Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, USA with autumn foliage.

America’s Best Urban Parks You Might Not Have Heard Of

BY Matt Meltzer | April 17, 2024

New York City’s Central Park and other urban green spaces like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park or Boston Common are well known, but, despite what movies and TV would lead you to believe, they’re hardly the only great city parks in the country. Many civic gardens offer the same respites in manicured wilderness, often with their own museums, restaurants and other attractions. Here are 11 superb city parks you may have overlooked, from the shores of San Diego to the plains of South Dakota.

Forest Park, St. Louis, Mo.

Picture of the Bandstand in Forest Park in St. Louis. Photo via Shutterstock.

Back during the industrial era, between roughly 1760 and 1840, doctors prescribed escapes into nature as a medicine for the pollution of big cities. In St. Louis, that meant a trip out to Forest Park, a 1,300-acre park that was 20 minutes by rail from the city when it opened in the late 1800s. It hosted the 1904 World’s Fair, and the main hall from the original expo still remains as part of the St. Louis Art Museum. In the intervening years, the science center, the zoo and the Missouri History Museum have all been added to Forest Park, too. But this park isn’t just for intellectual pursuit: outdoor adventures abound with over 30 miles of trails spanning 190 acres of nature reserve.

Magnuson Park, Seattle, Wash.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Parks & Recreation | CC BY 2.0

Seattle isn’t lacking for urban parks, and you could make a strong case for quirky Gas Works Park or stunning Discovery Park as among the best in America. However, on the odd sunny Seattle day, Magnuson Park is one of the most scenic places in the city. Here, you can go for a run by Lake Washington, end up at the Soundgarden sculpture – yes, the same one the band is named after — and get incredible views of the Cascade Mountains from the park’s shores. Venture over to the old Naval station and post up with a beer at Magnuson Brewery to take in the vista more slowly, though on nice afternoons you’ll want to get there early if you want a seat.

Falls Park on the Reedy, Greenville, S.C.

Photo courtesy of Angela M. Miller | CC BY-SA 2.0

Downtown Greenville is one of the most charmingly walkable city centers, and at its core, you’ll find Falls Park. This urban oasis centers around a meandering waterfall on the Reedy River, visible from terraced benches lining the park’s edges. Greenville’s iconic Liberty Bridge connects the park to the city’s west side, so if you’re up for a walking tour you can start downtown, relax in the park, and then amble to west Greenville. In 2022, the park welcomed the Grand Bohemian Lodge, a mix of European ski lodge and modern boutique hotel with rooms set right above the waterfall.

Buffalo Bayou, Houston, Texas

Photo courtesy of Patrick Feller | CC BY 2.0

Because it provided an abundant source of fresh water, the Buffalo Bayou was a crucial element of Houston’s early history and was where the city’s first European settlers set up camp. Today, it is flanked by a 130-acre park where people can rent boats and traverse what is still Houston’s main waterway. Both sides of the river are lined with a 10-foot wide trail, but it might be more fun to head off the paths and get lost in the deep woods of the Green Tree nature area or the calming wetlands of the Tapley Tributary. Underground, you’ll find a 97-year-old decommissioned water cistern, which you can tour. 

Forest Park, Portland, Ore.

Photo courtesy of Steve AM | CC BY-SA 2.0

Long-distance hiking is almost unheard of in urban areas, but in Portland’s 5,200-acre swath of northwestern wilderness, ambitious hikers can tackle the 30.2-mile Wildwood Trail. Doing it all in one day is a feat, but Wildwood also has plenty of shorter routes that wind through the sea of Douglas Firs, maples and cedars. At the top of the park sits Pittock Mansion, a historic home with broad views of Portland’s skyline and Mt. Hood. You can tour the 1914 French chateau if you like, though, after a day of hiking, it’s sometimes best to just sit down and take in the panorama.

The Gathering Place, Tulsa, Okla.

Photo courtesy of Paul Sableman | CC BY 2.0

Set along the banks of the Arkansas River, Tulsa’s The Gathering Place instantly became one of the city’s most talked-about attractions when it opened in 2018. The park has dozens of different ways to get outside, from BMX trails to a skate park to several spacious grand lawns. For the youthful, it also has a zipline, ropes course, a splash zone, and a massive playground built around a pair of towers ripe for exploration. During warmer months, you can rent boats at the Gathering Place and paddle out on the Arkansas River. 

Falls Park, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Photo courtesy of James St. John | CC BY 2.0

As its name might imply, South Dakota’s largest city is named after a waterfall along the Big Sioux River. The city’s emblematic natural feature is the centerpiece of a 128-acre park north of downtown, where you can head to the top of an observation tower for a postcard view of the falls and the skyline. Reward yourself for the epic climb with a beer at the waterside Falls Café, or continue your active day with a jog or bike ride along the 19-mile Big Sioux Recreation Trail and Greenway. As public parks in smaller cities go, it’s hard to top the rushing waters in Falls Park. And if you ever find yourself on a road trip across South Dakota, it’s worth the short detour into town to check it out.

Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Ga.

Photo courtesy of mcclanahoochie | CC BY-SA 2.0

If you’ve ever seen those pictures of Atlanta where the skyline reflects on a still lake surrounded by trees, you’ve seen Lake Clara Meer in Piedmont Park. Atlanta’s central urban greenspace abuts several of its most popular neighborhoods, connecting them all to the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile multi-use trail built on what was once railroad tracks. The 200-acre park is packed with paved trails, thick forest and rambling lawns, hosting myriad local festivals like Atlanta Food and Wine and Atlanta Pride. It’s also home to an aquatic center and splash pad that has a beach entrance and wading area. And just outside its gates, you can hit the Atlanta Botanical Garden with its 30 acres of manicured foliage.

Belle Isle, Detroit, Mich.

Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, USA with autumn foliage. Photo via Shutterstock.

This island in the middle of the Detroit River sits smack between the U.S. and Canada, with views of the Detroit skyline on one side and the casinos of Windsor, Ontario on the other. Belle Isle has been around for over 140 years and has been a historic escape for Detroiters. It’s outfitted with a swimming beach, a kayaking and ice skating lake and even the Detroit Yacht Club, but the island’s signature attraction is the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, an Albert Kahn-designed showcase of plant life that’s a perfect example of why Detroit is one of America’s best cities for architecture.

Balboa Park, San Diego, Calif.

Photo courtesy of Bernard Gagnon | CC BY-SA 3.0

Balboa Park could stand as one of the country’s great cultural centers all on its own. Inside the park, you’ll find the world-famous San Diego Zoo as well as 17 other museums, including an automotive museum and a whole museum dedicated to ComiCon. The park is packed with nature, too. Among its winding canyons are 65 miles of trails and jaw-dropping viewpoints of the San Diego Skyline and Mission Bay. Did we mention it’s also home to the largest pipe organ in the world? Because it is — another reason why Balboa Park is truly a destination unto itself.