East Coast Exploration
The East Coast may not have Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon, but its spectacular scenery is no less breathtaking. Autumn leaves splashed with color. Layers of blue mountains that grow ever fainter toward the horizon. Waterfalls that tumble into shady hollows.
National parks in the east have their own kind of beauty, and it's not the kind that you can appreciate by simply pulling over to the side of the road for five minutes before you speed away. This national park road trip will give you the opportunity to experience the best of the East Coast's national parks over the course of a long weekend. Of course, if you have more time, by all means take it!
Start your national park road trip at the northern end of Shenandoah National Park, at Front Royal, Virginia, near routes 66 and 340. Easily accessible from Richmond, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other major East Coast cities, the northern entrance to Shenandoah marks the beginning of Skyline Drive — a scenic driving route that meanders along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles, bisecting the park from north to south.
Skyline Drive gives you access to 75 scenic overlooks, with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west and the rolling Piedmont region to the east. Changing foliage makes fall a particularly stunning time to explore Skyline Drive. Pick up a map as you enter the park so you can pick out which of the park's scenic overlooks, hiking trails, waterfalls, picnic areas, and information centers you want to visit along the way — almost all of them are accessible from Skyline Drive! You'll find plenty of places to stop and grab a bite to eat, too, including restaurants at Big Meadows and Skyland.
As you make your way south from Shenandoah toward Great Smoky Mountains National Park — about a four-hour drive if you stick to Interstate 81 — you'll have plenty of chances to make some side trips to nearby national parks and historic sites. The area between Shenandoah and the Smokies offers a lot of options, including:
- Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park
- Booker T. Washington National Monument
- Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
- Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
- Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
The best way to approach the second day of your trip is to go where the wind takes you, just as long as you end up somewhere around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, by day's end. One of the most popular gateways to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg is home to some truly great dining options, and is surrounded by campgrounds, RV parks, hotels, motels, and lodges, giving you lots of great options for your second night.
Rise with the dawn and get yourself a hearty breakfast at Crockett's Breakfast Camp, just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boundary on Route 441. Once you're fueled up and ready to start exploring, make a beeline for Park Headquarters, located right on 441, where you'll find a wealth of park information, access to several trailheads, and the beautiful Cataract Falls.
From there it's only another 40-minute drive to Clingman's Dome — take a right onto Clingman's Dome Road from 441 — which lies right on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. It's the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet, and the top offers a stunning view of one of the most incredible vistas in either state.
When you're ready to head back north, take the scenic route! Route 441 cuts across Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to Waynesville, North Carolina, where it connects with the Blue Ridge Parkway — arguably the greatest scenic driving route on the East Coast. Over the course of its winding, 460-mile course, it will provide some of the best views in the Blue Ridge Mountains before it reconnects with Skyline Drive at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park.
Long autumn weekends were made for national park road trips, and the East Coast parks come alive as the leaves start to change.
For those unable to drive through in time to experience the changing foliage, there are plenty of other ways to explore the parks by car. Find more weekend road trip ideas around the country in our Road Trippin' Owner's Guide, then hop in your car and get exploring!