Most people, even dedicated urbanites, need a break now and then from concrete jungle, round-the-clock noise, and exhaust fumes. Some American cities are lucky enough to have units of the National Park System right on their doorsteps, offering recreation and natural beauty within easy reach of millions.
1. Gateway National Recreation Area
New York Harbor, New York and New Jersey
With three units located around New York Harbor in New York and New Jersey, Gateway is just a subway or bus ride away for residents of America’s largest metropolis. Some come to swim or sun on beaches, others to bike or jog miles of trails, to fish or kayak, to visit historic sites, or to go on a wildflower walk. And these activities are just the beginning of the year-round offerings at Gateway, a getaway perfect for everything from chilling out to learning a new skill at one of dozens of ranger-led programs. Camping areas allow city folk to sample life in the wild, while buildings at Fort Tilden in Queens have been converted into an arts center. Fort Tilden is just one of six decommissioned forts or military air fields open to the public within Gateway; the Sandy Hook Proving Ground was the first U.S. Army weapons testing grounds, established in 1874. Brooklyn’s Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, the only wildlife refuge in the park system, ranks among the most popular bird-watching sites in the region, with marsh, fields, woods, and ponds. Other sites within the park offer golf and even places for flying model airplanes. If you can’t find something to do at Gateway, you’re just not looking closely enough.
2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
San Francisco Bay Area, California
Want to hike through one of the world’s most beautiful forests? Want to visit the legendary prison where Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly were locked up? Want to go hang gliding, enjoy a quiet picnic, admire an art collection, or visit a Cold War-era missile site? All of this and a lot more is possible at Golden Gate, a collection of some three dozen separate units stretching for 70 miles on or near the Pacific Coast, both north and south of San Francisco. A short list of attractions here would include Marin Headlands, a natural area at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge; Alcatraz Island, former home of an infamous federal prison; Crissy Field, a restored tidal marsh and renowned windsurfing center; Ocean Beach, the longest beach in the Bay Area and a mecca for serious surfers; Point Bonita Lighthouse, a still active beacon; the reconstructed Cliff House and the Sutro Baths, the latter now in ruins; and Muir Woods National Monument, a grove of magnificent coast redwood trees. Bay Area residents treasure these and other park sites, all contributing to making one of the nation’s most attractive cities even more appealing.
3. Rock Creek Park
Stretching for ten miles along the waterway for which it’s named, this green space in northwestern Washington, D.C., is beloved by residents of the nation’s capital. Jogging, biking, skating, golf, soccer, horseback riding, and tennis are among the more popular activities, while picnicking and bird-watching offer more contemplative pursuits. The park closes some streets to auto traffic on weekends and holidays, creating peaceful paths even more removed from the busy world of government and business just beyond its boundaries. With a nature center, a planetarium, historical exhibits, and a concert venue, Rock Creek more than fulfills its 1890 mandate to be “a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States.”
4. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Los Angeles Into Ventura County, California
The world’s largest urban national park, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area spans almost 40 miles from Los Angeles westward into Ventura County, its many separate units covering nearly 240 square miles. Within the designated area are state and local parks, ranging from historic sites to wild areas offering solitude in a region of freeways, shopping malls, and near-endless suburbs. The 65-mile-long Backbone Trail System traverses the rugged Santa Monica Mountains, its entire length open to hikers, while some segments are available for mountain biking and horseback riding. Located in the land of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, the park has inevitable movie and television connections: Many movies and TV shows were filmed at Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, now home to fine hiking trails; Peter Strauss Ranch, along Mulholland Highway, was donated to the park by actor Strauss, who wanted to preserve its natural beauty; Will Rogers State Historic Park, just off Sunset Boulevard, preserves the estate of the famed humorist and actor who died in 1935. One of the park’s most fascinating historical attractions is Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa in Newbury Park, where the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center interprets the heritage of the Chumash and Tongva-Gabrielino people who once lived here. In the northern part of the national recreation area, Cheeseboro Canyon boasts extensive hiking trails and woodlands of the imposing valley oak, a tree species found only in California.
5. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cleveland and Akron, Ohio
Connecting the Ohio cities of Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley boasts a combination of attractions that can justifiably be called unique in the National Park System. Consider that visitors can ride a restored railroad train, attend a summer concert by the famed Cleveland Orchestra, go cross-country skiing, drive a scenic byway, jog or bike alongside the historic Ohio & Erie Canal, attend a theater performance, play golf, go horseback riding, or admire some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the eastern United States—all within the boundaries of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Running for 22 miles through the heart of the park, the Cuyahoga River once served as a poster child for pollution (it actually caught fire several times when massive oil slicks ignited). Though still no model of purity, the river has recovered enough that fish, birds, and other wildlife now abound along its tree-shaded length. Several villages within the park provide amenities such as dining, shopping, and bike rental. In the southwestern part of the park, Hale Farm and Village (Memorial Day–October) is a living history attraction that re-creates 19th-century farm life in the Cuyahoga Valley.
6. Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
Boston Harbor, Massachusetts
In a world where open space is hard to find near cities, the National Park Service finds innovative ways to bring nature and recreational activities to urban residents. One good example is Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, a collection of 34 islands and peninsulas close to the historic Massachusetts capital, administered through a partnership among federal, state, and local government agencies and private businesses. “Minutes away, worlds apart” is the park’s slogan, and a visitor sea kayaking around Grape Island or hiking a trail at World’s End, a 244-acre peninsula overlooking Hingham Harbor, would agree that the congestion of downtown Boston seems far removed. For great views of the Boston skyline, head to Spectacle Island, which has the highest point in the park, 157 feet above sea level, as well as 5 miles of hiking trails. History is represented at places such as Little Brewster Island, home to the country’s oldest light station, and 19th-century Army post Fort Warren on Georges Island.
7. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Gary and Michigan City, Indiana, and Chicago, Illinois
A very high percentage of the nearly two million annual visitors to Indiana Dunes come simply to sunbathe or swim along 15 miles of sandy Lake Michigan shore. In itself, that resource makes the park a treasured getaway for residents of Chicago and nearby cities such as Gary and Michigan City, Indiana. Beyond the beach, though, trails wind through natural habitats of surprising biodiversity, with rare plants and butterflies living among the dunes, savannas, marshes, prairies, and woodlands. Miller Woods, Cowles Bog, Heron Rookery, and Lyco-ki-we are among the best trails for nature lovers, while the Mount Baldy Trail ascends a 126-foot dune for a panoramic view of Lake Michigan. Mount Baldy is a “moving” dune, pushed about four feet a year by prevailing winds. For a glimpse into the area’s past, visit restored Chellberg Farm, where three generations of a family of Swedish farmers lived.
8. Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
Residents of Atlanta benefit today from planning decisions made in the 1970s, when public officials began working to protect 48 miles of the Chattahoochee River on the edge of the city. As Atlanta has grown, the various units of the national recreation area endure as green spaces for picnicking, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and nature enjoyment. The river itself is extremely popular for canoeing, kayaking, tubing, and rafting, as well as fishing for trout, bass, and catfish. (Because river water comes from the dam on Lake Sidney Lanier, it’s mostly too cold for comfortable swimming even in summer.) Of the many separate units within the park, the Cochran Shoals area may be the most popular, with a three-mile trail and a wetlands boardwalk. Concessionaires rent kayaks, canoes, and inner tubes at several locations along the Chattahoochee.
9. Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area
Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota
With various units spanning 72 miles of the Mississippi River in the vicinity of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, this park is actually a consortium of state, regional, county, and municipal areas, ranging from city parks to museums and from wildlife refuges to historic sites. The Park Service owns only 35 of the recreation area’s 54,000 acres, but coordinates activities and assists travelers from its visitor center in downtown St. Paul. Other visitor centers are located in various units including Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis, home of 53-foot-tall Minnehaha Falls, mentioned in Longfellow’s poem “Song of Hiawatha.” Citizens of the Twin Cities happily avail themselves of the area’s opportunities for hiking, cross-country skiing (Fort Snelling State Park is a favorite), and canoeing. The 12.7-mile stretch of the Mississippi between the Crow River boat ramp and the Coon Rapids Dam offers excellent scenery and wildlife far different from the commercial waterway downstream.
10. Biscayne National Park
Ninety-five percent of the 172,000 acres of this Florida Atlantic coast park is water—but that only makes it more of an attraction for residents of Miami, where boating is a way of life for many people. Within sight of downtown skyscrapers, Biscayne National Park offers diving, snorkeling, canoeing, and kayaking, as well as islands to visit for those with their own power boats. Exploring Biscayne Bay, one can see part of the world’s third largest coral reef, as well as more than 500 species of fish, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, and occasionally American crocodiles. Some of the larger keys (coral islets) in the national park offer camping and hiking (winter is best for avoiding mosquitoes). Tropical hardwood forests host rare and endangered birds and butterflies. One oddly historic hiking path is the infamous “Spite Highway,” a road bulldozed in the 1960s by developers trying to ruin the environment and prevent the creation of a national park here. The seven-mile route on Elliott Key has slowly recovered from the intentional destruction, with native vegetation masking the scar.
This feature originally appeared in National Geographic.