chicago lincoln park city park
Lincoln Park via Shutterstock (Songquan Deng)

What Cities Have the Best Parks?

I travel a lot for work, mostly to major American cities, and don’t get as much opportunity to get outdoors as I’d like. What are some of the best urban parks for outdoor exercise?

chicago lincoln park city park
Greg Melville

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You can’t judge a city solely on its architecture and restaurants. You also have to take into account the green space where you can actually escape the urban jungle. These are my favorite municipally-owned escapes, based on size (they all dwarf 800-acre Central Park), beauty, and recreational offerings. If you want to know more about city parks, The Trust for Public Land publishes a comprehensive annual City Park Facts report that makes for an enlightening read.

The Best City Parks: South Mountain Park, Phoenix, Arizona

park phoenix arizona
South Mountain Park via Shutterstock (Andrew Yahin)


Stumble just a couple miles from downtown Phoenix, and you’ll quickly find yourself in a broad, desert mountain preserve. There are ridges to climb, more than 50 miles of trails to conquer by mountain bike or foot, and 15 miles of pavement for road riding.

HIGHLIGHT: Bike the 9.2-mile (one-way) technical, rocky Desert Classic Trail. It’s like riding a roller coaster on fat tires. 

The Best City Parks: Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

fairmount park philadelphia pennsylvania park
Fairmount Park via Shutterstock (Dervin Witmer)


No matter where you go in Philadelphia, you’re never more than a mile away from the vast, 160-year-old Fairmount Park. Sliced north to south by the Schuylkill River, the park contains 215 miles of paths, from dirt trails to paved walkways, and 34 miles of waterway. You can row, bike, hike, or play Frisbee golf within the park’s green expanse. It also contains the country’s oldest zoo, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a handful of immaculately maintained historic Colonial mansions.

HIGHLIGHT: The rowing clubs that occupy the 12 boathouses lining the Schuylkill River on Boathouse Row. They’re all part of the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest amateur rowing organization. The Philadelphia Sculling Club offers Learn to Row programs in the summer.

The Best City Parks: Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois


Lincoln Park is a seven-mile stretch of greenery that lines Lake Michigan on Chicago’s north side. You can’t exactly get lost in the wilderness within its stringbean-like length, but you can definitely escape the stress of the city there for a while. Laze on a beach, tour the zoo, take archery lessons, go sailing, explore the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, or simply run along the waterfront.

HIGHLIGHT: The Lincoln Park Boat Club, which resides in a boathouse in the Lincoln Park Lagoon, leads kayaking and outrigger canoe lessons and trips throughout the summer.

The Best City Parks: Forest Park, Portland, Oregon

portland park wildwood trail
Trail signs in Forest Park (Sam Szapucki)


When people say that there’s more green space than concrete in Portland, they’re thinking of Forest Park. More than 110 bird and 60 mammal species make their home in this tree-filled expanse west of downtown on the slopes of the Tualatin Mountains. You’ll also find roughly 80 miles of footpaths and fire roads, 28 of which are open to bikes. Unlike so many other city parks, there are no museums, zoos, or observatories inside Forest Park—only streams, trails, and moss-covered old pines.

HIGHLIGHT: The 30-mile one-way Wildwood Trail meanders through the park, and can be accessed from many locations. It’s incorporated into the 40-Mile Loop, a trail system being created by a land trust to form a greenway that encircles Portland.  

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021 Lead Photo: Songquan Deng

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