WARNING: If you’re looking for some algorithmically-based, data-driven list of towns, you may want to ignore this article altogether. Because when it comes to places, we’re pretty whimsical.
Instead of sitting around an office analyzing data, we’re listening to people’s stories from the road. We’re checking out the spots they’re adding to travelstoke.
And somewhere in the mix, a few places capture our imagination beyond the ordinary. They remind us how unlikely certain places in America can be — especially when local people decide to collectively achieve a dream — like a surf wave in the middle of Montana.
In fact, some of these places barely qualify as “towns.” They’re more like outposts on the edge of the Rockies or the Great Lakes, or off the coast entirely. And still, others may qualify more as small cities. Places that have just the right size and that rare quality of inclusiveness, where even crazy old travelers can rest for a while.
Ultimately what we sought was originality. The kind of place you’d be stoked to call home, even if for just a few days. If your town deserves to be on this list, let us know why in the comments below! And finally, we hope you take a moment to simply appreciate this country’s diversity, wherever you find yourself in 2017.
Tailgate party university town, all grown up
Since the late 70s’, the Classic City has been an unexpected art/music/literary powerhouse in the middle of the Georgia Piedmont. Despite being in one of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the US last year, Athens retains a rural feel with nature preserves, trails along the Oconee River, and a gnarly mountain biking circuit. It’s a great place to raise a family with alternative school options, a next-level food scene, and restaurants with unrivaled kids’ spaces (restauranteurs, take note). Photo by Elliott Anderson.
The sunny side of Oregon
9 reasons the rest of Oregon is way cooler than Portland
Oregon trip planning resources
Bend is one of those western towns you visit and immediately get jealous you don’t live there. Right out the back door you’ve got all-season outdoor adventure options in the Cascades and Deschutes River watershed. Plus the high desert environment gives it warm summer days and cool nights. Do we even need to get into the local food scene and summer music festivals? Photo by Bend Ale Trail / Byron Roe Photography.
Cooke City, MT
Winter Gateway to Yellowstone
9 incredible places in Montana you’ve probably never heard of
Montana trip planning resources
Cooke City is a little village in some of the biggest terrain in the lower 48 (Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park). Because it’s on the one road that connects Tower Junction to Mammoth (and stays open in the winter) it’s a key outpost for snowmobilers and backcountry skiers. Last but not least, Cooke City literally has a “Coolest Small Town in America” sign. Photo by Blaze Nowara.
Ocean City, MD
12 things everyone from Maryland takes for granted
Maryland trip planning resources
When you hang out in Ocean City’s taverns you’ll meet salty old drunks, soul surfers, and greying barmaids, characters who teach you what it means to age with style. Ocean City has a longstanding surf community and fairly consistent conditions for the Atlantic coast. Similar to Kill Devil Hills further south, it’s a gateway to one of the few National Seashores in the US, in this case, Assateague Island National Seashore. There you’ll find rad camping options with white sand beaches and wild horses. Photo by Timothy Pohlhaus.
Where the tour buses are helicopters
Fishing, hunting, climbing, hiking, berry picking, glaciers, skiing, snow machining, waterfalls…and legal weed! Valdez is blissfully off the bus-and-cruise-ship Alaska tourist path and flanked by the soaring Chugach Mountains and temperate rainforest. Photo by Gary Minish, courtesy of ValdezAlaska.org.
Asbury Park, NJ
Brooklyn of the Shore
A diverse, progressive, LGBT-friendly town on the Jersey Shore with a better music scene than some large cities. This is where Springsteen got his start, and many others from Patti Smith to Jon Bon Jovi have close ties. Downtown Asbury Park, after decades of dilapidation, is revitalizing with a ton of great bars, restaurants, and festivals. Grab a beer at the Bond Street dive, get a Korean taco at Mogo, and bring your dog to Wonder Bar’s Yappy hour. Photo by PatersonGreatFalls.
Yellow Springs, OH
Post-utopian bubble in the middle of Ohio
This weird little town in Southwest Ohio was originally founded as a communitarian utopia. The utopia fell apart, but the vibe has stayed. In an otherwise deeply conservative area, it remains a strange, countercultural, hippie-friendly town (cool enough that Dave Chappelle calls it home). Take a hike in Clifton Gorge, grab a beer at the Yellow Springs Brewery, or just walk around the downtown checking out the local art galleries and music shops. Photo by Andy Foster.
Perfect little Gulf Coast town
Longtime Gulf Coast resident Jimmy Buffet and family have ties here (his niece opened a yoga studio and his sister has a restaurant nearby) and there’s just a certain chill vibe to Fairhope and surrounding areas that has to be experienced to be understood. This little town on Mobile Bay has extensive boardwalks, a historic downtown, and seafood shacks and southern food so good you won’t believe it. Photo by Luke Staff.
Nevada City, CA
Classic western mining town turned whitewater and ski base
Nevada City is another postcard little town with an amazing geography. The National Wild and Scenic South Yuba River is just 25 minutes away, and it’s only 45 minutes to skiing at Donner Summit or an hour to Lake Tahoe ski areas. Because of the high number of historic buildings, the downtown is often used in TV and film production. Photo by Nevada City Chamber Photos.
Upland South Carolina’s star city
Greenville has blown up in the last few years in every way (jobs, real estate, cultural scene), and yet it remains one of the best deals anywhere in terms of affordability. It’s right in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, with amazing rivers and wilderness areas within close reach, not to mention the awesome class V drop (Reedy Falls) running right through the center of town. Downtown Greenville is a great study in historic preservation and usage: The old mills now transformed into complexes of residential space with great restaurants, cafes, and green spaces all around it. Photo courtesy of Visit Greenville, SC.
Almost too many scenic byways and mountain ranges for one town
Sandpoint, Idaho sits on the shores of the great Lake Pend Oreille — A body of water so deep that they test Navy submarines there. There’s no end to the outdoor adventure surrounding this small town of just under 8,000 people, including Silverwood, the Northwest’s largest theme park. The local culture will surprise you with its fine dining, arts, and quaint, historical feel. Photo by Lance Beck.
Outdoor adventure capital of the East
Fayetteville is one of the most visually stunning places in the East with its historic downtown just a mile from the New River Gorge and Bridge — the longest arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. The bridge is the site of “Bridge Day,” a yearly event where BASE jumpers come from around the world to legally jump. Fayetteville is a major hub for outdoor adventure communities, especially whitewater paddlers and rafters running the Gauley and New River. Photo by Melvin Hartley for Visit Fayetteville, WV.
Lake City, CO
Ultra beautiful one-street town in the San Juans
Wedged between multiple fourteeners in Southern Colorado’s San Juan range, Lake City is a tiny town where every single local stops by the Restless Spirit Saloon each afternoon to share the day’s news. Stop by and ask for Wally, he’ll show you around town. It’s the closest thing you’ll ever find to the fictional Cicely, Alaska, from television’s Northern Exposure. You’ll never want to leave. Photo by Lake City, CO.
As far south as it gets
Bet you thought the Gulf city of New Orleans was just about as South as you could go in Louisiana? Guess again. Two hours of levee driving and you reach the southern terminus of the Great River Road and the fishing village of Venice, Louisiana. A rough and tumble little place that is home mostly to oil field roughnecks and commercial fisherman — A visit to either of the two watering holes is like walking into Chalmun’s Cantina from Star Wars. So rad. Photo by Stephen Robinson for Pursuit of Nature.
A place where everything slows down
Between Boston and Cape Cod, Padanaram is a fishing village where the swing bridge on Buzzards Bay opens every hour for the sailboats coming into the harbor. This temporarily “locks you in” forcing residents and travelers to slow down and abide by the local schedule. In the meantime, there are plenty of awesome art galleries to explore, along with farmers’ markets, great seafood restaurants and, of course, beaches. Photo by Adam Graves Photography.
Kill Devil Hills, NC
Outer Banks for the win
North Carolina’s Outer Banks (“OBX”) is one of those places that’s not super easy to get to but worth every bit of the effort. The huge dunes (highest in the East) were the birthplace of aviation and remain a world-class place to learn to paraglide. And because of the convergence of currents, the fisheries in OBX are also among the best anywhere. Kill Devil Hills is the main hub, a gateway to the Hatteras National Seashore, and the kind of town where locals are either fishing or surfing or talking about fishing or surfing, in other words, winning. Photo courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
Silver City, NM
Ancient desert camp now an arts and culture hotspot
Silver City is a small university town surrounded by the exceptionally rugged Gila National Forest. In addition to the notable outdoor adventure options (climbing areas such as City of Rocks), the entire region is one of the most archeologically-rich in the entire US. It’s less than 50 miles to the iconic Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Photo by Jay Hemphill, courtesy of the Silver City Arts & Cultural District.
High desert pueblo with powerful vibes
This small town in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is the kind of place where instead of going home after work, people meet up at Taos Mesa Brewing. Like all of the western towns on this list, Taos has a rad ski area and world-class trails nearby. But what makes it unique is that it’s still inhabited by the original Taos people of Taos Pueblo — who have occupied the current site for 1,000 years, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the US. Their influence can be found in the buildings and Kiva fireplaces everywhere you go. Photo: New Mexico Tourism.
Two Harbor, CA
Perfect little oasis just 25 miles from the hustle and bustle of L.A.
This dusty little research outpost on the north side of California’s Catalina Island is a straight shot by sailboat from either Los Angeles or Long Beach. With only a handful of full-time inhabitants, and a single bar and restaurant, it feels like some other country even though it’s just 25 miles away from L.A. Sidle up to the Harbor Reef restaurant and order the Buffalo Milk cocktail, or six. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.
Maine’s Queen City
From a somewhat empty downtown over the past few years, Bangor has emerged as a thriving cultural hub, an offbeat alternative to Portland. If you’re into beer, Central Street Farmhouse is a great resource for brewing supplies. If you just want to drink it, head to Nocturnem. There are many talented musicians and a vibrant arts scene with the University of Maine’s modern and contemporary art museum and Penobscot Theatre Company. Photo: GBCVB.
Powerhouse college town with next level wilderness access
This liberal college town with a walkable downtown and laid-back population of makers, doers, and adventurers just keeps getting better. Case in point: The way river surfing has brought the community together (check Strongwater Mtn Surf Co) to clean up this stretch of river and prove how whitewater features can create sustainable economic growth and promote conservation and culture all at the same time. And besides being able to shred right in town, we don’t even need to get into the whole gamut of wilderness options surrounding Missoula, do we? Glacier National Park? the Bitterroots? Are you kidding? Photo by Shaun Daley, originally featured at RANGE magazine.
Wind River Range outpost and the birthplace of NOLS
Lander is a quirky little town with lots of museums, an amazing alpaca ranch/outfitter, and the headquarters of the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS. Lander sits on the edge of the Wind River Range, one of the most under-appreciated areas for outdoor adventure for all but most hardcore climbers and locals (who surely want to keep it that way.) Finally, Lander has one of the best ‘in town campgrounds’ in the entire US, Sinks Canyon on the Popo Agie River. If you’re road tripping north to visit Yellowstone, stay here. WY. Photo: City of Lander-Wyoming.
Awesome base camp in the Texas Hill Country
The town itself is pleasant enough — Texas-German vibes that suffer a bit from tourist affectation, cute little B&Bs, historic properties and the very legit National Museum of the Pacific War (this is the childhood home of Admiral Nimitz) — but what elevates it to list status is the location. This is the middle of the Texas Hill Country, and you’re a short drive from some pretty great state parks and other natural areas: Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, Guadalupe River, Canyon Lake and the string of lakes on the Colorado River. Fredericksburg is also the nexus of the Highway 290 Wine Trail, with 15 wineries. Luckenbach and its legendary dance hall are 13 miles away. Austin and San Antonio are both within an hour and a half. You could easily spend a week here and not run out of awesome things to do. Photo: Visit Fredericksburg TX.
Ancient Ottawa Indian camp, now one of the coolest spots on the Great Lakes
It’s a small town located on a tiny piece of land between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula (known for being a wine country and kitesurfing mecca). The fall colors of the forest along the beach dunes is pretty insane. Photo: Jan Davis Ruthig.