The U.S. system of national parks consists of more than 60 parks operated by the National Park Service. The parks were established to preserve and maintain a wide variety of habitats and ecosystems all around the country. Every year, they welcome millions of visitors looking to escape big city life and reconnect with nature. Twenty-nine U.S. states and two U.S. territories contain officially designated national parks. This article, part of a series on U.S. national parks divided up by region, focuses on parks in the southeast region of the country.
Most of the southeast region’s national parks are concentrated at the tip of the Florida Peninsula. Congaree National Park in South Carolina protects a large expanse of hardwood forest. But Biscayne National Park, Everglades National Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park, all in Florida, boast a variety of water activities like snorkeling, swimming, canoeing and kayaking, shipwreck touring, and panoramic vistas of sun, sky, and sparkling waves lapping against the shoreline.
Southeast U.S. National Park Travel Insurance
If you’re participating in any adventurous or potentially hazardous sports—like canoeing, kayaking, hiking, snorkeling, and more—we’d recommend purchasing hazardous sports travel insurance in case of any accidents or mishaps. Even if you’re not planning to participate in advance, the spirit of vacation might strike you once you’re at your destination. It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
More generally, before setting off to visit the national parks of the southeastern U.S, it’s highly recommended that you purchase visitor medical insurance or travel insurance as you’re planning your vacation. Visitor medical insurance covers any unforeseen illness or injuries and can help recover financial losses caused by emergency medical expenses, acute onset of pre-existing conditions, emergency medical evacuation / repatriation, return of mortal remains, and more common scenarios like loss of checked luggage for non-U.S. residents visiting the U.S. Visitors insurance is mainly used as short-term insurance focused primarily on medical coverage.
Travel insurance, on the other hand, protects against unexpected hiccups like trip interruption, emergency medical evacuation / repatriation, lost baggage, flight delays, rental car coverage, and accidental death & dismemberment for both U.S. residents and non-U.S. residents. Travel insurance is primarily used for its trip cancellation benefits, meant to help reimburse any non-refundable costs you may have put down if you end up not being able to take your trip.
For more information about national parks of the U.S., see the following links:
- Northeastern U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
- Southeastern U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
- Western U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
- Midwest U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
- Southwestern U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
Southeast U.S. National Parks to Explore
Congaree National Park (South Carolina)
Congaree National Park, located in central South Carolina, was officially designated a national park in 2003. It was originally created as the Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976. Congaree National Park boasts the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. Water from the Congaree River and the Wateree River brings sediment and nutrients that nourish a lush deciduous forest. The park is also part of the Congaree International Biosphere Reserve, designated by UNESCO in 1983 to protect the local ecosystem, fresh water sources, and native animal life.
Park activities include hiking, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, and camping. Hiking trails include short routes, like the Boardwalk Trail, and longer backcountry trails accessible from South Cedar Creek Canoe Landing, the Bates Ferry Trailhead, Fork Swamp Trailhead, and Bannister Bridge Canoe Landing. The website notes that these trails can be difficult to navigate, and hikers should be prepared to navigate around downed trees, deep mud, and high water.
As far as canoeing and kayaking, the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail runs for about 15 miles through the wilderness, from Bannister's Bridge to the Congaree River. The park recommends that visitors bring their own equipment, but the city of Columbia, South Carolina, rents canoes, kayaks, and other necessities. Several private companies offer guided paddling tours. The park also offers a limited number of Ranger-Guided Wilderness Canoe Tours on specific dates between March and May.
Fishing is also allowed in the park, with the possession of a valid South Carolina fishing license. The only area off limits is the Weston Lake overlook and the area 100 feet around it. Only non-motorized boats are permitted. Use only a hook and line, fly rod, casting rod, pole and line, or hand line. The park encourages catch and release sportsmanship to preserve the park's fish population. Finally, the park features two campgrounds, Longleaf Campground and Bluff Campground. Spots are available by reservation.
Biscayne National Park (Florida)
Biscayne National Park, located off the southeastern coast of Florida, was authorized as Biscayne National Monument in 1968 and became a national park in 1980. About 95% of the park's 270 square miles is water. The park consists of a shoreline almost entirely covered in a dense mangrove forest; Biscayne Bay; about 33 keys (or islands) at the northern end of the Florida Keys; and an underwater network of coral reefs. Biscayne Bay is home to rich underwater sea grass beds and a variety of marine life like shrimps, lobsters, fish, sea turtles, and manatees.
Available recreational activities include fishing, boating, diving, snorkeling, paddling, hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, and various guided tours. The park provides renowned fishing opportunities for trophies like spiny lobster, snapper, grouper, tarpon, and bonefish. Private or commercial glass-bottomed boat rides provide breathtaking views of the reefs and sea life, and guides provide information about the history, wildlife, and ecosystems of the park.
Visitors can canoe or kayak their way along the shoreline and shallow bay area. Snorkeling and diving opportunities abound, providing up-close-and-personal glimpses of living coral and shipwreck destinations. The park has campgrounds on the islands of Boca Chita and Elliott Keys, both accessible only by boat. In addition to marine life, the park also boasts a number of birdwatching spots, most notably the Biscayne Birding Trail. Finally, the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, gallery, and museum provides information about the park's four ecosystems using exhibits, audio, and video.
Everglades National Park (Florida)
Everglades National Park, located in southern Florida, was authorized in 1934 and officially established in 1947. It preserves the southern 20% of the original Everglades (an expanse of tropical wetlands) and has gained distinction as the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. The third-largest national park in the contiguous U.S., it sees about one million visitors per year. The park covers about 2,350 square miles, including the majority of Florida Bay. It serves as a protected habitat for rare and endangered species like manatees, American crocodiles, and Florida panthers.
The park is also one of three locations in the world to have been designated a national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance.
The park's activities and attractions include hiking, canoeing, kayaking, biking, fresh and saltwater fishing, and camping. It's particularly popular as a boating and canoeing destination, offering multiple marked canoe trails like the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. Notable hiking trails include the short and easy Gumbo Limbo Trail (0.4 miles) and Anhinga Trail (0.8 miles), as well as the Long Pine Key Trail (6.1 miles). Shark Valley Tram Road is the ideal spot for hiking and biking; it's also the route of a narrated tram tour, which leads to a 65-foot observation tower.
Popular campsites include Long Pine Key and Flamingo and include amenities like drinking water, picnic tables, grills, restrooms, and tent and trailer sites--as well as shower and electricity hookups at Flamingo. One unique opportunity is called slough slogging, off-trail hiking through the River of Grass that gets your feet wet but provides an in-depth look at elusive wildlife.
In addition to outdoor activities, the park operates four Visitor Centers: Ernest F. Coe, Flamingo, Gulf Coast, and Shark Valley.
Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)
Dry Tortugas National Park is located on the Dry Tortugas islands in the Gulf of Mexico off the southwestern Florida coast. The park consists of the seven Dry Tortugas islands and Fort Jefferson, an unfinished and out-of-use U.S. military facility built in 1846. The park was established as Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935 and gained its current name and status in 1992. Accessible only by boat or seaplane about 70 miles west of Key West, the park covers about 101 square miles.
The park's main attraction is the historic Fort Jefferson, located on the island of Garden Key alongside park headquarters, the visitor center, campgrounds, and swimming and snorkeling areas. The fort was strategically constructed at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico along one of the world's busiest shipping lanes to guard against piracy. Today, it's open for both guided and unguided tours. Other activities at Garden Key include boating, fishing, wildlife viewing, night sky viewing, and paddlesports like canoeing and kayaking.
The island of Loggerhead Key boasts offshore shipwrecks (most notably the Windjammer), a lighthouse installation, and the former site of the Carnegie Laboratory for Marine Ecology. It's also a haven for wildlife like the loggerhead sea turtle, the island's namesake. Be aware that there is no public transportation available to this island; access is limited to private vessels and personal kayaks and canoes brought into the park via ferry.
The island of Bush Key, which comes into its prime during late fall and early winter, is an undeveloped subtropical island that serves as a nesting ground for many bird species that cannot be found anywhere else in the continental U.S. The island is closed to visitors between February and September to allow sooty terns and brown noddies to nest and raise their young. Once they vacate the island, visitors are welcome to hike along the island's shoreline trail.