Easy Urban Escapes
With wild hikes within an hour, these 15 cities have some of the best outdoor access in urban America—and the only prerequisite for exploring is a pair of sneakers. Plus, find out where to eat and drink like a local afterward. —Kate Siber
Salt Lake City, Utah
Photograph by Mike Schirf, Aurora Open/Alamy
Brighton Lakes Trail, Big Cottonwood Canyon
With 10,000-foot peaks within 20 minutes, Salt Lake City may very well be the easiest major American city to get out of, which is why it attracts a large population of outdoor-minded folk. (Depending on the season, you’ll see skis, bikes, or kayaks on top of those Subarus.) One beloved local hiking area is Big Cottonwood Canyon, 30 miles from downtown.
Get Hiking: From the Brighton Ski Resort, follow the Brighton Lakes and Lake Mary trails to some of the wildest scenery near any American city: high-altitude wildflower meadows, three serene alpine lakes, a ring of ragged peaks surrounding the valley, and, if you make it just more than five miles to Sunset Peak, views over the canyons surrounding Salt Lake.
Après Hike: Squatters Pub is a downtown favorite. Wash down locally made bratwurst with a pint of Captain Bastard’s Oatmeal Stout.
San Francisco, California
Photograph by Edgar Callaert
Mount Tamalpais State Park
Perhaps it’s the mild climate, the scenery, or something in the drinking water that makes San Francisco such a hub for urban kayakers, sailors, mountain bikers, climbers, and hikers. Or maybe it’s areas like Mount Tamalpais State Park, 6,300 acres of wild grasslands, chaparral, redwoods, and wildflowers only 20 miles north of the city.
Get Hiking: Even though it’s within biking distance of the city, parts of the seven-mile loop on the Matt Davis, Steep Ravine, and Dipsea trails can feel nearly as pristine as they must have felt when Miwok Indians walked here centuries ago. That is, of course, until you get to the panoramic views of the coast, city, bay, and beaches from the top of the 2,571-foot namesake peak.
Après Hike: On the way back to San Francisco, head to Muir Beach for a picnic or for a meal at the Pelican Inn’s pub, which serves English specialties such as beef Wellington and ale-steamed mussels.
Photograph by Jonathan Kingston/Aurora
Encased in rain forest and blessed with a famously outdoorsy culture, Portland, Oregon, is the antidote to the modern megalopolis—and an urban hiker’s paradise. “There’s an amazing selection of hikes, from super easy to super hard, with a variety of scenery that might be unmatched in America: the coast, the Columbia Gorge, old forests, waterfalls, high mountains, big views, quiet lakes, and flower-filled meadows,” says Paul Gerald, author of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland.
Get Hiking: Try Triple Falls, a three-mile walk from the Horsetail Falls Trailhead that takes hikers through a wooded canyon with views over the Columbia River. The payoff is a stunning three-pronged waterfall—all told, a mere 30 miles from Portland.
Après Hike: Stop at the Power Station Pub & Theater, located in—big shocker—a converted power station that’s part of McMenamins Edgefield, a 74-acre hotel estate in Troutdale, Oregon. Down your grilled ahi sandwich, cucumber-pickled ginger salad, and a taster flight of six beers in front of a second-run feature in the cozy movie theater.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Photograph by Jared McMillen, Aurora
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Las Vegas wilderness might seem like an oxymoron, but a mere 17 miles west of the megawattage of the Strip, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is a wild enclave of red-rock cliffs, peaks, and canyons that attract rock climbers, horseback riders, and hikers.
Get Hiking: Try the strenuous five-mile round trip to Turtle Head Peak from Sandstone Quarry. You’ll hike 2,000 vertical feet through flats covered in blackbrush, Joshua trees, and yuccas; along a ridge; and finally to the 6,300-foot summit with a hawk’s-eye view over Sin City.
Après Hike: You can’t leave Las Vegas without at least a perfunctory game of blackjack. Try the Red Rock Casino Resort Spa, where there’s not only a game floor but also a spa that offers guided local activities like rock climbing and mountain biking—not to mention post-hike massages.
Photograph by Kurt Swanson
Right on the kayaker-friendly Puget Sound and just a hop from the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, Seattle is famed as a big-city outdoor haven. The best hikes travel through old-growth forest and pay off with views over Washington’s ultragreen landscape, like Mount Si. About 40 miles east of the city, it’s practically a rite of passage for Seattle hikers.
Get Hiking: This popular four-mile hike has a large measure of challenge (3,700 vertical feet of climbing) with an equal payoff (views of Mount Rainier, Seattle, and the Olympics on a clear day). The journey isn’t so bad either: Along the way, hikers pass classic Pacific Northwest conifer and fir forests, streams, and views over the valley.
Après Hike: In nearby North Bend, stop at Boxley’s Place, a renowned jazz club that also serves dinner—try the salmon cakes—accompanied by an impressive wine list.
Photograph by Brian Leddy
South Mountain Park
At 17,000 acres, South Mountain Park is the largest municipal park in the world, a veritable wilderness within the city of Phoenix. Javelinas and coyotes prowl the 58 miles of trails studded with saguaros, spindly ocotillos, and cholla cacti that bloom lipstick-pink in spring.
Get Hiking: Park at the Pima Canyon Trailhead and wander a nest of well-mapped trails, or tackle all or part of the 14.3-mile National Trail, which leads to spectacular lookouts on South Mountain over Phoenix and Camelback Mountain, another classic local summit hike.
Après Hike: For more views without the work, head down the street to Rustler’s Rooste, a mountaintop restaurant at the nearby Arizona Grand Resort. Watch the city lights blink on over a dinner of chili and mesquite-broiled steak before two-stepping to a live country-western band.
Photograph by Skip Brown, National Geographic
Great Falls Park
Within 15 miles of the nation’s capital, the Potomac River tumbles down a series of rugged boulders and ledges, creating Great Falls and all but erasing the din of city life with its roar. The eponymous 800-acre park half an hour from the capital attracts all manner of urbanites needing a nature fix, from whitewater kayakers and canoeists to climbers and hikers.
Get Hiking: Check out the kayakers from a lookout over the falls, then keep ambling south to shake off the majority of the visitors. A three-mile loop on the River, Ridge, and Matildaville trails leads along the craggy Mather Gorge, up steep climbs, and through serene forests of oak and ash.
Après Hike: In the nearby village of Great Falls, The Old Brogue, a classic Irish pub, serves drafts of Guinness and Smithwick’s to accompany Irish specialties like beef stew and shepherd’s pie.
Photograph by Steve Weinik
An astounding 10 percent of Philadelphia is parkland, and the cherry on top of the 9,200-acre network of green is the Wissahickon, a beloved overgrown gorge that plunges deep beneath the clamor of the city. “The Wissahickon is the best thing in Philadelphia,” says Sidney Goldstein, a local Meetup.com hiking group leader. “It feels like you’re in wilderness." With 57 miles of trails, there are plenty of opportunities to get lost.
Get Hiking: Pick up a map at Valley Green Inn, then head up the yellow trail to a nest of less-frequented loops through evergreen and deciduous forests frequented by deer, fox, and some 125 species of birds.
Après Hike: Dating to 1850, the Valley Green Inn welcomes hikers with a wood fireplace in winter and breezy porches in summer. Stop in the restaurant for stick-to-your-ribs American comfort food, like grilled cheese with brie, gruyere, caramelized onions, and applewood-smoked bacon.
New York, New York
Photograph by Tom Bushey
Despite its distinction as the country’s most populous city, New York has astonishingly good hikes in its midst. Credit the abundance of state parks, the Palisades, and the Hudson River for the area’s most scenic strolls. One rite of passage is Bear Mountain, located 50 miles north of Manhattan on the west bank of the river.
Get Hiking: Despite the weekend crowds, the view from the top of Bear Mountain is worth the 1,100-vertical-foot climb. The four-mile loop on the Appalachian and Major Welch trails leads past a vista of the Hudson River, Iona Island, and the verdant hills of Westchester far below. It’s also the perfect spot to pick out your next hike—perhaps Anthony’s Nose, right across the river.
Après Hike: At Hogan’s Family Diner in nearby Stony Point, New York, the waitresses call you “hon” and “sweetie” while serving up classic, home-cooked diner fare like roast turkey, baby back ribs, lamb chops, and, of course, thick milkshakes.
Photograph by Tim Wright/Alamy
Wolf Mountain Trail
For non-Texans, Hill Country comes as a surprise: A verdant rolling landscape of oak-dotted hills and vineyards, it sooner resembles California wine country than the arid Texas of Western lore. Within 45 miles of Austin, hikers can walk through lush forests and past springs at Pedernales Falls State Park.
Get Hiking: The park’s Wolf Mountain Trail is one of the region’s most beloved hikes, winding past fern-lined canyons, the ruins of a settler’s house, beautiful views over the Pedernales River Valley, and finally to the mother of all Hill Country vistas at the peak.
Après Hike: Just west of Pedernales Falls, the stretch of Highway 290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg is dotted with wineries and farm stands selling fresh peaches and other produce. Stop at Pedernales Cellars, one of the best Hill Country wineries, for tastings of their famed tempranillo.
More Info: Pedernales Falls State Park (tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/pedernales_falls) and Pedernales Cellars (pedernalescellars.com).
Photograph by Alex C. Zaideman
Indiana Dunes State Park
Indiana Dunes State Park, about 50 miles southeast of Chicago, is a sliver of wilderness in the unlikeliest of places: It’s surrounded by one of the heaviest concentrations of industry in the country. “It’s incredibly dramatic for the prairie state,” says Ted Villaire, author of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Chicago. “It feels isolated and remote.”
Get Hiking: Happily, there’s little reminder of nearby urbanity on the 4.5-mile loop (trails two, ten, and nine) that winds through forests, wetlands, and the 200-foot-tall dunes that have formed over millennia.
Après Hike: In nearby Chesterton, Indiana, stop at The Port Drive-In—a local institution since 1953—for chili dogs and homemade root beer floats.
Photograph by Kenny Williams, Alamy
Everglades National Park
Even on the outskirts of the Everglades, the country’s largest subtropical wilderness, there is absolutely no indication that the city of Miami and some seven million people live within an hour of the park. Though only about 59 miles of unpaved trails wind through these 1.4 million acres of primordial swamps, grasslands, and forests, it’s still easy to find people-free spots.
Get Hiking: Try the Long Pine Key Trails, a seven-mile nest of paths through pine forest and saw palmetto, haunted by birds, lumbering alligators, and even the elusive Florida panther.
Après Hike: Just outside the park in Homestead, Florida, stop at the Robert Is Here Fruit Stand, where purveyor Robert Moehling has sold fresh local veggies, honeys, jams, and exotic fruit like mango, papaya, and soursop since 1959. The key-lime milkshake is a must.
Photograph by Krista Guenin
Middlesex Fells Reservation
From downtown Boston, it takes approximately 16 minutes to drive to Middlesex Fells Reservation, a 2,500-acre swath of hills, ponds, meadows, wetlands, and hemlock groves. Though located only nine miles north of the city, it can feel a planet away, particularly the southeast corner, free of the dog walkers and stroller pushers ubiquitous in most urban parks.
Get Hiking: The 3.7-mile Rock Circuit Trail can take over four hours to complete thanks to its rugged forest terrain and steep rocky scrambles. Just when you’ve forgotten your proximity to the city, you’ll top out at Pinnacle Rock, which has views over the Boston skyline and the tree-speckled New England landscape.
Après Hike: Moulton’s Surf and Turf Restaurant, an inexpensive, family-run hole-in-the-wall just a few miles away in Medford, serves up excellent creamy New England clam chowder and fresh local seafood at recession-friendly prices.
Los Angeles, California
Photograph by Tim Hauf
Hollywood’s star power easily mesmerizes most of Los Angeles’s visitors, which is good news for hikers. For a big city, trails can be relatively unfrequented, and with a dramatic seaside locale, several mountain ranges, and canyons, L.A. has a surprising menu of scenic hikes, like those in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, about 40 miles from downtown.
Get Hiking: One must-do hike, the six-mile Mishe Mokwa loop, climbs 1,400 vertical feet to the top of Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains, where hikers gaze over the Pacific Coast, the Channel Islands, and the sparkle of Los Angeles far below.
Après Hike: Heading straight south on Yerba Buena Road, you’ll eventually dead-end at the beach. After a cool-off dip, sidle up to Neptune’s Net, a beloved local joint that has served Pacific oysters, lobster, and other seafood to surfers since 1958.
Photograph by RWP/Alamy
Ice Age National Scenic Trail
Eskers, kames, and potholes are a few of the trippy things you might see on Wisconsin’s 1,000-mile-long Ice Age Trail. (Translation: the elongated ridges, small marshes, and teardrop-shaped hills that the last continental ice shelf left behind.) And one section of it, in the northern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, is located just 53 miles north of Milwaukee.
Get Hiking: Tick off an out-and-back on any part of the state forest’s 31 miles of trail—the scenery is similar between sections—to see a glimpse of the vestiges of prehistoric America.
Après Hike: On the way back to Milwaukee, stop at Cafe Sourette in West Bend. Chef Jodi Janisse whips up a seasonal farm-to-table menu with items such as rhubarb-brie crostini and rabbit-and-morel pasta with local mascarpone.
Excellent list, all wonderful places that I would love to explore more than I have been able to up to this point.
Just a note on Big Cottonwood Canyon near Salt Lake City, the 30 miles distance listed in the article is from downtown SLC to the very TOP of the canyon (Brighton Ski Area). Many of the hikes are even closer.
The mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon is actually only 17 miles from downtown, which calculates to about a 20 minute drive due to interstate highway travel speeds and typically light traffic. And this is only one of a handful of canyons, ridges, and 11,000+ ft. peaks within a 30 minute drive of downtown, many even closer than the Cottonwood Canyons. Amazing access!