“It feels so alive out there,” says Marge Lemieux, 57, of Portland, OR, who walks her city’s three-mile Tom McCall Waterfront Loop along the Willamette River several times a week. “With so many people—couples, commuters, dads with strollers, bicyclists, elite athletes—you feed off that energy.”
Visitors and locals alike have a similar reaction to America’s more than 30 river walks: they love the human energy but also the peace, the quiet, the escape to nature within an urban environment—even as the character of each river walk is unique. Some river walks run along major waterways like the Mississippi and Ohio; others follow narrow canals. Some reflect history going back decades, while others represent newer developments designed to revitalize a city.
America’s most well-known river walk, the San Antonio River Walk or Paseo del Rio, began as a WPA flood-control project in the 1930s and now makes a splash controlling the flood of more than five million visitors annually to its four-mile path along the San Antonio River. Cafés, specialty shops, hotels, and musical nightlife abound, but resident Bruce Martin, 53, is impressed that the natural river comes through. “It’s not a manufactured toy,” he says. “It’s a legitimate habitat with yellow-crowned night herons, barred owls, and red-eared slider turtles.”
Whether long or short, paved or wooden, in warm climates or cool ones, river walks draw neighbors and tourists with everything from picnicking and people-watching to tandem bike-riding and food truck “pods.” They’re so popular that many cities—budget cuts aside—are building multimile extensions and, not surprisingly, turning to their riverfronts for additional park space.
Carol Ross Barney, the principal designer of the Chicago Riverwalk, says, “The challenge was taking a formerly working riverfront that had fallen into disuse and making it easy to get to—a relaxing place to be and a green environment on a quieter level below the busy city.”
Jesse Blanco, 41, of Savannah, favors the “character and charm of walking among history” on his city’s mile-long River Street, with its red brick sidewalks and century-old cotton-warehouse buildings. The lack of an open-container law means visitors may legally stroll with a Rum Runner while watching tugboats, paddle-wheel riverboats, and tall-masted sailing ships ply the river.
“You hear so many animated conversations and laughing,” says Portlander Marge Lemieux, who makes this universal observation about river walks: “Everyone has fun.”