Great City Parks in the West

Need to pause and refresh? Where better than a meadow, a trail, or a pond in one of the West's urban oases?

California Tower and Museum of Man in Balboa Park, San Diego, image

Lush gardens surround the California Tower and the Museum of Man in Balboa Park.

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Great cities are defined by their skylines—and by their parks. Towers may look impressive on postcards, but parks are where people live. "They're places to let off steam, explore new paths, or just kick back and savor a bit of green amid the glamour and grit." With mountains and water close by, outdoor life is a big part of the reason people put down stakes in the West. A good city park validates why we live here. "There's no better proof of Western parks' unrivaled mix of natural splendor and man-made attractions than these seven urban sanctuaries. They define what city parks can—and should—be.

FOREST PARK, Portland

If developers, timbermen, and prospectors had gotten their way, Forest Park wouldn't exist. The northeast face of the Tualatin Mountains in western Portland has been logged, coveted by would-be landowners, and even prospected for oil. But despite these threats, the area's far-sighted citizens were able to reclaim the land.

In 1948, this 7.5-mile swath of rich green terrain became Forest Park. Since then, nature has reigned. Although the main entrance leads to Leif Erikson Drive, a car-free road that winds through the park for 11 miles, the real fun begins once you veer off onto the trails or fire roads and immerse yourself in a tangle of cedars, alders, ferns, moss, and nonnative English ivy (the park's current scourge). The trickle of nearby streams is louder than the hum of distant freeways.

As for wildlife, 62 species of mammals have been spotted within the park's 5,155 acres. This includes black bears—but fortunately joggers are a more common sight.www.portlandparks.org, (503) 823-7529

BALBOA PARK, San Diego

Mention Balboa Park to people outside San Diego, and what likely comes to mind is the San Diego Zoo. With its collection of 4,000 animals (some rare and endangered) representing more than 800 species, it's one of North America's largest. In fact, the zoo occupies more than 100 of Balboa Park's 1,200 acres, and visitors who don't want to cover that distance on foot can choose a 45-minute guided bus tour or a gondola ride.

But if the zoo's the only thing you see in this park just north of downtown San Diego, you'll miss a spate of attractions that includes a miniature railroad, a working artists' colony, one of the world's largest outdoor organs, a Japanese garden, and 15 museums. Historic buildings from two expositions—the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935 California Pacific International Exhibition—house many of the museums, so you'll also get an eyeful of ornate structures, including the Botanical Building with its iconic lily pond. Otherwise, you can picnic, barbecue, hike, skate, or indulge in just about any outdoor pleasure that catches your fancy.www.balboapark.org, (619) 239-0512

BIDWELL PARK, Chico, Calif.

Bidwell Park in downtown Chico looks to be nothing more than a spacious neighborhood park framed by houses and tree-lined streets. But not many neighborhoods have an enormous swimming "hole" created by damming and concreting a creek or a playground with structures that resemble mining tunnels and a piece of Swiss cheese. And no other neighborhood park extends 11 miles into the Sierra foothills.

Created in 1905 with a 1,092-acre bequest from Annie Bidwell, the wife of one of Chico's founders, the park acquired another 2,578 acres in the years that followed. Bidwell stipulated that no alcohol would be allowed; but other temptations include a golf course, an observatory, and the Yahi Trail, which passes a tight gorge with walls of dark, long-hardened lava.

And if the terrain seems familiar to film buffs, there's a reason: Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood was filmed here in 1937.www.bidwellpark.org, (530) 896-7800

STANLEY PARK, Vancouver, B.C.

No grand vision sparked the birth of Vancouver's Stanley Park in 1886. Owners of adjacent property simply didn't want a rival development next door, so they won support for a park from the mayor by cutting him in on their deal.

The result: One thousand magnificent acres of forested peninsula encircled by vivid bays on three sides and glassy high-rise towers on the fourth. The park's most popular feature is the paved Seawall, which attracts so many bicyclists they all have to travel in the same direction. By contrast, the crushed granite path to Beaver Lake wends through trees so lush the outside world disappears.

What's between those extremes? For starters, a rose garden with more than 1,700 bushes and an immense swimming pool that seems to spill into English Bay. There are also tennis courts, a miniature railway, totem poles, and a monument to Queen Victoria. That long-ago real estate deal has paid off.www.vancouverparks.ca, (604) 257-8400

TRUCKEE RIVER WHITEWATER PARK AT WINGFIELD, Reno

Now that tribal casinos seem to lurk at every freeway intersection, gambling is no longer enough of a novelty to draw visitors to "the biggest little city in the world." But Reno has a new card to play: Whitewater Park, a seminatural extravaganza for kayakers and rafters that spills through the heart of town, attracting outdoorsy visitors.

In 2003, construction crews restored a dam up-river on the Truckee, eliminating some kayaking and rafting sites. They made up for that by arranging 7,000 tons of boulders to make a succession of drop pools punctuated by a half mile of shallow rapids along either side of Wingfield Island. Kayakers can spend hours performing maneuvers in the drop pools; novices can bounce along on a raft or inner tube. And Wingfield Island, itself an appealing park, is a great place to find a perch and enjoy the show. www.cityofreno.com, (775) 334-4636

The Olmsteds' imprint on the West
Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons influenced the shape of the region's landscape.

When Frederick Law Olmsted sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1863, on his way to a brief stint managing a mining company in the Sierra, the father of Ameri-can landscape architecture recorded his impressions of the California coast in his journal. "Most awfully bleak," he wrote.

It was an inauspicious start to a long relationship that left its mark—for the better—on both the West and the Olmsted family.

Olmsted is best remembered for designing such romantic urban landscapes as New York's Central Park. But the rigorous beauty of the West prodded him in fresh directions. He mapped out Stanford University with Romanesque and California Mission plazas and with drought-tolerant plants. He also argued with persuasive foresight that Yosemite, "the greatest glory of nature," should be preserved in its entirety.

"The expansiveness of the West-ern landscape really influenced him," says Witold Rybczynski, whose book A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century chronicles the life of the legendary landscape architect. "Yosemite Valley had an instant impact on him. There's a sense of openness and contrasts in his later work that comes from California."

After "FLO" retired in 1895, his son, Frederick Jr., and his stepson, John, renamed the firm Olmsted Brothers, but they maintained Frederick's landscaping philosophy and his empathy for the West.They laid out Seattle's park system as well as the suburb of Palos Verdes near Los Angeles.

They also left their mark on gardens in Denver, Spokane, and Tacoma and on a number of state parks in California. And they lobbied for Forest Park in Portland, warning that development couldn't be "as sensible or as profitable to the city as . . . making it a public park."

John died in 1920, but Frederick Jr. lived until 1957. Today, a redwood grove in California's Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is named in Frederick Jr.'s honor. His father would be proud. —J.K

GOLDEN GATE PARK, San Francisco

Golden Gate Park has been a work in progress since 1868, when the city of San Francisco designated 1,017 acres of remote sand dunes as parkland. Skeptics were numerous, and 20 years later only the eastern end had been landscaped.

Then came new park superintendent John McLaren, a dogged Scotsman who set about taming the dunes. He is credited with finally finding a grass with fast-spreading roots that would lock sand in place. And in those horse-and-buggy days, he savvily appropriated animal droppings swept from city streets for use as fertilizer. By the time of McLaren's death in 1943 at age 96, the park was a gracious wonder.

Today, McLaren would recognize such landmarks as the paddleboats on Stow Lake and the Japanese Tea Garden. But the de Young Museum has a provocative new copper-clad home, and in-line skaters have replaced society carriages on Sundays in front of the Conservatory of Flowers. That is the magic of Golden Gate Park: It continues to evolve—just like the city around it.www.parks.sfgov.org, (415) 831-2700

LIBRARY SQUARE, Salt Lake City

Measured strictly by size, the 10-acre square in Salt Lake City isn't obviously a park. Yet words like "square" and even "plaza can't convey the sophisticated landscape that is draped around—and upon—the Utah capital's new main library designed by Moshe Safdie.

The building—a crescent of sandy concrete and glass that curls up from downtown's broad grid—is spectacular. But the surrounding open spaces raise the drama another notch. A footbridge spans hillocks, a sloping lawn doubles as a 1,000-seat amphitheater, and water plunges down the face of a granite wall. But Safdie's most audacious blend of building and park is a walkway on top of his grand crescent that concludes at a fifth-floor rooftop aerie shrouded in native grasses.

"We wanted a heroic landscape with everything clear and bold so that it fit the large scale of Salt Lake City," says Mark Johnson of Denver's Civitas, Inc., the landscape architect for the project. Clearly, they succeeded.www.slcpl.lib.ut.us, (801) 524-8200.

GAS WORKS PARK, Seattle

If you want to see how big-city life has changed in the past century, visit this 20-acre park on Lake Union across from downtown Seattle. From 1906 to 1956, it was home to a soot-belching industrial plant that first manufactured gas from coal and then later from crude oil. Once propane could be piped in from afar, the plant closed—to neighbors' relief.

Now that industrial site is a park like no other. Landscape architect Richard Haag left much of the plant's architecture and machinery in place, including tall cracking towers where oil was processed. The frame of the boiler room shields a picnic area complete with grills. On Sundial Hill, a peak popular with kite fliers, the grass and soil cover a retired slag heap.

The park opened in 1975. It is still a unique mix of industry and nature in a city that loves its outdoors. (206) 684-4075

Six more places to park it

The West's urban greenery takes shape in many forms—wetlands, gardens, and even playing fields.

CRISSY FIELD, San Francisco.
Hard to believe that these 100 bayside acres within the former Presidio army base were covered for decades by supply sheds and asphalt. Now they're home to a 21-acre marsh and a native-clump-grass meadow on a former military airfield. But the part that has become one of San Francisco's favorite promenades is a waterfront path with the Golden Gate Bridge looming nearby.www.crissyfield.org.

TANNER SPRINGS PARK, Portland.
A quiet refuge amid the boxy chic of Portland's Pearl District, this small park is designed as though civilization has been peeled away—exposing reeds and delicate threads of water trickling into a man-made wetland six feet below sidewalk level.www.portlandparks.org.

FREEWAY PERK, Seattle.
There's no more defiant landscape in the United States than this mosaic of thick shrubs and concrete fountains capping a two-block stretch of Interstate 5. The 1976 project is not entirely successful, but it is striking.www.seattle.gov/parks.

CONFLUENCE PARK, Denver.
Where Cherry Creek and the South Platte River spill together, water skimming loudly across stones, you will find Confluence Park. Just like the Rockies—except that you're in downtown Denver, glinting towers on one side and a massive REI on the other.www.denvergov.org.

CHARLIE KELLOG AND JOE ZAHER SPORTS COMPLEX, Las Vegas.
Everything is larger than life in Vegas, including this eye-popping park on 110 acres in the city's northwest valley. Besides 11 soccer fields, 23 tennis courts, and shaded picnic areas—there are three dog runs. Why stop at one?www.lasvegasnevada.gov.

STEELE INDIAN SCHOOL PARK, Phoenix.
For decades, this federally run boarding school housed Native American pupils. Now it's an expansive park that features a hardy 15-acre garden. The park also has a unique circular walkway etched with Native American poems—an overdue gesture of respect.www.phoenix.gov/parks.

Photography by Ron Niebrugge

This article was first published in September 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information./p>

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