9 of the Coolest City Parks in the US

These public spaces go above and beyond.

By
Sarah Kuta
On Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 06:00
tulsa

City parks deserve more of our attention. 

National parks, wilderness areas and state parks are great, there’s no doubt about it. But city parks are in our neighborhoods, just down the block from where we live if we're lucky, and they reflect the values that our communities hold dear — playtime, education, fresh air, art, music, sunshine, and local plants and animals. 

They’re where people gather for birthday parties, barbecues and casual Thursdays. They’re home to long-standing traditions like weekly jazz concerts and often serve as cultural hubs, incorporating museums and sculpture gardens within their bounds. 

Even if you live in a bustling city, you can easily find respite and get some fresh air at the park. Whether you want to pack a picnic, scope out colorful birds through your binoculars or cruise around on your bike, chances are your city park system offers plenty of opportunities for these and other outdoor activities. 

Sure, New York’s Central Park may get tons of attention, but there are epic city parks located all over the U.S. You just have to know where to look.

1. Royal Gorge Park

It’s not every day that a city park features a massive 1,200-foot gorge. But Royal Gorge Park in Cañon City, CO, is anything but ordinary. As the name suggests, this 5,300-acre park is home to the Royal Gorge, nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River” because it’s so deep and impressive. The park also features campgrounds, picnic areas and hiking and mountain biking trails, including some that span historic train trestles. For a fee, you can walk across the Royal Gorge Bridge, the highest suspension bridge in North America, and partake in rides and attractions. 

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iStockPhoto/KatieDobies

2. Falls Park

Falls Park alone is reason enough to plan a trip to Sioux Falls, SD. This gorgeous park is located in the heart of the city and is best known for the stunning waterfalls that flow through the middle, sending a rush of 7,400 gallons of water downriver every second.

Spanning 123 acres, Falls Park features a 50-foot observation tower that offers sweeping views of the city (for free!). The park is also home to the farmers market, the start of a 29-mile walking and biking trail and a variety of permanent sculptures from an array of artists. In the winter, the park becomes a beautiful icy winter wonderland. 

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Courtesy of Brand Columbus/Experience Columbus

3. Scioto Audubon

Nature reigns supreme at Scioto Audubon, a 120-acre park south of downtown Columbus, OH. Not only is this park a top-notch birding destination, but it’s also home to tons and tons of activities that will help you reconnect with nature, including kayaking, canoeing, fishing, biking, rock climbing and even sledding in the winter. It’s also got an obstacle course, running and walking trails, sand volleyball courts, a butterfly garden and a dog park. Amenities aside, what’s most impressive about the park is that it was once a blighted area in the middle of an industrial landscape. Now, it’s a lush oasis with a little something for everyone.

4. Rifle Mountain Park

This incredible city park in Rifle, CO, is so awesome that rock climbers from all over the world visit to take advantage of its unique offerings. It’s truly a nature lover’s paradise, with towering granite walls, lush vegetation and the serene East Rifle Creek running through it. The park has more than 250 bolted climbing routes, various hiking trails and several camping areas. It has a fascinating backstory, too. The park formed in 1921, thanks to a special Congressional act that allowed U.S. cities to claim land and turn it into parks.

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iStock/stanley45

5. Fairmount Park

Fairmount Park is like a breath of fresh art. Located in the heart of Philadelphia, the park spans both banks of the Schuylkill River and features a dizzying array of activities and amenities. Outdoor concert venues, historic Colonial-era homes, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, hiking trails, sculptures, water features — the list goes on. You could literally spend your entire vacation here and not get bored. Or, if you’re lucky enough to live nearby, you can treat Fairmount Park like your backyard.

6. City Park

Since 1854, City Park has served as an escape for residents and visitors of New Orleans. It spans 1,300 acres of family-friendly activities, including Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, an open-air sculpture garden, a botanical garden, museums, disc golf, boating and so much more. 

Fun fact: The park is also home to an oak tree that’s nearly 800 years old. The tree is part of the world’s largest stand of mature live oak trees, located right within the park’s boundaries. 

7. Zilker Park

Zilker Park is basically Austin’s living room. Boasting 351 acres, the park brings people together for concerts, Shakespeare plays and musicals, as well as to cool off in the natural Barton Springs Pool. It’s also home to botanical gardens, a disc golf course, volleyball courts, a miniature train and so much more. Nestled against Lady Bird Lake, the park also offers a sunny place to canoe, kayak or standup paddleboard. 

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Photo by Shane Bevel

8. The Gathering Place

Picture this: Children laughing as they leap through jets of water, teenagers doing tricks on skateboards, adults steering a paddleboat. All this (and more!) is a daily reality at The Gathering Place, an out-of-this-world park in Tulsa, OK.

Located along the Arkansas River, this serene riverfront park offers so much to do, you almost won’t know where to begin. Learn about plants at the Trust Sky Garden, soar on swings 56 feet above Peggy’s Pond, rent a kayak, listen to a concert — the options are limitless. 

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Courtesy of John Fowler/Papago Park under a CC 2.0 license.

9. Papago Park

The American Southwest is like a kaleidoscope of colors, with olive greens, burnt oranges and rich reds set against an impossibly blue sky. You’ll find this rainbow and more at Papago Park in Phoenix, which features colorful sandstone buttes. Hiking, mountain biking and running are all encouraged here, as well as snapping Instagram photos of the quirky Hole in the Rock formation. Here, you’ll also find a fishing lagoon, the Phoenix Zoo, the Desert Botanical Garden, an archery range, a golf course and an orienteering course. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Kuta is an award-winning Colorado writer and editor. She regularly writes about travel, nature, education, personal finance and other topics.