Image: San Antonio River Walk
Stuart Dee  /  Courtesy of SACVB
The San Antonio River Walk charms with four miles of cypress-lined cobblestone and flagstone paths along both sides of the narrow San Antonio River.
updated 9/20/2010 9:19:01 AM ET 2010-09-20T13:19:01

“It feels so alive out there,” says Marge Lemieux, 57, of Portland, Ore., 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.”

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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.

Click for slideshow: America's coolest river walks

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 5 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 multi-mile extensions and, not surprisingly, turning to their riverfronts for additional park space.

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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, Ga., 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.”

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