4 National Parks in the Southeast Worth Visiting by RV

Aug 23, 2021 | Travel & Destinations

4 National Parks in the Southeast Worth Visiting by RV

Don’t discount the parks located on the East Coast. From whitewater rapids to 500-year-old trees, here’s where to take your RV on a national park road trip in the Southeast.

By Robert Annis

Photo: Robert Annis

National parks in the western half of the U.S. garner nearly all of the attention, but the eastern U.S. features some gorgeous parks, too. While the Appalachian Mountains might be a bit smaller than their western counterparts, that just means less of a strain on your engine and better fuel efficiency.

Most of the national parks located in the Southeast are ideal for RVers, with plenty of nearby amenities and lots of activities for every type of outdoor adventurer. It’s even possible to visit all four of the parks below in one 700-plus-mile road trip.

New River Gorge National Park

The newest national park in the U.S., New River Gorge boasts 70,000 acres of biking, hiking, and paddling opportunities. Adrenaline junkies will want to visit in the fall for the annual Bridge Day celebration which brings jumping daredevils to the longest single-span bridge in the western hemisphere. Spectators can walk down to the bridge overlook near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center to observe and take photos.  

Wide waterfall damming river with green landscape in background. Large rocks sit in the river bank.
Photo: Robert Annis

Highlights

The Endless Wall hike is relatively short at nearly 3 miles, but packs in a lot of scenery. Start at the trailhead to the southeast, which has a slightly steeper, but shorter, climb up, and a much longer and gradual descent. Visit in May or early June, when the rhododendrons bloom and the trail is awash in purple and white. Reaching the top, the appropriately named Diamond View gives a gorgeous vantage point of the gorge below.

Before New River Gorge was a national park, it was a national river and recreational area. Whitewater rafting on the Upper (primarily Class 1 to 3 rapids) or Lower (harder Class 4 to 5 rapids) New River is the main reason visitors come to the region. If you’re looking for thrills and don’t mind getting wet, sign up with a local outfitter—I recommend Adventures on the Gorge. For the best rapids, visit on weekends during “Gauley Season” in September or October, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Summersville Lake.  

Cyclists will enjoy pedaling the former rail-line beds, which are more rugged than your typical rail trails. The Southside Trail runs about 7 miles one way from the Brooklyn campground to the town of Thurmond. About a half-mile from the campground, you can see the remains of several abandoned homes. You can get by with a gravel bike for most of the trail, save for a few rocky stream crossings. 

Bicycle resting on barred entrance to a cave
Photo: Robert Annis

The Brooklyn Mine Trail is a more rugged biking trail that ascends for its first 0.2 mile before leveling off. You’ll earn views of the valley when there’s an opening in the tree canopy, and limestone cliffs follow much of the trail. Kaymoor is a longer biking trail and probably the roughest of the three with a few steep uphills and a technical descent and climb about halfway down. The trail takes you to another former mine and some abandoned buildings.

Getting There by RV

The multi-lane U.S. 19 runs nearly the length of New River Gorge, while I-64 bisects the southern part of the park. Many of the surrounding roads are two lanes with some narrow parts. If you have a van or smaller rig, be sure to take the scenic gravel roads that offer pullouts with gorgeous views of the valley. 

Where to Stay

The 10 RV campsites at Adventures on the Gorge are just 2 miles from the main visitor center, and the resort is currently expanding the campground. The bathhouse shower is appreciated (although a little chilly) and most sites have electric hookups and basic amenities like a fire ring and picnic table. The sites are on the smaller side, but the layout of the campground is well thought out, so you don’t feel like you’re on top of your neighbors. 

On the south side of the park, RVers can take advantage of several free, basic campgrounds along the New River, including Army Camp and Glade Creek. These are all first-come, first-served sites that fill up quickly. 

Other Campground Options


Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah has a reputation of being a driver’s park, with 75 scenic pullouts along its 105-mile Skyline Drive. But there’s a lot more to the park than taking photos of the Blue Ridge scenery—including some rugged hikes.

Entrance sign for the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park

If you know what hikes or activities you want to do on a visit, write down the mile markers for each ahead of time—it’s easy to pass your destination while driving. Larger RVs will have no problem parking in the overlook lots, but some of the smaller trailheads could be a tight fit.

Highlights

The Hawksbill Summit is one of the most popular hikes in the park, and for good reason: Hikers reaching the top earn spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. But getting there does require either a 2.1-mile (one way) hike with a fairly gradual 400-foot ascent or a shorter, 1.5-mile trek with a more pronounced 700-foot rise. Loose granite covers much of the trail, and I recommend using a hiking pole or stick for extra stability.

View of rolling green mountains from top of rocky summit

The rangers at the Big Meadow Visitor Center advised me against doing the out-and-back Dark Hollow Falls hike and pointed me to the Rose River Falls loop and adding on Dark Hollow instead. The 4-mile hike was full of waterfalls and was one of the highlights of the park. If you’re a photographer and have the time, spend an entire day on this trail.

Stargazing is another popular activity in the park and with the right conditions you can see the Milky Way. 

To capture stargazing images, use a camera capable of shutter speeds that are at least 20 seconds long, with a f2.8 or larger aperture lens.

The rolling terrain and 35-mph speed limit of Skyline Drive makes Shenandoah an ideal spot for road bicycling, especially if you time your visit for a less-trafficked midweek day. Biking the entire 105 miles in a day is doable if you’re a strong rider, but you can also break the route into 3 days for a slower pace.

Getting There by RV

To drive the entire length of the park, enter from the north at the Front Royal entrance off Route 340 (near I-81and I-66) or the south Rockfish Gap entrance near I-64. If you’re short on time, head to the northern end for hiking and other activities. To fully experience the park, devote at least 3 days to your visit.

Where to Stay

I started my trip by entering at the north entrance, and spent my first night at Mathews Arm campground. The sites are primitive and mostly first come, first served—you can reserve a spot on Recreation.gov. I could only get a cell phone signal with my booster in the upper part of the A loop, but pick a site in the lower A loop if you’re looking for more privacy as it has a bit more separation and tree cover.

Located nearly in the middle of the park, Big Meadow is arguably Shenandoah’s most popular campground, and it fills up fast. Like Mathews Arm, Big Meadow has no electric hookups, but some sections of the campground allow generator use for limited periods. 

Other Options


Congaree National Park

Congaree isn’t a classically beautiful park like Yosemite or Yellowstone, but it’s still striking. Unless you’re into birds or paddling, you only need 1 day to experience the park. Get there early, as the park closes to non-campers at 4 p.m.

Wide rooted trees in mud and swamp area.
Photo: Robert Annis

Highlights

Most visitors stick to the 2.6-mile boardwalk that begins and ends at the visitor center. I tacked on the additional 2-mile Weston Lake Loop, where I felt completely removed from the other visitors and saw wildlife like birds and a red-bellied watersnake.

Paddlers have a variety of options. The marked Cedar Creek Canoe Trail starts at Bannister’s Bridge and winds 15 miles down to the Congaree River. The 50-mile Congaree River Blue Trail typically takes about 3 days to complete, with paddlers camping on sandbars along the water trail.

Wooden signs directing hikers which way to go on footpath in national park
Photo: Robert Annis

Getting There by RV

From I-77, take Exit 5 to South Carolina Highway 48 East. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t see postings for the national park miles in advance, as there’s limited signage until you approach the entrance.

The visitor center parking lot is small, just like the park. Get there early to get a spot, and be aware that there is no RV parking at the nearby Bates Ferry and Fork Swamp trails. About 30 minutes away, Columbia, South Carolina, offers plenty of options for food.  

Where to Stay

There’s no RV camping within the park. 

Poinsett State Park is located about 45 minutes from Congaree. The campground is clean and offers full hookups. Be sure to bring your own firewood and other supplies. Poinsett also has a variety of hiking and mountain biking trails to supplement Congaree, allowing you to have a full weekend. 

Related 6 State Park Campgrounds to Add to Your Bucket List

North of Congaree, The Barnyard RV Park has nearly 130 RV sites, all of which offer electric or full hookups. It’s convenient to Columbia if you’d like to sightsee or need supplies.

Other Campground Options


Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There’s no way around the crowds, as GSMNP is the most visited national park in the U.S. Mid-week in early June, the lines to get into the visitor centers will stretch out the door. Don’t show up to any of the popular trailheads after 8 a.m. and expect to get a parking spot—especially if you’re driving a larger rig. Even the harder-to-reach trailheads can be packed. If possible, plan your trip for the off-season, or prepare yourself for long lines and busy trails. Visiting GSMNP is worth the inconveniences, with stunning scenery and fun, challenging hikes.

Highlights

Cades Cove’s 11-mile Scenic Loop is one of the park’s most popular attractions. The one-way, single-lane loop takes visitors past abandoned cabins and a church. It’s also one of the best places in the park to see a black bear. During my visit, I saw five, including a mama and two cubs grazing in a meadow about 100 yards away. Be sure to bring a bike or a comfy pair of shoes; from May to September, the loop is closed to motor-vehicle traffic, so walkers and bikers can experience it without stopping traffic.

Abandoned wooden mill on trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Laurel Falls is a short 3-mile out-and-back hike on a gently sloped, paved path. The trail is crowded at most times, including early morning and late afternoon. Luckily, there are other waterfall hikes in the park, including the strenuous 8-mile walk to Ramsey Cascades. Drivers of larger rigs might want to avoid it; the trailhead is located down fairly narrow gravel roads, and getting out of the trailhead parking area can be tricky, even in a Class B. You’ll also need to avoid Grotto and Rainbow Falls on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which prohibits RVs. 

My favorite hike is Chimney Tops, which is a must-do if you’re in shape for it (or willing to take frequent breaks). Believe the signs that warn about the steep grade; when I reached the top of the 1.75-mile uphill, my legs burned and I was drenched in sweat. Note that the final quarter-mile section is currently closed due to erosion caused by a recent wildfire, but the view of the ridgeline from the current terminus is still spectacular. 

The hike up to the Clingmans Dome observation tower is only a half-mile walk up a wide paved path, but it ascends straight up at a hefty grade. You can catch your breath on benches and boulders located along the trail, and the view from the top makes the effort worthwhile. Even if it’s a cloudy day, be patient. The wind will likely blow the clouds away long enough to snap a few photographs.

Finally, drive the Newfound Gap Road and take advantage of the photo pull offs. 

Getting There by RV

The main entrance into the park is through the Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg gateway to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Cherokee, North Carolina (from the south), and Townsend, Tennessee (from the northwest), are the two other primary, and more understated, entrances. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are typical tourist towns filled with souvenir stores, restaurants, and flashy attractions. Both towns can be a welcome change of pace for kids if they need a break from the park. They also offer alternative campground options for RVers. Just be prepared to deal with plenty of people and traffic. 

Where to Stay

The Cades Cove Campground, like the other four RV-accommodating campgrounds in the park, is quiet with plenty of shade and no hookups. Sites aren’t exceptionally large, but do come with the standard fire ring, picnic table, and charcoal grill. It’s one of the most popular spots to stay in the park, so reserve a spot early.

Fifth wheel trailer parked at campsite in national park at dusk
Gregory Simpson / Shutterstock

Pigeon Forge Landing is a brand-new RV resort located near the town’s main strip. If you like to fish, spring for one of the waterfront sites. A coin laundry and a small camp store are located on site as well.

Other Campground Options


Plan Your Own RV Trip to the Southeast’s National Parks

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Robert Annis

After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis became an award-winning outdoor-travel journalist. Over the years, Robert's byline has appeared in numerous publications and websites, including Outside, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, Men's Journal, Lonely Planet, and more. If you’re looking for Robert, chances are you'll find him either pedaling the backroads and trails of the Midwest on his bicycle or hunched over his laptop in an airport bar, frantically trying to make his next deadline.

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