Blog Post Jennifer Errick Feb 1, 2016

Parks and the City: 9 Spots for an Urban Nature Fix

Need more time in nature? 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 9 parks are a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers and city lights.


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, further downstream. Visitors can 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 the largest urban national park 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 run from early May to mid-October, and visitors can take private boats to the islands year-round.

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 toiled 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. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, 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.

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