Underrated National Parks on the East Coast

By Kris Maria

When it comes to top outdoor adventure destinations in the U.S., Virginia and West Virginia don’t often come to mind. Even among national park enthusiasts, most bucket list space is reserved for the grandiose landscapes of parks in Utah, Colorado, Washington, and California. While the crowds of visitors to these parks are understandable, most people have no idea what they’re overlooking back east.

Virginia and West Virginia are home to two beautiful national parks offering a wide range of activities for any type of outdoorsy person (and even the not-so-outdoorsy ones). If nothing else, their relatively “under the radar” statuses mean more quiet time and fewer crowds. By the time you’re done reading this, I’m confident you’ll have added Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and West Virginia’s New River Gorge to your bucket list!


Shenandoah National Park

Located just seventy-five miles from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park extends 105 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. It features wetlands, waterfalls, rocky peaks, and plenty of wildlife! There are accommodations inside the park to suit every taste, including lodges, cabins, and campgrounds. Just outside park boundaries are several quaint towns, including Front Royal, Luray, Culpepper, and Harrisonburg.

Things to Do

Hike

In a park this size, there are endless trail options, including 101 miles of the infamous Appalachian Trail.

Right around 4,000 feet of elevation, Stony Man and Hawksbill Summit are (respectively) the two highest peaks in the park. Both offer incredible views, with short routes to the top. You can also find spectacular mountain views at Mary’s Rock, Bearfence, Hightop Peak, and Blackrock Summit. If you’re up for the challenge, Old Rag is the most difficult hike in the park, with a fun 1.5-mile rock scramble to the summit.

And you can’t forget the waterfalls. The popular ones, like Dark Hollow Falls and White Oak Canyon, are quieter in the winter but refreshing in the summer heat! Lewis Falls, Overall Run Falls (the tallest waterfall in the park), and Rose River Falls are great options in the northern/central parts of the park, while Doyles and Jones Run is worth a visit further south.

Cruise on Skyline Drive

Not a hiker? You can’t go wrong cruising Skyline Drive. This scenic road runs the entire length of the park, with over 70 overlook points. Unlike more remote places out west, Shenandoah has multiple gas stations. In the fall, I recommend a stop at Mary’s Rock Tunnel, which is surrounded by colorful maple trees.

Float Down the Shenandoah River

A great summer or fall activity is to rent a kayak, canoe, SUP, or tube and paddle/float along the Shenandoah River. Take in the mountain views with a short, three-mile trip or a full-day river adventure.

Visit Luray Caverns

Looking for something unique? Head over to nearby Luray Caverns! It’s the largest cavern system in the eastern U.S. and features the Great Stalacpipe Organ. It’s absolutely fascinating to hear.

New River Gorge National Park

Located in the Appalachian Mountains of southern West Virginia, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve became America’s 63rd National Park, as of December 2020. Despite its name, the New River is actually one of the oldest rivers on the continent (around 300 million years). New River Gorge offers some of the best outdoor adventures on the entire East Coast and is within a day’s drive for millions of people in the eastern U.S. History buffs will want to check out what remains of the prosperous coal days, including Thurmond Ghost Town, along the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Great care has been taken to preserve the rich cultural history of the New River area.

Things to Do

Hike

There are plenty of trail options in this park, and most of them are pretty moderate. They’re well maintained, and they all seem to be dog-friendly!

Don’t miss:

Glade Creek Trail: Follows a clear water creek, with several swimmable blue pools and waterfalls.

Long Point Trail: Features an epic view of New River Gorge Bridge from the overlook.

Endless Wall Trail: Offers views of the bridge and “endless” rock walls along the rim of the gorge. You’ll likely see climbers ascending or descending the sandstone cliffs—a unique landscape feature of the area.

White Water Raft

The New River offers some of the best white water rafting in the country. You can book a guided trip and choose a calm family outing, the most challenging rapids, or even an overnight camping trip.

Rock Climb

Ancient sandstone cliffs, visible from many of the park’s hiking trails, are quite the draw for climbers. With 1,400 different routes and cliffs ranging from 30 to 120 feet in height, the park has become one of the most popular climbing destinations in the country.

Experience New River Gorge Bridge

For obvious reasons, New River Gorge Bridge is the park’s main attraction. Built in 1977, this steel arch bridge is the third-highest vehicular bridge in the U.S. (at 876 feet above the river) and is popular with BASE jumpers. Adrenaline junkies can walk along the 24-inch-wide catwalk any time by doing the Bridge Walk Tour. Non-thrill-seekers should head to Canyon Rim Visitor Center for an incredible, close-up view!

When Should You Visit?

There isn’t a bad time to visit either of these national parks. What I love about both, that sets them apart from the West, is how lush and green they are in the spring and summer. You may not find jagged peaks or forests of pines, but the layers of rolling mountains, blanketed in leafy greens, will leave you speechless. Not to mention the vibrant wildflowers, rushing streams, waterfalls, and plethora of wildlife.

Now imagine those mountains covered in blankets of red, yellow, and orange, and you can see why fall is the most popular season in this area. The changing leaves add an extra level of magic to already beautiful landscapes. As the fall excitement subsides, you can find more solitude on the parks’ popular trails. With the right gear, snow-covered mountains and icy waterfalls make the winter temperatures worth braving!

Whenever you visit, I recommend staying at least a weekend. You’ll need some quality time to discover the unique features of both parks.

So don’t count out the East Coast when you’re planning your next outdoor adventure. There’s plenty of hidden beauty waiting to blow you away!