When asked to picture America's great outdoors, most people will conjure images of the expansive national parks or the craggy Pacific coastline, or the jagged Rocky Mountains that act as Denver's backdrop or the arid desert that surrounds Phoenix.

Most people wouldn't necessarily picture Fresno, California.

However, when we looked at the number of parks available in each of the 100 most populous metro areas in the United States and the percentage of each metro's total area that is composed of parkland (as well as the average amount of spending per capita devoted to park creation and the average user rating of these park spaces on TripAdvisor.com), Fresno led the pack.

Fresno residents benefit from access to three fairly large regional parks, including the highly praised Woodward Park. Perched on the banks of the San Joaquin River, Woodward Park comprises 300 acres of public land that features hiking trails, picnic areas, playgrounds and a fenced-in dog park. Woodward Park is especially popular among bird lovers, who flock to the southeast corner for prime viewing.

"As a resident of the Fresno area for over 40 years, I can say that Fresno offers a park system unequaled by most cities," says Lloyd Gardner, author of U.S. News & World Report's guide to living in Fresno. "These parks are well-maintained and have all of the amenities that give a family reasons to go outside. Whether I was in college looking for a place to pick up a basketball game or later with my family on a picnic, I have always appreciated the parks of Fresno."

[See: The 30 Most Fun Places to Live in the U.S.]

Toledo, Ohio, also proves to be a good place to live for those who want easy access to the outdoors. The metro area's expansive Metroparks of the Toledo Area system, which includes 15 area parks (and is affiliated with the Toledo Botanical Garden), offers residents the opportunity to camp, fish, hike and bike. In the winter, the park welcomes cross-country skiers and snowshoers.

According to The Trust for Public Land, having access to public parks not only encourages a healthy lifestyle, it also plays a critical role in child development and promotes a sense of community among residents – especially those who live in major metro areas. In her paper titled "The Health Benefits of Parks," Erica Gies writes, "Research shows that residents of neighborhoods with greenery in common spaces are more likely to enjoy stronger social ties than those who live surrounded by barren concrete."

It's not just experts who recognize the importance of living near public parks. As part of our effort to identify the Most Fun Places to Live in the United States, U.S. News conducted a public survey online to find out which leisure amenities were most important to Americans. Of the 2,000 people who responded, nearly 30 percent said they'd want access to parks and outdoor recreation over other comforts such as restaurants, shopping venues, theaters and live music venues, and nightlife. As a result, our assessment of the quantity and quality of parks and outdoor recreation was the factor that weighed most heavily on our Most Fun Places to Live methodology.

[See: 10 Best Places to Live for Foodies]

Fresno and Toledo aren't the only surprising metro areas to crack the top 10. Below are the most fun places to live if you love the outdoors:

Metro Area U.S. News Parks & Recreation Index Score Number of Parks & Recreation Sites Percent of Metro Area Comprised of Parkland Average User Rating for Parks Average Annual Per Capita Spending on Parks
Fresno, CA 7.29 42 0.03% 4.595 $44
Toledo, OH 6.83 44 0.06% 4.500 $46
Indianapolis 6.68 128 0.05% 4.484 $32
El Paso, TX 6.64 25 0.19% 4.480 $33
Madison, WI 6.56 (Tied) 118 0.13% 4.428 $118
Nashville, TN 6.56 (Tied) 140 0.11% 4.443 $103
Baton Rouge, LA 6.54 49 0.03% 4.459 $49
San Diego 6.30 249 0.20% 4.412 $83
Greensboro, NC 6.28 64 0.09% 4.414 $67
Cincinnati 6.12 195 0.14% 4.351 $188

Sources: TripAdvisor.com and The Trust for Public Land

Residents of Madison, Wisconsin, won't be surprised to find their home in the No. 5 spot on this list. The metro area encompasses five lakes that provide opportunities to swim and boat during the summer months, and an extensive number of city and county parks provide plenty of space for those seeking some fresh air. San Diego is also a haven for outdoor lovers with its sandy Pacific Coast beaches and easy access to several scenic state and national parks.

Meanwhile, Greensboro, North Carolina, prides itself on its recreational offerings, from tours of the Greensboro Arboretum to canoeing trips in Haw River State Park, while Baton Rouge, Louisiana, makes a great home town for golfers, with the Audubon Golf Trail featuring 16 unique courses.

[See: 10 Top Things to Do in The Most Fun Places to Live]

Nashville, Tennessee, on the other hand, may seem like an unexpected front-runner. This Tennessee locale is known primarily for its music, though nature is heavily integrated into Nashville's layout. Many of the metro area's neighborhoods are connected by the miles-long greenway trails, while many local companies offer paddling excursions and fishing charters on the Harpeth River and the area's lakes. Indianapolis and Cincinnati – though lacking the Great Lakes access of nearby Midwest cities like Chicago and Cleveland – both feature numerous parks and fresh-air activities ranging from stand-up paddleboarding to cycling.

And although El Paso, Texas, doesn't usually come to mind when thinking of places with expansive park resources, the region's rugged landscape is on full display for those who take a ride on the Wyler Aerial Tramway or a hike through Franklin Mountains State Park.

Tags: real estate


Miriam Weiner is a staff writer and editor at U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram or email her at mweiner@usnews.com.