Enjoy an urban escape: Fish in Chicago at Lake Michigan.
Enjoy an urban escape: Fish in Chicago at Lake Michigan. Bruce Leighty/Getty Images

Regional parks and green spaces formed a backdrop of my childhood, from Girl Scout campouts to family cookouts. One verdant preserve along the Los Angeles River even launched my directorial debut. Wielding a Super 8 camera through marshland and native grasses, I filmed a prehistoric caveman drama that "starred" my siblings and cousins.

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Looking back, I've hardly ever returned to those local settings, but that's going to change. I've rediscovered that urban adventures await all around us, thanks to city, county and regional programs nationwide. Hiking, biking, boating and fishing are but a few of the activities within easy reach of even the densest urban areas.

Los Angeles, California

In my own backyard, the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation manages some 65,000 acres of parks, trails and natural areas, the world's largest public golf course system, plus 25 miles of beaches.

I set off one recent morning to check out some of the county's urban adventure offerings. Leaving the stress of the L.A. freeways behind, I soon encountered a wilderness of blooming yuccas, purple and yellow wildflowers, graceful egrets and stumbling goslings waddling after their mom. I cast for catfish, biked on an antique Italian Surrey bike built for four and took a paddleboat past serene islands in a lake fed by an artesian well. Lifeguard stations lined the lake's sandy beach, soon to be bustling with summertime swimmers.

My location? Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area, a 30-minute drive from the skyscrapers of downtown, though it felt like a world away. At $10 per car, the entrance fee is a small price to pay for a weekday urban escape along quiet nature trails at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. And it sure beats the price of an amusement park if you're planning a weekend adventure trip with the grandkids.

San Antonio, Texas

Family, fitness and fun are major themes of the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department. Those who haven't spent much time in local parks since their own kids were young should take a second look, says Parks and Recreation Department spokeswoman Kelly Irwin. "Yesterday's quaint playgrounds may be today's dog parks and fitness courses. We even have skate parks that your grandkids would love for you to take them to."