Top 10 Cities for a Nature Escape Close to Home

Wendy Worrall Redal by Wendy Worrall Redal | July 20th, 2012 | 2 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

It’s July, it’s hot, and there’s still a chunk of sizzling summer ahead. Whether or not you’ve already taken a vacation with family or friends, you may be yearning to get out and enjoy the refreshment of cooler green spaces.

But you needn’t spend pricey gas on a trip to the mountains or the shore if you’re fortunate enough to have nature in your neighborhood. Some cities are especially blessed with public green spaces, and a new project called ParkScore can help you find your city’s best natural oases amidst the sprawl of asphalt, subdivisions and strip malls that weary our spirits on sultry summer days.

A project of The Trust for Public Land, ParkScore assesses the acreage, access and investment that cities have made in urban parks, assigning each city a score from 1 to 100. So far, the country’s 40 largest cities have been analyzed, with more to come.

If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the country’s leading cities for parks, your nature escape may be just a bike ride or a bus ride away. But even if you’re out in the hinterlands, some of these urban parks are so vast and impressive that they are deserving of a day-trip mini vacation.

America’s Urban Park Leaders

1. San Francisco, CA

The Presidio, San Francisco, CA

Coastal bluffs, The Presidio, San Francisco, CA. Photo credit: National Park Service/Will Elder

Not surprisingly, San Francisco led the rankings, with nearly 18 percent of the city preserved in parks like Golden Gate, home to museums and botanical gardens, and the 1,500-acre Presidio, a former army post for Spain, Mexico and the U.S. Add Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods and Mt. Tamalpais State Park on the city’s close-in fringe and you’ve got a massive wild playground at your backdoor.

2. Sacramento, CA

Ninety miles inland, Sacramento is a close second to the City by the Bay. From Sutter Land Grants Park, established in 1849, to the 23-mile-long American River Parkway, Sacramento has no shortage of great places to relax and recreate. The city’s historic core, containing more than 50 buildings dating to the gold rush days of the 1850s, is a 28-acre National Historic Landmark protected as Old Sacramento State Historic Park, the largest such district in the West.

3. Boston, MA

The Back Bay Fens, Boston, MA

The Back Bay Fens, part of Boston's Emerald Necklace, were once a polluted salt marsh. Photo credit:

With nearly 5,000 acres of parks from genteel Copley Square to the Back Bay Fens, Boston is the leader back east. Boston Common, the city’s historic heart, was set aside in 1634, and visitors still throng to the park to ride the swan boats and doze beneath leafy trees. Boston’s Emerald Necklace, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, is an 1,100-acre chain of nine parks linked by parkways and waterways to connect Boston Common and the Public Garden to Franklin Park, the great “country park” established in 1885 that’s home to Boston’s zoo.

4. New York, NY

For a city of more than 8 million, it’s remarkable that nearly 20 percent of New York’s land is dedicated to parks — but then, what kind of space could be more important in such a densely populated metropolis? From urban squares of less than an acre to Central Park, the vast green lungs of Manhattan, New York’s parks are where much of public life plays out in the nation’s largest city. Nearly 100 percent of New York’s lowest-income residents are within a 10-minute walk of a public park, making the city among the highest in terms of park access.

5. Washington, D.C.

The National Mall is Washington’s most-visited park, home to the nation’s most cherished icons, from the U.S. Capitol on one end to the Lincoln Memorial on the other, with the Washington Monument rising in the center. But it’s Rock Creek Park that offers a true nature immersion, with an extensive system of hiking trails and bicycle paths through dense forest that’s home to plenty of wildlife. Established in 1890 as a rural retreat on the edge of the growing city, Rock Creek Park is now an urban oasis in the nation’s capital.

6. Portland, OR

The Wildwood Trail, Portland, OR

The Wildwood Trail in Portland's Forest Park is a National Recreational Trail that's part of the city's 40 Mile Loop system. Photo: Wikipedia

Anyone who’s been to Oregon’s hippest and greenest city knows that Portland and parks are nearly synonymous. Forest Park is one of North America’s largest urban forest preserves, 5,157 acres in the Tualatin Mountains just west of downtown. Mostly second-growth forest with patches of old growth, the park is laced with 70 miles of recreational trails, including the Wildwood Trail segment of the city’s 40 Mile Loop system. Washington Park, home to the famous International Rose Test Garden, is also a Portland park system highlight.

7. Virginia Beach, VA

False Cape State Park, Virginia Beach, VA

Hiking the dunes at False Cape State Park, Virginia Beach, VA. Photo credit: Amber Karnes

The 265 parks of Virginia Beach provide an impressive ratio of eight people served per every one acre of parkland. Included is one of the most pristine stretches of coastal wetland, dune and swamp forest habitat in the mid-Atlantic, a one-by-six-mile strip of land protected as False Cape Natural Area Preserve. First Landing State Park on Chesapeake Bay is the city’s most visited. On the site where members of the Virginia Company landed before settling Jamestown, its 2,888 acres offer boating, swimming, hiking, biking, picnicking and camping just north of the city.

8. San Diego, CA

California scores a trifecta with the addition of San Diego to the Top 10. From Balboa Park, home to the famous zoo in the heart of the city, to the sandy expanse of Mission Bay Park on the Pacific, to the more than 6,000 acres of rugged hills, valleys and open land encompassed by Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego’s 1.3 million residents have no shortage of places to play.

9. Seattle, WA

Seattle’s nickname is the Emerald City, and its 5,476 acres of parks — 10 percent of the city — have a lot to do with that identity. Most of Seattle’s parks capitalize on the city’s abundant water, from Seward Park’s old growth and eagle nests on Lake Washington to Golden Gardens’ California-style beach vibe on Puget Sound. Green Lake, center of the eponymous north Seattle neighborhood, draws scads of joggers, roller bladers and stroller pushers to the 3-mile trail around its perimeter, while Discovery Park, perched on the side of Magnolia Bluff, offers a forested escape from the din of the city, with dramatic sea cliffs, secluded beaches and a panorama of the Olympic Mountains.

10. Philadelphia, PA

Historic Philadelphia boasts a scattering of dignified urban squares dating to the colonial area — Rittenhouse, Washington, Logan and Franklin date to 1682 — as well as vast wooded parkways along the Schuylkill River that draw cyclists, runners and boaters. The city’s 9,200-acre urban park system is known collectively as Fairmount Park, one of the largest tracts of city green space in the country. With 215 miles of recreational trails, 139 picnic sites, 34 miles of waterways, six golf courses, and 368 athletic fields and outdoor courts, Fairmount owns the title as Philadelphia’s playground.

Discover some of the world’s best wildlife parks at!

Feature photo: Cooling off at Valley Green on Wissahickon Creek, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, PA. Photo credit:


  1. Too bad the writer only included coastal locations… The Midwest has many great sites and natural hiking locations. Kansas City has loads of gorgeous nature trails, Kentucky has multiple locations… Lakes of the Ozarks, etc …

    Krisedler | July 20th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  2. Thanks for your comment, and for the great suggestions in the Midwest! Actually, I was just highlighting the Top Ten list from the Trust for Public Lands’ ParkScore index – and I didn’t even register that they were all in coastal cities. The next set (10-20) includes some great interior/Midwest cities including Denver, Chicago, Kansas City & Milwaukee. Find more here:

    Wendy Worrall Redal | July 24th, 2012 | Comment Permalink

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