America's prettiest parks

New York City's Central Park may be the nation's best-known urban playground, but the country abounds with others that are equally as pretty. So we went in search of the loveliest parks in the United States, eliminating the nation's uber-popular national parks – which host an estimated 275 million visitors a year – in favor of homegrown local parks. 

Our favorites vary in size and represent all parts of the nation, from Alaska to the north to Savannah, Ga., in the South. Many of the finest were established in the 19th century; all are cherished parts of their communities. As summer fades into fall, they’ll be wonderful places to see autumn color. 
The Huntington
Pasadena, Calif.

With the economic crash came tightened belts at many of the nation’s parks. Not so at The Huntington, a non-profit institution that just spent $6.8 million renovating its century-old Japanese Garden.

The Southern California landmark, which had been closed for a year, reopened in April to enthusiastic reviews and long lines of park fans. 

The Huntington, founded by railroad and real estate tycoon Henry E. Huntington in 1919, consists of a library, art collections and botanical gardens that cover 120 acres.

In addition to the Japanese Garden, there are desert, rose, jungle, herb and palm gardens, all offering visitors tranquil beauty in the midst of the Los Angeles megalopolis.

During the renovation project, the Japanese Garden, which has attracted more than 20 million visitors since opening to the public in 1928, was expanded, new features were added and the centerpiece Japanese House, built in Japan in 1904, was restored.

Golden Gate Park
San Francisco

Visitors find a home where the buffalo roam at Golden Gate Park, a 1,000-acre oasis that ranks as one of the United States' most popular parks with 13 million visitors annually.

The buffalo herd is among many surprises here: you can play disc golf, admire tulips blooming beside Netherlands-style windmills, take swing dance lessons, hang out with butterflies in a rainforest dome or search for the park's resident ghost, which is said to haunt Stow Lake.

Of course, there are also gardens, museums, art, flowers, trees, lakes, birds and wildlife. While the park is free during the day, popular attractions charge admission, including the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences and the Conservatory of Flowers.  

Town Square Park
Anchorage, Alaska

Town Square Park may not be a great place to spend time during the winter -- unless you like frigid temperatures and ice skating -- but during the summer there’s nothing like it.

Alaskans make up for their short summer with a frenzy of gardening during the warm season that turns their cities into rainbows of color and fragrances.  Anchorage plants more than 80,000 flowers in 270 flowerbeds. Hanging baskets line the city streets, but Town Square Park outshines them all.

The downtown park takes up only a single block but crams more than 100 trees and 9,000 flowers into the small space. Walkways crisscross the park and wind past overflowing flowerbeds. It's almost enough to make residents forget about the long winter that lies ahead. 

Mackinac Island State Park
Mackinac Island, Mich.

You could easily lose yourself in this scenic Great Lakes park. More than 80 percent of Mackinac Island -- nearly 1,800 acres -- is within Mackinac Island State Park, with 70 miles of roads and trails for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding and carriage tours.

But don’t expect to go anywhere by motorized vehicle: they were banned in 1898. Even the local police patrol by bike. 

The island, which is famous for its beautiful beaches, wildflowers and dense forests,  is also known for multimillion-dollar vacation homes  and Victorian architecture, including the landmark Grand Hotel, site of the movie “Somewhere in Time” (1980, Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour).

Public Garden
Boston, Mass.

Visitors who meander along the colorful pathways of Boston’s Public Garden get a free pass to the past. The park, founded in 1837, is America’s first public botanical garden.

The 24-acre park contains a lagoon -- with Boston's famous swan boats and two real-life swans -- and many formal plantings that vary from season to season. The garden prides itself on allowing visitors to view plants at their peak, thanks to 14 greenhouses that supply flowers for the park's many beds.

Public Garden, with its signature weeping willows and rose and bulb gardens, is part of a string of parks that create the city's Emerald Necklace -- a haven of tranquil beauty in downtown Boston. 

Forsyth Park
Savannah, Ga.

Stroll, jog, picnic under the huge live oaks in Forsyth Park and don’t be surprised if it all looks a little familiar. This Savannah landmark is a popular cinema locale, used in the film Forrest Gump (1994, Tom Hanks), among others.

Dating back to the 1850s, Forsyth Park offers a true Southern-style experience, complete with Spanish moss dripping from an overhead canopy of trees.

The centerpiece of the 30-acre park is a cast iron fountain dating from 1858 that was designed to resemble the grand fountain in Paris at the Place de la Concorde. Located in the historic district, Forsyth Park is ringed by a neighborhood that features stately Victorian-era mansions and inns. 

(Photo: donmfish / Flickr)
(Photo: donmfish / Flickr)

Clermont, Ky.

You might call Bernheim the park that whiskey built.

This huge arboretum and research forest was founded by Isaac W. Bernheim, a German immigrant who made his fortune in the distillery business and gave the 14,500-acre park to the people of Kentucky as a gift.

Swing along the Canopy Tree Walk, 75 feet above ground; stroll through the flowers in a 600-acre garden; catch a fish in the calm waters of Lake Nevin. In all, there are 32 miles of hiking trails and 16 miles of paved roads for biking, picnicking, fishing and other outdoor fun.

Another plus for visitors: it's just down the road from the Jim Beam Distillery, which offers tours and tastings.  

Located near Bardstown (south of Louisville and west of Lexington), Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest is a non-profit educational and recreational preserve. 

Central Park
New York City

No list of pretty parks would be complete without the granddaddy of them all, Manhattan's Central Park.

Wooded pathways, flowering gardens, green meadows, cool forests and quiet lakes offer respite from the high-octane world of downtown Manhattan, which is the main reason the 843-acre greenbelt was established more than 150 years ago.

Central Park, the first landscaped park constructed in the United States, was designed and built in the 1860s and '70s by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. It was envisioned as a both a sanctuary from the business world and as a place for leisure. Of course, it has served admirably as both.

Today’s visitors can hang out with lions and tigers and bears at the Central Park Zoo, watch a free outdoor concert at the Great Lawn, or rent a rowboat for a pleasant afternoon on Central Park Lake.