The very idea of a national park conjures images of wide open spaces — rolling plains, rugged mountains, and secluded forests. That might often be the case, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
In fact, some of our most exciting parks are in, or just a stone's throw from America's biggest cities, providing unique opportunities for urban residents (and visitors) to experience the natural, historical, and cultural heritage of our national parks.
Our Urban Playgrounds Owner's Guide highlights some of the most treasured urban parks in the United States, including gems like these:
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Los Angeles, California
Spanning more than 150,000 acres, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the largest urban national park on earth. For outdoor enthusiasts in the Los Angeles area, it's a paradise. The park is home to a vast system of hiking and mountain biking trails, including the 67-mile Backbone Trail, which is prime territory for long-distance backpacking. There's also camping, rock climbing, horseback riding, and more.
Statue of Liberty National Monument
New York, New York
Arguably America's most iconic landmark, the Statue of Liberty has stood watch over New York harbor since 1886. Ferries depart for the statue from Battery Park in Manhattan and Liberty State Park in New Jersey, giving you the opportunity to view Lady Liberty from her pedestal, or climb to the crown for a once-in-a-lifetime view of New York City. Statue of Liberty National Monument also includes Ellis Island, where the National Museum of Immigration reveals the stories of the countless people who came to the United States through the island in search of a better future.
Big Thicket National Preserve
This slice of Southeast Texas wilderness is just a short drive from Houston. Big Thicket National Preserve is home to a stunning diversity of wildlife, encompassing several distinct ecosystems and providing refuge for countless migratory bird species throughout the year. Camp overnight at a primitive backcountry campsite, paddle along miles of canoe and kayak trails, or check as many as 185 birds off your bird-watching checklist. Fishing and hunting are also allowed with a valid license during appropriate seasons.
National Mall and Memorial Parks
Washington, D.C. is home to one of America's great urban playgrounds, with a collection of outstanding metropolitan parks and memorials within walking distance of each other. The National Mall and Memorial Parks include the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial, among many others. To explore it all, it's best to take your time and make a day of it — downloading the National Mall app on your smartphone also helps. For the best views, plan your visit in spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom!
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
St. Paul, Minnesota
Up in Minnesota, the Big Muddy isn't nearly as big or as muddy as it is down south, but the Mississippi River has a powerful draw with no regard for state or region. Mississippi National River and Recreation Area protects 72 miles of the iconic river and more than 50,000 acres of land along the water’s banks. Go for a jog on the urban riverside trails in St. Paul, explore the mighty river by kayak, and experience some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in North America.
Looking for more great national parks in the city? Check out the Urban Playgrounds Owner’s Guide, available to download for free. As we welcome the next century of the National Park Service in 2017, it’s a great opportunity to explore parks of all kinds, in all kinds of settings!
Last updated February 25, 2016.
Photo credits: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area by @xitsxjessx; Statue of Liberty National Monument by @lesspix; Big Thicket National Preserve by @rowanisrad; National Mall & Memorial Parks by @pdiddypics; and Mississippi National River and Recreation Area by @heidisandell.