When it comes to places to take a vacation, it’s easy to think of America’s big cities: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Miami. But America is filled with wonders that are less heralded but no less magnificent, from the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest to the moss-draped bayous of the South. Along the way, there are sparkling caves, thundering waterfalls, quirky festivals, historic buildings, inspiring art and world-class food—all packed into towns with a smaller population than many college campuses.
For the fourth annual version of our list, we once again worked with the geographical information company Esri to sort the nation’s small towns (those with a population under 20,000) according to their number of cultural attractions, historical sites, nature opportunities and food-and-drink destinations, then researched to find the places commemorating important anniversaries, openings, renovations, recoveries and other milestones in 2015. Think of this list not as a ranking but as a menu, with something for every taste—whether it’s country bluegrass, Florida’s white beaches or Alaska’s blue mountains.
1. Estes Park, Colorado
Nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, Estes Park has beckoned visitors since the 1860s, when an inspired Welshman named Griff Evans established a local dude ranch. Today the town serves as base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park, which marks 100 years of existence in 2015. A year of wilderness-themed art exhibits, classes, films and concerts celebrates the park’s highlights—which include some of the tallest mountains in the continental United States and more than 300 miles of hiking trails. The park’s sights and sounds are particularly stunning in the fall, when the leaves blaze with color and bull elks fill the air with haunting mating calls.
While the town of Estes Park itself is relaxed (elk have been known to wander downtown streets), there are marked touches of class—notably the historic Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s book The Shining. This April, the hotel is adding a giant hedge maze, the result of an international design competition to create one honoring the maze in the film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, who actually filmed external shots at a lodge in Oregon and used a soundstage for internal shots. (Neither hotel ever had a maze until the Estes Park addition, confusing some horror fans). Visitors can also enjoy several new breweries and a new distillery, or just meander the scenic riverwalk alongside the Big Thompson River—but watch out for the elk.