When we think of “best urban parks,” we aren’t thinking about the best places to walk your dog or see an outdoor concert, or places with good museums, or ornate fountains or flower gardens and such. We’re talking Class 3 man-made whitewater, 1,000-foot trad climbs, 15-mile mountain bike trails, and 25-mile hiking trails. Stuff like that. Here are our picks.
1. Camelback Mountain and South Mountain Parks, Phoenix, Arizona
More than 300,000 people per year hike the trails at Camelback Mountain, many to its 2,700-foot summit (1,600 feet above the city). There’s rock climbing a few minutes from the parking lot, the most famous of which is the Praying Monk, an easy 5.8 sport route that many a party have climbed and at least one group hauled a grill up. At the south end of Phoenix is the 16,000-acre South Mountain Park, the largest municipal park in the country, home to 51 miles of trails, including the National Trail, a 15-mile mountain biking classic.
2. Truckee River Whitewater Park, Reno, Nevada
Does your city have a half-mile of man-made Class 2 and 3 whitewater running through it? Reno does. Thanks to visionary whitewater park designers, the two channels of the Truckee River Whitewater Park (one’s 1,400 feet long, the other 1,200 feet long) are a playground for paddlers: 11 drop pools, 7,000 tons of smooth flat-top rocks and boulders, within walking distance of downtown, paid for by $1.5 million in state bond money, and managed by the city.
3. Chautauqua Park, Boulder, Colorado
Okay, how about 1,000 feet of climbing, 1.5 miles from downtown? Boulder’s Flatirons are accessed from the Chautauqua Park trailheads here, one of the most popular entry points to the open space in the Front Range foothills. Thousands of climbing routes (including the classic eight-pitch East Face of the Third Flatiron, which Royal Robbins called “the best beginner rock climb in the universe”) and dozens of miles of wooded trails rise out of the city — quite a distraction to those who live and work here.
4. Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado
When it comes to climbing in a municipal park, with almost zero approach hike, Garden of the Gods has it — multipitch routes, sport routes, and bouldering on blood-red sandstone. The five-square-mile park is on the outskirts of the city, not at the center, but no other city has such otherworldly rock formations in a free park. And hundreds of climbing routes, many first ascended by some big names in Colorado climbing history. The atmosphere’s unique — if you’re a climber, you’re in visibility of dozens of other park users, which makes you a tourist attraction and a kind of celebrity. If you don’t climb, the park has 15 miles of trails, and plenty of folks use the scenic loop road for a training burn on a bike.
5. I-5 Colonnade Mountain Bike Park, Seattle, Washington
Leave it to the forward-thinkers in Seattle to come up with the first-ever urban mountain bike skills park: The I-5 Colonnade Mountain Bike Park sits mostly under I-5, keeping it dry, and has rock chutes, ladder bridges, rock step-ups, and tons of other constructed features to make you a better rider…or send you over the bars. The park opened in 2005, showing cities that freeway overpasses could be more than just homes for transient populations.
6. Valmont Bike Park, Boulder, Colorado
Valmont is a dream for a kid on a bike, whatever age: 40 acres of dirt jumps, pump tracks, slopestyle and a dual slalom course, in town, on city property, a four-mile bike-path ride from downtown. More than 50,000 cyclists rode at Valmont in its first year of operation, and the two-year-old park will be home to the 2014 Cyclocross National Championships.
7. Barton Creek Greenbelt, Austin, Texas
More than 80 legit single-pitch climbing routes, a two-mile-long cave (Airman’s Cave), miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, and a handful of swimming holes (when the creek is flowing), the 7.25-mile-long Barton Creek Greenbelt is a true Austin gem, and an outdoor gym for many of the fit folks who live here. And since it’s in Austin, it’s warm year-round.
8. Forest Park, Portland, Oregon
They weren’t thinking wishfully when they named this one: More than 5,000 acres of preserve, including 80 miles of trails, in the city of Portland. And one of those trails, the Wildwood Trail, is 27 miles long. Forest Park is working on being more mountain bike-friendly (28 miles of trails are open to MTB traffic). Segments of the forest are old-growth, and the park is home to more than 100 bird species and more than 60 mammal species — all within a few minutes from downtown Portland.
9. Central Park, New York City
In the heart of America’s most famous, busiest city, on an island where more than 1.6 million people hustle and speak more than 800 languages, there is: bouldering. On real rock. You know 843-acre Central Park for its running and cycling opportunities (much of the six-mile loop road is closed during prime exercise times on weekdays, and all weekends), but it’s notable for its climbing, too. Scattered throughout the park on Rat Rock, Cat Rock, and a handful of other outcrops, the bouldering here ain’t exactly Fountainbleau, but it’s pretty amazing finding it a few blocks from Times Square and a two-minute walk from a subway stop.