Ask Approved: Our Top Picks for Must-Visit City Parks in the United States

By Kate BoveLast Updated Jan 5, 2021 1:13:25 PM ET
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Pictured: Crissy Field is part of San Francisco’s Presidio, a former military base-turned-National Park located in the heart of the city. Via @presidioSF/Twitter

There’s no doubt about it: New York City’s Central Park is impressive. An 840-acre slab of green space, right in the heart of Manhattan. But while Central Park may be the most famous of urban parks, that doesn’t mean it’s the only one worth visiting. From San Francisco to Boston, some of the United States’ most metropolitan areas are also home to some of the country’s most breathtaking bits of nature. Excluding the all-too-obvious Central Park, here are our favorites.

30. Dolores Park, San Francisco, California

Located in the Mission District’s sunny microclimate, just two blocks from the iconic Mission Dolores, this San Francisco park is a long-standing favorite amongst Bay Area locals. In recent years, foot traffic has bloomed with roughly 7,000 to 10,000 people flocking to Dolores Park on a sunny weekend day.

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Photo Courtesy: @RecParkSF/Twitter

The city's Recreation and Parks department notes that the nearly 16-acre park is "one of San Francisco's most popular parks" and serves as "the vibrant heart of its equally vibrant, culturally diverse neighborhood." With stunning views of the city, off-leash dog areas, playgrounds, tennis courts and plenty of green space to unroll a beach blanket on, Dolores Park is an all-occasion hangout spot.

29. Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.

Located in the northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., this park dates back to 1890. In fact, Rock Creek Park was just the third national park established by the United States government, following in the footsteps of Yellowstone and Mackinac National Park. In autumn, the valley puts on a stunning foliage show — all within miles of the National Mall.

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Photo Courtesy: @wolfpackwx (Richard Barnhill) via @SteveRudinABC7/Twitter

In total, Rock Creek Park encompasses roughly 2,000 acres, and all that acreage is filled with equestrian and hiking trails, sports venues, an amphitheater, an outdoor concert venue, a golf course, a planetarium, a picnic area and more. Cultural and historic landmarks are also scattered throughout the park, with the most notable being the water-powered grist mill, Pierce Mill.

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28. World’s End, Hingham, Massachusetts

Okay, so admittedly some people might consider this one a bit of a stretch. Technically, the ominously named World’s End isn’t located in Boston proper. Instead, it lies just across Boston Harbor in Hingham, Massachusetts. That means this park offers some of the best views of the Boston skyline and Emerald Necklace.

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Photo Courtesy: @SuneelDhand/Twitter; Pi.1415926535/Wikimedia Commons

In 1889, renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was asked to design a residential subdivision on the peninsula. As such, the park includes carriage paths — though no homes were ever erected. Composed of drumlins — elongated hills formed by the movement of glacial ice — World’s End offers sweeping grasslands and nearly five miles of tree-lined trails.

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27. Forsyth Park, Savannah, Georgia

Occupying 30 acres of Savannah, Georgia's historic district, Forsyth Park is perhaps best known for its fountain in the park’s north end. Added in 1858, the fountain is similar to the one located in Paris’ Place de la Concorde — probably because Parisian urban planning was all the rage at the time of the park’s construction.

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Photo Courtesy: @VisitSavannah/Twitter

Featured in films like Cape Fear (1962) and The Longest Yard (1974), the fountain’s water is dyed green each St. Patrick’s Day in honor of the city’s Irish heritage. In addition to the iconic fountain, Forsyth Park contains numerous walking paths, play areas for kids, various courts and fields and the Fragrant Garden for blind visitors.

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26. LeBauer City Park, Greensboro, North Carolina

Although Greensboro’s LeBauer City Park is a mere four acres, it cost a whopping $10 million — a gift from the will of the late Carolyn LeBauer, for whom the park is named. The park’s project coordinator remarked that the new space, located near the city’s cultural center, history museum and public library, would serve as "an anchor for the cultural campus."

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Photo Courtesy: @JadeLeilani/Twitter

Perhaps the most stunning — and recognizable — feature of the park is the Janet Echelman sculpture titled Where We Met. Hailed as the largest outdoor art installation in the Southeast, the grant-funded sculpture looks like a net of colors, measuring 200 by 130 feet, and is suspended over the park’s main lawn. Although the sculpture is made of various stronger-than-steel polyethylene compounds, it was inspired by the city’s vibrant textile industry.

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25. Scioto Audubon Metro Park, The Metro Parks, Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio’s, Metro Parks are made up of 19 sprawling urban parks in and around the city. In total, the Parks encompass a staggering 27,500 acres of both land and water and touch over seven counties in Central Ohio. Chock full of trails, educational facilities and land for resource management and recreational activities, the parks system is diverse.

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Photo Courtesy: Kevin Payravi/Wikimedia Commons

Although all of the parks have a unique vibe, the most metropolitan of them all is the Scioto Audubon Metro Park, which is located near Downtown Columbus in the Brewery District. As a major stopover for bird migration, the park features wetlands, in addition to a climbing wall, trails and an old water tower that melds the natural and manmade.

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24. Container Park, Las Vegas, Nevada

Located in Downtown Las Vegas — the old Vegas — this park is part of the city’s ongoing effort to revitalize some off-the-Strip locales. Built using around 30 shipping containers and 41 modular cubes, the park is filled with kid-friendly play areas and 39 boutique shops, restaurants, cafes and bars.

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Photo Courtesy: @DTContainerPark/Twitter

Although it spans just 19,000 square feet, which doesn’t feel like a whole lot in the ever-expansive desert, Downtown Container Park certainly makes an impression. That impression is, in part, thanks to the reclaimed shipping containers — and thanks in part to the 55-foot-tall steel praying mantis sculpture at the entrance.

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23. The Lawn on D, Boston, Massachusetts

Located on the city’s thriving waterfront, Boston’s Lawn on D bills itself as "an unforgettable venue that’s full of life." In a sense, the Lawn has rebranded itself — more of a gathering place than your typical park. The outdoor venue boasts a pavilion, tons of green space and quite a few innovative features.

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Photo Courtesy: @BostonCentral/Twitter

In addition to solar-powered phone chargers and food trucks, the Lawn on D provides visitors with lounge chairs, interactive art exhibitions, bocce, table tennis and free Wi-Fi. Perhaps the most recognizable (and Instagrammable) element of this South Boston staple, however, is the light-up swings, pictured here. Ever-popular, the installation, called Swing Time, is a set of swings "outfitted with solar-powered LED lights that change color when swung at varying speeds and heights."

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22. Maggie Daley Park, Chicago, Illinois

This 20-acre park is located near the shores of Lake Michigan in northeastern Grant Park and connects to Chicago’s Millennium Park via a pedestrian footbridge. Named after the city’s former first lady, the park was built where the Daley Bicentennial Plaza once stood.

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Photo Courtesy: @yourtake/Twitter

In remaking the park — a process that took two years and $60 million — the city created an ice skating ribbon, climbing walls, children’s play area (complete with water features) and a garden that honors cancer survivors. One of the most stunning features of the park? The Enchanted Forest. The interconnected network of footpaths is flanked by upside-down trees and archways and features a mirror maze.

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21. White River State Park, Indianapolis, Indiana

Covering 250 acres of Indianapolis, White River State Park is also in one of the city’s seven cultural districts. The park boasts the Indiana State Museum, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the Indianapolis Zoo, beautiful gardens, sports and entertainment venues and even an IMAX Theater.

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Photo Courtesy: @WhiteRiverStPrk/Twitter

The area on which the park now stands was revitalized in the 1980s, when the good people of Indianapolis realized the Indiana Central Canal, which was never properly finished, was just sitting there, partly dug. Soon enough, the area was restored, becoming the multi-faceted park it is today. Originally, folks behind the project wanted to add something special to the park to complement the city’s skyline. Although plans for what was dubbed the Indiana Tower were drawn up, it was never built.

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20. Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Featuring public art and historic homes, Fairmount Park is split into two sections — the oh-so-creatively named East Park and West Park. The Schuylkill River bisects the two sections, which together compose an area totaling a whopping 2,052 acres. As Philadelphia’s first park, Fairmount is also rich in history.

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Photo Courtesy: @myphillypark/Twitter

Originally, the park was divided into three sections: South Park, known for its gardens; Old Park, which encompassed several estates; and West Park, the area that contained the Philadelphia Zoo and played host to the Centennial Exposition — also known as the 1876 World’s Fair. That means it was on the grounds of Fairmount Park that such iconic items as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, the Remington typewriter and Heinz Ketchup first debuted.

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19. Queen Kapi’olani Regional Park, Honolulu, Hawaii

Known as the largest and second-oldest park in Hawaii, Queen Kapi’olani Regional Park is located in Honolulu near Kuhio Beach Park. Named after the Queen consort of King David Kalākaua, the park contains everything from soccer fields to archery ranges and hosts international rugby and lacrosse tournaments annually.

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Photo Courtesy: @ILoveHawaiiVR/Twitter; Travisthurston/Wikimedia Commons

The Honolulu Cricket Club, also nestled in the park, is noted by Guinness World Records as being the oldest sporting club in the Pacific, dating back to 1893. Beyond its natural beauty and incredible vistas, the 300-acre park lures locals and tourists alike thanks to attractions such as the Honolulu Zoo and the Waikiki Shell, an outdoor concert venue.

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18. Falls Park on the Reedy, Greenville, South Carolina

In downtown Greenville’s historic West End district, outdoor enthusiasts will find themselves mesmerized by Falls Park on the Reedy, so named for its location on the Reedy River. Known as the birthplace of Greenville, the park was officially founded in 1967 when a local garden club reclaimed 26 acres of green space that’d previously been used by textile mills.

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Photo Courtesy: @GoGADC/Twitter

Featuring public gardens, the wall from an 18th-century grist mill, public art and even a restaurant, Falls Park offers visitors a unique mix of history and nature. Of course, the park’s namesake is also its most striking feature: The falls are made even more impressive thanks to the Liberty Bridge, a 355-foot-long suspension bridge that curves around said falls.

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17. City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans’ 1,300-acre public park is reportedly the 20th-most-visited urban public park in the country. To put its size in perspective, City Park is roughly 50% larger than Central Park. Other stats? Well, the park is the 48th oldest in the United States, dating back to 1854 — although some of its residents are even older.

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Photo Courtesy: @VisitNewOrleans/Twitter; @YPLouisiana/Twitter

Known for housing the world’s oldest collection of mature oak trees, City Park’s oldest oaks are over 600 years old. That’s a lot of rings. Unfortunately, hurricanes have posed a huge threat to the green space: In 1949, one of the two "dueling oaks," which derived their name from the fact that men would literally duel each other beneath the trees back in the 19th century, was decimated by a storm.

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16. Theodore Wirth Regional Park, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Shared by the city of Minneapolis and the suburb Golden Valley, Theodore Wirth Regional Park is the city’s largest green space. The park was named after the former superintendent of Minneapolis parks, who served in his position for 30 years. Although Minnesota is the land of a thousand lakes, Theodore Wirth Regional Park contains just one lake, Wirth Lake, and one pond.

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Photo Courtesy: @kare11/Twitter

Its original 66 acres grew to a whopping 759 acres — and, now, it even contains two golf courses. As part of the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway, the park also links the Chain of Lakes area with one of the state’s larger parkways. On the grounds, sharp-eyed visitors can spot a plaque that marks the 45-degrees latitude line, which demarcates the halfway point between the North Pole and the equator.

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15. Zilker Park, Austin, Texas

Situated at the juncture of the Colorado River and Barton Creek, Zilker Park is made up of roughly 350 acres of green space that were donated to the city of Austin by a wealthy benefactor in 1917. The park’s size makes it a fitting venue for large-scale events like the ever-popular Austin City Limits Music Festival.

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Photo Courtesy: @ATXLights/Twitter

As more and more tech companies set up hubs in the city, Zilker is quickly becoming city-dwellers’ go-to escape. Filled with hiking and biking trails, Zilker Park also features sports fields, picnic areas, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum and the Austin Nature & Science Center. Looking to soak your feet after a long trek? Barton Springs pool offers public swimming — and a lovely look at Austin’s growing skyline.

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14. Lands End, San Francisco, California

After the Gold Rush in California, entrepreneurs designed the Cliff House — a resort for the wealthy — on the very edge of San Francisco. Every Sunday, a horse-drawn stagecoach carried visitors from downtown San Francisco to the Pacific’s shores at Lands End. Eventually, millionaire Adolph Sutro built a steam train to transport guests and constructed an enormous bathhouse on the beach.

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Photo Courtesy: @Super8ude/Twitter

These days, a version of the Cliff House still stands, but the Sutro Baths are ruins of a bygone era. Situated right at the mouth of the Golden Gate, Lands End is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and offers views of San Francisco’s most iconic bridge. The old rail beds have been turned into hiking trails, allowing visitors to explore the rugged coastline, public art installations and more.

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13. Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois

Chicago’s Lincoln Park takes up an impressive 1,200 acres, bordered by Lake Michigan as well as quite a few of the city’s neighborhoods — Edgewater, Uptown, Gold Coast, Lakeview, Streeterville and, of course, Lincoln Park. The park’s Lakefront Trail offers up a scenic 18-mile-long stretch that’s perfect for joggers, strollers and cyclists alike.

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Photo Courtesy: @CartoonSushi/Twitter

During the summer months, the park’s beaches are a popular destination. And, during the winter, folks only pop up on the sandy shores to snap a cool picture or two of the city’s skyline. For those who’d rather not lounge on the lake, Lincoln Park also offers a nature boardwalk, conservatory, history museum and zoo.

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12. Griffith Park, Los Angeles, California

Located in Los Angeles, Griffith Park is an impressive 4,310 acres, which means it’s one of the largest urban parks in North America and the second-largest urban park in the state after San Diego’s Mission Trails Preserve. Although it’s more rugged than Central Park, Griffith Park is almost as iconic, especially when it comes to filming locales.

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Photo Courtesy: Andrew K./TripAdvisor

One of the most iconic movie moments filmed at the park? In The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger arrives in 1984 and emerges from the Griffith Observatory. (Nice night for a walk, eh?) We could go on about the park’s movie connections, but there’s so much more to it than that. With equestrian trails, hiking paths, a zoo, an art museum and a train enthusiasts’ club with connections to Walt Disney, Griffith Park is certainly one of the more unique places on our list.

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11. Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri

Although it opened in 1876, Forest Park hosted two of its most significant events in its history in 1904 — the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and the Summer Olympics. At 1,326 acres, locals have dubbed the park the "Heart of St. Louis" and, as such, it features quite a few big-name attractions, including the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Art Museum and the St. Louis Science Center.

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Photo Courtesy: @ForestPark4Ever/Twitter

About two decades ago, the park began a restoration project that ended up totaling $100 million. This pricey facelift improved Forest Park’s landscaping and habitats, such as meadows, a variety of ponds, wetlands, prairie land and freshwater streams, all of which provide a wonderful home for migratory birds and animals. One of its most iconic features? The Jewel Box, an Art Deco-style greenhouse.

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10. The Gathering Place, Tulsa, Oklahoma

The Gathering Place stretches over 100 of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s, precious acres. Thanks to the George Kaiser Family Foundation and 80 other private contributors, the largest private donation — a whopping $465 million — to a public park in America’s history was made to this unique green space. According to Thrillist, the chairs at The Gathering Place cost a whopping $5,500 apiece.

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Photo Courtesy: @GatherTulsa/Twitter

The vision? "A Park For All." That means the organizers of The Gathering Place were keen on putting diversity and equality first, meaning the park and its many features value accessibility. From playgrounds and lawns to wetlands and a skate park, this park is clearly the Place to be. In fact, National Geographic listed it as one of the world’s 12 most mind-bending playgrounds, while Time magazine dubbed it one of The World’s 100 Greatest Places of 2019.

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9. Balboa Park, San Diego, California

Home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park covers 1,200 acres of open spaces, gardens, paths, museums, restaurants and theaters. Dating back to 1835, the site of the present-day park is one of the oldest areas in the country to be dedicated solely to public recreational use. But that’s not where its rich history stops.

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Photo Courtesy: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons

In 1915–16, the park hosted the Panama–California Exposition and, two decades later, it housed another world’s fair — the California Pacific International Exposition. As is the case in cities the world over, these fairs were the cause of several of Balboa Park’s most recognizable landmarks, including the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue, and the Botanical Building (pictured), which houses the park’s beautiful gardens.

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8. South Mountain Park, Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix’s South Mountain Park wins the title of largest municipal park in the country — and it nabs a spot on the list as one of the largest urban parks in the world. Encompassing a truly astounding 16,283 acres, the mountainous park is chock full of desert vegetation and the native chuckwalla, a large lizard that loves arid climates.

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Photo Courtesy: @Canyon_R_Realty/Twitter

The park was established in 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge sold the city the park’s then-13,000 acres for a mere $17,000. Although a bit of suburban sprawl flanks the park land, visitors are still utterly transported to a place that feels anything but metropolitan. With over 58 miles of trails, a 1,000-foot-tall lookout point and a landmark known only as Mystery Castle, South Mountain Park is definitely worth a visit.

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7. Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York

As we’ve previously noted, Central Park is great and all, but, if you find yourself on the other side of the river, we highly recommend Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Situated near quite a few popular neighborhoods, including Park Slope, Flatbush and Prospect Heights, the park encompasses an impressive 526 acres, making it the borough’s second-largest public park behind Marine Park.

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Photo Courtesy: King of Hearts/Wikimedia Commons

Laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also helped design Manhattan’s Central Park, Prospect Park opened in 1867. The nearby Brooklyn Museum, Grand Army Plaza and Brooklyn Botanic Gardens are all located just outside the park’s grounds, but this green space still has a lot to offer, from a zoo and outdoor concert venues to a Quaker cemetery. In fact, the park boasts the borough’s largest remaining forest and its only lake.

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6. Forest Park, Portland, Oregon

If you still have time to kill after checking out Portland’s oh-so-tiny Mill Ends Park, we highly recommend Forest Park, which stretches an impressive eight miles across the city’s hillsides. Unsurprisingly, this scenic stretch offers quite the view of the Willamette River and makes the park one of the country’s largest urban forest reserves.

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Photo Courtesy: EncMstr/Wikimedia Commons

Covering 5,100 acres, the park is mainly composed of second-growth forest and features over 70 miles of trails. Thanks to civic leaders back in 1860s who wanted to preserve the woods near the city, the Olmsted brothers — sons of the prestigious Frederick Law Olmsted — were brought in to develop a plan for Forest Park. Thanks to these early conservation efforts, more than 122 bird species and over 60 mammal species enjoy the park alongside human visitors.

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5. Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

While South Dakota is certainly known for national parks and your typical natural sprawl, folks don’t always associate city life with the state. Likely, visitors think of the Black Hills and the sacred Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain, formation. But, as the park's name suggests, it is centered around a beautiful splay of falls on the Big Sioux River.

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Photo Courtesy: Brian R/TripAdvisor

There’s no admission fee to see the 123-acre park’s namesake. The falls themselves cascade 100 feet over the state’s famous black rock formations. And if that isn’t enough for you, other highlights include tons of outdoor sculptures, an observation tower and even the remains of the old Queen Bee Mill, which was built in the late 1800s.

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4. Gas Works Park, Seattle, Washington

With just 19 acres under its belt, Seattle’s Gas Works Park may not be as large a green space as some of the other public parks on our list, but it has a lot of personality. And by that we mean it would play really well on your Flickr account. Home to the Seattle Gas Light Company’s old coal gasification plant, the park brings urban decay right to the shores of Lake Union.

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Photo Courtesy: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

The plant operated for a good 50 years before shuttering in 1956 and, by 1962, the city scooped up the land with plans to give it a second life as a public green space. Richard Haag, the landscape architect behind Gas Works, won an award for design excellence, highlighting the way in which cities have the ability to meld the old and new — the manmade and the natural.

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3. Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan

Located in the Detroit River, this 982-acre island park is owned by the city of Detroit — though it’s situated quite close to our Canadian neighbors. After Grosse Ile and Fighting Island, Belle Isle is the third-largest island in the river — and it’s the largest city-owned island park in the United States. Both a cool and very specific feat.

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Photo Courtesy: Gth874m/Wikimedia Commons

A quick drive across the MacArthur Bridge will land visitors on the isle, which is home to an aquarium, a conservatory, a golf course, a nature center and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. If you choose to swim along its half-mile stretch of beach, you’ll most likely spot the island’s Coast Guard station and Detroit’s Yacht Club. But our favorite landmark on the island is the William Livingstone Memorial Light, the only marble lighthouse in the United States (pictured).

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2. High Line, Manhattan, New York

Built on a disused section of the New York Central Railroad line known as the West Side Line, the High Line is a 1.45-mile-long elevated park that runs from the Meatpacking District (a few blocks below 14th Street) through Chelsea and to the West Side Yard on 34th Street. In the old days, freight trains got into so many collisions with traffic on 10th and 11th Avenues that the area was nicknamed "Death Avenue."

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Photo Courtesy: @highlinenyc/Twitter

Now, the High Line, which opened in 2009, is considered a remarkable feat of contemporary landscape architecture. Filled with plant and animal life, it’s becoming its own ecosystem — and, certainly, anything but another Death Avenue. This park in the sky welcomes over five million visitors each year, and it nabs such a high spot on our list for inspiring countless other cities in the United States to reclaim abandoned infrastructure in order to create public spaces.

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1. The Presidio, San Francisco, California

In 1776, Spain gained a foothold in California and colonized the area, setting up a military base — or presidio — right on the San Francisco Bay. Later on, the United States used the area as an army base, building barracks, hospitals and weapons stores. In 1989, Congress voted to end the Presidio’s status as an active military installation, and by 1994 the National Park Service took over the land.

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Photo Courtesy: Presidio Trust via Twitter

Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio is one of the world’s largest national parks situated in an urban setting. In addition to offering camping sites, extensive trails, public art and unbeatable views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the park is also home to many businesses, from nonprofit organizations and private residences to restaurants and museums. With an eye toward ecological restoration; honoring the Ohlone and Costanoan people who lived on the land before colonial invaders; and reclaiming abandoned infrastructure, the Presidio proves just how amazing it is to have a national park folded into one of the country’s most iconic cities.

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Honorable Mention: Mill Ends Park, Portland, Oregon

Okay, so this park doesn’t involve any hiking — nor can you sunbathe or fire up a grill. Instead, Mill Ends Park in Portland, Oregon, is one of those bucket list-type attractions. And why’s that? Well, at two feet across — with a total area of 452 square inches — this little circle of a spot is the smallest park in the world.

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Photo Courtesy: atul666/Wikimedia Commons

Given its unique distinction in 1971 by the Guinness Book of Records, Mill Ends Park was initially meant to be the site of a new light pole. When construction came to a standstill, Oregon Journal columnist Dick Fagan planted flowers in the hole and dubbed it Mill Ends. Now, tourists flock to the median strip near the Willamette for a chance to spot this record-setting park.

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