Five Road Trip Worthy National Parks in the Southeast U.S.

Want to grab your keys and hit the open road? Make sure these five National Parks have a spot on your road trip bucket list.

Skyline Drive Shenandoah National Park
Photo by Brandon Frie

You, and everyone else, are out and about to our National Parks!

In a recent survey in Forbes magazine, 49% of people surveyed said they planned to travel more in 2023, despite the crowds, high prices and flight disruptions that plagued us last year. That may also explain why 42% surveyed said they plan to take a road trip.

Driving trips and vacations centered around enjoying outdoor spaces are hot right now and will continue to be very popular. In fact, the Annual Visitation Highlights Report, released by the National Park Service, revealed that 312 million people visited a national park last year. To honor this information, here are six road trip-worthy national parks in the Southeast U.S. for you to put on your list of possibilities for your next road trip.

Related: Road Tripping With Kids? Here Are 6 Tips To Keep Your Car From Getting Totally Gross

Park Ranger At Mammoth Cave

Kids 12 and under can be sworn in as junior rangers. Photo: Jill Robbins

National Parks in General

The United States has 423 National Parks sites. This includes National Parks, National Battlefields, National Historic Sites, National Monuments, and more. You can read about the breakdown here. All fall under the U.S. Department of Interior and focus on a variety of educational topics, such as history, conservation, culture, ecology, and more. The educational factor coupled with the fact that National Parks vacations tend to be budget-friendly vacations makes them popular with families.

Some parks are situated on large expanses of land in more remote areas, which are popular with road trippers. You don’t have to be into camping or hiking to enjoy what National Parks offer. Planning a road trip? Do a quick internet search for NPS sites near where you’re going or along your route and see what interests you.

I wish I could say I’ve been to all of the National Parks, but I haven’t. Not even close, but I have goals. I’m sharing the five parks our family visited on our summer road trip. I think they all make great road trip stops. If you really want to go big, here’s a driving route that will hit all of the National Parks. This doesn’t include monuments, battlefields, historic sites, and such…just the main parks.

Related: 13 Road Trip Destinations Through The West

Shenandoah National Park Skyline Drive

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park is 105 miles of beautiful scenery. Photo: Jill Robbins

1. Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

Shenandoah National Park is my favorite National Park I’ve been to, to date. There are lots of camping, hiking, and wildlife watching opportunities paired with beautiful scenery. Shenandoah is one of the most popular places to see American Black Bears in the wild. Sightings are most common early in the morning or at dusk. Make sure you’re bear aware if you’re hiking or camping and don’t leave food out. Talk to a ranger for more information about safety. In general, Black Bears aren’t aggressive and won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.

There are tons of trails to hike in Shenandoah National Park. A portion of the Appalachian Trail crosses through the park. There are hikes for all levels, from an easy flat walk to challenging rock scrambles that take an entire day to complete. Ask a ranger for a recommendation for a hike based on your abilities and the amount of time you want to spend. Shenandoah National Park is home to Skyline Drive, a 105 scenic drive through the park that follows the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are lots of scenic pullouts where guests can stop to take pictures and watch wildlife. Grab a map of the park and see where the visitors centers, gift shops, and restaurants are to help you plan your drive.

Related: Prevent Car Sickness From Ruining Your Summer Road Trip: 4 Simple Tips

Stairs At Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave has lots of options for cave tours. All involve going down (and back up) stairs like this. Photo: Jill Robbins

2. Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky)

Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the world’s longest cave system. There are several options for ranger-led tours. The tours offered may vary based on season and day of week. There are varying degrees of difficulty in the tours as well as variations in length and in available facilities underground. In general, tour participants need to be able to handle some stairs and go for a couple of hours without needing to use the restroom, but if you are up for a more intense challenge, they do offer a few that require a great deal of physical stamina.

The fun isn’t just below ground. Mammoth Cave National Park has over 80 miles of hiking trails. Most are easy to moderate and many of them paved. Horseback riding and ziplining are also available in the park through third-party vendors. If you want to explore more of this area, the city of Bowling Green is about a half hour’s drive away. For car enthusiasts, don’t miss the National Corvette Museum. If you want to branch out a little more, Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, designated a National Historical Park, is 40 miles north of Mammoth Cave National Park.

Rafting New River Gorge National Park

Whitewater rafting is one of the most popular things to do in New River Gorge National Park. Photo: Whitewater Photography

3. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve (West Virginia)

New River Gorge is the United States’ newest National Park but it has long been popular with whitewater rafting enthusiasts. The park is located just outside the small town of Fayetteville, about an hour’s drive from Charleston. In addition to rafting the New and Gauley Rivers that run through the park, this park is a has some great hiking trails and places to rock climb.

Our family used Adventures on the Gorge as a basecamp to explore the park. In addition to cabins, they also offer organized whitewater excursions for people with varying degrees of rafting experience, from zero (that was us!) to experienced adventurers. There’s also rock climbing and hiking excursions led by experienced guides.

Clingman'S Dome

The paved path up to the viewing tower is very steep. There are spots to stop and rest along the way. Photo: Jill Robbins

4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee and North Carolina)

Driving through Tennessee? This is your park! Are you coming from North Carolina? Still your park. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is split in two by the North Carolina/Tennessee border and has entrances in both states. This park offers opportunities for camping and hiking. Part of the Appalachian Trail runs through the Tennessee portion of the park. The park is also a popular spot to see the American Black Bear. See the Shenandoah section above if you missed the bear safety PSA.

Other popular spots inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park include Cade’s Cove and Clingman’s Dome. Cade’s Cove is a verdant valley with restored 19th century buildings. Cade’s Cove is a popular place to see wildlife. Several hiking trails initiate from the Cade’s Cove area. Clingman’s Dome is the highest elevation point in the smokies (6,643 feet.) The trail up to the viewing tower (the majority of your climb will be in your car getting to the trailhead parking lot) is paved but very steep.

Hot Springs National Park. Photo: Jill Robbins

Hot Springs National Park. Photo: Jill Robbins

5. Hot Springs National Park (Arkansas)

Although Hot Springs National Park has what most people would consider “typical” national park activities, like hiking and camping, the park is unique because the city of Hot Springs was built up around the town. Visitors have been coming to Hot Springs for years to soak in the mineral spring water, believed to be therapeutic. The park’s historic Bathhouse Row has eight buildings constructed between 1892 and 1923. Today these structures help tell the stories of the various groups of people that have visited the area over the years. The visitor’s center is inside the Fordyce Bathhouse, which has a fun, free museum.

If you can travel to Hot Springs during the summer, the World Championship Running of the Tubs is worth planning your trip around. Every car enthusiast should see a bathtub street race at least once in their lifetime.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Many state parks can be alternatives to busier National Parks. Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Texas is a good alternative to the Grand Canyon. It’s true! Photo: Jill Robbins

National Parks versus state and local parks

Many National Parks are located near state parks or other parks and preserves owned by cities or counties. Your mileage will vary but oftentimes, these parks and the experiences within will be similar to what you’ll find in the adjacent NPS site. State and local parks may be less popular with tourists, simply because tourists don’t know they’re there. Google is your friend in this case. Search for “parks near me” snf see what comes up.

I mentioned Hot Springs National Park above. The National Park was great but the highlight of my visit was Lake Catherine State Park. Lake Catherine is 13 miles from Hot Springs and has gorgeous waterfall trails. Whether you’re looking for an add-on or a substitute, having a peek at a state’s parks and wildlife department is solid road trip planning advice if I do say so myself.

Junior Ranger Programs + Park Passes

All National Parks have Junior Ranger Badge programs. These are activities kids under 12 can do to learn more about the park. Upon completion, kids are sworn in as a Junior Ranger. There’s even a badge! Some state parks will have similar programs for kids.

Pro Tip: If you’re going to be visiting more than a couple National Parks, National Historical Parks, National Historic Sites or National Monuments, look in to getting a National Parks Pass. This also applies if you’re visiting more than one park in a particular state. Look at the admission fees versus the cost of a pass and do the math. Plus, purchasing a park pass just might give you added motivation to grab your car keys, punch in your favorite podcast, and explore more of the great outdoors.

Disclosure: I was a guest of Adventures on the Gorge, the National Corvette Museum, and the city of Hot Springs. 

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Jill is the oldest mom with the youngest kids pretty much everywhere she goes. She has a 29-year-old daughter... More about Jill Robbins