The List: 9 of America’s Best Urban Parks

The List: 9 of America’s Best Urban Parks

When we think of “best urban parks,” we aren’t thinking about the best places to walk your dog or see

That would be the Flatirons.

That would be the Flatirons.

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.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.
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Showing 15 comments
  • Tom

    How ’bout a urban park that’s also a National Park. Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Trail running is king, with fantastic vistas at The Ledges and local favorite, Brandywine Falls its a Midwest gem. Not to be overlooked as an urban park, after all it is with in an hour’s drive for some 4 million people and connects two metropolises. I would also mention Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore. The fact that these places even exist among such massive populations is a testimony to their greatness and our need for natural environments.

  • Martin

    You missed perhaps the best of all- Griffith Park, Los Angeles. Where else can you live smack dab in the middle of a huge sprawling concrete waste land and also be blocks away from 52 miles of trails and nearly 1000′ of vert?

  • Craig Rowe

    Just 9 of … not all. People really get offended by lists.


    No Fairmount Park in Philadelphia? Largest urban park in the country. Miles of bike trails, hiking, river, streams, fishing, etc.

  • Lowell Goss

    Don’t forget Angeles National Forest. Just north of downtown LA are 10,000 cliffs, Alps like cycling and over 1000 sq miles of wilderness.

  • Matt

    Underrated and under appreciated: Shelby Farms in Memphis. Miles of hiking/biking trails and tons good places to get lost.

  • Bob D

    What I like about this list is it showcases the value of urban parks. People need to get outside more and move. Especially in the Midwest and South. In Tulsa, we have Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness. It’s small compared to all of these, but it boasts miles and miles (I’m not sure how many, but at least 30 or 40) of awesome singletrack trails used by MTB enthusiasts, trail runners and hikers. The parking lot at the trailhead is often at least half filled, and packed on weekends. As a trail runner, you can pack in 1,000 feet of vert within 10-12 miles of running if you want, most of it through indigenous oak forest.

    This is a real gem in a Mid-South city that I hope can be preserved and expanded, just like the awesome parks that made your list.

  • Michael

    You forgot about Wissahickon Valley Park in Philadelphia.

  • Michael

    Don’t forget about the Wissahickon Valley Park in Philadelphia!

  • Dennis

    I grew up in Phoenix and have to say for a city that size the two parks you picked are great. In addition there is also the Phoenix Mountain Preserve for great mountain biking, trail running and horseback riding. Spent lots of time growing up at all three parks. Except when I used to climb the Monk it was only rated 5.6 and was pretty easy.

    For a mid size city Spokane, Wa has Riverside State Park with class 2-3 whitewater, miles of Singletrack, a canoeing trail in a wildlife corridor. It covers practically the whole west side of town and hosts a 24-hour mountain bike race every Memorial day weekend. Can hike and snowshoe it in the winter and the best part is for an urban park it is very uncrowded. Most summer Saturday’s I might see 2 or 3 other people and that’s it. Oh yeah, there’s some fairly decent rock climbing there too.

  • Heather

    #10 – Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Tucked in between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, there’s miles and miles of hiking trails (including a section of the Buckeye Trail), a hiker/biker campground, challenging kayaking, awesome road biking, mountain biking is coming, and some seriously steep hills considering it’s Ohio. It also hosts some really great trail running events, including a really challenging fall running series with up to 200 runners at each event, which seem like a cross between a cross-country race and an adventure race.

    But I really like this list! Urban parks are extremely important to so many people, so let’s celebrate them!

  • James

    Huuuuuuuge snub to LA for excluding Griffith Park. Until Central Park gets a mountain, this list is worthless.

  • Nate

    Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego. Largest city-owned park in the state. Great history, hiking, fishing, rock climbing.

  • Filibuster Cash

    Great start! Maybe make a bunch more space; this country’s huge, if you ain’t been told. Add Point Defiance in Tacoma. Up there with Fairmount in Philly at the top of the urban park acrage list, full of trails, Doug fir, rhododendron, “beaches” (rocky shoreline), a zoo and an aquarium, botanical gardens, good roads for fred-rides, great for after-dark duck-the-gate booze-cruise barbecues overlooking Dalco Passage and the Narrows. . .

  • Kyle

    Great list! Just want to give a quick shout out to Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego! 5 1000+ ft peaks, miles and miles of trails, and only a 15 minute drive from the beach!

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