The East offers a wide variety of ecosystems, from the rocky coastline of Maine to the sandy shores of the Virgin Islands. (The stuff in between includes a vast tropical swamp and a 356 mile-long cave system.)
The national parks in the eastern United States are generally smaller and more obscure than their western kin, but there are stand-outs. Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts more people per year than any other park in the system. Whether you're an eastern United State native looking for an adventure close to home or just visiting the region, each of these national parks has something beautiful to offer.
Congaree Swamp preserves, in a wilderness state, the largest intact tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States as well as many other plant and animal species associated with an alluvial floodplain. It features some of the tallest trees in the East with one of the highest canopies in the world. Though not a true swamp, it is recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve and National Natural Landmark.
Surprised? Yes, a national park is located in northeastern Ohio. What may be even more surprising is just how beautiful it is. Unlike vast wilderness parks, this national park is full of quiet and isolated trails, tree-covered hills, and serene marshes thriving with beavers and herons. It can be a relaxing getaway, yet offers numerous options for the active.
In the Gulf of Mexico, located 70 miles west of Key West, lies a seven-mile-long chain of islands – the centerpiece of Dry Tortugas National Park. As a bird and marine life sanctuary, this park contains some of the healthiest coral reefs remaining in North American shores. The area is also known for its legends of pirates, sunken gold, and military past.
Everglades National Park remains one of the most endangered national parks in the country. Buildup of southern Florida has intensified diverting the water of levees and canals. And this creates a problem as watery habitats in the park are shrinking because not enough water is getting into the Everglades.
Great Smoky Mountains is the nation’s busiest park with more than nine million visitors every year. It covers 800 square miles of mountainous land and preserves some of the world’s most stunning deciduous forests.
With 800 miles of hiking trails it is surprising that relatively few visitors actually walk the trails; most choose the scenic view from their cars. But the designated international biosphere reserve is home to an incomparable variety of plants and animals, and is worth a more than a passing by.
While most national parks span hundreds of miles and feel far removed of cities and an industrial lifestyle, Hot Springs National Park challenges the status quo. The smallest of the national parks – at 5,550 acres – Hot Springs actually borders the city that has made a profit out of tapping and distributing the park’s main resource – mineral-rich waters.
With more than 365 miles of a five-layered cave system already mapped, it seems unbelievable that new caves continue to be discovered and explored. As the world’s longest cave system, this park has much to offer its visitors. Tours are actually hikes inside the Earth showcasing eroding limestone located 200 to 300 feet below the surface.