Feeling the need to commune with nature but not able to break away to the wilds? That's cool—even in the middle of some of our largest population centers, the great outdoors (well, great might be a stretch—le petit outdoors, how's that) is often just around the corner. This spring, no matter which big city you call home, get outside and go explore.
Make it to the top in Los Angeles—without an agent
It’s not a skyscraper or a Ferris wheel. It’s not the Eiffel Tower and there’s no pricey circulating restaurant up top. But if you want an absolutely unforgettable, no admission charged, 360-degree view of the entire Los Angeles region—the valleys, the mountains, the Pacific Ocean—it’s yours. All you have to do is hike. One of the preferred exercise routes for those living nearby, the Mount Hollywood Trail (1.5 miles) begins just across the parking lot from the famed Griffith Observatory, though savvy walkers will leave the car down below and hike up through Griffith Park, roughly doubling the distance. The views at the top (1,640 feet above sea level, to be precise) are the main event, but there's never a dull moment.
Ten miles—and a terrific tan—in Miami
The sultriest beach destination on the East Coast is famous for many things—solitude is not one of them. But there's no denying the beauty of its beaches, which you could spend all day exploring. Happily, there's the Beach Walk, an uninterrupted five mile stretch between the dunes and the lush pool areas of the city's most iconic hotels, stretching from the very tip of South Beach up to Indian Beach Park, just north of the restored Eden Roc resort. Up for more? After a brief interruption (just walk north along the beach), the pathway resumes and takes you all the way to the the tony suburb of Bal Harbour, roughly ten miles from your starting point. Taxi!
In Vegas, swap the bright lights for even brighter colors
In a town renowned for artificial environments, driving out West Charleston Avenue and into the magnificent Red Rock National Conservation Area comes as somewhat of a shock to the system. This vast park is exactly what it says it is—a series of brilliantly colored mountains and canyons, perfect for hikes of all kinds. Terrified of nature? Try the more managed great outdoors you'll find right in town at the Springs Preserve, a 180-acre oasis mere minutes from the Strip. dedicated to reminding everyone that Las Vegas is in a desert, casino resort water features and indoor gardens notwithstanding.
Minutes from America's largest mall, get wild
Just a short drive (or several light rail stops, if you're going car-free) from the gargantuan Mall of America, disappear into Minneapolis' urban wilderness with an easy half-day hike through the floodplain forest of this delightfully remote island, tucked away inside Fort Snelling State Park, formerly a strategic military site. Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, the island's 4.5-mile loop trail is a popular spot for foragers in the warmer months.
Kayak the Bronx River (No, seriously!)
It may not be at the top of your list of things to do when you finally get to the Big Apple, but exploring the almost-secret river that flows through one of New York’s most mysterious boroughs is always an unforgettable experience. The Bronx River Alliance, a non-profit group that has worked tirelessly to bring the much-abused river back to life, operates cycling and canoeing trips along the river, from the rugged, slowly-reviving Hunts Point section down near the harbor on up through the heart of the borough. Or you can just explore yourself—the stretch running through the New York Botanical Gardens is particularly scenic, flanked by New York City’s lone remaining stand of old-growth forest. (It's as pretty as it sounds.)
Disappear into the swamps of South Carolina
Just 100,000 people each year brave the wild lands of Congaree National Park (an easy drive from Charleston and even closer to the capital city of Columbia), known as much for venomous snakes and blood-sucking mosquitoes as its grand forests and secluded waterways. Still, a spring time paddle down the Cedar Creek, underneath a tunnel of bald cypress and water tupelo trees hanging low with Spanish Moss is not to be missed—for beginners, a series of free, ranger-guided canoe trips (all equipment included) can be booked through the National Park Service in advance.
Explore the wilder side of Chicago's lakefront
What looks like a grand old hotel, down the end of the tree-lined driveway leading out toward Lake Michigan from the busy corner of South Shore Drive and 71st Street is actually a public park. (Head on in.) Once the exclusive South Shore Country Club, this beautiful piece of property—complete with golf course and a restaurant serving weekend brunch—now belongs to the people. In good weather, there's a beach, too, but any day you happen to be nearby is a good day to explore the secluded pathways of the park's rather magical nature preserve, a haven for birds and butterflies.
Paddle your way through the Louisiana bayou
Stretching for 135 miles through four parishes, the Bayou Teche Paddle Trail offers visitors to Cajun Country an inspired alternative to the usual road trip, not to mention a chance to work off all that boudin you'll probably be eating. The recent recipient of a federal designation, the trailhead can be found in the small town of Breaux Bridge, an easy car ride from New Orleans. Here, the capable hands at the Bayou Teche Experience outfit visitors with canoe and kayak rentals; guided tours with a certified naturalist are offered as well.
Explore the future of Atlanta—on foot
The re-imagination of a disused railroad corridor circling Atlanta's city core will result in a seamless network of trails and parkland, bringing nature ever closer to some of the city's most densely populated areas, all the while promoting walking and biking and the use of existing transit. The work is already well underway on what's known as the Beltline—visitors can travel into the not-too-distant future on the Eastside Trail, linking vast Piedmont Park with the historic and recently very cool Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, taking in a wealth of sights (and some fantastic options for eating and drinking) along the way.
Head to South Texas to watch the birds fly north
Nine diverse locations in the Rio Grande Valley—a long but worthwhile day trip from the tourist magnet that is San Antonio—make up the World Birding Center, an epic rest stop for more than 500 species of migratory birds, many of them found no place else in the United States. Spaced out along a 120-mile stretch of the iconic Rio Grande in Texas' unique border region, hiking the trails through miles of tropical habitat is a memorable experience, with or without binoculars. What better way to celebrate spring?