complete without stopping by the Everett Covered Bridge — the only covered bridge in Summit County. The bridge is located at 2370 Everett Road in Peninsula, and in 2006 the National Park Foundation placed the bridge on its list of the Top 10 places for photography on public lands.
Improving the water quality of the Cuyahoga River and preserving the wetlands has turned the park into an attractive place for wildlife. Frogs, toads and salamanders are common, as are cardinals, blue jays, chickadees and goldfinches. Those looking to view some of the wildlife will want to make sure to plan a visit to Beaver Marsh, which is accessible via the Towpath Trail. The marsh is among the most diverse natural communities in the park. More than 50 bird species nest annually at the marsh, and it is not uncommon to see otters playing and grooming. On warm evenings, listen for courting green frogs and bullfrogs among the water lilies, and watch for bats emerging at dusk to hunt for insects.
Those wanting to make a day at the park will be happy to know picnicking is permitted and Cuyahoga Valley has around 100 picnic tables and some 50 grills for visitors to use on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information on the park, call (440) 717-3890.
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.
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.
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 vascular plants with cardinal flowers, marsh willow herb and blue flag iris among the more common guest will find.
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. Call (540) 999-3500 for more information.
The Everglades is the largest tropical wilderness in the United States, the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi River and the third-largest national park in the United States. With all that space, one would correctly assume the park offers plenty of attractions. The 1.5-million-acre park features several walking trails with varying levels of difficulty that see guests cross hardwood hammocks, pinelands and freshwater sloughs. The Anhinga Trail is only one-half-mile long, but visitors tour through a sawgrass marsh where alligators, wading birds and turtles are often seen.
Those who enjoy off-road cycling may want to make their way to the Long Pine Key campgrounds for nearly 30 miles of trails. Camping is available year-round at the park, and while swimming is not recommended within park boundaries because of snapping turtles, alligators and crocodiles, visitors can take to the water with low-powered motorboats. The park also offers paddling opportunities, and guests are welcome to bring their own canoes or kayaks to launch from several locations. Rentals are available. Visitors can hire a guide who will outfit their trip and lead the adventure.
Nearly 300 different species of fish are known to inhabit the freshwater marshes and marine coastline of the Everglades. With one-third of the park covered by water, fishing remains one of the most popular activities and snapper, sea trout, redfish and bluegill are plentiful.
With its location at the confluence of temperate North America and the tropical Caribbean, the park is home to flora from both regions. Among the more prominent and colorful plants in the park are the bromeliads and the epiphytic orchids. Thirty-nine native orchid species occur in the park in addition to about 750 other kinds of native seed-bearing plants.
The Everglades is an ideal spot for dark sky observations, with the best locations in the remote southern and western areas of the park. For more information on the park, call (305) 242-7700.
Looking to experience some unique history? Then head to the Bluegrass State and visit Mammoth Cave National Park. Established as a national park in 1941 and a World Heritage Site 40 years later, Mammoth Cave is the longest mapped cave system in the world. At 415 miles long it is more than 180 miles longer than the Sistema Sac Actun in Mexico. Guests can take a self-guided tour in which they can stroll at their own pace to discover how Mammoth Cave has intrigued visitors for years. The tour enters and exists the iconic entrance, and visitors can view a historic salt peter mine; a mid-19th century-era hut used for treating tuberculosis; and Giant’s Coffin, a large boulder that is shaped like a coffin. Those looking to explore the national park with an experienced guide will have the option of selecting one of many ranger-led tours. One of the more popular guided tours focuses on the diverse variety of bird species that can be found around the visitor center area. Mammoth Cave also hosts several talks with two of those seminars focusing on cave explorers Floyd Collins and Stephen Bishop.
Mammoth Cave is home to more than 70 threatened, endangered or state-listed species. These species include birds, crustaceans, fish, gastropods, insects, mammals, plants and reptiles. Dozens of fish can be found in Mammoth Cave, with the most unusual being the eyeless cave fish, which has adapted to lightless, low-energy environments by ceasing to grow eye structures and has no skin pigments. Surface fish often caught by guests include bluegill, crappie, largemouth bass and catfish. More than 30 miles of the Green and Nolin rivers pass through the park, providing a number of recreational opportunities. Guests can rent a canoe or kayak and launch from one of three river-access points. Hikers can explore more than 60 miles of trails, and there are both developed and rugged campsites available.
Mammoth Cave is open 24 hours a day, but some services are not available after-hours. For more information, call (270) 758-2180.
“Sand and solitude,” that is how the National Park Service describes the 15,000-acre park on the southern shore of Lake Michigan in northwest Indiana, just east of Chicago. While visitors will find plenty of the latter and a whole lot of the former, Indiana Dunes is a lot more than just sand and the ability to be alone. The park is a great spot for birdwatching, with more than 350 species of birds having been observed in the Dunes. The park is in the top five of all national parks in terms of the number of recorded bird species. Birders can look for their feathered friends along the shoreline with a spotting scope, stand on the foredunes looking for hawks or spot wetland birds in remnant sections of the Great Marsh.
Beach-going and swimming are, of course, popular activities at the Dunes, but guests can also hop on their bike and ride on an interconnected trail system that spans 37 miles across the entire length of the park. Camping is available from April through October, and guests with an Indiana fishing license can hop in their boat and try to reel in trout and salmon, among other fish species.
Guests interested in learning the history of the Dunes can take a guided tour and may see some of the wildlife that resides at the park including snapping turtles, lizards and snakes. Speaking of history, before heading home be sure to stop by the pioneer trading post established nearly 200 years ago by fur trade pioneer Joseph Bailly, who settled in here and his home remains. The Bailly Homestead was designated as U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1962. Another historic spot located in the Dunes is the Pinhook Bog, which has been designated a National Natural Landmark and contains a large variety of plants including insect-eating plants, tamarack trees and stands of blueberry bushes. For further information on the Dunes, call (219) 395-1882.
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. Taking the canoe out and traveling on Cedar Creek is a great way to experience Congaree. The waterway passes through a primeval old-growth forest which contains some of the tallest trees in eastern North America and there are plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife including river otter, deer, turtles, wading birds and alligators. 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 has two designated campgrounds – Longleaf and Bluff -- with guests having the ability 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. An important note to remember about Congaree is that no roads travel through the park and all activities require a certain amount of walking. A majority of the park is unimproved. For more information on the park, call (803) 776-4396.