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5 Urban Trails That Connect U.S. Cities to the Great Outdoors

By Kristin Braswell

Jul 16, 2021

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Classic view of famous Golden Gate Bridge framed by old cypress trees at the scenic Presidio in San Francisco, California

Photo by canadastock/Shutterstock

Classic view of famous Golden Gate Bridge framed by old cypress trees at the scenic Presidio in San Francisco, California

You don’t have to get out of town to have rewarding encounters with nature. These green spaces offer ample opportunities to hike, walk, bike, glide or ride in the heart of the city.

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Midway through 2020, many city residents took to social media to marvel over how clearly they could hear birds chirping outside of their windows—even in cities like New York and Los Angeles known for their cacophony of sounds that often drown out the urban wildlife.

Though less noise from foot and car traffic meant more intimate serenades from nature, it also revealed the level of isolation much of the world felt as people sheltered at home during the pandemic. The solution for many? Simply stepping out their door. Even the smallest interaction with open air created pathways to reconnect with the outside world and offered a sense of freedom. In fact, according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, trail usage in the U.S. grew 200 percent in 2020 from the previous year, and urban trails in particular became essential for city dwellers seeking fresh air and open spaces. 

Pandemic or not, the benefits of corridors that connect outdoor city spaces are far-reaching, including providing transportation links that can be explored by foot, bike, stroller, roller skates, and wheelchairs. A vibrant network of urban trails can also help limit CO2 emissions from automobiles, and a number of green initiatives in cities like Jacksonville, Florida, recognize the importance of equitable access to trails, which can improve quality of life, health, and even property value.

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Columbia University psychiatrist and author Mindy Fullilove, equated urban trails to arteries in the circulatory system of a city—vital for creating healthy communities. Below are just a few among a growing number of city trails that offer residents and visitors a different lens to view and connect to urban landscapes. 

'Wood Line,' an art installation by Andy Goldsworthy is in a eucalyptus forest just east of the Lover's Lane trail.

The Presidio

San Francisco, California

This 1,491-acre national recreation area on San Francisco’s northern waterfront provides more than just unobstructed views of the Golden Gate Bridge—it’s also home to an extensive trail system that winds through forests and along beaches, all within city limits. The Presidio connects the city to 24 miles of hiking trails and 8 scenic overlooks, as well as to 25 miles of on- and off-road biking trails and 10 multiuse trails for bikers and pedestrians. The Golden Gate Promenade Trail along Crissy Field stretches along the San Francisco Bay shoreline and includes a tidal wetland for birders to enjoy the more than 200 species that fly through the Presidio.

Some pathways are part of larger trail systems, like a 2.7-mile segment of the 1,200-mile California Coastal Trail that runs along the Pacific Ocean. The Presidio’s trails also feature a few history lessons, including Lover’s Lane—one of the oldest footpaths in San Francisco.

The Sugar Hill Mosaic is located along the S-Line Urban Greenway, a city bike path through Jacksonville.

S-Line Urban Greenway

Jacksonville, Florida

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With the most parkland per resident of any city in the country, and the nation’s largest urban park system, Jacksonville is an outdoor haven waiting to be explored. The S-Line Urban Greenway is the city’s first dedicated urban bike path and the first completed section of the 30-mile Emerald Trail; when completed in 2029, it will connect more than 14 historic neighborhoods in downtown, 18 schools, 2 colleges, and 28 parks along with restaurants and other local businesses. The S-Line trail is wheelchair accessible and welcomes runners and walkers, bikers and rollerbladers.

The S-shaped trail follows an abandoned stretch of railroad. New Town and Durkeeville on the midwestern side of Jacksonville were formed during the 20th century as neighborhoods for African American workers during times of segregation. These parts of the city are connected via the S-Line Urban Greenway to Springfield and Brentwood on the north side of the city, famous for their intricate architecture. The Great Fire of 1901 forced downtown Jacksonville residents out of their homes, leading to increased migration to the city’s suburban areas, which drastically transformed the northern side of Jacksonville. The area is now home to trendy restaurants, craft breweries, locally owned shops, public art, and some of the city’s oldest parks, all accessible via the S-Line trail.

Ride or walk to and from downtown Houston on the White Oak Bayou trail.

The White Oak Bayou Greenway and Trail

Houston, Texas

The White Oak Bayou Greenway and Trail winds through 17 miles of public greenspace in the heart of Houston. Visitors and residents can enjoy miles of trails that easily connect them to the downtown area, transit centers, and recreational spaces, including hike-and-bike trails and public parks that offer prime opportunities for birding and other outdoor recreation, all within city limits. The Bayou also serves as a watershed to help the region with flood mitigation and protect surrounding neighborhoods. Houston’s nationally recognized greenspace renaissance kicked off with the Bayou Greenways 2020, a project that aims to create more equitable pathways for city residents through 3,000 acres of greenspace, including 150 miles of trails that will connect Houston’s major bayous.

The North Brooklyn Waterfront is part of a 26-mile Brooklyn waterfront urban trail and parks project.

North Brooklyn Waterfront

Brooklyn, New York

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The development of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway is a testimony to the perseverance of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, an organization dedicated to creating an uninterrupted path of multiuse trails and parks along 26 miles of the Brooklyn waterfront. The project’s completion is slated for this year and will feature a pathway connecting four major parks and more than a dozen open spaces for pedestrians, runners, and cyclists to embrace in a city known for its high-rises and frenetic streets. Currently, 20 miles are open to the public, including an 8-mile path along the North Brooklyn Waterfront that leads to the historic cobblestone streets of Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood and to the open fields of Brooklyn Bridge Park. 

Visit Cincinnati by bike or foot on the endless Little Miami Scenic Trail.

Little Miami Scenic Trail

Cincinnati, Ohio

The Little Miami Scenic Trail runs 78 miles from Cincinnati to Springfield in Ohio, making it one of the nation’s longest paved multiuse trail networks. A large portion of the trail borders the banks of the Little Miami River, allowing pedestrians to get off foot to kayak or canoe instead. As the longest single path in the Miami Valley network, the well-shaded Little Miami Scenic Trail connects many of the region’s towns and cities, including the historic downtown areas of Loveland, Milford, and Lebanon. Two state parks, John Bryan and Caesar Creek, can be reached from the trail, as well as a number of eateries and breweries to unwind and refuel. The entire Cincinnati region has 116,000 acres of protected greenspace, including 351 parks and nearly 40 nature preserves.

>> Next: The Best Hikes Along the California Coastal Trail

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