Area: 262 sq km
Best for… swimming with turtles, camping, some remarkable history
Why go? Dry Tortugas is the realm of the sea turtle; the creature even gave the archipelago its name (tortuga is Spanish for turtle). Five species – loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, hawksbill, green sea and leatherback – frequent the warm waves of this underwater national park, and can sometimes be seen, breaking the surface to breathe.
Reef-studded and scattered across the Gulf of Mexico – closer to Cuba than the US – the park comprises seven islands that are only accessible by boat or seaplane. This isolated marine paradise is ideal for water babies, who can snorkel and dive in its crystal-clear waters; boating and hiking tours are available too.
The park is also home to Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry fort in the Americas, built between 1846 and 1875 to protect the USA’s access to the Gulf. Take a tour, then camp right by the fort for majestic sunsets.
When to go: Open year-round, though some keys close during certain months. The rainier summer season (May- October) is the best time to visit, with warmer, calmer waters and good visibility for snorkelling and diving.
Plan your trip: Fly to Key West via Miami. Boats depart from Key West Ferry Terminal to Dry Tortugas daily. Include the park in a wider south Florida trip: Key West (visit Ernest Hemingway’s house), cool Miami and the croc-rich Everglades.
Area: 806 sq km
Best for… dramatic driving, lots of hikes, fall colours
Why go? Shenandoah is a capital escape: this protected piece of the Blue Ridge Mountains is less than 100km from Washington DC; the fresh, forested wilderness is the perfect antidote to all those political machinations.
This handy location means Shenandoah has plentiful facilities (lodges, restaurants, campsites) and can get crowded at times; come fall, the showstopping Skyline Drive, which follows the mountain ridge, gets congested with leaf-peepers. But there are 800km of trails (including a section of the 3,500km Appalachian Trail), so it’s easy to lose the masses. Most of the trailheads are off the Skyline. Try the popular scramble up Old Rag Mountain or the 13km Cedar Run/Whiteoak Circuit, for lots of waterfalls.
When to go: Open year-round. Autumn is busy. Spring brings wildflowers.
Plan your trip: The park is 90km west of Washington Dulles airport. Visit the capital’s sights, head to Shenandoah then follow the Blue Ridge Parkway to Great Smokey Mountains NP. Finish in Charleston or further south in charming Savannah, Georgia.