The Green Blog
Four Places to Take a Break with Nature

By John Egan, Guest Blogger

When it comes to finding a public place to be alone and take in the peaceful serenity of nature, not all regions of the U.S. are created equally. Heading west, once you cross the Continental Divide, public land grows bountiful. Across the American West, there are boundless stretches of land open to public camping and exploration at will.

For folks living in the Midwest and on the eastern seaboard, that escape isn't always as easy to find. Even at our beaches and national and state parks, we're likely to encounter crowds of people seeking out the same respite.

Even if it's simply a moment in an open meadow or a few minutes alone on a hiking trail, the chance to be truly 'one with nature' is an important part of maintaining clarity in our lives. In an inspiring blog, Pink Goes Green's Kelley Hunter outlined a study that demonstrated the value that even viewing nature scenes can have on lowering our stress level. It's important to remember that even taking a few minutes to contemplate an ant or butterfly in your backyard can have the same effect.

If you're looking for a place to really immerse yourself in nature, however, there's a little realized but excellent system of preserves, operated by the Nature Conservancy, that are open to the public and located throughout the country.  Although these areas are often well-known to locals, they're typically not on the tourist map. When you're visiting a big city for work or pleasure, there's no better way to balance your trip than finding a natural escape for a morning or afternoon.

Here are four favorite preserves within a half hour of major cities in the U.S.:

Chicago -- Indian Boundary Prairie

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Amazingly, some of the most well-preserved prairie land in the entire Midwest exists just minutes south of the Windy City. Truly an island amidst development, these four distinct virgin grasslands include the Gensburg-Markham Prairie, a registered National Natural Landmark. Wear your hiking shoes to trek out into the prairie, keeping your eyes peeled for rare butterflies and birds like the Henslow's sparrow, the prairie warbler (pictured) and the bobolink.

Minneapolis/St. Paul -- Black Dog Preserve

Located directly amidst the Twin Cities metropolitan area, Black Dog Preserve is a unique 130-acre wetland tucked into the city. Called a 'fen,' the preserve harbors abundant birdlife and aquatic vegetation, and was a critical area to the hunter/gatherer Dakota tribe of Native Americans who lived in the area. Highly threatened by surrounding development (many native species have already been lost), Black Dog remains a worthy place to visit for its birdlife and serene reminder of what our cities looked like before they were cities.

New York City -- Otter Creek Preserve

Mere minutes from the bustle of New York, Otter Creek preserve encompasses deciduous forest and riparian wetlands. A half-mile trail follows the namesake creek, skirting a salt marsh rich with wading herons, egrets, and the occasional osprey. For a reminder of why the settlers chose nearby Manhattan Island as a stopping place, the rich abundance of both fresh water and life-giving salt marsh at Otter Creek display the area much as it would have looked 300 years ago.

Washington, D.C. -- Potomac Gorge

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Hardly a secret, the 9,700-acre Potomac Gorge is a haven for hikers and kayakers just minutes west of the nation's capital. But with such a vast area, there are plenty of hiking trails to get away on. The 15 miles of cascading river includes calm pockets popular with fisherman and rapids that challenge even seasoned whitewater paddlers. If you're in shape, try out the Billy Goat Trail, a two-mile circuit around the well-preserved Bear Island within the river.

Whether you live in a major urban area or are just visiting, take the time to escape the city and experience the land as it once looked. From the Nature Conservancy preserves to county and city parks, make a point to give yourself some truly refreshing nature time when you travel (and in your daily life at home!).

John Egan is managing editor of Insurance Quotes, a popular insurance website that provides online services to consumers seeking auto insurance knowledge and savings  on their car insurance policies.