A Primer on the Northeast Region’s National Parks
Ah, the Northeast. Does it get any more quintessentially American? That was a rhetorical question, because the answer is an obvious “no.” From famed towns like Salem, Massachusetts, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the world-renowned monuments of New York City and equally famed shores of Acadia National Park, the Northeast Region boasts some of the country’s most essential sights in the National Park Service, and as a New Hampshire native, they’ll always hold a special place in my heart, no matter where I happen to be roving. Whether you’re a New England local or you’re looking to visit this little corner of the country for the first time, here’s a guide to some of my top park picks per state, all of which serve to highlight the incredible diversity and majesty of this region.
Acadia National Park/Photo by Matt Kirouac
Maine: Acadia National Park
As the most visited national park site in New England, or the entire east coast for that matter, Acadia National Park stands out as the true gem that it is. Perched along the famed craggy coast of Maine, the park commands more than 3.5 million visitors annually, making it among the top 10 most visited in the country, and for good reason. This is a place of stunning diversity and vivid scenery, from soaring trees and crashing waves to picturesque islands, oceanside mountains, and the bucolic town of Bar Harbor. Oh, and don’t forget the popovers at the Jordan Pond House, a delicacy that’s come to be as renowned as the park’s loons.
New Hampshire: Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park
Although I think it’s a travesty my beautiful home state only has one official national park site, at least it’s a good one. Saint-Gaudens is a historical park nestled in the happy little hamlet if Cornish. The park gets its name from Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a famed American sculptor who resided here from 1885 through his death in 1907. As underrated as he may be, a trip to this pastoral park should catapult him to the top of your artsy vernacular, especially since the grounds feature numerous bronze sculptures, interwoven with woodland trails. Among the most iconic works here is Saint-Gaudens’ ornate 12-foot statue, Abraham Lincoln: The Man, which greets visitors at the entryway.
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park/Photo by L. Shahi/Courtesy of NPS
Vermont: Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park
Seriously, it doesn’t get more quintessentially New England than a stroll over covered bridges and through sugar maple trees at this Vermont park, another woefully underrated gem in the National Park Service. Located in Woodstock, this is a place of peaceful history and serene nature, named after previous owners of the property: George Perkins Marsh, Mary Montagu Billings French, Laurance Rockefeller, and Mary French Rockefeller, along with Frederick Billings, who created a forest preserve and dairy farm here. Nowadays, folks can hike along carriage roads and the slopes of Mount Tom, visit the Carriage Barn, and learn forestry skills at various ranger-led workshops throughout the year.
Massachusetts: Salem Maritime National Historic Site
From Revolutionary history in Boston to Cape Cod, Lowell’s textile mills, and Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters, Massachusetts is rife with some of the nation’s most hallowed history. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I have to shout out Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Not only was this the very first national historic site in the country, established in 1938, but it preserves some of the most colorful and important lore anywhere. As a diehard fan of The Crucible (and let’s be honest, Hocus Pocus), I’ve always been fascinated by all things Salem. This park is less about witches and more about nautical trade routes, but still. It’s a fascinating way to explore and experience some of our country’s oldest history, dating back more than 600 years.
Rhode Island: Touro Synagogue National Historic Site
It’s not too often we see a national park dedicated to Jewish history, so this Rhode Island site is an inspired destination. Located in the breathtakingly beautiful town of Newport, Touro Synagogue centers around an exquisite building that’s as historical as it is architecturally captivating. Originally dedicated in 1763, this timeworn haven was established as a national historic site in 1946, for its significance as one of the most important and iconic Jewish buildings in the U.S. To this day, the synagogue is an active congregation and welcomes more than 30,000 annual visitors for worship.
Weir Farm National Historic Site/Photo courtesy of NPS
Connecticut: Weir Farm National Historic Site
Another New England state with only one national park site all its own, Connecticut comes through with the gorgeous grounds of Weir Farm, the home and studio of J. Alden Weir, an American impressionist who left a major… impression… on the nation… you might say. Located in the towns of Ridgefield and Wilton, amidst 60 acres of fairy tale-worthy woods, brooks, and fields, the landscape here is an homage to imagination and a testament to how nature can not only inspire art, but entrench itself in history.
New York: Stonewall National Monument
From Niagara Falls and Fire Island to the Hudson River Valley and the Statue of Liberty, New York is brimming with National Park Service heavy-hitters, indicative of the state’s diverse history, heritage, development, and all-natural beauty. Then there’s Stonewall National Monument in New York City, a hugely important site for the fact that it was the first national park dedicated to LGBTQ+ history. The monument is an homage to the local LGBTQ+ community that fought for equality in the 1960s, and the moment it all came to a head on June 28, 1969, with the Stonewall Uprising. Through violence and struggle came the genesis for a social movement, which has only gained momentum ever since.
Gettysburg National Military Park/Photo by Matt Kirouac
Pennsylvania: Gettysburg National Military Park
Likely the most famous of all of America’s national military parks, Gettysburg serves as a memorial to a pivotal turning point in the Civil War; a bloody battle that brought victory for the Union and a somber silver lining to a moment of great tragedy. Today, this peaceful Pennsylvania park is one of the most bucket list-worthy locales in the entire National Park Service—it’s the military equivalent of Yellowstone. And with more than 1 million annual visitors, its popularity is quite apparent, especially in the incredible visitor center, museum, and theater, where groups gather to pose with the Abe Lincoln statue, peruse history, and marvel at the 360-views inside the immersive cyclorama. From the museum to the military grounds, which you’re free to explore in the nearby fields and through the quiet cemetery, Gettysburg is a place of reflection and remembrance, looking back on those fateful July days in 1863, when the Confederacy was ultimately stifled on Cemetery Ridge. Altogether, some 50,000 soldiers were killed over a three-day span, from July 1-3, marking one of the most grueling days in America’s military history. Several months later, Lincoln visited Gettysburg to dedicate Gettysburg National Cemetery and deliver his iconic speech.
New Jersey: New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve
Here’s a fun fact for you: New Jersey is home to the country’s first national reserve. Who knew! Congress created New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve in 1978, in order to protect a land of majestic natural beauty and diverse terrain. More than 1 million acres of wetlands, woodlands, and farms are protected in the reserve, which is also classified as a United States Biosphere Reserve. Interestingly enough, the reserve also includes lots of residential communities as well—56 of them, in fact, and more than 700,000 habitants. It goes to show how harmonious this juxtaposition of urban living and pristine nature can be.
Delaware: First State National Historical Park
For those who aren’t up to snuff on their state history, here’s a refresher: Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution and essentially establish the Union. For such a tiny, under-the-radar state, that’s a pretty huge accomplishment, and that history is on full display here at the aptly dubbed First State National Historical Park. Unsurprisingly, such a major turning point didn’t come easy, so you’ll learn all about the convoluted components that contributed to this event, including religious strife, a thirst for independence, and world powers playing tug of war in the Delaware Valley.
Baltimore National Heritage Area/Photo by Matt Kirouac
Maryland: Baltimore National Heritage Area
Between Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, the Star Spangled Banner, Chesapeake Bay, and the infamous Antietam Battlefield, Maryland is shockingly filled with important national park sites. And if there’s one unit that deserves a visit, it’s a trip to one of the country’s most underrated cities: Baltimore National Heritage Area. The city nowadays is often overlooked by larger, more prominent mid-Atlantic hubs like D.C. and Philadelphia, but it’s a city with a significant legacy that’s vital to the American story, and like any other Northeast city, it’s one where history is on full display in virtually every neighborhood. By honoring the city with its own national park designation, the National Park Service highlights the commerce and culture of this great all-American city, and its contribution to the nation’s lore.
Virginia: Shenandoah National Park
Anchored by the epic mountain-skimming Skyline Drive, among the most quintessential scenic drives in the entire National Park Service, Shenandoah National Park is a shining star among the East Coast’s parks. It’s one of the most prominent sections of the Appalachian Trail, and a world-famous paradise for hikers with over 500 miles of trails to traverse. It’s also a haven for birders and wildlife-lovers, and its serene forests are filled with waterfalls and sweeping valley vistas. Conveniently, this is also one of the easiest national parks to navigate, as the entire park is bisected by Skyline Drive, with all clearly-marked trails branching off either side of it.
Shenandoah National Park/Photo by Matt Kirouac
West Virginia: New River Gorge National River
For a couple years now, there have been rumblings about upgrading this national river into a national park, which would be rightfully deserved. The New River that carves its way through the heart of the park in towns like Fayetteville, Glen Jean, and Beckley, is somewhat ironically named, for the fact that it’s actually one of the oldest rivers in North America. With more than 70,000 acres of protected landscape here, it’s also strikingly beautiful, with awe-inspiring panoramas at every turn. Unlike canyons in the western part of the country, this one is lined with lush green trees, enriching the gorge with vivid hues and the illustrious juxtaposition of raging white water and verdant woods.
New River Gorge National River/Photo by Gary Hartley/Courtesy of NPS
Header photo: New River Gorge National River/Photo by Gary Hartley/Courtesy of NPS
Matt Kirouac has been writing about food and travel since 2008, for outlets like Travel + Leisure, TripSavvy, DiningOut magazines, Plate Magazine, KOA, Culture Trip, Zagat, and Food Fanatics magazine. He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago. He fell in love with national parks while on a trip to South Dakota, where Badlands National Park stole his heart…and has been holding it ransom ever since.