Despite the pandemic in 2020, 237 million people trekked to one of the nation’s more than 400 national park sites, the National Park Service reports. To make that trip, most drove or flew hundreds of miles to view the grand vistas of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone or to peek into history at the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania.
Yet many park-goers decided to forgo the hassle of plane travel or a long car ride to visit a recreational area in their hometown or a nearby city. The country’s 100 largest cities are home to numerous cityland parks filled with nature, recreational facilities, and historic commemorations. All told, 495 public and private parks and recreational organizations in these metro areas oversee about two million acres of parkland, according to The Trust for Public Land’s “2021 City Park Facts,” the latest edition of the nonprofit’s annual parks data compilation.
To identify the most visited parks in America’s largest cities, 24/7 Tempo reviewed the visitation data from the TPL’s report. Topping the list is New York City’s iconic Central Park, where 42 million visitors stroll through its pathways and lakes each year.
A rectangular oasis of green surrounded by a towering urban landscape, the park traces its origins to 1853, when the city, pushed by wealthy merchants who wanted an area resembling the public parks in London and Paris, acquired 700 acres in the middle of Manhattan by the power of eminent domain.
A Central Park Commission was appointed, and after a landscape design contest, a plan submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted, the park’s superintendent at the time, and Calvert Vaux, an English-born architect, got the nod. Some 20,000 laborers worked on this massive 1public project, which opened to the public in 1859. (These are the oldest city parks in America.)
The 1,000-plus acre Golden Gate Park in San Francisco also began in the 19th century. In 1870, William Hammond Hall, California’s first state engineer, turned an area dominated by sand dunes into a peaceful place of gardens and playgrounds, which later came to include the De Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. After the devastating 1906 earthquake, the park sheltered 200,000 homeless San Franciscans. (See the worst natural disaster in every state.)
Not all city parks date back that far. Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta Park was launched (literally) in 1972 when 13 hot air balloons took to the skies from a mall parking lot. The event’s popularity soared, and now it’s held every October, when about 600 balloons rise from its own permanent 350-acre site in a stunning display of colorful airborne floats.
With the pandemic keeping people close to home, these urban parks offer a respite from cramped quarters and busy streets. And they’re usually just a walk or short car ride away.