The 10 Best Urban National Parks

Experience the outdoor wonder and activities offered by these easily accessible, NPS-managed standouts near major cities across the country.

What comes to mind when you hear “national park?” For most people, it’s a grand, wild landscape in a remote area, such as Yosemite or the Glacier. But those marquee parks are just the tip of the iceberg in our national park system. The National Park Service (NPS) encompasses more than 400 sites, including historic sites, battlefields, seashores, and monuments—and many of them are a lot closer to home than you might realize. 

The country’s best urban parks offer quiet trails, deep woods, sweeping views, and peaceful waters, just like their more famous counterparts. And because they’re located close to millions of Americans, they’re much more accessible everyday escapes. No need to book a plane ticket or reserve a permit six months in advance; these 10 standout national park units are ready to welcome you for after-work walks and impromptu weekend picnics. And if we didn’t name an urban park near you, check out the NPS’s Find a Park tool: You might just discover your new favorite hometown destination.

East Coast

Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, MA

Time from Boston: 30 to 45 minutes on the ferry

Public transit options: Several bus lines serve the two ferry terminals.

Spread across 34 islands and peninsulas, this park just southeast of Boston—jointly managed with the state park system—offers a mix of nature and history. You can sea kayak, hike, swim, or camp in a tent at sites here, but also see a Civil War-era fort or tour lighthouses on a cruise. Expect to explore swimming beaches, rocky coastline, and open meadows where deer and turkey make their homes. Several of the islands are accessible via public ferry during the warmer months, but visitors can also boat and sail to others, and a few sites are found on the mainland, too. 

Fire Island National Seashore, NY

Time from Manhattan: 1 hour, 40 minutes by car; roughly 2 hours by train/ferry

Public transit options: Long Island Railroad runs from Penn Station to several access points, including three mainland ferry terminals. 

On this barrier island off the southern shore of Long Island, you’ll find salt marshes, eelgrass beds, sugary sand dunes, a unique maritime holly forest—and a front-row seat to the Atlantic Ocean. A variety of wildlife make their homes here, including red fox, finback whales, harbor seals, and nesting piping plovers. Naturally, many outdoor activities here center around the water, from swimming to fishing for striped bass to boating and paddling or simply wandering miles of the beach. You can also backcountry camp among the grassy dunes (tent camping is available at adjacent Smith Point County Park, too). 

Gateway National Recreation Area, NY/NJ

Time from Manhattan: From 1 hour, 10 minutes (bus to Staten Island) to 1 hour, 30 minutes (car to Sandy Hook)

Public transit options: Gateway’s many different sites are accessible by bus, subway, and ferry.

It’s tough to get much closer to New York City’s developed core than Gateway, which consists of three units around the bays between New York and New Jersey: two in Queens/Brooklyn and Staten Island, and one in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The three sites feature a variety of oceanfront ecosystems, like beaches, salt marshes, and woodlands, habitat for everything from muskrats and harbor seals to foxes and diamondback terrapins. It’s an excellent birding spot—look out for oystercatchers and osprey—as well as a great place to canoe, kayak, fish, swim, and bike. You can even sleep under the stars at the Sandy Hook unit’s campground. 

Great Falls Park, VA

Time from Washington, D.C.: 35 minutes by car

Public transit options: The Metro can get you within 5 miles, but you’ll need a cab from there.

This oasis in the D.C. metro area hugs the banks of the Potomac River where it spills over a jagged garden of rocks to form Great Falls. Hiking trails lead along the river, atop cliff bands, and through the woods, sometimes passing the ruins of a once-thriving town started in 1790. You can also spot remnants of an 18-century canal system overseen by George Washington. Today, Great Falls Park is a notch in the belt for advanced whitewater kayakers (the Potomac here ranges from Class II to V+) and rock climbers. More casual visitors can scope wildflowers and look for beavers and bald eagles. 


Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, GA

Time from Atlanta: 15 minutes to 1 hour by car; 45 minutes to 1 hour, 30 minutes by bus

Public transit options: MARTA buses provide access to several different points along the river.

Forty-eight miles of the slow, cold Chattahoochee from Lake Sidney Lanier to Paces Mill are surrounded by this piece of national public land. The stretch attracts trout anglers (it’s the southernmost trout waterway in the U.S.), mellow kayakers, cyclists (both mountain and road riders), and hikers. It’s also a natural-escape home to 240 bird species, white-tailed deer, otters, and spotted salamanders. 

Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, FL

Time from Jacksonville: 25 minutes by car

Public transit options: None, though the St. John’s River Ferry can take you to Fort George Island.

How many national park sites are located within a city’s boundaries? Timucuan, situated on the Atlantic coast, is part of Jacksonville. Here, you can explore salt marshes, slash and loblolly pine forests, and oceanfront dunes. The preserve is full of iconic Southern species, from alligators and armadillos to saw palmettos and live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Water-based recreation is the star of the show, with options for kayaking, standup paddleboarding, canoeing, and fishing, and there are also tent sites for camping.



Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH

Time from Cleveland/Akron: 35 minutes by car from Cleveland; 15 to 25 minutes by car and 1 hour, 15 minutes by bus from Akron 

Public transit options: Akron’s bus line has a stop at the park.

This Midwestern gem along the Cuyahoga River is full of gushing waterfalls, quiet woodlands, and idyllic bridges. More than 125 miles of hiking trails range from rugged paths through rocky outcrops to easier routes exploring the woods and grasslands to flat, bike-friendly trails tracing the historic Ohio & Erie Canal route. Canoeing and kayaking is also popular, and the Buckeye Trail (which extends throughout the state) offers backpacking sites. Wildlife like coyotes, otters, bald eagles, blue herons, and giant snapping turtles can be found here, and you can even take a ride on the park’s scenic railroad.

Indiana Dunes National Park, IN

Time from Chicago: 1 hour by car; 1 hour, 20 minutes by train

Public transit options: The South Shore Line train connects to a free park shuttle. 

Perched on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes offers a quick and quiet getaway from the Chicagoland bustle. Visitors come to run up and down the sand dunes, swim in the lake, bike, fish, and hike diverse trails through woodlands, bogs, marshes, and ravines. Wildlife like beavers, white-tailed deer, flying squirrels, and several species of bats can be found in the park. Its four-season charms include wildflowers in spring, bright fall colors, and snowy trails for snowshoeing and Nordic skiing, and there’s also a campground.


West Coast

Channel Islands National Park, CA

Time from Los Angeles: 1 hour, 20 minutes by car plus 1 to 4 hours on the ferry

Public transit options: Several train and bus lines can connect you with the ferry terminals.

These five islands (out of eight total Channel Islands) off the coast of Southern California represent a world like no other. The combination of ocean and rocky island landscape supports a rich biodiversity of species—145 of which live nowhere else on Earth. You might see northern fur seals, nesting seabirds, or one of the 28 species of whales and dolphins that live here. The rugged islands are a paradise for hiking, camping, backpacking, paddling, snorkeling, diving, and exploring beach tidepools. 

Golden Gate National Recreation Area, CA

Time from San Francisco: 25 minutes to 1 hour, 30 minutes by car

Public transit options: Buses and muni trains provide access to many sites within the park.

When you think of San Francisco, you think of the iconic red bridge that connects two major portions of this urban park. Golden Gate Bridge links the city attractions, like the Presidio and China Beach, with the Marin Headlands. These sections, as well as stretches to the south, feature everything from the redwoods at Muir Woods to windswept beaches, rolling hills, and plentiful historic sites. There are opportunities for camping, fishing, and beachcombing, and with 250 miles of trail, hiking is superb.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.