When the urban jungle becomes too much for us, we naturally seek an oasis of peace and calm amidst the asphalt and pandemonium. I’ve found twelve surprising urban oases offering us the promise of lovely vistas, green relief, or a pleasant walk. These are all near or in major cities in the mid-Atlantic region: Pittsburgh, Richmond, Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia… Check them out below, and click on the link for more information!
But in this time of social distancing, don’t be surprised if some of these places are super busy! If so, keep walking (away) and add them to your bucket list!
In the heart of northern Virginia suburbia, Scotts Run Nature Preserve is easy to get to, and only minutes off the Washington Beltway. This urban oasis is a sweet little park in busy Fairfax County, VA that offers luxurious tree cover and a chance to explore a number of trails throughout the preserve, leading to various overlooks, waterfalls, and the ruins of the former owner’s cabin. Its 336 acres of woodland is bordered by its namesake, Scott’s Run, flowing through its west side to the mighty Potomac River, which forms its northern border. While you’re walking in the preserve, you’ll often hear the river, falls, and lots of birds.
The Baltimore & Annapolis Trail is a local favorite, and thus can get quite crowded with both walkers and bikers. The B&A Trail runs for just over 13 miles between Glen Burnie and Annapolis, following the old Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad. Although the “park” is only 60 feet wide, many parts of it are wooded and it is relaxing to get away from the roads and the more suburban scenery of strip malls and shopping centers. It is also frankly interesting to peek into the backyards of homeowners along the trail. Many have superbly landscaped their back yards to be lovely oasis-es. Even with such a narrow park, there is wildlife. On an early spring day, we saw a lot of birds and the ubiquitous grey squirrels. There were also deer and what I believed to be fox prints in mud along the trail.
Patapsco River Valley State Park is strung like a string of pearls from northern Howard County into the city of Baltimore, and offers valleys of hidden surprises, from the Grist Mill Trail and its swinging bridges to Maryland’s own ghost town. There’s mountain biking, hiking, urban exploration of ghost towns, and water tubing, as well as a variety of picnic areas to make spending an afternoon pleasurable and refreshing.
If you’re looking for an oasis in the midst of cluttered suburbia, Brookside Gardens offers a great place to check out, pretty much anytime in spring or summer. Brookside is a standout for its variety of azaleas, making early to mid-spring the best time to vist. The grounds of Brookside Gardens are designed around three formal gardens leading to a Wedding Gazebo, an Azalea Walk on the brow of the hill, plantings around the entrance, and the Conservatory.
The U.S. National Arboretum is a garden, a park, and a research institution, part of the USDA. Its 446 acres include world-famous collections, such as its azalea, bonsai, and Asian plant collections. It is green and lush and colorful. There are wooded walks and expansive meadows and quite a bit in between.The Arboretum offers some surprises — stately and mysterious columns rising out of the meadow, like Greek temple ruins. As you travel around the grounds, you enjoy different views of the columns. There’s some history there too: the arrangement of 22 Corinthian columns, originally from the US Capitol building, are placed amid 20 acres of open meadow, known as the Ellipse Meadow.
Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Heritage Trail evolved from five separate trails and today comprises several unique sections. Most of these segments are riverfront trails along both banks of the three rivers that form Pittsburgh’s famous point: the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio. It’s also one of the treasures of Pittsburgh. The route provides an urban outdoor experience with vistas up and down the rivers, a connection to downtown Pittsburgh and close-ups of the contrast between old industry and new.
Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, like many large city cemeteries established in the late 1800s, was created to be both a final resting place AND a park, often serving as arboretums with a wide variety of ornamental and interesting shrubs and trees. Our Victorian forebears understood this, and would take picnics and luncheons and spend an afternoon in a cemetery, even if they didn’t have loved ones resting there. Our modern day sensitivities have driven us away from viewing — and using — these as parks, but that’s a shame.
As green-spaces rapidly diminish, we need oases like these pastoral cemeteries even more now. Take a bike or take a hike — most of these cemeteries were designed to provide changing vistas and often dramatic views of rivers, as is the case of Hollywood. Enjoy the Victorian-era head stones — usually lovely and quite dramatic statuary of angels and weeping women. Most of all, enjoy the solitude and quiet that a pastoral cemetery can offer!
The Delaware Canal, north of Philadelphia, is a favorite place to escape the suburban hustle and bustle because it has soothing water throughout. For most of its length, the towpath travels between the Delaware River and the canal, offering both greenery and lovely water views. Keep your eyes peeled — you’re almost certain to encounter small wildlife and birds aplenty!
Further south, another canal also offers respite from the urban clutter: the C&O Canal Towpath in Montgomery County, MD. The C&O Canal Towpath stretches 184 miles from Washington DC all the way up to Western Maryland. Nearer to Washington DC, and through Montgomery County — one of Maryland’s most crowded and urban counties — the towpath offers moments of solitude and respite from the urban jungle. When the concrete makes your eyes sore, and the incessant noise of civilization makes your ears ache, then go to the towpath. Enjoy green trees, sweeping views of the Potomac River, and listen for the birds singing in the trees. Although Great Falls has plenty of parking, it also is one of the most visited sections, so instead check out Swains Lock, Brunswick, or the Monocacy Aqueduct areas.
Columbia’s Four Lakes await just 20 minutes outside of Baltimore minutes from I-95, in the planned community of Columbia, MD. James Rouse, the visionary who founded Columbia, incorporated winding, tree-lined roads and lakes in his planning, making this community a pleasant one to live in. The lakes all have paths that offer changing views and a chance to enjoy seeing beaver, deer, herons, ducks and geese, as well as a variety of other birds, and offer a great place to feel as if you’re back in nature for a few hours.
Built around Baltimore’s popular Inner Harbor, Baltimore’s Waterfront Promenade doesn’t offer solitude as much as it offers a chance to re-connect with Baltimore’s working harbor past — that, and some magnificent views of the water, which makes this an urban oasis, despite it’s lack of having trees and greenery.
As you stroll along its five + miles, you’ll travel through Baltimore’s historic neighborhoods as well: Canton and Fells Point among them. Grab a coffee or grab lunch in Fells Point, or visit one of the historic light ships or lighthouses — the promenade offers a brief interlude of relaxation away from the major hustle and bustle of Baltimore’s city life. What makes this particularly a fun place to spend some time is you can travel in one direction on foot, then take a water taxi through the harbor back to your starting point!
Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery is a hilly cemetery, where trees, monuments, and rolling hills can obscure the view of other living creatures — cemeteries like Laurel Hill are far from creepy. The city street noises echo through, although muffled, and in Laurel Hill, I heard the sounds of a rowing race in the river below. Birds twittered from the trees, and squirrels played hide and seek among the stones.
Not surprisingly, given its location on the bluff overlooking the Schuylkill River, Laurel Hill became an immensely popular destination in its early years. Laurel Hill was the favored burial place for many of Philadelphia’s most prominent political and business figures, including Matthias W. Baldwin, founder of the Baldwin Locomotive Works; Henry Disston, owner of the largest saw factory in the world (the Disston Saw Works); and financier Peter A. B. Widener. Civil War generals and military heroes can be found there, as well as Revolutionary War figures, whose remains were moved there by the cemetery’s organizers, who wished to make Laurel Hill the place to be, or rather, The Place to be buried. During and after the American Civil War, Laurel Hill became the final resting place of hundreds of military figures, including 42 Civil War-era generals, including Battle of Gettysburg victor General George Gordon Meade.