10 Rugged Adventures Near Big Cities

Enjoy big city living and wilderness adventure with these public lands that are within a half-day’s drive of major metropolitan areas.

By: Steve Larese

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Near Atlanta

Atlanta, Georgia, is less than three hours from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina, close to the Tennessee border. The 522,419-acre park contains more than 800 miles of hiking trails, including 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Charlotte, Knoxville, Nashville and Chattanooga are all also within a three-hour drive to the park's boundary.

Mountain Biking in Albuquerque

New Mexico’s largest city is bordered by the the Sandia Mountains to the east, which are ribboned with miles of mountain biking and hiking single-track trails. The strenuous La Luz trail travels through the Sandia Wilderness to the top of the mountain, climbing a vertical mile over the 9-mile hike. Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding are popular activities on the Rio Grande that flows through the city, and Albuquerque’s expanding bike path network makes road cycling a popular sport here. Albuquerque also makes a great starting point for other New Mexico adventures, such as hiking, biking, camping and skiing in Santa Fe and Taos’ Sangre de Cristo mountains as well as exploring several national monuments such as Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos.

Summit Mt. Rainier Near Seattle

Less than 90 miles southeast of Seattle, Mount Rainier National Park has everything from wildflower-filled day hikes to summiting the iconic 14,409-foot peak. RMI Expeditions takes in-shape clients to the top and back in three days.

Valley of Fire State Park, 50 Miles From Las Vegas

Exchange the bright lights of The Strip for the dark skies of Valley of Fire State Park, an hour northeast of Las Vegas. This 40,000-acre park has Jurassic red Aztec sandstone outcropped set off by white limestone, petrified trees, 2,000-year-old Native American petroglyphs and more than 25 miles of hiking trails through the rugged terrain. At night, marvel at the Milky Way while camping in one of two camp sites.

Mt. Hood National Forest, 90 Miles From Portland, Oregon

Located less than an hour from Portland, Mt. Hood National Forest is more than 1 million acres of Douglas fir pine forest, ravines and glaciers surrounding Mt. Hood. Backcountry hike and camp, climb Mt. Hood, ski year-round or even winter camp in a fire tower. For an epic backpacking adventure, hike the 36-mile Timberline #600 trail that circumnavigates Mt. Hood at treeline.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness From Minneapolis

Paddle and camp in the backwaters of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, less than four hours from Minneapolis and two hours from Duluth. Secure your permit and explore this one million-acre wilderness on the Canadian border within the Superior National Forest either as a day trip or a multi-day canoe, kayak and camp adventure.

Ski and Bike Near Salt Lake City

If ever there was a major city situated for outdoor adventure, it’s Salt Lake City. Within an hour adventurers can be hiking, biking and skiing at a ski resort or in the backcountry of the Wasatch Mountain Range, and the 1.2 million-acre Manti-La Sal National Forest is an hour’s drive south.

Hike in Phoenix

Despite its population of more than 1.5 million, its still easy to escape to some of the most rugged and scenic landscapes in the nation. Right in the Phoenix/Scottsdale metropolitan area you can hike Camelback Mountain and mountain bike the trails at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The red rock buttes and trails of Sedona are only two hours away via US 17, and adventure within Grand Canyon National Park is less than four hours north.

Shenandoah National Park Near Washington, D.C.

Located 70 miles west of Washington, D.C. and 2-hour drive from Baltimore, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia has more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Easy and moderate trails such as the Fox Hollow Loop and Fort Windham Rocks trails are popular, and the stenuous 45.6-mile Cedar Run/Whiteoak Circuit trail passes waterfall views. Shenandoah has 196,000 acres of backcountry where wilderness camping is permitted, and there are four established camping areas within the park.

Joshua Tree National Park Near Los Angeles

Located just over two hours east of bustling Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park is renowned for its stark beauty, rock climbing, hiking, dark skies and rugged backcountry exploring. Backpacking in wilderness areas Juniper Flats and Porcupine Wash are rewarding for experienced wilderness campers, and eight established campgrounds are available for car camping and RVs. More than 25 miles of mountain bike trails, in addition to backcountry roads, are available to mountain bikers, and Novembers' Night Sky Festival sees local astronomy groups sharing their telescopes and knowledge with visitors. 

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