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The Largest City Parks in the United States

Below is a list of the 15 largest city parks and preserves in the United States.

Four out of five

When most people think of Phoenix, they think of endless suburban sprawl. And, certainly, that’s part of the story. But here’s something that many are surprised to learn:

Four of the five largest city parks are located in metro Phoenix.

As in, municipal parks that are located entirely within city boundaries and are managed by city parks department staff1.

But that’s not all…

The Phoenix metro area is also encircled by the nation’s largest county park system2, which includes 12 regional county parks comprising about 120,000 acres. The 315-mile Maricopa Trail (and its sister 120-mile Sun Circle Trail) also encircles the metro area by connecting many of these county parks.

And of course, metro Phoenix also borders the famed Tonto National Forest (the ninth largest in the country at over 2.9 million acres), the nearly 500,000-acre Sonoran Desert National Monument, and several million acres of BLM public lands.

You may only think sprawl when you think of Phoenix, but you should probably also think parks, public lands, and preserves, too.

Park NameAcresCity, STEst3
McDowell Sonoran Preserve30,580Scottsdale, AZ1994
South Mountain Park/Preserve16,281.8Phoenix, AZ1924
Phoenix Sonoran Preserve9,612.4Phoenix, AZ1998
Cullen Park49,269.8Houston, TX1984
Skyline Regional Park8,700Buckeye, AZ2016
George Bush Park7,800Houston, TX19455
North Mountain/Shaw Butte Preserve7,500Phoenix, AZ1972
Mission Trails Regional Park67,220San Diego, CA1974
Jefferson Memorial Forest6,218Louisville, KY1945
Forest Park5,157Portland, OR1948
Piestewa Peak/Dreamy Draw Preserve4,857Phoenix, AZ19557
Lake Houston Wilderness Park4,786.6Houston, TX2006
Eagle Creek Park4,766Indianapolis, IN1972
Far North Bicentennial Park4,500Anchorage, AK1976
Griffith Park4,282Los Angeles, CA1896
The 15 largest municipal parks, as far as I could tell8. Please send me updates or corrections (please include a meaningful citation).

Sprawling cities = sprawling parks and preserves?

As you can see, the Phoenix and Houston areas absolutely dominate the listings.

That’s interesting, as those two cities (along with Los Angeles) are probably the poster children for “urban sprawl” in the US. But the ability to expand outward also provides an interesting opportunity to protect undeveloped land in a way that more dense and established cities like New York, Boston, or even Chicago, would struggle to do.

At the same time, Phoenix was a bit of an outlier. It purchased South Mountain Park from the federal government way back in 1924, just a dozen years after statehood and while the city was still quite small—about 5.1 square miles with a population of 38,500, though growing as fast as ever. Even with the property still 7.5 miles away from city limits, city leaders feared that this was their only opportunity to preserve the best nearby recreational areas. They ended up purchasing an area about 5 times larger than the city itself.

Houston’s largest parks, on the other hand, are derived from lands enclosed by federal reservoirs, presumably for flood control and drainage, as the city is located in bayou country. I don’t know the specific history at play, but surmise that its large parks were created because the reservoir land would otherwise be “unused” for commercial purposes; whereas in Phoenix’s case, it was a very concerted effort to proactively protect prime locations from development.

Note: while I’ve done my best to be accurate in this post (I’ve even contacted several cities above for accurate numbers, though I never seem to get a reply), it’s surprisingly difficult to find simple, accurate answers. Part of that is because land acquisitions continue (yay!), and older information isn’t always updated. But my main purpose in this post is pointing out how many large parks and preserves metro Phoenix has, so even if a few numbers have changed, you still get the picture. If you find an error, please send it to me so I can update this!

Last updated: May 23, 2024

  1. Wikipedia unfortunately redirects a search for largest city parks to an incomplete and misleading entry of the largest “urban” parks, which conflates city, state, and federal ownership and management. Sadly—but not unexpectedly—many other publications have assumed this entry was accurate enough to repackage it as crap content with the same obvious errors, such as calling Chugash State Park as the largest city park, which by it’s own name makes no sense. At some point, I’ll spend the time to create a more accurate largest city parks page on wikipedia, but I’m starting with this post here. ↩︎
  2. The East Bay Regional Park System in California is larger, but is spread across more than one county, which I wanted to mention only because several websites mislabel it as a county park system. ↩︎
  3. Please note that these dates are a bit fuzzy, as it depends on exactly what you consider an establishment date. Is that the day that, say, voters approve a bond to make the purchase, or the date the land transfer is completed, or the date that it is officially “opened” to the public as a park even if it was lease rather than ownership, and so forth. The histories I perused were long and detailed and required substantial parsing, so I went with a reasonable date mentioned. I don’t have full confidence in each year being consistently applied between entries, but wanted to post the dates anyway to provide a general view of how old or recent each park was. ↩︎
  4. Unlike the other parks listed here, Cullen Park is not owned by the city, but is leased from US Army Corps of Engineers, so you could make an argument that it shouldn’t be listed here. ↩︎
  5. The park is located within the Barker Reservoir, which was completed in 1945, but it’s unclear when a “park” opened there, but it was known as Cullen–Barker Park. The park was renamed George Bush Park in 1997. ↩︎
  6. I also see vague references to “over 8000 acres” but haven’t tracked down any solid numbers; notably, this park acreage also seems to include non-contiguous parcels, so I’m not sure what the total “intact” acreage is. ↩︎
  7. These lands were originally transferred to Maricopa County, and leased by the City of Phoenix, which purchased them later in the 1970s. ↩︎
  8. I also did not include two additional municipal holdings: Lake Stanley Draper (6,190 acres) in Oklahoma City, and Shooting Range Park (4596 acres) in Albuquerque.

    Lake Stanley Draper is a municipal reservoir managed by the Oklahoma City Water Trust Authority—aka, not the parks department—but offers recreational activities, primarily boating and fishing (stocked). This one is a bit tricky, but I don’t think that quite qualifies as a municipal park, as its primary use is storing water for the city. While it definitely also offers recreational activities (mostly boating and fishing), it’s not managed by the parks department and recreation seems to be an ancillary purpose.

    While Shooting Range Park seems to technically include a large acreage, the facility map seems to indicate that only the shooting facility (naturally) is publicly accessible. So the vast majority of the acreage is either the “range” or off-limits to recreation. ↩︎

2 thoughts on “The Largest City Parks in the United States”

    • Jacksonville definitely has one of the largest (perhaps the largest?) overall municipal park systems. The largest “park” I found was called the Loblolly Mitigation Preserve at 4199 acres (so, just off the top 15 I limited it to), which seems to be related to a public-private endeavor that earns “wetlands credits.” But the preserve doesn’t seem to be listed by the city along with its other parks or even “Environmental Parks,” so even if it fell within the top 15 I listed here, I probably wouldn’t have included it.


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