Top Ten Urban Escapes - Page 2

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Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
Boston Harbor
In a world where open space is hard to find near cities, the National Park Service finds innovative ways to bring nature and recreational activities to urban residents. One good example is Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, a collection of 34 islands and peninsulas close to the historic Massachusetts capital, administered through a partnership among federal, state, and local government agencies and private businesses. "Minutes away, worlds apart" is the park's slogan, and a visitor sea kayaking around Grape Island or hiking a trail at Worlds End, a 244-acre peninsula overlooking Hingham Harbor, would agree that the congestion of downtown Boston seems far removed. For great views of the Boston skyline, head to Spectacle Island, which has the highest point in the park, 157 feet above sea level, as well as 5 miles of hiking trails. History is represented at places such as Little Brewster Island, home to the country's oldest light station, and 19thcentury Army post Fort Warren on Georges Island.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Gary, Michigan City, and Chicago
A very high percentage of the nearly 2 million annual visitors to Indiana Dunes come simply to sunbathe or swim along 15 miles of sandy Lake Michigan shore. In itself, that resource makes the park a treasured getaway for residents of Chicago and nearby cities such as Gary and Michigan City, Indiana. Beyond the beach, though, trails wind through natural habitats of surprising biodiversity, with rare plants and butterflies living among the dunes, savannas, marshes, prairies, and woodlands. Miller Woods, Cowles Bog, Heron Rookery, and Lyco-ki-we are among the best trails for nature lovers, while the Mount Baldy Trail ascends a 126-foot dune for a panoramic view of Lake Michigan. Mount Baldy is a "moving" dune, pushed about 4 feet a year by prevailing winds. For a glimpse into the area's past, visit restored Chellberg Farm, where three generations of a family of Swedish farmers lived.

Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
Atlanta
Residents of Atlanta benefit today from planning decisions made in the 1970s, when public officials began working to protect 48 miles of the Chattahoochee River on the edge of the city. As Atlanta has grown, the various units of the national recreation area endure as green spaces for picnicking, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and nature enjoyment. The river itself is extremely popular for canoeing, kayaking, tubing, and rafting, as well as fishing for trout, bass, and catfish. (Because river water comes from the dam on Lake Sidney Lanier, it's mostly too cold for comfortable swimming even in summer.) Of the many separate units within the park, the Cochran Shoals area may be the most popular, with a 3-mile trail and a wetlands boardwalk. Concessionaires rent kayaks, canoes, and inner tubes at several locations along the Chattahoochee.

Mississippi River National River & Recreation Area
Minneapolis and St. Paul
With various units spanning 72 miles of the Mississippi River in the vicinity of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, this park is actually a consortium of state, regional, county, and municipal areas, ranging from city parks to museums and from wildlife refuges to historic sites. The Park Service owns only 35 of the recreation area's 54,000 acres, but coordinates activities and assists travelers from its visitor center in downtown St. Paul. Other visitor centers are located in various units including Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis, home of 53-foot-tall Minnehaha Falls, mentioned in Longfellow's poem "Song of Hiawatha." Citizens of the Twin Cities happily avail themselves of the area's opportunities for hiking, cross-country skiing (Fort Snelling State Park is a favorite), and canoeing. The 12.7-mile stretch of the Mississippi between the Crow River boat ramp and the Coon Rapids Dam offers excellent scenery and wildlife far different from the commercial waterway downstream.

Biscayne National Park
Miami
Ninety-five percent of the 172,000 acres of this Florida Atlantic coast park is water—but that only makes it more of an attraction for residents of Miami, where boating is a way of life for many people. Within sight of downtown skyscrapers, Biscayne National Park offers diving, snorkeling, canoeing, and kayaking, as well as islands to visit for those with their own power boats. Exploring Biscayne Bay, one can see part of the world's third largest coral reef, as well as more than 500 species of fish, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, and occasionally American crocodiles. Some of the larger keys (coral islets) in the national park offer camping and hiking (winter is best for avoiding mosquitoes). Tropical hardwood forests host rare and endangered birds and butterflies. One oddly historic hiking path is the infamous "Spite Highway," a road bulldozed in the1960s by developers trying to ruin the environment and prevent the creation of a national park here. The 7-mile route on Elliott Key has slowly recovered from the intentional destruction, with native vegetation masking the scar.

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