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Top 10 Urban Destinations For Nature-Lovers

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As travelers start planning their summer vacations, TravelNerd analyzed the numbers to find the best destinations for nature-lovers who want enjoy the atmosphere of a city as well as easy access to nature. We looked into the best metro areas around the U.S. for the nature-lovers based upon the follow questions:

1) Does the city set aside space for parks? We looked at the metro areas with the most acres of parkland as a percentage of the total area.

2) Are there national parks nearby? We analyzed how many national parks are located within 100 miles of the metropolitan area.

3) Is the weather nice enough to spend time outside? We looked at the precipitation in 2012 as well as the general air quality of each metropolitan area to gauge whether travelers would want to head outdoors.


Best Metro Areas for Nature Lovers

1) Albuquerque, NM

Albuquerque is more than just desert. The New Mexican city also has one of the highest percentages of parkland in a metropolitan area, with a whopping 28% of all metropolitan land being parks and green space. Additionally, be sure to head out of the city to see some stunning desert landscapes at any of the 7 national parks within 100 miles. Try the caves of El Malpais National Park or head into the New Mexico Badlands to see the Ice Caves and the Bandera Volcano in the Land of Ice and Fire. When heading back to the city, hit up Frontier Restaurant for some delicious New Mexican food. After those hikes, you’ll be ravenous.


2) San Francisco, CA

San Francisco is known for its stunning scenery so it’s no surprise that the City by the Bay is near the top of the list.  With 11 national parks in the vicinity, especially just over the Golden Gate Bridge, and accessible parks around the city (check out San Francisco Recreation & Parks for more information), San Francisco is a great place for nature-lovers to gather and take in the sea air.

In the city, Dolores Park and Crissy Field are always popular, and you’ll see plenty of San Franciscans picnicking on sunny weekends. For the hikers, head across the Golden Gate to the Marin Headlands, where you’ll find amazing views at Battery Wallace and along Conzelman Road. The perennial-favorite Muir Woods is the perfect spot to see the redwoods along the scenic trails. Stop in Sausalito at the French bistro La Garage as the end to your relaxing day.


3) Washington DC

Washington D.C. isn’t only the White House – there is plenty of green space within city boundaries, with over 19% of the metropolitan area devoted to parkland. With over 10 national parks within a 100-mile radius, nature-lovers always have something new to explore. While the best known parks are the President’s Park (including the White House) and the National Mall, there are plenty of other attractions in and around DC.

Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens is the last remaining tidal marsh in Washington D.C., so check out the wide variety or flora and fauna that are native to the area, like herons, foxes and waterlilies. Head outside of the city to the Potomac Heritage trails that cover the same ground George Washington explored in the 1700s. Be sure to stop by the National Aquarium to see the 1,500 species they exhibit, including sea turtles, sharks and alligators. Chow down at Old Ebbitt Grill for some classic American food made from local farm ingredients.


4) Oakland, CA

It should be no surprise that Oakland, with its famous estuary Lake Merritt right near downtown, makes the list. With over 14.5% of its metropolitan area set aside for parkland and easy driving access to a whopping 11 national parks, Oakland welcomes all nature-lovers and adventure travelers. On top of that, Oakland has the cleanest air of all the Bay Area cities, so feel free to breathe in deep.

Head out to Redwood Regional Park, a hidden redwood forest just a few miles from downtown, for a little slice of the Northern California wilderness. Or head up to Berkeley’s marina for a spectacular ocean view from Cesar Chavez Park bike-riding or kite-flying. Zachary’s Chicago Pizza, with 4 locations on East Bay, will top off your day with some cheesy goodness.


5) San Jose, CA

San Jose makes the list for its beautiful weather and excellent access to parks. With a mere 12 inches of rain per year, going outdoors in San Jose is always an option, no matter what time of year it is. There are 9 national parks within 100 miles and over 14% of the city’s land is devoted to parks and green space, providing outdoor explorers with things to do both in the city and out. Check out San Jose Park Foundation for more information on park facilities and services.

Kids will love Happy Hollow Park and Zoo, with its petting farm and wide open fields. Those looking for culture should try the Japanese Friendship Garden right in downtown San Jose. In the spring, you’ll see Japanese Cherry blossoms in full bloom. For a thorough workout, head up to Coyote Peak Trail for gorgeous views at the top of the mountain over South San Jose and Coyote Creek Valley.  After the strenuous hike, have a filling dinner at Il Fornaio for classic Italian and stop at Mimi’s Café afterwards for mouth-watering desserts.


6) Sacramento, CA

Sacramento often gets looked over as a California destination, but don’t underestimate the state capital. Sitting along the Sacramento River and the American River, Sacramento boasts numerous city parks with excellent facilities and an amazing 12 national parks within 100 miles.

The Leland Stanford Mansion, built by the founder of Stanford University, is a great spot to picnic in the 19th-century style gardens. Be sure to make time for a tour of the Victorian Mansion. Walk around McKinley Park’s Rose Garden to see over 1000 rose varietals in the spring and summer. For the very athletic, Juan Bautista de Anza’s National Historic Trail lets you follow the journey of Juan Bautista de Anza as he led over 200 settlers to found a settlement at San Francisco Bay.


7) Phoenix, AZ

Sunny Phoenix lands on the list for its beautiful weather. With a mere 8 inches a year of rain (and no chance of snow), nature lovers want to go outdoors everyday to any of the myriad city parks within metropolitan limits. For those more adventurous, trek into the desert into any of the 7 national parks within driving vicinity, including hikes up to Native American monuments.

Head outside of Phoenix to South Mountain, the largest municipal park in the country. With horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking trails available, there’s someone for every adventurer. Papago Park is a must-visit, with the phoenix Zoo, the Desert Botanical Garden and an archery range to keep the whole family happy. Wrap up an adventurous day at Portland’s Restaurant and Wine Bar for some award-winning burgers and pizza.


8) Baltimore, MD

Baltimore may seem to be a surprise, as the one of the most bustling cities on the Eastern seafront. Don’t be fooled, however – Baltimore has some beautiful natural geography like the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay, and these bodies of waterare surrounded by parks. Outside the city, Baltimore also has access to 13 national parks within 100 miles, including trails in the Appalachian Mountains and the Greenbelt Park.

Prince William Park is the largest Eastern Piedmond Forest, with over 37 miles of hiking trails. Go in the spring or fall to see the most beautiful changes of scenery. Or head to Gunpowder Falls State Park to hike, fish, canoe and swim. Afterwards, B&O American Brasserie provides the perfect Maryland Crab Cake to finish your day.


9) Seattle, WA

Seattle lays claim to the cleanest air of all the cities on our top 10 list, so it’s no surprise that people in Seattle love to go out and soak up nature. Even with it’s relatively high precipitation level, Seattleites love heading to any of the 9 national parks within driving distance or the numerous parks in the metropolitan area.

Kerry Park provides the perfect view of Elliot Bay and downtown Seattle, where you can see the Seattle Space Needle. Discovery Park is the largest park in Seattle that overlooks Puget Sound. It provides plenty of activities to teach kids K – 12 about its wildlife. Café Campagne is the perfect way to top off your day, with traditional French cuisine in a cozy dining room.


10) San Diego, CA

San Diego makes our list for its great weather, with only 10 inches of rain per year. This leaves plenty of sunny days for adventure travelers to explore the city parks, which make up 22.8% of the city land and include popular parks like Balboa Park and Mission Bay Park (right off the ocean). For those looking for more of an adventure, head up to one of the 3 national parks in the near vicinity, including Joshua Tree National Park. Be sure you stay for the sunset – the desert scenery comes alive when the sun dips down behind the horizon.


Rank City Acres of Parkland (%) National Parks within 100 mi. Average Precipitation (in.) Air Quality Overall Score for Nature
1 Albuquerque, New Mexico 28.4 7 20.45 5.6 82.3
2 San Francisco, California 18 11 23.8 10 69.2
3 Washington DC 19 14 62.13 11.2 68.8
4 Oakland, California 14.5 11 24.11 9 66.2
5 San Jose, California 14.3 9 15.93 10.2 60.9
6 Sacramento, California 8.2 12 18.64 10.9 58.7
7 Phoenix, Arizona 14.8 7 8.46 10.2 58.1
8 Baltimore, Maryland 9.5 13 62.78 11.6 57.37
9 Seattle, Washington 10.2 9 43.57 6.6 56.0
10 San Diego, California 22.8 3 10.42 12.1 55.6
11 Boston, Massachusetts 15.8 8 86.1 10.5 54.8
12 El Paso, Texas 18.4 2 11.38 9.5 51.3
13 New York City, New York 19.5 8 78.46 12.1 50.8
14 Tucson, Arizona 3.1 7 12.85 5.4 49.7
15 Portland, Oregon 16.1 4 49.51 7.4 49.4
16 Virginia Beach, Virginia 21.2 3 51.67 10.3 48.7
17 Austin, Texas 18 2 69.54 10 39.6
18 Jacksonville, Florida 8.2 5 52.51 8.6 39.3
19 Raleigh, North Carolina 17 1 53.64 10.2 38.4
20 Las Vegas, Nevada 4.2 3 5.42 8.5 38.2



The overall score for each city was derived from the following measures:


1)   Acres of parkland by percentage of metropolitan area came from the US Census.

2)   The numbers of national parks within 100 miles came from the National Parks Service.

3)   The average precipitation in a year came from the National Weather Service. (half-weighted)

4)   The Air Quality rating came from the State of the Air report released by the American Lung Association. The ranking was based on the number of high particle pollution days from 2008 to 2010. The higher the number, the worse the hair quality. (half-weighted)


53 cities of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas were included in this analysis.
Photo Credit: Green City by informatique