Urban Escape: 5 US Cities Where You Can Find Nature Without Leaving Town
Studies from around the world show that nature makes us happier. Spending time immersed in natural landscapes benefits our brains and our bodies. It deepens our sense of connectedness to ourselves and everything else. It even makes us kinder and more creative. But, instinctively, you probably knew that.
Take a Greyhound to certain American cities and — without even leaving town — you can find yourself in some unique pockets of nature. Perhaps you’ll uncover an urban park full of rare trees, go for a swim in a river that cuts through the heart of the Sonoran Desert, or kayak among manatees. Manatees!
From Arizona to California, Oregon to Texas, here are some great spots to go. “Spend the afternoon,” as the nature writer Annie Dillard put it, “you can’t take it with you.”
It’s not all food trucks and indie bookstores in Oregon’s capital of hipness (though if that’s what you want, head to Hapa PDX Ramen and Powell’s Books). Portland’s creative side also shows up in its gardens.
Totaling 12 acres of moon bridges, waterfalls, koi ponds, and creeks, Portland Japanese Garden is a Bashō dreamscape. Then there’s the International Rose Test Garden, home to 10,000 rose bushes — for the showiest show, come in June. Hoyt Arboretum is where you’ll find 12 miles of hilly hiking trails, 30 kinds of bamboo, and 2,300 species of trees, including a type of redwood that was thought to be extinct until 1944 (that’d be the dawn redwood). All these natural spaces are free to visit and are located within Washington Park.
If you have more time in the city, check out Tryon Creek State Natural Area and the weird, wonderful, and very ferny National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother — aka The Grotto, aka the (locally) iconic natural outdoor cathedral complete with reflection ponds, a clifftop botanical garden, and many, many Catholic statues.
Greyhound stop: 800 NW 6th Ave, a 15-minute ride from Washington Park
Fort Myers, Florida
Southwest Florida is known for its fantastic beaches, but there’s more to this part of the world than pretty shells and ridiculous sunsets.
To feel like a character in The Orchid Thief, visit Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve and its 3,500 acres of alligators, turtles, herons, and preserved swampland. Or head to Manatee Park and watch the “sea cows” swim up the Orange River — for this experience, you’ll want to plan your trip for sometime December through March. You can take in the action from viewing platforms along the sanctuary’s edge or rent a kayak or canoe from Calusa Blueway Outfitters.
As for those pretty sunsets and seashells? Make it Bunche Beach Preserve, a stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail. Expect mangroves, clear waters, 719 pristine acres of white beach and wetlands, and fellow sunbathers in the shape of herons and pelicans.
Greyhound stop: 2250 Widman Way, under 20 minutes from Manatee Park
In this border city in southwestern Arizona, the fun happens along the banks of the Colorado River. Or, if it’s summertime and you’re relaxing on the beach at Gateway Park, actually in the Colorado River. Cool off in the water, or walk five minutes east along the Yuma Crossing Bike Path to another great nature spot.
At East Wetlands Park, every birdsong is the sound of hope; it’s the sound of what happens when people come together to protect the environment. In 2002, this area was a wasteland that had been taken over by invasive species and trash. But in the intervening years, workers and hundreds of volunteers cleaned things up and planted over 200,000 native trees, plants, and shrubs. Today, the main thing you’ll see (and hear) in abundance is bird life, including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and Yuma clapper rail.
Greyhound stop: 1245 S Castle Dome Ave, about two miles from Gateway Park
San Diego, California
The extreme southwestern corner of the country is full of sage-strewn canyons, tidal marshes, and desert mesas. San Diego has broad city limits, so let’s look to the natural areas that are easy enough to access from the bus station. First up, there’s Mission Bay. Here you can people-watch on the Ocean Front Walk. You can hang out on the beach or rent a board and surf.
While you’re in the city, you’ll definitely want to explore Balboa Park. It’s the home of rugged Florida Canyon; the Moorish-influenced, formal Alcazar Garden (visit and you’ll feel like you’re in Granada); and the palm-filled Palm Canyon. If you have time, you can also check out the Australian Garden, Rose Garden, Japanese Friendship Garden, and Desert Garden.
If hiking and biking in canyons is your vibe, head to Tecolote Canyon Natural Park and Nature Center. With more than six miles of trails, this is one of the biggest canyons in the city. The paths are gentle; the sycamores and sage grow in abundance. And if you look up? You might just see owls and hawks.
Greyhound stop: 1313 National Ave, 15 minutes from Mission Bay
You’re in Austin, and you’re more than ready to stretch your legs. What now? Head to Lady Bird Lake and run (or amble) along its 10-mile Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail. Rent a SUP board and paddle under the dappled shade of the old cypress and live oaks that line the water. Or beeline it just south of downtown to Zilker Park and cool down at Barton Springs Pool, where the spring water’s a perfect 68 degrees all year round.
For nature + art combined, there’s Laguna Gloria on the shores of Lake Austin. Its 14 acres are part of The Contemporary Austin, and they’re full of permanent and changing installations by renowned artists like Ai Weiwei, Terry Allen, and Yoko Ono. Plus, you can order coffee from onsite épicerie to drink on the grounds. You couldn’t experience that level of sophistication combined with outdoorsy dreaminess in the wildest of wilds. Enjoy.
Greyhound stop: 916 E Koenig Ln, less than 20 minutes from both Lady Bird Lake and Lake Austin.