National Parks of the Northeast: Adventure Awaits in Your Own Backyard

Verdant, tree-laden landscapes. Four glorious seasons, complete with vibrant fall foliage. Lobster-rich seas and wave-pounded shorelines. From mountains and valleys to lakes, rolling hills the sprawling Atlantic Ocean coastline, the northeastern United States certainly holds its own intrigue. 

Offering a wide variety of settings — including woodlands, rocky beaches and glaciated granite peaks like the East Coast’s highest point, Cadillac Mountain — it’s also home to moose, bears, whales and seabirds. 

Whether you favor bustling cities, quaint, seaside villages or something in between, the northeastern U.S. is just waiting to be explored. And if you’re fortunate enough to live in the region, America’s breathtaking backyards — National Park Service-managed lands — are a hop, skip and a jump from home. 

Considering a move to the northeastern United States? Already settled in? The mountains, surf-pounded shores and umpteen natural wonders are calling — and so much more. 

Tips for Visiting National Parks 

Whether you prefer a quick weekend jaunt or a full-on vacation, it’s important to get the lay of the land before visiting the national parks in the Northeast, as these destinations are among the remotest areas on Earth. As such, you’ll lack access to certain necessities; cell service can be spotty; and weather and road conditions can change in the blink of an eye.  

It’s often an hours-long drive through challenging — not to mention exhilarating — driving conditions when traveling from one end of most national parks to the other. Plan your routes and map out everything in advance. It’s also a good idea to purchase hard-copy maps, like National Geographic’s waterproof trail map series. They not only include topography, but also roads and routes not detailed on regular maps — or, frankly, the ones you receive at the gate.  

Then, check the parks’ official website for things like road and trail closures before you go — otherwise you could be met with a closed road, entrance or trail that can derail an otherwise well-planned adventure. This is the wilderness, after all, and you’re at the mercy of mother nature every day.  

Because the parks are so vast, timing is everything. Acadia, for example, spans nearly 50,000 acres along the Atlantic coastline. Group viewpoints and hikes by regions within the park; note the distance and time between destinations; and know how to reach your must-sees in advance. No one wants to end up mid-mountain and crunched for time. Account for the fact that these drives can take longer than expected — mountain, unpaved and meandering roads are that way.  

Consider, too, what time of year is right for your visit. In some parts of the country, the summer heat is oppressive, while winter brings seasonal road closures that render parts of the parks off-limits for months at a time.  By contrast, off-season visits — spring and fall — prove more peaceful and less populated, while providing a beauty of their own. However, there can also be times when certain regions receive the most rain. 

Here are some other important considerations and rules of thumb when planning national park trips: 

  • Get an annual national park pass 
  • Buy a park passport — and stamp it at each visitor’s center 
  • Book early — nearby accommodations fill up well in advance 
  • Bring proper gear — and prepare for weather changes 
  • Dress in layers and bring a daypack 
  • Drink water — and lots of it 
  • Slather on sunscreen, regardless of the weather 
  • Pack a picnic, as dining options are limited-to-non-existent 
  • Stop by the gift shop — they tend to be great 
  • Gas up the night before — hours vary and options are few and far between 
  • Combine camping with a stay in a historic lodge or Airbnb 
  • Befriend park rangers for insider information 
  • Download park, weather and GPS apps in advance 
  • Check the park website for time entry requirements 
  • Leave no trace 

Ready to get started? Let’s explore some of the national parks in the Northeast and delve into their biggest draws.

  1. National Parks in Maine
  2. The Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia
  3. Other Historic Sites and Spots in the Northeast

National Parks in Maine

Acadia National Park

For all its natural beauty, the northeastern United States has but one full-fledged national park — Acadia National Park — in Maine. The 47,000-acre Atlantic coast recreation area, set mostly on the state’s Mount Desert Island, has been inhabited by Native Americans for more than 12,000 years. 

Today, people from the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot — collectively the Wabanaki “People of the Dawnland” — live throughout the state of Maine. The Wabanaki people once traveled overland, as well as by birchbark canoes. Setting up temporary camps, they hunted, fished, foraged and traded with fellow Wabanaki. Learn more at the native-guided Abbe Museum, a showcase of Wabanaki culture, history and art. In partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, it features Maine Indian basketry, plus a contemporary collection of present-day Wabanaki crafts. 

Today, Acadia National Park also protects the highest rocky headlands along the Atlantic, supporting an abundance of habitats. Whether you putter along its 27 miles of historic, scenic roads; tackle the 158 miles of hiking trails; or explore 45 miles of carriage roads, the allure is undeniable and on full display.  

The Flora and Fauna 
Spanning about 50,000 acres along the coastal mid-section of Maine, Acadia offsets the eastern seaboard’s tallest mountains with a rugged coastline and craggy, subalpine summits. 

Situated in a transition zone between southern and northern forests, the park’s plant communities reflect that fact in its mountainous regions; amid newt and frog-frocked lakes, ponds and streams; through wetlands and forests; across meadows; and, of course, along the sea. The result is a rich and varied biodiversity.  

Given Acadia is situated along the Atlantic flyway, it also serves as a migration route and resting place for birds and bats. The latter have declined in population by as much as 80% here due to climate change. As a result, ongoing conservation efforts are underway. 

As you explore, watch for loons dotting lakes, silent-winged owls and the fastest animal on earth — the peregrine falcon — overhead. Meanwhile, snails cling to jagged rocks; burrowing mussels keep hidden in the mud; and the ocean floor harbors lobsters, crabs and other crustaceans as they grow their shells hard and strong. 

Never wanting for interest, there are also opportunities to go tide pooling, seeing the seaweed and marine algae rise and fall with the tides. Glimpse, too, low-lying mosses, lichen, ferns, mushrooms and grasses; gorgeous wildflowers; and fragrant evergreens depending on what part of the park you land. 

The Weather 

Privy to all four seasons, spring in Acadia tends to be foggy, with temperatures ranging from around 30 °F to 70° F. Summer temps climb between 45 °F to 90° F, though ocean temperatures remain a chilly 55 °F to 70° F. Fall, meanwhile, ranges from cool to comfortable. Winter weather is variable, on average reaching 14 °F to 35° F. The park is tourist-thronged come mid-October, when fall colors are alight.  Whenever you visit, remember that weather changes can and do occur quickly — so, always be prepared. 
 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

From the Sand Beach parking lot, catch the flat, out-and-back, 2.2-mile Ocean Path, which takes you from Sand Beach to Otter Point. En route, marvel at the cliffs, swelling sea and pink granite that comprise soaring Cadillac Mountain. Also, keep watch for the honorary plaque for John D. Rockefeller for his role in preserving Acadia. 

Want to ascend to the highest point in Acadia National Park — the eastern seaboard, in fact? Take the Cadillac North Ridge Trail, a 4.2-mile, out-and-back journey with panoramic views of Bar Harbor, the Schoodic Peninsula and Frenchman Bay. 

The popular, 1.5-mile Beehive Loop Trail features some incredibly challenging rung and ladder sections as it journeys along steep granite staircases free of railings and up 450 feet of exposed cliff faces. Tough as it may be, incredible, sweeping vistas of Thunder Hole, Sand Beach and the Gulf of Maine await. 

For another heart-thumping adrenaline rush, take on the steep, rugged, non-technical, 2.1-mile Precipice Loop up steep cliffs using iron rungs and ladders on open cliff faces. You’ll be met with spectacular views of the park. A level of fitness is required given the trail ascends a whopping 1,000 feet in .9 miles. 

For something more kid and novice-friendly, try climbing the 284-foot-high Flying Mountain, a granite gobbet at the mouth of Somes Sound. The 1.5-mile loop traverses a treeless ridge for breathtaking views along a long, narrow fjärd (less steep and less deep than a fjord) before heading south to island-studded Frenchman Bay, down to Valley Cove at the base of a sheer cliff favored by nesting peregrine falcons; and back to the trailhead via Valley Cove Fire Road, where the forest floor is blanketed in woodland flowers, including bunchberries, starflowers land lily of the valley. 

Gentler still is the 2.4-mile Lower Haddock Pond Loop. Hiked clockwise, you come upon a small dam at the water’s southwest edge and a small waterfall to the north, where Hadlock Brook tumbles down. 

Encircle the shores of pristine, glacier-carved Jordan Pond on a 3.1-mile path from the Hulls Visitor Center. A popular choice for canoeing and kayaking, you can also opt to explore nearby carriage roads or pause for tea and popovers at the Jordan Pond House

For a beautiful drive, be sure to follow 27-mile Park Loop Road. Beginning at the Hill Visitor Center, it takes you past Acadia’s lakes and mountains and along its shoreline, with access to Sieur de Monts, Sand Beach, Otter Point, Jordan Pond and Cadillac Mountain en route.

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Maine to Georgia

The Appalachian Trail

Stretching almost 2,200 miles from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Appalachian Trail passes through 14 states and is said to be the world’s longest hiking-only trail — and a grueling one at that. Taking between five and seven months to complete in its entirety, only about one in four people who hike the trail make it all the way. 

Featuring mountainous terrain the entire way, the elevation gain and loss along this National Scenic Trail is equal to hiking Mount Everest from sea level and back 16 times

Planning for it is likewise intense. You’re asked to let friends and family know where you are, what your itinerary is and the trail name you’re on. Given the trail passes through many state and national parks, forests — as well as public lands — it’s important to note that some require permits, change fees or require reservations to stay overnight, be it in shelters or campsites. Adding to the complexity, those rules can vary for long-distance hikers. For example, a backcountry permit must be secured for the leg through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park prior to arrival. 

Additional things of note include: 

  • The fact that the trail is well-marked in most places — though not all; in fact, in federally designated wilderness areas, signage is far less prominent and storms may render the trail hard or impossible to find 
  • A map and compass are essential and potentially your most reliable source of information to find help, find an alternate route or identify your location and access points to rescuers 
  • Cell phones and navigation apps, while helpful, depend on battery life and electricity is hard to come by 
  • Cell service is not available in many locations along the trail; satellite messengers and personal locator beacons with two-way communication are crucial in case of emergency when cell service is not available 

The Weather 

Weather conditions change on a dime along the Appalachian Trail, regardless of the time of year. Seeing potential snowfall into April, you can expect wintery conditions in late spring or early fall in the southern Appalachians — especially above 5,000 feet, when deep snowfall is possible. Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine also experience winter weather during this time. The highest peaks in Tennessee, North Carolina and southwest Virginia see their fair share of harsh conditions, with an average 100 inches of snowfall each year. 

Snow can linger until June in Maine and New Hampshire, especially in the most remote areas. 

Hot, humid conditions are typical along the trail during summer, especially in the Virginias, the mid-Atlantic and at lower elevations of the South and New England. 

Whatever the season, cold, hypothermia-inducing rain and snow are potentially dangerous weather for hikers, who find themselves caught unaware or think they’re too sweaty or are wet. In fact, hypothermia can even creep in during a light rain on a 60-degree afternoon, or any time weather conditions — be it rain, snow or water temperatures — lower a person’s core body temperature below 95°F. 

Be sure to keep these weather resources at the ready: 

The Flora and Fauna 

From red spruce and balsam fir to buckeye, beech, birch, sugar maple, ash, red, white and chestnut oak, sycamore, poplar, walnut, and eastern hemlock, there are a multitude of trees species along the trail. Also abundant? Grasses, mushrooms, moss and ferns. There are many edible plants, too, including blackberries, ramps, mulberries, huckleberries and dandelions.  

Most hikers do end up seeing a few black bears during a trek across the Appalachian Trail, along with (mostly) non-venomous snakes. A bigger threat, though, is ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease and other pathogens. However, most encounters will be of the spider, mosquito and white-footed or deer mouse variety.  

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

It’s all but impossible to narrow down the most scenic and spectacular vistas along the Appalachian Trail but some certainly stand out. 

  • Along the Blue Mountain Ridgeline in Pennsylvania, find the Pinnacle Summit, with its views of the state’s picturesque, rolling farmlands 
  • For 360-degree views above Great Smokey Mountain National Park’s tree line, pause at Clingman’s Dome, situated at an elevation of 6.643 feet 
  • McAfee Knob is situated in Virginia’s Jefferson National Forest, where a 4.5-mile hike to 1,740 feet in elevation offers panoramas of the Shenandoah Valley 
  • Offering a lookout atop Cove Mountain, Dragon’s Tooth in Virginia has you crisscrossing creeks and gaining an elevation of 1,505 feet 
  • Take in views of the Great Smokies to the west and Black Mountains to the southeast from Max Patch in North Carolina 
  • Hit the bare summit of New Hampshire’s 4,802-foot Mount Moosilauke for sweeping tableaus of the New England peaks 
  • A network of boardwalk-like structures and a wooden ladder, the west peak and the east peak views at Baldpate in Maine are not to be missed 

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Northeast States with Other Historic Sites and Spots

Connecticut  

Rich in maritime history and boasting part of the culturally resonant Appalachian Trail, conceived and built by people in 1921, Connecticut’s ever-scenic stretch of trail ranges from wooded and wild to pastoral. As for the rest of its National Park Service-managed lands, you’ll no doubt find a spot to suit your speed. 

  • A National Historic Park, Coltsville in Hartford, Connecticut, reveals how Samuel Colt and Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt changed the landscape and history of Hartford and impacted the United States 
  • The 215-mile New England Trail — a National Scenic Trail — extends from Long Island Sound to Connecticut and Massachusetts’s soaring mountain summits, revealing historic villages, traprock ridges, rambling farmland, untouched forests, trickling streams, thunderous waterfalls and sheer river valleys 
  • Another National Historic Trail, the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, which runs through Maine, Road Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., revealing where George Washington’s Continental Army and General Rochambeau’s French Army joined forces to fight the British Army, leading to a victory at Yorktown and, ultimately, American independence  
  • A National Historical Park in Ridgefield and Wilton, Connecticut, Weir Farm lets you walk in the footsteps of America’s most beloved Impressionist, J. Alden Weir, exploring his home and studio, as well as 60 acres of woods, fields and waterways that have inspired countless artists across generations 

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Delaware

Just 95 miles long and less than 35 miles wide, Delaware is much more than its tax-free shopping and proliferation of chicken coops would lead you to believe. Whether it’s exploring a stretch of white, sandy beach or a quaint colonial village, there are surprises at every turn — including when it comes to the state’s public lands. 

  • The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Scenic Trail retraces the steps of the Englishman, who documented Native American communities when he explored the bay in 1608; the Chesapeake Bay Watershed proper is the largest estuary in North America, giving way to major league cities and colonial towns, as well as farmland, fishing villages and other quintessential landscapes, with opportunities to kayak, go crabbing, explore lighthouses, slurp oysters and slurp fresh-shucked oysters 
  • The first state to ratify the Constitution, Delaware’s First State National Historical Park highlights how it was the product of conflict between three world powers seeking to dominate the Delaware Valley 

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Maryland

A locale where a street-smart meets down-home charm and anglers coexist in harmony with office types, Maryland — “America in Miniature” — is chock-full of fascinating, National Park Service-managed sites, seashore, trails, battlefields and parks. 

  • Declared a National Seashore, Assateague Island’s coastal bays, sandy beaches, salt marshes and maritime forests are one thing, the extraordinary, two main herds of wild horses — one on the Virginia side, one on the Maryland side — are another thing entirely 
  • If war history is your thing, head to Antietam National Battlefield, where 23,000 soldiers were wounded, killed, wounded or missing after a brutal battle — the Battle of Antietam — on September 17, 1862, ending the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion into the North, leading Abraham Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation 
  • The Chesepeake & Ohio Canal was pivotal to America’s early transportation history, operating for nearly 100 years as a passage for lumber, coal and agricultural products for communities along the Potomac River; today, it offers a wealth of natural, historic and recreational treasures 
  • Located in Oxen Hills and built atop Rozier’s Bluff in 1863 in an effort to strengthen the ring of fortifications around Washington, D.C., Forte Foote offers a chance to view two 15-inch Rodman Cannons mounted to protect from an unwelcome river approach 

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Massachusetts

Home to six national historical parks, three national scenic trails, seven national historic sites, a national recreation area and a national seashore, Massachusetts has something for both history buffs and outdoorsy types. Here are a few of the highlights. 

  • Detailed by Thoreau in the 1800s, the protected Outer Beach of Cape Cod is set within a national seashore comprised of pristine, sandy beaches, along with ponds, marshes and uplands 
  • Honoring the American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, this national historic site delves into the visionary’s design ideals, philosophy and legacy 
  • A national historic site, the birthplace of John F. Kennedy was recreated to showcase the former president’s early life, ideas and principles 
  • Minute Man National Historical Park is the site of the opening battle of the Revolution, offering a chance to explore the battlefields and structures associated with April 19, 1775 
  • The nation’s first national historic site, Salem Maritime park preserves and interprets over 600 years of New England’s maritime history in 12 historic structures set along the Salem waterfront 

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Rhode Island 

As the United States’ smallest state, Rhode Island packs a punch when it comes to beauty. Offering 400 miles of coastline, some of the nation’s most historic architecture and plenty of worthwhile, enriching attractions, it’s also a friendly place where people are raring to explore and hit the outdoors. 

  • Ushering America into the Age of Industry, the Blackstone River Valley — a national historical park — reveals how Samuel Slater’s cotton spinning mill in Pawtucket revolutionized how people worked and where they lived 
  • Among the most historically significant Jewish buildings in America, exquisitely designed Touro Synagogue remains an active congregation, one that welcomes over 30,000 visitors annually 
  • The Roger Williams National Memorial commemorates the life of the state founder and advocate of religious freedom. 

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New Hampshire

A study in contrasts — from jagged mountains and idyllic valleys to loon-laden lakes dotted with islands — New Hampshire ranges from small town to sophisticated in feel. Whether you trek the peaks of Mount Washington or a portion of the Appalachian Trail, tackle the slopes in the winter or kayak hidden coves, adventure awaits. 

  • Among America’s most prolific sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens lived where this national historic park now lies, seasonally starting in 1885, and year-round 1900 until his death in 1907; see his works and hike the trails wind through the woods 

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New Jersey

Like many states along the eastern seaboard, New Jersey features a leg of the Appalachian Trail, along with two national recreation areas, Gateway and the Delaware Water Gap — which also spans parts of Pennsylvania — the state also contains part of Ellis Island, Great Egg Harbor River, several national historical parks and more, there is so much to see and do. 

  • The National Wild and Scenic Lower Delaware River — the largest free-flowing in the eastern U.S.— gushes past forests, farmlands, villages and some of the most populated cities 
  • Morristown National Historical Park commemorates the sites of General Washington and the Continental army’s winter encampment from December 1779 to June 1780 
  • A United States Biosphere Reserve, the New Jersey Pinelands was the country’s first National Reserve, established in 1978 and now encompassing 56 communities, from hamlets to populous suburbs 
  • Take a step back in time at Thomas Edison’s home and laboratory, a national historical park where everything was run by belts and pulleys and music was played on phonographs 

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New York

Offering something for all tastes, New York state brims with historic and outdoorsy options. Whether you want to delve into America’s early beginnings, challenge yourself with a scenic trek or take in peaceful ocean vistas alongside historic structures and cultural landscapes, you’ll surely find your match. 

  • Marked by high dunes, ancient maritime forests and landmarks galore, Fire Island National Seashore has been a haven for diverse plants, wildlife and people for centuries 
  • Located on Wall Street, National Memorial Federal Hall is where George Washington took the oath of office as the nation’s first president; the site was also home to the first Congress, Supreme Court and Executive Branch offices 
  • Over two million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954 arrived to begin a new life, an opportunity represented by the Statue of Liberty; the island straddles the states of New York and New Jersey 
  • Visit the final resting place of President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, at the General Grant National Memorial, North America’s largest mausoleum 
  • Long part of the tapestry of New York City, Governors Island is a seasonal summer art, culture and performance venue, amid a centuries-old backdrop military heritage, one with unforgettable skyline views 

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Pennsylvania

From historic battlefields to national historic sites, a portion of the Delaware Water Gap and parts of the Appalachian Trail and Captain John Smith Chesapeake, the state of Pennsylvania is rich with beauty and fascinating history alike.  

  • Discover the first railroad to circumvent the Allegheny Mountains, Allegheny Portage Railroad, a national historic site in Gallitzin, which dates back to1834 
  • See Edgar Allen Poe’s humble Philadelphia home, a national historic site 
  • Adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefield, Eisenhower National Historic Site preserves the farm of General and 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower 
  • Observe the place where the Battle of Gettysburg occurred; now a national military park, it’s here that the Civil War hit a turning point and the Union’s victory ended General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North 
  • Extending approximately 4,900 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the mouth of the Columbia River, near Astoria, Oregon, the Lewis &Clark National Historic Trail traces the historic, outbound and inbound routes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in addition to the preparatory section from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Wood River, Illinois 

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Vermont

There are many reasons — and opportunities — to embrace the great outdoors in the state of Vermont. Whether you favor wildlife viewing, appreciate a good hike or simply seek solitude, Vermont has that and more. Offering a strong locavore culture and ample outdoorsy activities — including skiing and snowboarding in winter — Vermont also features scenic drives through pastoral landscapes dotted with covered bridges. 

  • If the Appalachian Trail seems too tough to tackle, instead stroll through one of the state’s most picturesque landscapes at the Marsh – Billings – Rockefeller National Historical Park, learning about stewardship while marveling at 400-year-old hemlocks and crossing covered bridges 
  • Intersecting eight states, from Vermont to North Dakota, the North Country National Scenic Trail, you can trek through hills and valleys; take in glacial lakes; and learn how America grew as a nation en route 

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Whether you live in the southwest already, are considering a cross-country move to the coastal Atlantic U.S. or are planning a visit, our blog is filled with ideas to experience the region through a local lens.  

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