My Son's List of Top 5 National Parks East of the Mississippi

 By Kimberly Dijkstra



When you think of US National Parks, you probably think of the big ones out west ー Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. But the western United States doesn’t have the market cornered on national parks. The East Coast has a handful of its own, full of untouched nature and family-friendly recreation for visitors. 

 

Here is My Son's List of top 5 national parks east of the Mississippi River. 

 

Acadia National Park

 

 

Located just south of Bar Harbor, Maine, Acadia National Park boasts 47,000 acres of natural beauty along the rugged Atlantic coastline. The area is the homeland of the Wabanaki ー Native Americans who have inhabited the land for more than 12,000 years. Conservationist George B. Dorr called for the preservation of this important landscape in the early 1900s, and in 1919, President Wilson established it as the first national park east of the Mississippi River.

 

Thanks to the philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the park contains 45 miles of rustic carriage roads that weave up and around the mountainous terrain. You can still ride a horse along these historic roads if you have your own or take a carriage tour organized by Carriages of Acadia at Wildwood Stables.

 

Acadia is among the top 10 most visited national parks in the country, and for good reason. Recreational opportunities are endless. There are several beaches open for swimming in the summer. A number of lakes and ponds allow for boating and fishing, and you’ll find kayaks available to rent to experience the spectacular coastal scenery. 

 

In the hours around low tide, you can take a peek into the sea and observe marine animals and colorful algae in their natural habitats. Tidepooling is fun for young aspiring biologists and parents alike. On clear nights, you won’t want to miss out on some awe-inspiring stargazing and night sky photography.

 

Biscayne National Park

 

 

A stone’s throw from Miami, Biscayne National Park offers a quiet getaway filled with beautiful islands, vibrant coral reefs, and aquamarine waters as far as the eye can see. The park comprises more than 200-square miles of the northernmost extension of the Florida Keys, including Biscayne Bay and a large mangrove forest.

 

Human history in the park dates back 10,000 years and remnants of past cultures have been preserved for visitors to explore. In the 16th century, colonizers from Spain took possession of Florida. Dozens of Spanish vessels shipwrecked within the boundaries of the park and can be glimpsed on diving and snorkeling excursions.

 

In the 1800s, Israel Lafayette Jones, a black pioneer, made a homestead on Porgy Key. The Jones family became one of the most successful African-American families in Florida history and they are immortalized in the name of Jones Lagoon, where amazing marine life inhabits the calm, clear waters.

 

In the 1960s, local families began poposing the area be protected from industrialization. By 1968, President Johnson was on board and signed the bill creating the park.

 

Biscayne National Park sees 10 million annual visitors from around the world. They come to see the incredible ecosystems that support manatees, sea turtles, sea birds, fish, and one of the largest coral reefs in the world. A guided tour through the Biscayne National Park Institute will take you on an eco-adventure through all the most exciting highlights of the park. 

 

Kiteboarding, paddleboarding, canoeing, and kayaking are great ways to explore the shallow waters. Camping on Boca Chita Key or Elliott Key, accessible only by boat, is one of the best ways to experience the natural wonders of this unique national park.

 

Mammoth Cave National Park

 

 

Would you have guessed the world’s longest known cave system could be found in central Kentucky? A visit to Mammoth Cave National Park is a visit to a long ago era. Approximately 10 to 15 million years ago streams and rivers flowed through cracks in the rock bed to form a web of passageways 400 miles long. 

 

The history of human activity in the park is as fascinating as the geologic history. Early Native Americans began exploring the cave system 5,000 years ago. Prehistoric people mined minerals from the walls and artifacts of their work can still be seen down in the caves, as well as petroglyphs and pictographs, early art forms.

 

One of the first people to make extensive maps of the cave was Stephen Bishop, an African-American slave who was a popular guide in the 1840s. His legacy is honored at the park as hundreds of thousands of visitors are able to retrace his footsteps.

 

Throughout the 20th century, conflicts dubbed the ‘Kentucky Cave Wars’ took place as local cave owners fought for tourist money. Following the Great Depression, young men in President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps built important infrastructure that is still used today. In 1941, the land was officially dedicated as a national park.

 

The best way to see all the park has to offer is to book a cave tour. Guides will take you on an adventure through the widest chambers down into the deepest crevices. On some tours, you’ll have the opportunity to visit the River Styx and Frozen Niagara, a natural formation of flowstone that resembles a waterfall. If you’re confident enough to explore on your own, self-guided tours are available.

 

There’s plenty to do above the surface as well. Hiking, biking, and horseback riding are great ways to explore the backcountry trails. Take a canoe or kayak out on the river to observe wildlife or angle for game fish. Choose from 13 different campsites to pitch your tent among the rugged hills and majestic woodlands. 

 

Congaree National Park

 

 

Southeast of Columbia, South Carolina, lies Congaree National Park, one of the largest intact old-growth hardwood forests in the country. Nicknamed ‘Home of the Champions’ for the concentration of exceptionally tall trees, the park is home to some of the tallest known examples of 15 different species of trees, including the magnificent American elm.

 

In the 1540s, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto led an expedition through the southeast United States and recorded the earliest known description of present-day Congaree National Park. During the Revolutionary War, Francis “the Swamp Fox” Marion used his knowledge of the landscape to lead an ambush against the British. 

 

A logging company owned by Francis Beidler operated in the area in the early 1900s. Later, his name was employed by the conservationist Harry R.E. Hampton’s organization called Beidler Forest Preservation Association, which advocated for the preservation of the forest and floodplain. The National Park Service made it official in 1963.

 

If you love nature, you’ll enjoy a visit to this wondrous park. For just a taste of it, take a short stroll on the Boardwalk Trail. Go deeper into the wilderness hiking through the park’s many trails. Local outfitters offer guided paddling tours down the Congaree River and, with a fishing license, you can spend your days casting your line in solitude. 

 

Kids will adore searching the diverse ecosystem for different species of wildlife. Bobcats, deer, turtles, and otters are common, plus a huge variety of birds. Download a checklist of plants and animals to look for before you get up close to nature in this lesser-known national park.

 

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

 

 

Between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, is a scenic refuge from the big city. The 32,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park invites you in with it’s rolling hills, open farmlands, and shady forests. 

 

Native Americans were the first inhabitants of the area. Many different tribes made their mark on the land, but the Lenape Nation are considered the “grandfathers'' of the region. They relied primarily on agriculture as a food source, plus foraging, hunting, and fishing to supplement. 

 

By the mid-1700s, Europeans had introduced the fur trade and established trading posts in the valley. These settlements later became towns and grew into cities. By the 1880s, the Valley Railway provided an escape for urban dwellers who were seeking leisure in the countryside.

 

In 1974, President Ford established Cuyahoga Valley as a National Recreation Area. Congress redesignated it as a national park in 2000.

 

One of the most popular attractions is Brandywine Falls, the tallest waterfall in the park. The 60-foot waterfall is accessible via a boardwalk and the Brandywine Gorge Trail. In the spring, visitors can see breeding salamanders in the vernal pools and vibrant patches of wildflowers alongside the creeks.

 

The Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath trail runs through the park for visitors to bike, hike, jog, and even ride horses on. The park offers outdoor activities to suit every interest.

 

There are many points of historic interest within the park, including Stanford House, a 19th century home still in use for meetings, retreats, and overnight stays, the Canal Exploration Center, a 19th century tavern with historic exhibits on display, the Everett Covered Bridge, the only covered bridge in the county, and Hale Farm and Village, an outdoor living history museum.

 

Jump aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. for a relaxing ride alongside the Cuyahoga River, featuring glimpses of eagles, deer, beavers, herons, and more wildlife in their natural habitat.

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