College towns have a special energy about them. Maybe it comes from the large populations of students, the affordable cost of living, and the unique cultures that surround them. Many college towns are also great places to experience the great outdoors. We’ve outlined ten top college towns to plan your next wilderness excursion.
Sitting at the base of the Wasatch Front in Utah, Provo is a great place to experience some incredible hikes. One of the most popular is the “Y” hike, a long winding path to a large concrete Y built onto the side of the nearby mountains. The Y commemorates Brigham Young University, one of the nation’s largest private universities. Provo also has great options for rock climbers, with nearby Rock Canyon having more than 500 different climbing routes in it.
Once you’re done with the mountains, you can head back into town for some great restaurants. You wouldn’t ordinarily expect to find great Indian food in the middle of the Rocky Mountains but Bombay House is a student favorite. Located on University Ave, this restaurant consistently makes the top lists for Provo. For a gorgeous take on Navajo cuisine, visit the Black Sheep Cafe which features a 1/2 pound bleu cheese burger and other delicious dishes.
When it comes to outdoor adventure there are few cities that can compare with Flagstaff. This northern Arizona college town is just outside the sandstone cliffs of the Grand Canyon and the pine covered mountains of the Arizona high desert. For an unforgettable experience try to summit the San Francisco Peaks. The Peaks are the state’s highest points, with Humprey’s Peak reaching over 12,000 feet. Just making your way up to the trailhead provides some amazing views.
For something a little less strenuous you can head over to Fossil Creek for cool swimming in the waters of one of the state’s most famous desert canyons. This is also a perfect spot to beat the summer heat in the shade.
When it’s time to head back to town for dinner there are more than enough great restaurants to refuel. Tinderbox Kitchen in the Southside District features traditional American cuisine with an edge. Some examples are fried calamari with sriracha mayonnaise and lamb sirloin with beet slaws. If you need something a bit more traditional, there is Josephine’s Modern American Bistro for modern cuisine that never disappoints.
Corvallis is an oasis for nature lovers with proximity to both mountains and rivers. Sitting in the Willamette Valley, one of the city’s most popular hikes is through the Beazell Memorial Forest. This preserved forest is a great place to see North America’s unique temperate rainforests up close. A completely different landscape can be found at the Bald Hill Nature Area. Here you can see the golden browns and deep greens of the Willamette Valley.
Before you start your day outside, fuel up at the Broken Yolk Cafe. This Corvallis brunch institution serves hearty breakfast fare all day with a menu varied enough for all tastes. After a day on the hills or the river, stop by Local Boyz Hawaiian Cafe for fantastic Hawaiian inspired dishes.
Bellingham is built on Bellingham Bay, a protected inlet west of the city and just north of Puget Sound. Outside the city and to the east are the shadows of Mount Baker and the Chuckanut Mountains. This location between the mountains and sea is what makes Bellingham a great spot to launch outdoor excursions. Add the city’s musical, literary and artistic scenes that surround nearby Western Washington University and you have the recipe for the perfect college town.
Bellingham is great for a variety of outdoor adventures. Hikers will love Mount Baker and the nearby North Cascades. Kayakers will enjoy exploring the nearby San Juan Islands and climbers will find great routes at the world-famous Squamish walls in nearby Canada. After your hike you can relax in the city and sample the music clubs, coffeeshops and bookstores that launched stars such as Death Cab For Cutie and Anna Leader.
The quintessential outdoor recreation town, Boulder also happens to be the home of the flagship campus for the University of Colorado. Being in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder is home to trail runners, hikers, climbers and mountain bikers among other outdoor enthusiasts. There are too many hikes, trails and climbs to list but a few favorites include the Wonderland Lake Loop, the Flatirons Vista and Rattlesnake Gulch.
You don’t have to leave the city for a great time though. Brick-paved Pearl Street is a central avenue of Boulder famous for its historic storefronts and unique boutiques. It’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon just strolling and sampling the cultural offerings.
As a city that is both rustic and cosmpolitan, Boulder has more diverse dining options than you might imagine. At the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse you can find an authentic Tajik teahouse that was reconstructed brick by brick, from a teahouse formerly from Dushanbe, Tajikstan. Here you’ll find authentic Persian kotlets, Tajik plovs and an incredible selection of teas from all over the world.
Seated in the Finger Lakes of New York, Ithaca is a gem for outdoor enthusiasts. The city is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College and has a strong student population that contributes to the city’s progressive reputation.
If you want to get out and explore the mountains of upstate New York, a good place to start is the Cascadilla Gorge Natural Area which takes you through old-growth forests and winding ravines. The forests are only a few blocks from downtown Ithaca, with trails that feature stone and concrete steps at times. Stop by Collegetown Bagels before your day to fuel up on the best bagels in town.
Ithaca has plenty to keep you entertained after your hike as well. Stop by the Sciencenter for a fun walk through science. The Cayuga Nature Center offers informative discussions on wildlife. And over sixty local dairy farms lie just outside the city limits if you want to finish your day with fresh cheese, ice cream and yogurt.
Sitting at the confluence of the Bitterroot, Blackfoot Rivers and five different mountain ranges of western Montana, Missoula is an outdoor recreation Mecca. Here the great outdoors permeates every aspect of life. Just outside the city are National Parks, National Forests and nature preserves. And elk and mule deer often find their way meandering through the city.
At the top of your Missoula bucket list has to be the M trail. This winding loop takes you to the top of Mount Sentinel where an enormous stone M has been etched into the side of the mountain. For something even more wild, try the Spring Gulch Trail in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area. This hike takes you to 7,538 feet and the chance to see beavers, deer, elk, mountain goats and black bears in their natural habitat.
Of course there’s more than just hiking in Missoula. The city has famous farmer’s markets, fabulous restaurants featuring dishes such as bison burgers and rocky mountain oysters, as well as Montana’s only intact ghost town.
North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains are the setting for this sleepy college town. Home to Appalachian State University, Boone is a great city for any kind of outdoor recreation. There are hikes, river rafting and mountain biking available just outside of the downtown. And on your way to the mountains, take a drive on the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. This scenic drive winds through the mountains with dedicated viewpoints situated along the way.
Boone is also full of quaint emblems of Americana. There is the Mast General Store and the Hickory Ridge Living History Museum which provide living reminders of Boone’s colonial and frontier heritage. When it’s time to eat, be sure to visit the Gamekeeper. It was recently named one of the best restaurants in the state, and there aren’t many other fine dining establishments that have elk on the menu.
While Hanover is well known as an Ivy-League college town home to Dartmouth University, it’s less known for its outdoor resources. Which is a shame, because this picturesque town has more to offer than colonial quads and Daniel Webster. The world-famous Appalachian Trail runs through the city with other excellent hikes just outside your door.
The Appalachian Trail is usually on the top of hiker’s lists in Hanover but don’t neglect other parts of the White Mountain National Forest. Moose Mountain gets you to 2,300 feet and the highest point in the city limits.
When you make your way back to town you’ll still find plenty to do. The Hood Museum of Art has a great collection of colonial era American art, and the Montshire Museum of Science is always informative. Finally, for a good meal stop by Murphy’s, Hanover’s most beloved pub, or the Canoe Club, a slightly more upscale cocktail club.
Hugging the Appalachian Mountains and lying next to the Monongahela River, Morgantown is a beautiful place to launch your next outdoor adventure. The city is home to West Virginia University giving it a vibrant, youthful vibe. Spending time in the outdoors is popular with hikes like the Coopers Rock State Forest, known for its eco-sculptures like a famous sleeping giant made of stone, popular with students and locals alike.
Nearby Cheat Lake offers river rafting, canoeing and fishing to go along with more hikes and great camping sights. When you’re worn out from a day on the trail, Morgantown also has plenty of recreation in the city. The Blue Moose Cafe has great food to go along with live-music. And Morgantown’s active community theatre scene is always putting on local productions.
To get the most out of your outdoor themed college trip, find your flights and accommodations through Expedia.