RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico — The hiking trails under canopies of lush tropical plants and trees are quiet but for the distant “Puerto Rican lullabies” of tiny coquí singing frogs. Gentle waterfalls feed clear natural pools, all but unobserved.
El Yunque is a rare American rain forest, with 100 unusual species of trees, plants, and wildflowers and 50 kinds of birds, only 20 minutes from the beaches, traffic, and resorts of bustling San Juan. Yet of the nearly 4 million annual visitors to that city, fewer than one in 13 come here, US Forest Service figures show.
“There isn’t enough promotion,” said Tony, who grew up on the edge of El Yunque and now works as a guide there, driving tourists back and forth from the hotels along Condado Beach. Exhibiting the deep-rooted and not unwarranted cynicism he shares with many Puerto Ricans, Tony blames the territory’s government. “They spend the money on other things,” he said.
It isn’t just in San Juan, however, that travelers overlook extraordinary natural areas just outside of popular destination cities, which can offer tranquil respites from the urban buzz and insights into what predated it.
“It’s crazy” that more people don’t take advantage of next-to-city mountains, lakes, and rivers, said Ian Smith, whose SurfSUP Adventures offers paddleboarding eco-tours, on-water yoga sessions, and whitewater surfing in the 50-acre Allegheny Islands State Park, a mere 15 minutes outside downtown Pittsburgh.
“You can literally Uber to this experience,” said Smith. Yet “not only travelers, but even people who live in the city don’t know about it.”
Visiting such places “gets you out of the city and into a really beautiful natural area that’s protected and gives you a completely new perspective,” Smith said. Yet “a lot of times the hidden gems aren’t really broadcast, and it can be hard to find what might be a really extraordinary experience. If you’re looking at TripAdvisor or Google, the Allegheny Islands are going to be way down the list of the things that everybody’s doing when they come here.”
So is the desert hiking minutes from the Las Vegas Strip in Red Rock Canyon; Snoqualmie Falls, made famous by the cult TV show “Twin Peaks,” half an hour from the forest of construction cranes that is downtown Seattle; and Ridley Creek State Park, with trout-fishing and horseback riding a quick 25 minutes outside densely populated Philadelphia.
Farther afield is South Africa’s Suikerbossie Pass in the suburbs of Cape Town, a hill that offers panoramic sunset views; and the Soca Valley, right next to Ljubljana in Slovenia, the start of the new 186-mile Alps Hiking Trail, with clear blue rivers, lakes, waterfalls, forests, and rock formations.
Travelers to cities who want fresh air and a change of scenery don’t have to gear up for a hike across the Alps. Most close-in nature sites offer manageable day trips or shorter outings. There are lots of half-day tours from San Juan to El Yunque, for example.
Some of the best rock climbing in the Pacific Northwest is at Smith Rock State Park, half an hour out and back from Bend, Ore. Oscar Scherer State Park offers 15 miles of easy walking and cycling trails right in the middle of the highways and housing developments of Sarasota, Fla., with scrub jays and bald eagles, plus swimming, fishing, and kayaking. And Eagle Creek Park, with 3,900 acres of forests and 1,400 of lakes and rivers, has cycling, canoeing, paddleboarding, a zipline course and rare and endangered wildlife just a 12-minute drive from downtown Indianapolis.
When people are slow to comprehend how close that is, said Brittany Davis, senior park manager, she likes to joke with them that Eagle Creek is practically across the street from Lucas Oil Stadium, the city’s most prominent landmark, where the Colts play.
“They don’t know about us, except for the birdwatchers,” said Davis. Because the park is listed by the Audubon Society for its variety of birds, she said, “The birdwatchers always seek us out. But many other visitors to Indianapolis don’t.”
That’s her challenge, Davis said: “How do I let these people know we’re here?
I wish that everyone could see it and appreciate it.”
The travel industry is working on this. That’s because it’s clear that, when they do know about these places, many visitors are interested in seeing them. When Pennsylvania’s tourism agency asked travelers what they most wanted to experience, for instance, the top answers were history, cities, and the outdoors.
“What we found is that a lot of people travel here looking to blur all three of those,” said Carrie Lepore, the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development’s deputy secretary for marketing, tourism, and film. “They want to go for a great hike or birding in the morning, in the afternoon go to a museum and in the evening go to a microbrewery or for a great meal.”
Lepore attributes this to several other trends, including the blending of business and leisure travel and growing interest in active vacations that promote wellness.
In some cities, combining those things is possible without even leaving town. Interlaken Park is just north of Seattle’s Capitol Hill and still inside the city limits, but so densely forested you’d never know it. Almaden Lake Park in South San Jose is a 4,100-acre oasis from the perpetual gridlock of Silicon Valley, with hiking, fishing, and boating; a wildlife sanctuary, it also has a museum about the mercury, or “quicksilver,” mines that once operated there.
Charles Dickens once rated the Almaden mines among the top attractions in or around San Francisco, along with Yosemite and Napa. Yet few visitors know about this park, said Sharon Traeger, a San Francisco tour guide.
“No, probably not,” Traeger said, laughing. “What’s interesting is how little even the local people know about this beautiful spot.”
She often wonders about that, she said. “Why don’t people take a day and just spend it in nature?” said Traeger. “It’s so enriching. It nurtures your soul.”
Smith, in Pittsburgh, is among the growing number of providers working to convince travelers of that.
“I basically founded my business on the fact that people come to the city and they have no idea where to go” to experience nature, he said. “There’s a need to take people to these places and educate them about what’s out there.”