We were rounding the third base of our trip as we made our way through Canada to Maine, and we were excited to visit the eastern part of the country we left behind six months before.
Our plan seemed perfect — we had plenty of time to reach the remaining parks before Steven had to go back to work — until we realized we’d be heading down south as temperatures would only be climbing up. It was July, and we’d need to visit parks in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Florida during peak summer weather.
We continued sleeping in the back of our van for as long as we comfortably could, but this hot part of our journey had us staying in hotels and with friends more frequently. On this last leg of our journey, we visited 11 of the 15 National Parks in the eastern United States as we meandered back home to Florida.
This is the last of a six-part series of articles chronologically describing our trip to every National Park in the United States. You can read the other parts of this series by clicking the links below:
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six
You can also use these links to jump to a particular park within this article:
Acadia | Shenandoah | Cuyahoga Valley | Indiana Dunes | Gateway Arch | Mammoth Cave
Great Smoky Mountains | Congaree | Everglades | Biscayne | Dry Tortugas
51. Acadia National Park outside of Ellsworth, Maine
Quick Overview: As one of the most popular parks on the east coast, Acadia boasts cascading cliffs and far-reaching views — especially true for those who make it up to the highest peak, Cadillac Mountain. We enjoyed scenic drives and hikes along the coast, inland through forests and meadows, and even up along some granite ridges.
When We Visited: The weather was very comfortable during our visit in the beginning of July (we missed Independence Day celebrations by a couple of days) because we were still pretty far north. It was pleasant during the day, and then a little cool on the coast as the sun set.
Our Top Tip: Given Acadia’s northern location, we’d recommend a late spring or summer visit, and if you want to enjoy yourself, don’t forget to pack plenty of sunscreen and bug spray. It really is either open and sunny or inland and buggy (we even experienced coastal mosquitoes during our visit).
What was Unforgettable: I have a few favorite memories from this park: visiting Jordan Pond House and hiking the quiet, shaded path around the pond, driving up Cadillac Mountain and seeing all the islands stretching out into the Atlantic, and climbing down some rocks to get a better view of the iconic Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse (despite the incessant mosquitoes).
What Sucked: We were actually pretty put off by the crowds in Bar Harbor. When (if?) it isn’t so extremely busy (barely able to drive because of the traffic, nowhere to park, people crossing the streets at random, very little space at shops and eateries), it would be a fine area to stop into, but we’d definitely skip it on future trips to this park.
52. Shenandoah National Park starting at Front Royal, Virginia
Quick Overview: Shenandoah is a unique park in that it basically just protects the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the middle of Virginia down through the state to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Skyline Drive is the one road you’ll follow for 105 miles through Shenandoah, but there are several areas to stop for great views from the overlooks and even some hiking to forested waterfalls.
When We Visited: In early July, it’s pretty warm. However, since you’re up on the crest of the mountains, the weather is actually a little breezy and pleasant in summer. This park has so much to drive that you do end up getting some space to yourself on the roads and trails.
Our Top Tip: Make time in the Big Meadows Area to hike to Dark Hollow Falls, which features 70 feet of cascading water off an easy loop trail. We went toward the end of the day, so most hikers had cleared out of the area, leaving us with a very peaceful waterfall experience.
What was Unforgettable: The interesting insects. I’m serious! We got to watch heavy bumble bees bounce through the air moving from flower to flower during the day, and then at night we were treated to a mini light show by resident fireflies blinking in the bushes.
What Sucked: We didn’t actually get to drive all 105 miles of Skyline Drive, and we would have liked to (if only to say we did it all).
53. Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Brecksville, Ohio
Quick Overview: Nestled between Cleveland and Akron, this park preserves 22 miles of the winding Cuyahoga River and the land surrounding its path. It’s kind of surprising to find yourself in this valley because you’re often driving in and out of the park as you move between points of interest. While it’s a little less impressive in scope compared to other National Parks, Cuyahoga Valley is a great place to get out of the car and just walk or bike around.
When We Visited: We drove probably every major road that crosses through the park over two half-days around mid-July. It was actually where we celebrated Steven’s birthday!
Our Top Tip: We would recommend renting a bike to do as much as you can of the 87-mile Towpath Trail, which follows the river and the scenic railroad for about 20 miles through the park.
What was Unforgettable: The flowers here were in full bloom as though it were spring rather than summer. We really liked watching butterflies and other creatures enjoy the colorful blossoms. There are also lots of accessible opportunities to be active in this park without huge commitments to long trails or pure wilderness.
What Sucked: It’s definitely more of a recreation area than a breath-taking National Park, but it was still totally enjoyable.
54. Indiana Dunes National Park next to Michigan City, Indiana
Quick Overview: Indiana Dunes was upgraded from a National Seashore to a National Park in February 2019, so it’s technically the newest park despite having been nationally protected since 1966. The area is best known for its sand dunes, which you have to cross to get to Lake Michigan. From the shore, you can actually make out the not-so-distant Chicago skyline to the west. It’s a nice slice of preservation, although some of it is still marbled with state-protected land that your National Park entry won’t get you into (it’ll cost you another entrance free to go into the state park portions).
When We Visited: In mid-July, the weather was pretty perfect, actually. The water of Lake Michigan was chilly, but it felt good to be out on a sandy shore taking in the warm sun.
Our Top Tip: Make sure to catch the sunset at this park — it’s beautiful.
What was Unforgettable: Being from Florida, surrounded on three sides by ocean, we didn’t realize the magnitude of the Great Lakes. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were on a very calm oceanside beach (sans the salt water). The span of Lake Michigan is impressive.
What Sucked: The protected shoreline is broken up by a port and the state park, and there’s also a power plant almost touching the eastern border. Not the most wilderness-y park experience.
55. Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, Missouri
Quick Overview: Speaking of not-so-wilderness-y park experiences, Gateway Arch National Park barely has enough green space to qualify as a park. Sure, it would be a heck of a National Monument or National Historic Site, but a National Park, like Yosemite or Yellowstone? It doesn’t really compare. The best thing about this park is its museum’s extremely honest look at American history as the United States expanded westward through St. Louis.
When We Visited: July 15th was overcast, and a light drizzle rained down on us the entire duration of our visit.
Our Top Tip: Take your time through the visitor center and museum. There’s a lot to unpack and reflect on about our country in there. It’s also outfitted with updated technology, so learning our history is made more engaging with touch screens and motion activation and projections and stuff.
What was Unforgettable: For better or worse, I will never forget the creepy ride to the top of the arch. You climb into a weird, futuristic alien space vehicle with 4 other people. The attendants then shut the door, which is outfitted with a small window that enables you to watch as a simple pulley system slowly inches you upward. I would not recommend it if you are claustrophobic, scared of heights, or otherwise sensible.
What Sucked: Once you make it to the top, you quickly realize the views — through foggy porthole windows — weren’t worth the ticket’s extra cost or the 10-minute ride cooped up with strangers.
56. Mammoth Cave National Park near Cave City, Kentucky
Quick Overview: As the longest cave system on the planet, Mammoth Cave is certainly deserving of its name. While there’s an interesting forest above ground, the best thing to do here is to go exploring underground. The cave boasts many different tours to showcase different aspects of the cave and its formations.
When We Visited: The southern heat — a damp, suffocating humidity coupled with high summer temperatures — made us feel like we were back home. It was a little later in July, and the only escape was ducking into the cave itself, which boasts a crisp 54°F (12°C) year-round.
Our Top Tip: Research the cave tours, and book early. Know what you want to experience, read all the descriptions online, and book at least a week in advance. I booked us a longer tour because I assumed we’d see more that way (like at Carlsbad Caverns). However, it turned out to be more squeezing through tight spaces than ogling formations.
What was Unforgettable: I know this is random, but there’s one area of the park where the road crosses a little river. You literally drive your car onto a floating platform that takes you — in your car — from one bank to the other, and you just drive off like that was a normal exchange. It was totally bizarre to me, so I will never forget it.
What Sucked: Honestly, the weather. It was mostly miserable to be outside, so while there are above-ground hikes, we did not really enjoy them.
57. Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Quick Overview: Believe it or not, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the US. It’s one of the largest protected areas in the eastern part of the country and covers parts of Tennessee and North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains gets its name from the dense fog that hugs the treetops in the valleys (the park is 95% forest!).
When We Visited: Even with more than 5,000 feet of elevation change, the ridgeline is still warm in summer. We thought we would be able to camp comfortably, even toward the end of July, but I think the evening temperatures were still in the low 70s.
Our Top Tip: Drive up to Clingmans Dome and climb to the top of the 45-foot observation tower for panoramic views.
What was Unforgettable: Watching the smoke cling to the trees as the sky burned with the early morning light the day we woke up for sunrise. Also, we had to let some wild turkeys cross the road.
What Sucked: It’s a fairly busy park, so try to find time in the off hours. The best times for us were around dinner time before it got dark and then at sunrise in the morning.
58. Congaree National Park near Columbia, South Carolina
Quick Overview: Congaree was an unexpected gem. You’re just driving in the country for a while, taking almost unmarked turns and passing mailboxes that seem unattached to their distant homes. Then you see the park sign. We almost passed it actually. This swampy park is one you’ll definitely want bug spray for. You’ll follow boardwalks until they end, hop over cypress knees, and walk through a little mud on your hike through Congaree, but that’s what it’s all about.
When We Visited: At the end of July, it’s hot in South Carolina. If you do any outdoor activity, remember to bring water, sunscreen, and bug spray.
Our Top Tip: You are deep in the woods with standing water all around. It’s a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and other bugs. Seriously, it’s important to your enjoyment of the park to use bug spray.
What was Unforgettable: All the really cool salamanders. They were so huge and had bright blue bellies. It was so awesome to catch them sunning on the boardwalk trails.
What Sucked: It’s a small park, and not much is accessible by car. Once you get to the visitor center, you can only explore by foot. There are three spots on the outer edges of the park, and away from the visitor center, where you can also launch a kayak to explore the waterways. I wish it was a little more connected.
59. Everglades National Park near Homestead, Florida
Quick Overview: Everglades National Park is huge, and the different districts offer different experiences. You may see manatees, dolphins, and alligators. You may also see nothing because wildlife here is just that — wild — and they all have plenty of space. Inland, in the marshes, is where you’re more likely to see gators and snakes. On the coast, you may find dolphins and sharks. And in the brackish waters where the two ecosystems mix, you’ll likely catch a manatee surfacing. Throughout the Everglades, you’ll see all kinds of birds, including the unique spoonbill with a rounded, uh, bill, and pink coloring.
When We Visited: South Florida is pretty warm throughout the year, but it’s especially warm in the beginning of August. If you’re along the coast at all, or on a boat, you’ll be cooled off by a breeze.
Our Top Tip: Don’t skip the Big Cypress Preserve just because it isn’t technically part of the National Park. It’s a great place to spot alligators.
What was Unforgettable: We did a boat tour of the 10,000 Islands area, and on our way back, a pod of dolphins played in our wake. Because we were on a smaller boat with fewer passengers, those moments felt a lot more intimate than some of the other tours we’ve been on.
What Sucked: During this particular multi-day visit to the Everglades, we did not see a single alligator. Bummer.
60. Biscayne National Park also close to Homestead, Florida
Quick Overview: The most unique aspect of Biscayne National Park is that it’s 95% underwater. It has kayaking trails instead of hiking trails, though if you cross Biscayne Bay, you can access some hiking trails on Boca Chita, Elliott, and Adams Keys. There’s even the underwater Maritime Heritage Trail, which showcases shipwrecks to brave snorkelers. We booked a snorkeling trip with the Biscayne National Park Institute that took us to a reef in the Atlantic.
When We Visited: We did our snorkel trip on August 4th, but we went to other parts of the park that are on mainland Florida the day before. No matter when you go, don’t forget sunscreen and bug spray if you go to the Keys within the park boundaries.
Our Top Tip: There isn’t really much to see if you don’t get out in the water. There are other operators allowed in Biscayne’s waters, but we enjoyed our trip with the institute. They offer a whole bunch of different packages, but know that a couple hours of snorkeling in open ocean is plenty. You’ll be pretty exhausted if you have to fight against strong currents for much longer.
What was Unforgettable: It was really peaceful to just enjoy being a part of sea life for a few hours. If you listen closely underwater, you’ll hear all the parrot fish chomping down on coral (which then gets digested and turned into sand)!
What Sucked: Steven left his keys in his pocket, which obviously had to fall out of said pocket while we snorkeled and took pictures underwater. He only noticed later when I pointed out a lobster in the reef that seemed to be guarding something oddly familiar — his keys. He bravely dove down and stole them back from the crustacean.
61. Dry Tortugas National Park off the coast of Key West, Florida
Quick Overview: Fort Jefferson, the image most travelers conjure when they think of Dry Tortugas National Park, is an old, unfinished fortress about 70 miles off the coast of Key West. However, Dry Tortugas preserves the fort, the reef surrounding the area, and 7 other islands that make up the westernmost Florida Keys. You have to take a ferry, float plane, or private boat to get to Dry Tortugas, and you should be prepared for the lack of fresh water there (hence the word “dry” in the name). The ferry includes a few meals and running water, so booking passage that way is very convenient. You can also rent snorkel gear from the ferry company if you don’t have your own, and then shower off with their fresh water before heading back on the ferry in the afternoon. It’s important to note that the ferry is the most popular way to go, so plan to book your trip well in advance.
When We Visited: At 10:12 am on August 5th, we crossed the outer marine border of Dry Tortugas National Park, and our dream of visiting all 61 National Parks became a reality! We told the Yankee Freedom ferry crew about our accomplishment on the way home the next day, and they announced it over the intercom to everyone. After the initial embarrassment wore off, we had fun chatting with a bunch of people about our park experiences on the way back to Key West.
Our Top Tip: Watch out for crabs! There are so many hermit crabs on the island that you can hear their shells scraping around at night. Tiny crab tracks are everywhere in the sand. They’ll usually try to stay out of your way, but they’re not the fastest creatures on Earth.
What was Unforgettable: Camping on a Florida beach in the middle of the ocean. It’s just you and the water. Camping is actually the only way to catch the sunset and sunrise at Dry Tortugas if you don’t have your own boat, so it was a must for us as photographers. A storm was brewing on the horizon the night we camped, so we walked out on the moat wall and just watched the lightning light up the night sky.
What Sucked: Camping on a Florida beach in the middle of summer. It was so hot we couldn’t really get comfortable enough to get a good night’s sleep. One night was more than enough. Oh, and there are rats on the island too, and they have been known to chew through tents to get campers’ food, just FYI.
Want to know more? On our National Parks page, you can browse a list of all the parks in this series (plus some more parks that were added after we took our original trip).You’ll also find info on the converted van we traveled in and how much it all cost.
Interested in doing something similar? Taking a big break from full-time work to go on an adventure like this is Step 4 of our Financial Roadmap.