The 10 Best Outdoor Towns in America
Not all towns are created equal, especially if you’re looking to get outdoors. Whether you’re into activities involving mountains, rivers, canyons, or oceans, these towns across the U.S. are 10 of the best spots to hit the trail (or stream, or road, or waves) in the winter, spring, summer, and fall.
The Gateway to the Grand Canyon has its own draws besides playing base camp for one of the country's most visited national parks. The outdoorsy nature of Flagstaff is evidenced by the numerous recreational outfitters dotting the downtown, as well as the fact that it's smack dab in the midst of the Coconino National Forest, the world's largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest.
The Arizona Trail, a route connecting the Mexican and Utah borders, takes hikers through Flagstaff and into the San Francisco Peaks, a chain of extinct volcanoes that tower over the town. The range's highest mountain, Humphrey's Peak, doubles as the state's highest, sitting at more than 12,500 feet. The high elevation allows the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort to offer downhill riding. Nearby, you can explore cliff homes at Walnut Canyon National Monument, discover ancient pueblos at Wupatki National Monument, or walk along lava flows from an eruption less than 1,000 years ago at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
Almost every town East or West of the Cascades in Washington is about as outdoorsy as you can get. But for its proximity to Mount Baker and North Cascades National Park, plus its handful of local breweries and dozens of coffee shops, Bellingham can't be beat.
Touting the most snow in North America, nearby Mount Baker is ideal for downhill and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding. You'll find snow year-round, but before the weather gets too warm, the more adventuresome plan their alpine ascents of the glaciered dormant volcano. In town, city parks provide trails for running and biking, and Bellingham Bay offers an ideal base for paddling, whale watching, and access to the San Juan Islands.
In fall, farms are filled with pumpkins; in winter, the area hosts multiple polar swims; and in summer, weekly outdoor concerts fill the streets with music. If that weren't enough, Bellingham is also the start of the Alaska Marine Highway System, a "highway" route serviced by ferries that covers more than 3,500 miles of coastline.
With the Tennessee River winding its way through town, Chattanooga is a natural spot for watersports, including rowing, kayaking, standup paddle boarding, and whitewater rafting. And there's nothing more refreshing than tubing down a river on a hot day. But the town is just as renowned for its on-land activities. Sandstone bluffs attract climbers of all calibers, in particular at Tennessee Wall, which offers 600 routes. Bouldering is also a draw at areas such as Little Rock City and the Stone Fort.
More than 7,000 caves are within a one-hour drive of downtown. With a cool 55-degree average temperature, they're ideal for hot or rainy days. The area also boasts 150 miles of hiking trails, with the Great Eastern Trail leading through town and connecting with the Appalachian Trail. For those that prefer being on two wheels to two feet, the Chattanooga Bicycle Transit System offers round-the-clock access to wheels docked at 33 stations around town. Fans ofdisc golf, skeet shooting, and hang-gliding will also find places to enjoy their sport.
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Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville is surrounded by the iconic Blue Ridge Mountains, with access to the famed Blue Ridge Parkway north and south of town. But with thousands of miles of hiking trails in the region, getting off the scenic drive and going for a walk in the woods (with the option to hop on part of the Appalachian Trail) is the best way to experience the beauty. Fly fishers will want to check out Linville Gorge Wilderness for brown, brook, and rainbow trout. The forest hosts Linville Falls, one of hundreds of waterfalls in the area.
Other draws to Asheville include rafting Class IV rapids on the French Broad River, rock climbing at Chimney Rock State Park, and mountain biking in Pisgah National Forest. The town of Hot Springs, known for its mineral springs, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park are just a short drive away. Downtown, plenty of coffee shops fuel adventurers, more than 30 galleries offer a variety of artwork, and a burgeoning music scene spanning street musicians, bluegrass, and rock provides entertainment after the sun sets.
Just south of Smith Rock State Park, the go-to spot for rock climbers and hikers who just want a stellar view of the surrounding (extinct) volcanoes that make up the lower Cascades, sits Bend. Deschutes National Forest hugs the city limits, with the Deschutes River—the perfect standup paddle boarding spot—flowing straight through town.
Brewpubs line Bend's streets, while the historic Tower Theatre hosts films, musicians, and touring theater companies. About a half hour from downtown sits Mount Bachelor with downhill skiing in the winter and single-track mountain biking in the summer.
Another summer must-do is driving the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway. The route highlights the area's volcanic activity and passes by 14 alpine lakes. Reflected in the lakes are the surrounding snow-capped peaks, offering the perfect backdrop to the innumerable camping sites. In addition to lakes, the area's rivers and streams offer year-round fly-fishing for trout and steelhead. And the high desert topography keeps weather mild enough for year-round running on more than 50 miles of in-town trails—even when there's snow in the mountains.
Jackson really is a home on the range where the deer (and the elk, and the bears, and the buffalo) roam. It's surrounded by wilderness, including Grand Teton National Park, with strenuous hikes leading to alpine lakes and leisurely strolls through meadows (where you'll likely encounter lakes, too). A short distance further is the world's greatest concentration of geysers: Yellowstone National Park. Aside from national parks, the Snake River flows through the area, too, offering Class IV whitewater rapids; while other bodies of water, such as Buffalo River, Flat Creek, and Jenny Lake bring out the fly fishers.
Three ski resorts, including the famed Jackson Hole Mountain Resort with the highest vertical decent at more than 4,000 feet, are within a short driving distance. And you can practically ski into downtown from Snow King. Dog sledding tours, snowshoeing, tubing, and cross-country skiing also make this town come alive during the cooler months.
If there ever were a Mecca for mountain biking, Moab is it. Its terrain is varied, the rides are seemingly limitless, and the red rock views are unparalleled. That's due in part to being surrounded by the spectacular sandstone landscapes of Canyonlands National Park and the world's largest concentration of natural sandstone arches at Arches National Park. It's the quintessential picture of the American Southwest with red rock canyons, mesas, and buttes everywhere you look. Take the three-mile round-trip hike to Delicate Arch to visit the iconic symbol of Utah (and the arch seen on many state license plates). The area is also a draw for its canyoneering opportunities.
With the Colorado River skirting the edge of town, Moab has a handful of outfitters that offer day and overnight trips down the rapids. On calmer sections, you can try your hand at standup boarding. Or get a bird's eye view of the river at Dead Horse Point State Park, perched at 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. Dozens of ancient petroglyph sites are scattered around Moab for those looking to add a little amateur archeology to their outdoor excursions.
At the foot of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder sees 300 days of sunshine each year and is surrounded by more than 36,000 acres of protected lands open to the public, making it the ideal home for adventurers who use it as a base camp for exploring Rocky Mountain National Park and all the world-class skiing areas within driving distance. But snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing can be found as close as Eldora Mountain Ski Resort.
Eldorado Canyon, Boulder Canyon, and Flatirons bring out rock climbers, ice climbers, alpinists, and mountaineers. Hikers flock to the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and the Boulder area is home to more than 300 miles of hiking and biking trails for every skill level.
The historic farm town of Waitsfield, Vermont, is one of New England's best-kept secrets. Unlike the seasonal hustle and bustle of many area towns, Waitsfield manages to avoid huge crowds but still deliver top-notch outdoor experiences. It's situated perfectly for hikers looking to access trails in the Adirondacks or the Green Mountains, including the state-traversing Long Trail that's easily picked up in Camel's Hump State Park. Waitsfield also supplies rafters with Class III rapids on the Mad River.
Come winter, locals and visitors alike frequent Sugarbush, the place to go on the East Coast to escape long lift lines and actually get several runs in before lunch. Another area favorite is Mad River Glen. People in this town live here because they can live the outdoor lifestyle that they love. You won't find any pretenses in this laidback town, but you will find fresh, local food from nearby farms.
San Luis Obispo, California
A couple of hours north from where outfitting giant Patagonia is headquartered, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and wine country, sits San Luis Obispo. The college town has active residents of all ages, drawn by the town's more than 300 days of sunshine each year. Year-round surf along the nearby coastline brings out all levels (though the chilling Pacific water temps also make it year-round wetsuit weather).
You'll find sheltered breaks at Reef Rights on Shell Beach or beach breaks near the pier on Pismo Beach. The coast also draws sunbathers looking for their own secluded spot of sand. The best place to find your own patch is at Montana de Oro State Park. The coastal bluffs also attract kayakers and paddle boarders looking to explore caves.
The surrounding county is a renowned wine region, but it's also seeing a boom in microbreweries. And with its agriculture roots, dining at local restaurants is a culinary treat. On Thursday evenings, the town hosts the second largest farmers' market in the western U.S.
Work off the calories by trekking up Bishop Peak for views over San Luis Obispo, or opt for any of the 30-plus miles of hiking and biking trails within city limits.
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