Need more time outdoors? You might not have to travel as far as you think.
Some of America’s most beautiful national parks are just a walk, boat ride or short drive from major cities. You might not even realize that these 10 parks are a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers and city lights.
Note that some park facilities may be closed and some areas may require masks due to COVID-19. Be sure to check the latest guidance at each park you plan to visit before you travel and comply with all regulations.
1. Gateway National Recreation Area, New Jersey and New York
The three separate units of this recreation area cover more than 26,000 acres of beachfront, salt marshes, grasslands, forest and wildlife habitat around New York Harbor — much of it just outside New York City, the most populous urban area in the country. The park’s Jamaica Bay unit is one of the only wildlife refuges in the National Park System, and it’s just a subway ride from Manhattan. The park provides opportunities to hike, camp, swim, fish, bike, bird-watch and ride horses, among many other year-round activities. The park also offers ranger tours, an arts center, and historic buildings, including the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey, the country’s oldest operational light station.
2. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona and Nevada
This recreation area preserves two dammed bodies of water along the Colorado River near Las Vegas — the park’s namesake lake, which serves as the largest reservoir in the country, and the smaller and less-frequented Lake Mohave, farther downstream. As of 2021, Lake Mead is at record low levels due to warming temperatures, persistent drought, declining water flow from the Colorado River, and other factors, and it remains both a beloved natural area and a testament to the widespread effects of the climate crisis. Despite the low water levels, visitors can still boat over the clear blue waters and cast their lines for striped bass and rainbow trout. Both lakes also rent houseboats, allowing longer-term visitors to explore the less-visited nooks and coves within the area’s colorful desert scenery. Beyond the water, an abundance of trails follow shorelines and wander into scenic stretches of the Mojave Desert; visitors should take precautions, however, to protect themselves against the extreme desert heat.
3. Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Minnesota
This park follows one of America’s largest and most historic rivers for 72 miles as it curves through the heart of Minneapolis-St. Paul and wanders south toward the Wisconsin border. The Mississippi River is home to seven national park sites, but this is the only one that was specifically created to share the history and ecology of the river itself. Visitors can follow the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail in downtown Minneapolis to explore the namesake falls that once powered the area’s lumber and flour-milling industry. Outdoor enthusiasts can paddle the river, hike along its banks, and visit the Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific and Natural Area, one of the least-disturbed areas in the Twin Cities region. The park’s savanna, oak forest and prairie offer spectacular views of the river and beautiful spring wildflower displays.
4. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California
This Los Angeles-area site is one of the largest urban national parks in the world, with nearly 240 square miles of diverse natural and cultural attractions. Visitors can enjoy stunning rocky beaches, explore woodlands and savannas, hike rugged mountains and canyons, and learn about the history of the region’s Chumash and Tongva tribes at the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center. The park’s rare Mediterranean ecosystem, marked by wet, mild winters and dry summers, is a hotspot for biological diversity; more than 1,000 plant and 450 animal species thrive in the park’s various natural areas, including more than 50 rare and threatened species.
5. Boston Harbor Islands, Massachusetts
Thirty-four islands and peninsulas surround this historic capital city, with a variety of outdoor adventures a short ferry ride away. Managed through a public-private partnership, these islands offer hiking, kayaking, rustic camping, historic lighthouses, a Civil War fort and views of the Boston skyline. Georges and Spectacle Islands feature visitor centers and services with ranger-led educational programs in season. Other islands such as Bumpkin, Grape and Peddocks, offer a more rustic experience for the backcountry enthusiast. Ferries are running to Georges and Spectacle Islands in summer 2021, and visitors can take private boats to the islands year-round, but note that campsites are closed as of June 2021 due to a lack of restroom facilities.
6. Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.
This rugged green space in the nation’s capital is one of the oldest urban parks in the country, set aside for federal protection in 1890, years before the National Park Service officially existed. Twice as big as New York’s Central Park, the site preserves a 10-mile stretch of a picturesque stream that runs through the northwest area of the city toward the Potomac River. Visitors looking for things to do can choose from a little bit of everything; within the park are hiking and biking trails, equestrian paths, a boat launch, a series of Civil War forts, an 18-hole golf course, an amphitheater with concerts and other performances, a nature center, and the only planetarium managed by the National Park Service.
7. Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve, Florida
Just outside of downtown Jacksonville, this preserve protects 46,000 acres of wetlands, hardwood forests and coastal dunes along with historic sites and relics from 6,000 years of human habitation. The site is named for and helps preserve the history of the 35 Native American chiefdoms that lived in the region and spoke the Timucua language. The site also contains the remains of a cotton plantation with slave cabins, helping researchers better understand the culture and daily lives of enslaved people who lived there, as well as a historic beach founded during the Jim Crow era by Florida’s first African American millionaire. Popular outdoor activities include kayaking, bird-watching and camping.
8. Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Georgia
This park preserves 48 miles of the Chattahoochee — or as locals call it, “the Hooch” — where it flows through the northern suburbs of Atlanta, as well as 15 distinct parcels of land along the river’s banks. Boaters can paddle or tube the length of the river, which varies in difficulty from calm conditions to Class II rapids, depending on how much water is released from the Buford Dam just upstream of the park’s northern boundary. The recreation area also offers excellent trout, bass and catfish fishing and scenic spots to hike and picnic along the water.
9. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Just an hour southwest of Little Rock, this park preserves a geothermal hotspot located within the picturesque Ouachita Mountains. Visitors can hike, camp, and enjoy restaurants and shopping in the downtown Hot Springs area, though the centerpiece of the park is its historic Bathhouse Row. These eight elegant and architecturally noteworthy baths and gardens, built in the late 1800s through the 1920s, were once in competition with each other during a time when mineral baths were widely regarded as a remedy for illness. The entire row was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987, and today, two still operate as spa facilities where visitors can soak in the hot spring water and enjoy other services such as massages and manicures (one former bathhouse, the Fordyce, now serves as the park visitor center). Visitors can also drink the thermal water, and one former bathhouse features a brewery with a variety of beverages made from the park’s famed waters. Note that as of summer 2021, masking may be required in some indoor spaces; the park does not offer outdoor bathing.
10. Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
This remarkable lakeshore is a patchwork of breathtaking landscapes stitched together from parcels between industrial and residential developments, railroad lines, and interstate highways. Although many visitors come to swim and sunbathe among the namesake dunes along the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, the park’s marshes, prairies, bogs and forests are a joy to explore, with their rare butterflies and plants, including 28 species of native orchids. With 15 miles of shoreline and 45 miles of trails, this urban oasis between Gary and Michigan City, Indiana, feels like a world apart from downtown Chicago, despite being just 35 miles away.
This is an updated version of a previously published story.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.
- Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
- Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
- Gateway National Recreation Area
- Indiana Dunes National Park
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area
- Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
- Rock Creek Park
- Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
- Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve
- Hot Springs National Park