If you live in a big city, it might feel hard to escape to the outdoors. It can be hard to get to the woods if you don’t have a car, and even if you do it might be several hours of driving from your home to the mountains. But many cities are hiding a lot more nature than you might expect—you just have to know where to look for it.
Whether you’re looking for more outdoorsy spaces close to home or you want to explore the greener side of a city you’re visiting for the first time, here are some ways to find natural spaces for your next mini-adventure.
Colleges and universities
Plenty of college campuses are open to public visitors, and many of them have expansive greens for students to enjoy some time outdoors. College towns can be great road trip detours since they often have everything you need within a short radius of campus, so have a look for campuses on the way next time you need to break up a long journey. Some colleges, like Elon University in North Carolina, have accredited botanical gardens.
Arboretums and botanical gardens
Speaking of gardens, if you Google “(your city) botanic garden” and you might be surprised at the gems that pop up. The Denver Botanic Gardens, for example, has a gorgeous tropical greenhouse where you can feel like you’ve traveled to a jungle on the other side of the world. The Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden offers a maze of different types of gardens where you can feel very far away from city life. You’ll find places like this all over the world—from the (free) Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, Scotland, to the Tallinn Botanic Garden in Estonia. City botanic gardens often have giant greenhouses or historic glasshouses that can be fantastic rainy (or snowy) day activities as it’s warm and cozy inside to protect the plants. Budget tip: Many botanic gardens in the United States and abroad offer reciprocal membership, so if you buy a membership to one, you can visit dozens of others for free.
Cities and towns of all sizes often have community gardens where local residents can sign up for small plots to grow their own fruits and vegetables. These gardens are often stewarded by schools and community centers, and may need volunteers. If your town doesn’t have a garden but you think people would use one, it’s worth asking your local government how you can help get one started.
Rivers, canals, and ponds
While not all rivers are recreation-friendly, many are—you might just not realize it because you’ve never seen anyone else paddle there. In Boulder, Colorado, there’s an annual Tube to Work Day tradition where city residents literally float down Boulder Creek in tubes till they get close enough to their office to walk the rest of the way (helmets strongly advised). In London, the swimming ponds of Hampstead Heath and Hyde Park often fly under the radar for visitors and residents alike. If you’re looking for a way to get engaged with your local community, volunteering for a waterway cleanup can be a great way to get involved and make new friends.
Parks, zoos, and nature reserves
If you’ve never explored your local parks, you could be missing out on incredible opportunities to get closer to nature. City parks are often underrated gems where you can relax with a book under a tree or enjoy seasonal flowers. Of course, not every city park is gorgeous, but go with an open mind and remember, you have the power to influence the future of that place. If your local park is looking a little worse for the wear, write a letter to your town’s parks and recreation department or, even better, show up at the next city council meeting. You might be surprised how few people take the time to show up to local government meetings, and therefore how important and well-received your voice is when you actually do it.
Look for green spaces on Google Maps
One of the best ways to discover places you otherwise might not stumble upon is to just zoom in on a destination on Google Maps and click around till you find something interesting. Not all the green spaces you’ll see are forests, and not all are open to the public, but it’s a great starting point for research—and might help you find a hidden garden, a park you’ve never heard of, or something new that’s not yet on your radar.
When in doubt, pretend you’re a tourist and go to the visitor center
There’s no shame in Googling your town, city, or neighborhood as if you’re a tourist to find out what you’ve been missing out on. If your city has a visitor’s center—and many do, even in towns of just a few thousand people—show up and ask for some suggestions. Ask about the best hilltops to view sunrise and sunset, the best parks for birdwatching, and the best hikes you can access by foot, public transportation, or a short drive.