The 10 Best Urban Walking Trails in America
All across the country, major cities are making it easier to access nature with vibrant greenways
Walking might be the perfect form of exercise. OK, it’s not as flashy as its cousins, running and hiking, but studies show that a moderate walk is just as effective at battling high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease as a vigorous run or an uphill trek. And it does the job with a lower risk of injury. Some research even suggests that walking can make you more creative. One of its advantages is that you can do it just about anywhere, but some routes are more beautiful than others. Here are ten of the most scenic trails that allow access greenery without leaving the city.
Spanish Moss Trail
Beaufort, South Carolina
Charleston gets all of the love, but the smaller coastal town of Beaufort, an hour and a half to the southwest, has just as much southern charm, with a fraction of the tourists. And it’s incredibly walkable, thanks in part to the Spanish Moss Trail, a ten-mile paved path that follows the former Magnolia rail line through the best of South Carolina’s Low Country landscape. The trail starts in an old rail station near Depot Road and carries you over creeks, through expansive wetlands, and amid stately neighborhoods shaded by live oaks thick with the iconic Spanish moss.
Jack A. Markell Trail
This paved path combines culture, history, and wildlife on its eight-mile journey from downtown Wilmington to the historic town of New Castle. Start at Wilmington Riverwalk, explore open-air markets and seafood restaurants, and finish at New Castle’s Battery Park, a sprawling green space on the Delaware River with a new pier that overlooks a replica of a Swedish merchant ship from the 1600s. In between, the trail dips into the Russell W. Peterson Wildlife Refuge, one of only a handful of urban wildlife sanctuaries in the U.S., home to a 212-acre marshy preserve for fish and other fauna in the heart of the state’s largest city.
Boardwalk Trail at Lady Bird Lake
The Boardwalk isn’t like anything else in Texas. It’s a 7,250-foot-long concrete pedestrian bridge hovering above the water on the edge of Lady Bird Lake. The views are stunning—you have the lake itself, full of people in kayaks and on stand-up paddleboards, as well as Austin’s skyline just beyond the shoreline—but walking this boardwalk is also a deep dive into an exploration of Texan culture. Keep an eye out for an installation of 36 bronze western-style belts integrated into railings etched with song lyrics from Texas artists.
The Scioto Trail
The first greenway to be built in Columbus, the Scioto Trail follows the river of the same name for more than 12 miles, connecting the city’s neighborhoods with its expansive park system. The most beloved stretch of the trail is the Scioto Mile, which cruises along the downtown waterfront through a series of green spaces and city landmarks. Keep walking and you’ll hit Scioto Audubon Metro Park, a wildlife sanctuary where thousands of migrating birds make a pit stop on their way south. The 120-acre park, which has its own system of walking trails that pass beneath the tree canopy and through restored wetlands, features one of the largest free-climbing walls in the nation a massive man-made arch covered with holds set against the backdrop of the Columbus skyline.
The California Coastal Trail
San Francisco, California
This is one of the most dramatic long trails in the country, spanning 1,200 miles along the Pacific Ocean. For a shorter option, focus on the 2.4-mile section near the Presidio, in San Francisco, which hits a collection of the city’s landmarks. Start on the south end of this segment, and you’ll pass the rocky bluffs of Baker Beach right out of the gate before hitting the Marin Headlands and ending at the Golden Gate Bridge. The shoreline is a near constant companion and a number of connecting paths meander into the Presidio.
Bert Cooper Trail
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Ten miles north of downtown Oklahoma City, Lake Hefner is a 2,500-acre reservoir with a yacht club and a lighthouse. The Bert Cooper Trail forms a 9.5-mile loop around the lake and offers lots of water views. Birders in particular love this trail because Hefner marks an important stopover for migratory species. Start at Stars and Stripes Park, at the southern end of the reservoir, and amble through forested areas and neighborhood streets. Be sure to walk the peninsula out to the lighthouse, which makes for the perfect picnic spot.
On one side of the 18-mile-long Lakefront Trail, you have Lake Michigan, unfurling into the horizon like an inland sea, and on the other, you have the city of Chicago and its towering skyscrapers. You could spend an entire day along this trail, bouncing from beaches to parks and back again. Just make sure you hit Garden of the Phoenix, with its traditional Japanese garden and a koi pond, as well as the Burnham Wildlife Corridor, a 100-acre park full of prairie grass and trees.
New Orleans, Louisiana
This 2.6-mile greenway opened in 2015, and in just a few short years, it has become a major artery for pedestrians and cyclists moving about New Orleans. The paved path runs from the French Quarter to the neighborhood of City Park, offering a string of nature in the heart of one of the South’s most vibrant metro areas. Shaded by live oaks, bald cypress, and pecan trees, the route passes along the Saint Louis Canal before crossing over Bayou Saint John. From the northern trailhead terminus, it’s a quick walk to the 1,300-acre City Park itself, full of green space and wetlands, while the southern terminus is Louis Armstrong Park, on the edge of the French Quarter.
The East Coast Greenway
When it’s eventually completed, the East Coast Greenway will run for 3,000 miles from Florida to Maine. More than 30 percent of this massive walking and biking trail is currently built, and some of that passes through Washington, D.C. It cuts through the National Mall and crosses the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River into Virginia, where it connects with the Mount Vernon Trail. While the capital’s monuments are big attractions, be sure to make stops along the trail at the nearby fishing ponds and the U.S. Botanic Garden, the oldest continuously operating public garden in the country, with more than 65,000 tropical and subtropical plants.
The High Line
New York City, New York
If there’s such a thing as the most famous U.S. greenway, it’s the High Line. This elevated trail, a repurposed abandoned freight line on Manhattan’s West Side, is an infusion of nature in the most populated city in the country. The 1.45-mile bridge is designed with public art, interesting architecture, and edible gardens. Various overlooks give you a bird’s-eye view of some of the borough’s most iconic neighborhoods, while certain sections feature a full canopy of trees, providing an escape from the cityscape. Hang out on lounge chairs on the sundecks, enjoy views over the Hudson River, and catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.