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Experience fall colors -- without leaving the city

Pictured here is Overlook Drive in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park, looking west towards the downtown skyline.

Travelers in search of the rich and vibrant colors of autumn often head to the country. But some city slickers don't have the time to get away for a long weekend or prefer urban vacations.

Many cities around the country have public outdoor spaces, urban oases that offer a variety of leaf-peeping opportunities for those who find themselves in cities during peak foliage season.

“All across the country, urban parks are being revitalized,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “We are having an urban park renaissance.” His group put together 30 different, free guided tours in New York City's five boroughs during the weekend of Oct. 6-7, part of “What’s Out There Weekend” tours hosted in different cities each year.

Outdoor tours hearken back to the 1920s when garden club tours were fashionable. They were typically of private homes and gardens, teaching participants about plants, but rarely went deeper, Birnbaum said. And public park tours often focus on special interests, like birds.

“We want people to get closer to nature. We want to teach people to see,” Birnbaum said, explaining that the aim is to help people understand the context and culture of public outdoor spaces, like learning about an abstract painting in a museum that at first seems unfamiliar. “We want people to have 'aha' moments, to get outside in the landscape with an exciting and knowledgeable guide on a beautiful day.”

Here is more “What’s Out There Weekend New York City” and a sampling of activities in other several cities.

New York City
On Oct. 6-7, The Cultural Landscape Foundation will host What’s Out There Weekend NYC, a series of more than two dozen different tours of great parks, gardens and open spaces in all five boroughs. The free tours will be led by landscape architects, designers and other experts who help participants learn about these publicly accessible sites, the stories behind them and the people who helped create them. "The tours will feature insights and anecdotes about city shaping, landscape architecture and the design history of places people often pass everyday but don’t necessarily know about," the group noted. "Some are places we see daily, while others are 'hidden in plain sight.' " For example, many people don’t realize that Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park is larger than the combined space of Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, or know where movable chairs were first introduced in New York City’s pubic parks. (The trend started in Paley Park, a modernist vest pocket “gem” in Midtown Manhattan, Birnbaum said.) All tours are free, but advance registration is required.

Louisville, Ky.
“Louisville has been called a city of parks,” said Julie Kredens, communications manager for Louisville Metro Parks and Recreation, “from tiny little postage stamps that are often an acre or two in neighborhoods across the city, to larger destination parks, to the some 6,000-acre Jefferson Memorial Forest,” with miles of walking trails, camping and other nature-based free activities, including an evening zombie interactive hike, “Wild and Woolly In the Woods,” on Oct. 13, and The Mayor’s Fall Hike and Outdoor Adventure, featuring pumpkin decorating and hayrides on Oct. 20. Walkers, joggers and bicyclists can enjoy the Louisville Loop, an almost 25-mile stretch, mostly along or near the Ohio River, “providing many lovely vantage points for viewing the fall colors, not only on the Kentucky side, but across the river to Indiana,” according to Kredens. Also on Oct. 20, Cherokee Park, one of the three main city parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, will be the site of a fall tree festival, with a professional tree-climbing competition, recreational tree climbs, educational walks, games, give-aways, food and music. It's a free event sponsored by the Kentucky Arborist Association and Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

Milwaukee, Wis.
Visitors to Milwaukee typically think of bratwurst, beer and Harley-Davidsons but are often surprised to learn about the city’s great urban outdoors—a vast system of more than 150 parks and scenic parkways (several designed by Frederick Law Olmsted), creating a “green belt” encircling the county, according to the Milwaukee County Parks. The Wehr Nature Center in Whitnall Park will host Cider Sunday on Oct. 7, with guided hikes, apple-butter-making demonstrations over an open fire and opportunities to make-your-own cider with a hand-crank press. Jeannine Sherman, director of public relations for Visit Milwaukee, recommends day outings at Lake Park, ideal for strolling along the winding paths to take in the dramatic vistas overlooking Lake Michigan; watching a game of lawn bowling, a local favorite; stopping at the Northpoint Lighthouse; and ending with dinner at the elegant Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro. Grant Park, “known for its picturesque bluffs, the Seven Bridges Hiking Trail and a beautiful, sandy beach,” is also a great choice for self-guided fun, she said, as is Oak Leaf Trail, where bicyclists, runners and walkers can enjoy more than 100 miles of trails through wooded, city and residential areas. Riverside Park, home to the Urban Ecology Center, offers secluded, untamed, wooded trails along the Milwaukee River. “There are areas from which to launch kayaks, canoes, and it’s virtually hidden in an urban setting,” said Sherman.

Pittsburgh, Pa.
“You don’t have to go that far for amazing views, or for opportunities to enjoy the sites, the sounds and the smells of fall,” when visiting Pittsburgh and its some 170 urban parks—all within the city limits—according to Michael Sexauer, vice president of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Riverview Park, built in the early 1890s on one of the highest points in the county, “offers some fantastic views of the changing foliage, not only in the park, but beyond,” Sexauer said. When in the heavily wooded Frick Park, the city’s largest, “you don’t realize you are in an urban setting,” he added. A quick drive to Schenley Park provides panoramic vistas of the downtown and easy access to walking trails. In October, Gateway Clipper Fleet offers a number of journeys to “experience the beautiful colors of fall from the decks of our riverboat,” with food and entertainment, like half-day Fall Foliage Cruises ($50 for adults, $16 for children) and several nine hour cruises along the Ohio River. Venture Outdoors, a nonprofit, will sponsor its Fall Foliage Ride on the Great Allegheny Passage on Oct. 7—an easy 22-mile round-trip to "celebrate the peak of fall foliage as we bike the oldest section of the Great Allegheny Passage." Riders will travel to Confluence, “a charming valley village,” where they can eat packed lunches or choose from a list of bike-friendly restaurants ($15 for non-members).