Nothing beats escaping from the city on a hot summer day quite like a visit to one of our nation’s finest inventions: the national park system. Enjoy nature, beef up your historical knowledge, and spend quality time with friends or family in these public lands within, or just outside, major U.S. cities.
1. Golden Gate National Recreation Area // San Francisco, California
One of the world’s largest urban parks, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a collection of natural and cultural sites in and around the city of San Francisco. The park includes major historical sites, including Alcatraz Island, Muir Woods National Monument, and the Presidio of San Francisco, and covers 59 miles of California’s shoreline.
The recreation area’s 19 different ecosystems are home to more than 2000 plant and animal species, including coast redwoods, harbor seals, and steelhead trout. Because of its incredible biodiversity, the parks were designated a UNESCO Biosphere Region in 1988 [PDF]. Visitors also come to see monuments to Northern California’s military history, explore beaches, and learn how the Buffalo Soldiers [PDF] and other groups contributed to the city’s story.
2. Cuyahoga Valley National Park // Cleveland, Ohio
A 30-minute drive outside Cleveland, Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley National Park encompasses forests and farmlands surrounding the Cuyahoga River. Ohio’s only national park is known for its hiking trails, paddling routes, and access to the historic Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. You can travel through the park on the scenic railway and catch eagles, beavers, and herons going about their day. Or, pedal or hike the 20-mile Towpath Trail to glimpse native plants and wildlife.
3. Gateway National Recreation Area // New York City, New York
Spanning the boundary from the ocean into New York’s harbor, Gateway National Recreation Area draws city folks looking to view wildlife, hang out at the beach, and take part in activities like biking, boating, paddling, or fishing. The recreation area is spread across three units in New York and New Jersey, and encompasses 11 separate parks sites, most of which are accessible by subway, bus, or ferry.
In the Jamaica Bay Unit, located in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is the only such sanctuary in the national park system. It’s known as a prime location for birdwatching and important nesting site for diamondback terrapins, horseshoe crabs, and endangered piping plovers. The Staten Island Unit’s beaches and nature trails are a quiet respite from the hustle, while the Sandy Hook Unit in New Jersey is a popular fishing spot accessible by ferry from Manhattan during the summer.
4. Saguaro National Park // Tucson, Arizona
Saguaro National Park’s two separate units, the Tucson Mountain District and Rincon Mountain District, sandwich the city of Tucson on its eastern and western sides. These desert parks are home to a variety of protected landscapes, fauna, and flora—not the least of which is its namesake cactus, the giant saguaro.
Visitors are attracted to Saguaro National Park’s year-round camping, 165 miles of hiking trails, and the chance to bike and horseback-ride throughout the park’s arid terrain. If you’re lucky, you might spot a desert cottontail, white-tailed deer, bobcat, cougar, or jackrabbit—but you’ll be sure to see one of the park’s iconic cacti.
5. National Mall // Washington, D.C.
Tourists and D.C. residents alike flock to the National Mall for its beauty, inspiring museums, and many historical sites. The two-mile promenade includes landmarks such as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, 11 Smithsonian museums, and many more. If walking between sites isn’t enough physical activity, visitors can take advantage of the East Potomac Golf Course and Tennis Center, a short walk from the National Mall, or rent a paddleboat on the Tidal Basin (from March to September).
The National Mall is packed during peak cherry blossom viewing season in March and April, when the thousands of cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin are in full bloom. Summer brings the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, outdoor concerts, and tours by NPS rangers.
6. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area // Las Vegas, Nevada
Fifteen miles outside of Las Vegas lies the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The site is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management and attracts more than 3 million visitors a year thanks to its unique rock formations and opportunities for recreation. The conservation area includes red rock escarpments up to 3000 feet high that serve as popular routes for hiking, as well as a top rock-climbing destination.
Bisecting the conservation area is a 13-mile, one-way scenic road that allows visitors to drive through the entirety of the park, although visitors traveling by bicycle can safely use the road as well.
7. Mississippi National River and Recreation Area // Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota
Right in the middle of the Twin Cities metro region is the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a 72-mile river park known for its fishing, kayaking, bicycling, hiking, and more.
Daytrippers can stop by the Upper St. Anthony Falls Visitor Center or Mississippi River Visitor Center for guided tours, historical information about the river, and programs for children. Another popular destination for those hoping to get familiar with America’s iconic waterway is a day hike at Coldwater Spring, a system of trails surrounded by wetlands. No kayak? No problem—paddlers looking to get on the water can take advantage of Paddle Share, a self-serve kayak sharing system.
8. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area // Los Angeles, California
One of the largest urban national park in the world, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area provides the greater Los Angeles region with over 500 miles of trails, historical sites, and some of the best beaches in the United States.
Amid beautiful, mountainous scenery, visitors can enjoy whale watching, birding, rock climbing, camping, and hiking. The famed Backbone Trail attracts endurance hikers looking to cover the 67 miles of terrain from the Pacific Ocean to West Hollywood. Along the way, you can spot some of the Mediterranean habitat’s 500 species of birds, reptiles, and mammals, including mountain lions. In fact, the Los Angeles region is one of only two megacities in the world with a resident population of big cats (the other is Mumbai, India, with its local leopards).
9. Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area // Atlanta, Georgia
Outside Atlanta, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is a 48-mile stretch of river named the first “water trail” in the United States in 2012. Sections of calm waters are interspersed with gentle rapids, ideal for lazily floating downstream in a rented inner tube or rafting over the whitewater. The trail between Powers Island and Paces Mill is a particularly popular route. Anglers can cast their lines for trout, bass, and catfish. There’s also a three-mile fitness trail beloved by walkers, runners, and cyclists.
10. Independence National Historical Park // Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The 55-acre Independence National Historical Park is nicknamed “America’s most historic square mile.” The site comprises several buildings associated with the American Revolution, including Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were signed; the Liberty Bell Center, home to the famous symbol of freedom; and City Tavern, where the Founders relaxed after long days of debate.
Visitors can attend tours of Independence Hall, which welcomes over 4 million people a year, and the surrounding sites with free, timed entry tickets. The large green lawn in front of the hall is a good place to take a break and or have a picnic.
11. Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge // Denver, Colorado
Just eight miles from Denver, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is home to over 330 species of animals, including deer, birds of prey, raccoons, coyotes, and bison. The 25-square-mile park, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, offers free nature programs in July and August, and boasts 20 miles of hiking trails, biking routes, fishing, an archery range, and an 11-mile wildlife auto tour.
The refuge, a former World War II munitions plant and chemical factory, was cleaned up in the 1990s and designated as wildlife habitat in 2004, following the discovery of a bald eagle roost on the site.