Top Ten Urban Escapes

Green spaces near city places
Gorp.com
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Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park  (National Park Service)
Urban National Parks
National park? Isn't that a huge tract of wilderness far removed from civilization, with perhaps high mountains and vast forests? That was a common perception until the 1960s and '70s, when the first nature- and recreationoriented "urban" national park units were established (as distinguished from, for example, historic sites such as Statue of Liberty National Monument). Fire Island National Seashore (near New York City), Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (near Chicago), Gateway National Recreation Area (in and around New York City), and Golden Gate National Recreation Area (in and around San Francisco) were among the first sites dedicated to the idea that urban residents, too, deserve national parks. These and similar National Park System sites across the country now provide a taste of the natural world to countless people who might otherwise experience it only on television or the Internet.
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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.

Gateway National Recreation Area
New York Harbor, New York, and New Jersey
With three units located around New York Harbor in both 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.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area
San Francisco Bay Area
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.

Rock Creek Park
Washington, D.C.
Stretching for 10 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."

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Los Angeles into Ventura County
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.

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 (Mem. Day–Oct.) is a living history attraction that re-creates 19th-century farm life in the Cuyahoga Valley.

Published: 23 May 2011 | Last Updated: 26 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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