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Top U.S. Cities With the Best Parks

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Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

The coronavirus pandemic has given Americans a newfound appreciation for the outdoors. In an attempt to escape the madness of boredom and quarantine, Americans are rediscovering their love of Mother Nature and are turning to America’s parks for entertainment and relief.

“We know from national data that transmission of COVID-19 goes significantly down outside,” said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey at a May 2020 press conference. “Our parks are really a sanctuary, a place to escape, and that’s taken on a whole new meaning in 2020.”

Social distancing has not been easy, but our parks all over this country  stand at the ready with tons to see and do. Most of us are partial and assume our city is home to the best park, but you may just find that the 2020 ParkScore Rankings will surprise you. Did your city make the list?

The best U.S. cities for parks

These are the top cities with the best parks in the U.S. for you to enjoy during – and after – self-quarantine.

  1. Minneapolis, MN
  2. Washington, D.C.
  3. St. Paul, MN
  4. Arlington, VA
  5. Cincinnati, OH
  6. Portland, OR
  7. Irvine, CA
  8. San Francisco, CA
  9. Boston, MA
  10. Chicago, IL
  11. New York NY
  12. Madison, WI

Every year, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) publishes a ranking of the best parks in the United States. This is a critical service for Americans because the organization reports that over 100 million people do not have a park within a ten-minute walk from their home.

As the leading provider of park analysis in the country, TPL maintains a comprehensive database using census data and its own proprietary data collection method. It combines city records with satellite imagery for the most current information on your local parks. Each park is assigned a ParkScore® based on its acreage, investment, amenities and access.

1. Minneapolis, MN

It may be lower on acreage, but with 98% of its residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park and stellar funding, you can tell Minneapolis loves its greenspaces. Parks,  beaches, and lakes are part of the countless ways for Minnesotans to enjoy the outdoors.

3 must-see parks in Minneapolis:

  • Minnehaha Regional Park: Minnesota’s crown jewel is this 53-foot waterfall at Minnehaha Falls. Surrounded by 193 acres of sports fields, golf courses, ski trails, fishing and unspoiled nature, Minnehaha Regional Park has everything you need for the perfect day of adventure. There are swimming pools, dog parks, hiking and biking trails, with restaurants to hang your hat and indulge in a hearty meal after a full day of play.
  • The Commons: Conveniently situated next to the U.S. Bank Stadium, four acres of lush greenery and paved walkways stretch across the middle of downtown Minneapolis. The area is long known as the perfect tailgate spot for Vikings games, but there is so much more that you can do. Join one of the ongoing friendly competitions at one of the ping pong tables or snag some goodies at the open-air farmer’s market in the evenings.
  • Boom Island Park: For an aquatic reprieve, Boom Island Park sits on the banks of the Mississippi River in northeastern Minneapolis. Check out the miniature lighthouse along the many walkways, or take in the views from one of the rental boats at the nearby docks. There are also canoes and kayaks that you can rent for the perfect view of the setting sun over downtown Minneapolis.

2. Washington, D.C.

When the Nation’s Capital is in full bloom, it’s like snow in springtime. The famed National Cherry Blossom Festival is an annual treasure, drawing guests from all over the world to see the beautiful pink buds of these delicate Japanese flowers.

Depending on your location, The Washington D.C. skyline itself is astounding, punctuated by the spear of the Washington Monument with the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial serving as a beautiful but dramatic historical backdrop. As small as it is, the District of Columbia manages to offer some of the most magnificent and historic parks in the country.

3 must-see parks in Washington, D.C.:

  • National Mall and Memorial Parks: There is nothing quite like the National Mall, with its monuments and memorials. Step back into history as you travel along the Capitol Reflecting Pool, stopping in on places like Ford’s Theatre, Potomac Park, and Hains Point. Don’t forget to squeeze in a carousel ride, too!
  • Rock Creek Park: For the nature enthusiast, Rock Creek Park doesn’t disappoint. This 1,754-acre park is conveniently situated within the heart of Washington, D.C., and it has been entertaining residents and tourists alike since 1890. There are miles of walking, biking, and hiking trails. You can enjoy free entry to the Smithsonian National Zoo, or take your experience up close and ride a horse at the Rock Creek Horse Center.
  • Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Garden: “Where Water and Wind Dance,” says the National Parks Service promises of the spectacular experience along the Anacostia waterfront. Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Garden offers no shortage of things to do. Take a stroll along the boardwalk or grab a friend for a hike along one of the trails. There is a driving range and golf courses, or you can go for a canoe ride for some leisurely bird-watching.

3. St. Paul, MN

The Twin Cities continue to dominate the best park rankings, with St. Paul also cracking the top three best parks. There are so many parks to choose from here, such as Wabasha Street Caves and Fort Snelling State Park. For a day on the water, visit St. Paul’s only island, Raspberry Island, for a stroll along the Mississippi River where you can check out one of the live summer concerts.

3 must-see parks in St. Paul:

  • Como Regional Park: This is one of Minnesota’s biggest parks, with over 450 acres of natural beauty. It is hard to find something that Como doesn’t offer. There is Como Park Zoo & Conservatory on the grounds that boasts free entry and an amusement park to deliver those much-needed thrills. The kids can play miniature golf while the adults squeeze in a quick round on the grown-up course, and everyone can meet up at the pool for a leisurely swim to cool down. There is also a Japanese garden that can’t be missed.
  • Highland Park: Highland Park is  a community hub, a place to watch summer fade into the gorgeous colors of fall. The children will have the time of their lives amongst the many playgrounds, swimming pools and picnic areas. There is even a pavilion for concerts. In the winter, there is a dedicated sledding hill and cross-country ski slopes. In warmer weather, you can choose from three different formats of play on its manicured golf courses.
  • Mears Park: Pack a picnic or dine al fresco at one of the many Lowertown eateries that surround Mears Park. Visit the gorgeous flower gardens when they are in full bloom, and catch one of the live concerts, festivals and events that frequent the park. There’s also a free outdoor exercise program called Fitness in the Parks during warmer months.

4. Arlington, VA

With all of its impressive amenities, Arlington is a mainstay on the list of best parks. The county is consistently recognized for its dedication to park planning and management, always working to improve and better the quality of this Northern Virginia hub.

It’s hard to think of an activity that you can’t find at one of Arlington’s parks. There are nature trails, gazebos, fountains, and dog parks. Sports fields include all the basics like soccer, baseball and football, but you’ll also find room to play lacrosse, volleyball, handball, bocce, and disc golf.

3 must-see parks in Arlington:

  • Mount Vernon Trail: This paved trail follows along the Potomac River, stretching from Rosslyn to George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon homestead. It’s the perfect trail to walk your dog or grab a run, and it’s a popular spot for hikers and cyclists.
  • Long Bridge Park: Also set along the Potomac River sits Long Bridge Park, marked by the artistic Wave Arbor sculpture. The lighted soccer and lacrosse fields are popular for both local and professional teams in the area, and there is also a beautiful rain garden with native shrubs and perennials.If you want to take some great photos of the skyline, there is a gorgeous observation point that will give you a great view of the monuments as you watch planes come and go from Reagan National Airport.
  • Upton Hill Regional Park: Upton Hill is a child’s paradise: swimming and slides aplenty at Ocean Dunes Waterpark. In addition to an enormous swimming pool, complete with a giant slide, you can try your luck at the 140-foot long hole on the miniature golf course or get some swings in at the batting cage. For something a little more low-key, Upton hill offers walks and picnic stops along one of their great hiking trails.

5. Cincinnati, OH

Cincinnati boasts a number of waterfront parks along the Ohio River that offer enough to keep the whole family busy. The International Friendship Park is great for dog walking and biking, while Sawyer Point is home to the “Every Child’s Playground.”

That’s far from all.

3 must-see parks in Cincinnati:

  • Eden Park: At 186 acres, Eden Park offers a different take on the average park with the incorporation of a 60-foot geyser and a historic gazebo from 1904. Catch a show at the local theatre, Playhouse in the Park, or take in a stroll along the quaint footbridge connecting the two lakes. The Cincinnati Art Museum also sits on the grounds.
  • Smale Riverfront Park: This is a Cincinnati treasure, offering bench swings that you can enjoy while you enjoy the riverfront views and people watching. The oversized foot piano provides endless thrills for both the young and old. If you get hot, there are fun, interactive water fountains, or you can hitch a ride on Carol Ann’s Carousel.
  • Washington Park: Enjoy greenery right in downtown Cincinnati with the ever-bustling Washington Park. If you want something different than the multiple playground and trails, there are always fun, family-friendly events taking place like outdoor movies, and the kids will love the splash pads during the warmer months. The Porch is also conveniently available, providing nourishment in between your adventures.

6. Portland, OR

Portland continues to break records. It is only one of four cities in the U.S. with an extinct volcano, and its Laurelhurst Park was the first city to be officially recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. The Grotto’s 62 acres include a 1924 Catholic sanctuary that is a hot spot every winter for its famed Christmas celebration. With one visit to Portland, you will experience countless new adventures that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

3 must-see parks in Portland:

  • Washington Park: Portland has its own Washington Park, only this one is quite different with its Pacific Northwest flair. Explore a lush little forest right in the middle of the city, with plenty of attractions including the Oregon Zoo, Hoyt Arboretum and the Children’s Museum. For a true step back in history, check out the archery range for target practice.
  • Forest Park: With its 5,000 acres, Forest Park showcases all the best parts of life in the Pacific Northwest. With just a ten-minute drive, you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city and escape to this natural oasis. There are over 40 miles of hiking trails that wind around waterfalls, rivers and bridges for spectacular views regardless of whether you choose to walk or ride your bike.
  • Mt. Tabor Park: This park has gained national recognition for the annual Adult Soap Box Derby, but there is so much more to explore. Dog lovers will enjoy the off-leash area for their furry friends to run and play,

Basketball and volleyball courts are available in addition to the many picnic areas and playgrounds. There’s even an extinct volcano! Mt. Tabor Park is such a local favorite that it is a popular wedding venue for Portland.

7. Irvine, CA

With pleasant weather year-round, there are endless opportunities for you to enjoy some of California’s best parks. Here in the FBI’s safest urban city, nature remains largely untouched. Irvine’s best parks offer a little bit of everything with vibrant greenery, farms,  protected wetlands and sanctuaries.

3 must-see parks in Irvine:

  • Tanaka Farms, LLC: Tanaka Farms offers fun for the whole family with 30 acres of fresh fruit that you can pick yourself to take home. With everyone busy cooking at home these days (so long as quarantine lasts), Tanaka Farms is an easy way to add a new spin on a favorite recipe. There are also wagon rides and tours with free samples. Don’t miss October’s harvest pumpkin festivals!
  • San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary: Within the city of Irvine sits the natural wilderness of San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. For a true adventure amongst unspoiled nature, visit this constructed wetland for some of the best birdwatching in the country. There are 300 acres to explore with handicap-accessible hiking trails.
  • Orange County Great Park: Irvine’s best park holds over 1,300 acres of fun on a former Marine Corps air base. In tribute to its origins, you can visit the Great Park Balloon for a new perspective on a beloved city. The historic aircraft hangar and rotating art exhibits continue to draw fans, and kids can ride the carousel or go skating.

8. San Francisco, CA

San Francisco has so many beautiful parks that it was difficult narrowing our top choices to just three. With the Golden Gate Bridge as your backdrop, relax on the beach and watch the famous cable cars slowly ascend over the fluttering sails of the sailboats dotting the sparkling waters below.

In San Francisco, you won’t run out of things to see, and there are endless places to enjoy them.

3 must-see parks in San Francisco:

9. Boston, MA

Boston is full of history. Not only does it hold the oldest park in the United States, but it also offers a thriving culture all its own.

The capital city of Massachusetts features cobblestone roads and red-brick paths that run along the water. The famed Boston Harbor has tons of islands for you to explore, like Castle Island and George’s Island, which are great for a relaxing sail.

3 must-see parks in Boston:

  • Boston Common: When it’s cold outside, residents and visitors alike flock to Boston Common for ice skating on hometown favorite Frog Pond. As the oldest park in the U.S., there is something for everyone. Stop by the outdoor theatre, Shakespeare on the Common, or go for a twirl on the seasonal carousel. Pack a picnic and watch friendly matches on the many sports fields. When you’re done, head over to the dog park to let Fido off the leash for a good run.
  • Boston Public Garden: Conveniently situated next to Boston Common, the Boston Public Garden is a Massachusetts treasure. There are more than 600 different types of trees with countless varieties of gorgeous flowers. Take in the statues or enjoy one of the live concerts in warmer weather. There is nothing like a sunset stroll in Boston’s most famed gardens.
  • Rose Kennedy Greenway: From Chinatown to the North End, The Greenway is the perfect walking path when you need to get out of the house. The gardens and fountains make your picnic that much more enjoyable, and the food trucks and farmers markets are always a great perk with all kinds of goodies to take home. Bostonians are especially partial to the seasonal beer garden during warmer weather.

10. Chicago, IL

You can’t come to Chicago without seeing Willis Tower, but the parks are just as impressive. The Bean is a world-renowned sculpture that is the pride of Chicagoans, and the expansive greenery that stretches along the Chicago River continues to bring out the very best that the Windy City has to offer.

3 must-see parks in Chicago:

  • Millennium Park: It may only take up three blocks, but Chicago makes full use of its lakefront real estate with its iconic Millenium Park. The whole family will delight in the Ferris Wheel, and during the holidays, the park is a favorite spot for ice skating. There’s also a music pavilion for live shows, and, of course, you can’t miss the 12-foot stainless steel sculpture Cloud Gate or as it’s more affectionately known, the Bean.
  • Lincoln Park: Situated between the Lincoln Park Zoo and the tidy neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, you will find the actual Lincoln Park. This is a nearly 1,200-acre park with vivid greenery that is a favorite gathering spot for everything from picnics to farmers’ markets. The walking and biking paths wind around the beautiful lagoon, and there are restaurants and shops if you want to sample the local flavor while you’re out and about.
  • Garfield Park Conservatory: At Garfield Park Conservatory, you can visit the tropics without ever leaving Chicago. Its warm rooms feature palm trees and koi ponds that will make you feel like you are on vacation. There are other themed rooms, like a desert room and a fern room, but the waterfalls are always a visitor favorite. Your kids especially will love the indoor play area in the special children’s garden.

How to practice safe social distancing at the park

With social distancing rules in place, normal social behaviors are much different than they were in a pre-coronavirus world. The outdoors has always been a healthy stress reliever, but it has taken on a new meaning during quarantine. Some of the parks on our list are closed due to the pandemic, but for the ones that remain open we recommend the following  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

  • Try to stay close to home to eliminate your exposure to unnecessary germs.
  • Check your park’s hours of operation to ensure that it is open and read about any extra safety tips that you can use.
  • Avoid playgrounds and group activities or sports to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • Maintain safe social distancing practices while out and about – even in the pool!

The bottom line

It is in times of crisis that we return to the simpler things in life – a breath of fresh air, the warm rays of the sun, the soothing melody of lapping waves. With over 400 national parks in the U.S., it is not hard to find a safe way to spend the day outdoors during quarantine. Visiting your local park is an excellent way to improve your health, blow off a little steam and find the adventure of a lifetime, especially when you visit one of the best parks in the U.S.

Frequently asked questions

Can you go outside to the park during coronavirus?

The experts agree that physical activity can help to keep you healthy physically and mentally during this global pandemic. Visiting your neighborhood park can be a great way to get the exercise you need and still practice social distancing, as long as you steer clear of crowded areas like playgrounds.

What city has the best parks?

According to the 2020 ParkScore Rankings, Minneapolis has the best parks in the U.S. There is no shortage of parks across the United States; It’s only a matter of which one is the right fit for you in both its location and amenities.

What is the largest park in the U.S.?

The largest park in the U.S. is the McDowell Sonoran Preserve with over 30,000 acres in Scottsdale, Arizona.

What is the oldest park in the U.S.?

Since 1634, Boston Common in Boston, Massachusetts has served as the oldest park in the U.S.


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