The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2016

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, our top picks this year are all towns close to America’s natural splendors

Bar Harbor
Ken Brown/iStock

The famed Great American Road Trip would be incomplete without visiting a few national parks along the way. From Yosemite’s awe-inspiring waterfalls to the wooded respites of the Great Smoky Mountains to the narrow crevasses of Zion, the lands under the purview of the National Park Service are unparalled in their beauty.

Outside of these parks, home to stunning vistas and breathtaking wonders, are “gateway” towns: small communities that cater to the annual crowds with charming hotels, greasy spoons, local culture and innovative museums that tell fascinating stories. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, a nationwide celebration of America’s greatest natural resource, we have focused this fifth annual edition of our 20 Best Small Towns to Visit around the National Parks.

Each of these communities offer their own distinct and diverse histories, cultures, food and art—as well as happening to be close to the entrances to some of the United States’ most prized heritage locations.

To narrow down the numbers, we once again enlisted the help of the geographic information company Esri to sort the nation’s small towns (those with a population under 20,000) that were in driving range to a national park or a designated National Park Service location. This year’s list traverses all the way from a secluded Alaskan hamlet in the shadow of glaciers to a sunny harbor in the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John. Enjoy, and safe travels!

(See our Best Small Towns lists from 2015, 20142013, and 2012)

Seward, Alaska

Seward might not have been officially established as a town until 1903, but by the late-19th century, intrepid visitors were already coming by steamship to experience its wild beauty. Known as the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward got its name from William H. Seward, the secretary of state who brokered the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. The area, where natural borders are the alpine glacier-filled Resurrection Bay and the wild Kenai Mountains, remains a remote oasis today.

Some of the best heli-skiing (off-trail downhill routes accessible by helicopter) in the world can be found in Seward, with routes that go all the way from its alpine forest to its bay. Outdoor enthusiasts can also take in the Alaskan wilderness by tracing a section of the famous Iditarod Trail, where sled dogs once mushed to bring supplies to Alaska’s interior, or by embarking on an all-day sea kayak trip out toward Caines Head, Fox Island or the Aialik Glacier.  While the chances of encountering wildlife in Seward is extremely high, the Alaska Sea Life Center, which highlights the area’s marine creatures behind glass, is worth a visit, regardless.

Keep an eye out for murals while walking through Seward: in 2008, the seaside town was designated the “Mural Capital of Alaska,” and the art details Seward’s rich history, which dates back to the first residents of the Kenai Peninsula, the Unegkurmiut people.

An event to remember? Seward’s Fourth of July celebration. It’s the largest in Alaska and plays host to the second-oldest foot race in the United States, the Mt. Marathon Race, an annual tradition that dates back to 1915, when two adventurers made a wager on whether the mountain could be scaled in an hour. (The 3.1-mile race becomes a challenge when you factor in the elevation gain of 3,022 feet.) The loser would have to buy the crowd drinks—a fitting tradition for a town also known for having a colorful dive bar scene. 

Road Trip Destinations:

Town of Mammoth Lakes, California

Prospectors hoping to strike gold in 1877 arguably found something better in the rugged California Sierra Nevada mountain terrain. Though the mining town, then named Mammoth Camp, that emerged from the Gold Rush never proved profitable, after the mining operation closed, the newly renamed city found a second life as a tourist destination located approximately 40 miles from Yosemite National Park.  

Slowly but surely, travelers making the long drive from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Yosemite began to popularize the picturesque area, growing Mammoth Lakes from a place that once charmingly boasted of having its own post office to the booming travel destination it is today.

Mammoth is best known as a mecca for winter sporting enthusiasts. Not only does it have some of the best powder in California, with an estimated 300 days of sunshine a year, beginners and advanced skiers and snowboarders alike can soak in the sunshine as they take a gentle run or brave a steep black diamond route down the mountain.

While Mammoth Lakes’ alpine village located adjacent to the mountain’s base has plenty of great food options, a little off-the-beaten path eatery is The Stove, a can’t-miss Mammoth institution whose buttermilk pancakes will make the 9,000-feet altitude a little easier to adjust to.

As the winter snow starts to melt away, anglers can begin looking forward to catching some rainbow or wild brown trout at Mammoth Creek or Convict Lake; fishing season for Mono County starts the last Saturday in April.  In the summer months, the mountain’s peak is flush with wildflowers, and the trails across the terrain offer stunning views of the Sierra mountain range. The best way to take in the area’s 360-degree views? Purchase a ticket for a gondola ride up to Mammoth Mountain.

Road Trip Destinations:

Mancos, Colorado

For those who dream of the Wild West, the historic town of Mancos, Colorado, located 10 minutes from the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, offers a vibrant portrait of this American ideal. Western novelist Louis L’Amour once described Mancos by saying “this was country I loved.” He added, "it was high mountain country and I was happy.”

The Anasazi first settled the area in the 10th century, and Mancos was officially founded in 1894 as a commercial trading center. Today, its downtown is a nationally registered historic district that still includes some of the first buildings constructed in the town. For example, the Mancos Opera house, originally built in 1899 and then rebuilt after a fire in 1910, preserves a snapshot of what theaters looked like during the turn of the 20th century.

The town supports a small but thriving artisan community. Visitors can buy homemade leather goods, printwork and jewelry, among other things, or just appreciate the skilled craftsmanship of the “Artisans of Mancos,” an art cooperative and gallery downtown.

Escape the heat of Mancos in the summertime by rafting, kayaking, boating or inner-tubing along the Mancos River or cool off by sampling a drink at a local brewery. Mancos’ homebrew scene continues to grow, and The Mancos Brewery Co., which opened in 2014, plays host the “Mesa Verde Mashers Homebrew Club” a group of like-minded enthusiasts in Montezuma County.  For those that prefer to drink in a more traditional saloon, try one Colorado’s oldest bars, the Columbine

Road Trip Destinations:

Dahlonega, Georgia

In the late 1820s, miners hoping to strike it rich off of Georgia’s Gold Rush, the first major gold rush in U.S. history, descended upon Dahlonega. They were rewarded with finding the purest gold in the world in “them thar hills.” Dahlonega’s gold holds the distinction of being 98.7 percent pure, the equivalent to 23-karat gold.

Today, the Dahlonega Gold Museum Historic Site, housed in the middle of its historic town square, celebrates the Georgia Gold Rush. The town’s gold rush legacy also comes alive in Crisson Gold Mine, which opened to the public in 1969.

Though these days, visitors can still pan for gold in the mine (or view Georgia’s only operational stamp mill, the machine that crushed gold-bearing rocks), not many arrive in Dahlonega to strike it rich. Instead, many are drawn to the town by another sought-out natural resource: wine. Dahlonega is in the heart of Georgia’s “Wine Country,” and it boasts having the highest concentration of wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms in the state, all which can be enjoyed at Dahlonega’s annual wine trail weekend, held every August.  

The town serves as a gateway to the southern tip of the Appalachian trail, which the NPS has designated a national scenic trail, and visitors can choose their own adventure, going hiking or backpacking, in addition to canoeing, kayaking or tubing, as the Chattahoochee River (which the NPS recognized as a national recreation area in 1978) is also only an hour drive away.

A dark chapter in Dahlonega’s history is commemorated at the Yahoola United Cherokee Museum & Cultural Education Center. Cherokee and Creek nations were the first to settle Dahlonega—the town gets its name from from the Cherokee word talonega, which translates to metal gold—but the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced them off their land, and onto the horrific “Trail of Tears” march to Oklahoma. Cherokees operate the museum and it tells this story and celebrates their living history in Dahlonega today.

Road Trip Destinations:

Kailua Village (Kailua-Kona), Hawaii

Though it would be easy to spend an entire vacation in Kailua Village (Kailua-Kona), located along the scenic Kona coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, lounging in the white sands by the Kailua Pier, the historic seaside village offers much more than its natural beauty.

Just a 22-mile drive from Kailua Village, Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau National Park holds the skeletons of chiefs, which are believed to infuse the area with power. Kailua Village’s own legacy is a royal one—Hulihee Palace, one of only three royal palaces in the United States, was built there in 1838 by King Kamehameha I’s brother-in-law. Before Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898, Hawaii was a kingdom with its own monarchy, and this palace was once a favorite haunt of its royal family. Today the two-story rectangular palace constructed of rubble lava rock has been converted into a museum run by the Daughters of Hawaii. The Ahu‘ena Heiau temple in the village is also worth the trip. Now a National Historic Landmark, the temple was where King Kamehameha the Great lived when he ruled Hawaii.

Caffeine enthusiasts should take note that Hawaii’s Kona coffee beans are celebrated every November in the village at the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. Kona coffee beans can also be purchased at the Kona Farmers and Crafts Market open Wednesday through Sunday every week in Kailua where more than 40 vendors sell locally grown produce and handcrafted art.

When you do find yourself returning to the beach, know that Kailua’s Pier has its own history. Once the place where Hawaiian cowboys (paniolo) used to load cattle, today it serves as a destination for fishing and extreme sports. While you soak in the sunshine, look for signage on the pier that marks the start and finish line of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship, which is hosted in Kailua Village every October.

Road Trip Destinations:

Bar Harbor, Maine

More than 5,316,000 lobsters are eaten in Bar Harbor every year, according to its Chamber of Commerce. The fresh seafood straight from Maine’s coastal waters is one reason this town in the Mount Desert Island is so beloved by its visitors. Galyn’s Restaurant or Stewman's Lobster Pound are great picks to sample your own lobster rolls or try the crustaceans in linguini or even enchiladas. For those looking for a truly out-there lobster treat, head to Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium. The dessert shop serves lobster ice cream, a combination that’s been called “disconcerting.” But that’s on purpose—the owners set out to create a flavor that would show “without a doubt,” that they create their own ice cream.

Bar Harbor isn’t famous for lobster alone. The town, in the shadow of the island’s Acadia National Park, has a picturesque waterfront featuring independent bookstores, antique shops, galleries and gift shops. It’s a great place to people watch or enjoy the outdoor sculptures, 38 in total, as well as a permanent monument to ordinary people doing ordinary things, the “Seinfeld”-ian “Avenue of the People.”

The town’s reputation for being a summer resort dates back to the 1850s, when painters like Thomas Birch highlighted Bar Harbors’ seascapes and mountains. “Birch Point”, the first cottage built on the island, was erected in 1868, starting a trend for the many opulent summer cottages that call Bar Harbor home today.

Abbe Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate museum, puts a spotlight on the area’s earliest inhabitants, the Wabanaki Nation. The museum worked closely with Wabanaki people to share their stories, history and culture. Browse the 50,000 archaeological, historic and contemporary objects, including an incredible collection of baskets. For those wanting to learn more about the art of weaving, the Annual Native American Festival and Basketmakers Market is held every summer.

Road Trip Destinations:

Berlin, Maryland

Berlin might look familiar for those who have watched the 1999 romantic comedy Runaway Bride on repeat. The town was cast as the fictional Hale, Julia Roberts’ character’s hometown in the film. Downtown Berlin also made an appearance on the big screen as the turn-of-the-century setting in Tuck Everlasting. Minutes from Assateague Island National Seashore and beach town Ocean City, Berlin—which was voted Budget Travel's coolest small town in 2014—isn’t stuck in the ’90s or the 1890s, though.

Just ask local resident Steve Frene why; he wrote an entire song about the town. Perhaps unsurprisingly if you watched the video, the town was honored with the Maryland Municipal League Achievement Award for Town Spirit in 2015.

When speaking about Berlin’s award-winning town spirit following its designation, town mayor, Gee Williams, explained to Comcast Newsmakers that the people in Berlin are just approachable. “The way people are treated when they live or visit our town, we try to make them feel like they’re family,” he says.

The friendly town, which feels out of a "Main Street, USA," central casting call, embraces its historic roots. Its downtown is a National Register Historic District, and 47 structures in Berlin are also on the register. Maryland’s equine history also has a presence in the town; the “Horses at the Beach” history trail features several Berlin locations.

Maryland has designated Berlin an “Arts and Entertainment District,” for its thriving local arts scene. Visit the town’s many galleries and public murals or just come out for an art stroll held the second Friday of every month.

Road Trip Destinations:

Houghton, Michigan

Houghton might be a four-season destination for tourists looking for an off-the-beaten-path outdoor escape, but hockey takes center stage all-year-long for locals.

Houghton considers itself the birthplace of professional hockey, something that its Canadian neighbors to the north might take umbrage with. But its claim has legitimacy, as Houghton was home to the world’s first pro hockey league, founded there in 1904. (The first organized indoor game of hockey, however, was played ​between amateurs at Montreal's Victoria Skating Rink in 1875.) Though the original rink, "The Dee,” constructed in 1902, burned in a fire in the 1920s, the town quickly rebuilt the rink, which is still operational today.

Houghton sits atop one of the world’s largest deposit of native copper, and for years the town’s economy depended on local mines, which produced more than 10 billion pounds of refined copper, before the city’s economy began to shift toward tourism, its primary focus today. The area's natural resources can still be seen on view at the A. E. Seaman Mineral Museum

Part of the city’s appeal is its remote location, as it takes four hours by car to get there from the closest major city. The entryway to the Keweenaw peninsula, visitors enjoy snowmobiling and skiing in the winter in the town, while boating, hiking and biking in summer months proves equally popular. The Isle Royale National Park is less than 50 miles away, providing an even larger playground for those in search of adventure.

Before leaving Houghton City though, pay a trip to The Ambassador. A delicious eatery for grabbing a slice of pizza, homemade from recipes passed down for decades, the historic space itself is a treat to look at with murals almost a century old. 

Road Trip Destinations:

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Ocean Springs has long cultivated a reputation for being a “gem on the gulf,” but its residents’ courage and resilience made the news after the town was caught in Hurricane Katrina’s devastating path in 2005. One Ocean Springs hotel manager helped saved 300 people in the flood, pulling them out of the water, and then feeding and housing them in the Gulf Hills Hotel until help finally arrived.

Today, Ocean Springs has rebuilt from the disaster, and tourists have flocked back to the city, which has the Gulf Islands National Seashore practically in its backyard.  The art scene in Ocean Springs rivals its outdoor sports scene, which is saying something as the bayou and the bay nearby offers idyllic boating, fishing and birding. Get to know Ocean Springs artists at the annual Peter Anderson Arts and Crafts Festival, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area each November.

In 2013, Oceans Springs won the "Great American Main Street Award" for its character, charm and culinary scene. Stacks of restaurants line the streets of the historic city, serving up fresh seafood, such as crab cakes and jumbo shrimp. While options range from classic to contemporary fare, Aunt Jenny's Catfish Restaurant consistently pleases (and was once frequented by Elvis). But for pulled pork (and live blues), there's no better place than The Shed, which slow cooks its barbeque in pecan wood-burning smokers.

Today the town, which was first discovered in 1699 by French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, continues to embrace its French roots, playing host to the first of the large Mardis Gras parades to go through Mississippi in January.  

Road Trip Destinations:

Bryson City, North Carolina

A “Road to Nowhere,” has perhaps never led somewhere better than the dead-end road out of Bryson City. After the United States created the Smoky Mountains National Park in 1930s and Fontana Lake in the 1940s, the government was supposed to build a road from the town to the Fontana Dam area, but it was never completed.

Lakeview Drive, the eastern section of what was to become the "North Shore Road" only was built out 7 miles (along with a tunnel) before progress halted on it permanently. Now the scenic route, which ends at the tunnel, serves as a destination of its own for visitors, many who take flashlights and then go on foot through the tunnel.

Home to a piece of the Great Smoky Mountains, the town has everything an outdoors adventurer could want, as its chamber of commerce sums up nicely, “creeks for tubing, trails for hiking and horseback riding, and beautiful waterfalls.”

Soak in the scene by boarding the scenic railroad that departs from Bryson City or get a bird’s eye view by ziplining through the forest on a Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tour. Bryson City is a whitewater rafting mecca (it even hosted the International Canoe Federation World Championships in 2013). Though the Class II and III rapids on the Nantahala River tend to demand one’s full attention, make sure to look up every now and then to catch some stunning views, as the river traces through the Nantahala National Forest.

So long as having a television isn’t a priority, a convenient place to book a stay in Bryson City is the Fryemont Inn, which has been around since 1900s. The historic lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a great jumping point to downtown Bryson, full of small town charm. Take a walking tour starting at Main Street and brush up on your history of the town at the Swain County Visitor Center and Heritage Museum, where you can learn about Bryson City’s original inhabitants, the Cherokee.

Though many Cherokee were pushed out of their homes following President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, some rejected the order, hiding out in the remote Smoky Mountains. Ten miles from Bryson City now lies a Cherokee reservation, home to many descendants of those resisters. It’s worth a visit, if only to check out work from the longest-running Native American Arts cooperative in the United States, which has been around since 1946.

Road Trip Destinations:

Jacksonville, Oregon

Jacksonville’s gold deposits were discovered in the 1850s, and the town’s past still glitters today, literally. The famed Jacksonville Inn was actually built out of sandstone that had specks of gold in it.

The town thrived as a commerce capital until its fate changed when, in 1884, the railroad connecting eastern Oregon with a national rail network bypassed Jacksonville, and the economy tanked. In a strange twist of fate, the town’s poor fortune was actually what helped preserve its the 19th-century charms. Left mostly untouched for years, its historic buildings led it to become the first town in America to be named a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

Artifacts are still being dug up that explore Jacksonville’s gold rush past. In 2004, road work uncovered broken Chinese bowls and tea cups along with other objects that shed a light on its short-lived Chinatown, Oregon’s first, created when Chinese immigrants moved to Jacksonville during its boom. A narrated history walking tour provides a fascinating learning experience about the town’s preserved homes and buildings.

The town’s wineries have come into focus in the past few decades. The Applegate Wine Trail runs through Jacksonville, which is home to six tasting rooms in town, as well as wineries just outside it. Those looking for an alcohol-free beverage can do no better than Good Bean. The raved about coffee shop delivers a tall order, one of the best cups in Oregon.

Crater Lake National Park is a scenic drive from Jacksonville, making it a great day trip from Jacksonville. The journey offers some spectacular views of Oregon’s countryside, and those with the time should take a detour to the Lost Creek Reservoir, at the Mill Creek Falls turn-off. A switchback hike rewards with a beautiful waterfall at the end.

Every summer, a concert series in Jacksonville memorializes one of many who came to Jacksonville in search of gold, photographer Peter Britt. He spent much of his time in town capturing its historic legacy, which people can now look back on today. The Britt Festival, which runs all summer, takes place on his old estate. This year's lineup boasts Diana Ross, Grace Potter and Hunter Hayes, among others.

Road Trip Destinations:

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

This Tennessee mountain town isn’t a secret; millions flock to Gatlinburg, a commercial hamlet surrounded by the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. The town is best known for its over-the-top charm almost akin to one of Tennessee’s famed daughters, Dolly Parton. Indeed, her theme park Dollywood, is located in the neighboring town of Pigeon Forge.

For those who appreciate their nature with some kitch, take a sip of the local moonshine, proudly sold in Gatlinburg’s downtown distilleries and embrace the hokeyness of a town that counts a Salt and Pepper Shaker museum among its many attractions. To get a better perspective of Gatlinburg, its 407-feet-tall Space Needle observation tower offers a birds-eye view of the town, as does the Sky Lift, a two-mile aerial cable car ride that goes to Ober Gatlinburg, an amusement park and ski resort.

In addition to its commercial appeal, this town is also full of art: take the Gatlinburg Art Tour to see work from the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community. With more than 100 craftspeople, it’s easy to leave with a one-of-a-kind memento. 

Gatlinburg’s calendar is stacked year round, so there’s always something to do. Upcoming events include the "Beans and Cornbread" festival in May, the 41th annual Fourth of July Parade and a fine arts festival in October.

Road Trip Destinations:

Alpine, Texas

Get a taste of big sky country in Alpine, Texas. This college town on the slope of Hancock Hill, nestled into the Alpine valley, holds its own against its eastern neighbor Marfa (which made our 2012 list of America’s Best Small Towns), as a jumping point to Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Alpine started as a campsite for cattlemen and has grown into its own skin, helped by the founding of Sul Ross State University, which has been bringing a younger crowd to the off-the-beaten-path location since 1917. The town proudly embraces its western heritage in big ways, like the Museum of the Big Bend, but also in small details like the authentic Mexican food cooked up at La Casita, which always has a line despite its out-of-the-way location on a dusty back road.

The charms of this west Texas town shows that there’s more than enough room for another hot spot in Big Bend. In 2011, most of downtown Alpine was named a Designated Cultural Art District by the Texas Commission on the Arts. Check out the scene at Alpine’s ARTWALK in November or the Viva Big Bend music and food festival in July. There's also always something exciting happening at Railroad Blues, an Alpine institution, and one of the best small-town music venues in the country. 

A must-see Alpine tradition is the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering in February, which highlights the oral tradition of the working cowboy. Pick up authentic cowboy gear at the Trappings of Texas; its spring exhibition is a major attraction, selling custom gear and Western art. Then, see working cowboys show off their skills in August, at another popular tradition, the Big Bend Ranch Rodeo.

Road Trip Destinations:

Moab, Utah

Two national parks are found in Moab’s backyard: Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. One of the most sought-after destinations in the American Southwest, this iconic spot with endless sky is a haven for adrenaline junkies with its slickrock mountain trails, Colorado River white water rapids and desert expanses prime for off-road adventures. Moab is also known for being dinosaur country. It's at the Southern tip of the "Dinosaur Diamond" and its prehistoric past is on display at Moab's Giants museum and the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail.

The first people to inhabit the Moab area were the Pueblo, Ute and Navajo nations whose pictographs and petroglyphs still decorate the area. Moab became a uranium mining boomtown just a half-century ago, and today, tourists frequent for its out of this world scenery (scenes from John Ford's Stagecoach to Danny Boyle's 127 Hours were shot here). Commercial outfits offer every imaginable way to explore the area’s natural beauty, including canyoneering, mountain biking, BASE jumping, skydiving and hang gliding.  

For those looking to upgrade their stay, dine at The Desert Bistro, an 1896 farmhouse converted into a restaurant, which features an adventurous menu with a Southwest bend (one dish incorporates smoked rabbit sausage). For a pampered night’s rest, there’s the secluded Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa, walking distance to the banks of the Colorado river with stunning views of the canyon. 

Road Trip Destinations:

Springdale, Utah

Springdale might be a town of less than 600 permanent residents, but nearly three million visitors pass through it each year. The reason? The southwestern destination, named one of the prettiest towns in the United States by Forbes Traveler in 2008, rests just outside of Zion National Park. The canyon was first settled by the Ancestral Puebloans before they abandoned the area for unknown reasons in 1200 A.D. The area found new life when Mormon pioneers settled there in 1862. As the legend goes, the town got its name after one of the settlers asked his wife to name their house, situated by springs. She called it Springdale, and the name stuck.

Recently, the town has taken a step toward preserving its early history, creating its own Historical Preservation Commission, which is looking into what to do with the town’s original buildings like its old stone jail. Visitors to the town can enjoy the canyon's breathtaking hikes, wildlife and vistas, but the true stars of Springdale are the ones that litter the night sky. Springdale hosts a series of Night Sky Events throughout the year, and the unique vantage point of staring up from the canyon, surrounded by the 2,000 foot sandstone cliffs at the night sky, provides some awe-inspiring views.

The place to stay in Springdale is The Desert Pearl Inn, a family owned and operated hotel with ties to the town that date back to the late 19th century. After a long day outside, perhaps renting a bike to ride through the canyon, refuel in town at the Bit and Spur. Budget Travel’s Reid Bramblett writes that it is home to:  “some of the best Mexican food I've ever tasted in the States.” Springdale Candy Company is also worth a visit for a scoop of huckleberry ice cream, a perfect end to any day.

Road Trip Destinations:

Port Angeles, Washington

Teens across the world might be have heard of Port Angeles, located in the center of Clallam County, its neighboring town of Forks was thrust into popular culture by the Twilight books and movies. Stephenie Meyer’s star-crossed characters might have been happier if they’d ventured out of Forks every now and then to take a weekend trip to this national park gateway town.

Port Angeles is surrounded on one end by Olympic National Park and flanked on the other by the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Pacific Northwest jewel is known for its trails: the Olympic Discovery Trail offers more than 60 miles or running or cycling, and the Hurricane Ridge, which rises about a mile above sea level and boasts some of the best views of the Olympic Mountains.

Port Angeles is also a premier whale-watching destination. Visitors coming anywhere from late spring to early fall are incrdibly likely to spot whales: Orca, minke, gray and humpback pass through the Port Angeles waters as they travel along the western seaboard.

Rather than hotels, Port Angeles’ hospitality may be best experienced at one of its many Bed and Breakfasts. The secluded Colette’s Bed and Breakfast boasts panoramic view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca with British Columbia in the distance. If lavish is what you want, there’s also the opulent George Washington Inn, framed by fields of lavender on the Olympic peninsula.

Keep an eye out for the native Dungeness crab, a sweet-tasting, purple-tinged crustacean in Port Angeles. It’s a staple, and there’s no better place to try one than at the spectacular Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival in the fall. 

Road Trip Destinations:

Cody, Wyoming

Cody’s name comes from the town’s famous co-founder, Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. The famed American showman made America’s West legendary, and in Cody you can learn the real history of the man and his town situated near the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park.

Though Jackson Hole might be the most-well known gateway to Yellowstone, Cody, shines as an alternative outpost. President Theodore Roosevelt, who certainly saw his share of the American wilderness, once called the stretch of road between Cody and the east gate of Yellowstone “the 50 most beautiful miles in America.” The stunning views of sweeping valleys, filled with elk, bison and bighorn sheep on land, falcons and eagles swooping through the air, and trout teeming in the Shoshone River, are just part of the area’s physical beauty.  

But Cody’s own treasures are reasons to visit independent of pilgriming to the home of Old Faithful. With its nightly rodeos,  reenactments of Wild West scenes featuring Buffalo Bill and Teton Jackson, as well as five museums in the town, which include the Smithsonian-affiliated Buffalo Bill Museum of the West, there is never enough time to explore everything in Cody in just one trip.

Where better to stay when you are in town than the Victorian-style Irma Hotel? Cody opened the Irma Hotel in 1902 in honor of his daughter,  and since it was founded, world leaders and royalty have booked rooms there on visits to Cody. Keep an eye out for the cherry wood bar in the dining room, though it's no longer operational, the exquisite woodwork was a gift from Queen Victoria.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, the Museum of the West will be hosting a one-day symposium titled "Inspiring Sights: Yellowstone through Artists' Eyes" in June. There are also plenty of annual festivals to get excited about including the Ice Waterfall Festival, Plains Indian Powwow, Cowboy Songs and Range Ballads and Yellowstone Jazz Festival.

Road Trip Destinations:

Coral Bay, Saint John

Known as Saint John’s “other” town (Cruz Bay, with a population of 2,750, is the island’s largest), Coral Bay, located on the southeastern side of the U.S. Virgin Island, has its own quieter appeal, boasting miles of white sand beaches, with crystal clear waters for swimming and snorkeling, local pride, as well as some important historical sites.

To enjoy the clear blue waters of Coral Bay, rent snorkel equipment and watch yellowtail snappers, barracuda and Sea Turtles swim by. For a great meal and live music, Miss Lucy’s offers a famous crab-cake benedict and regular jazz performances. Avoid the horrors of highway traffic on Thanksigivng and travel to Coral Bay for the holiday; its annual tradition of “Thankspigging,” features a pot luck meal that includes a pig roast hosted by local burger joint Skinny Legs.

Like much of the Caribbean, Saint John has a tragic colonial legacy, and to understand it better, visit the Emmaus Moravian Church. The Estate Carolina plantation, walking distance from Coral Harbor, was the site of a 1733 Slave Revolt, one of the earliest revolts where enslaved workers rose up against their Danish masters. They successfully won control of the island and held it for six months until reinforcements arrived and squashed the rebellion. It would take until 1848 for slavery to be abolished on the island.

The United States purchased Saint John from the Danish West India and Guinea Company in 1917, and Laurance Rockefeller, who was heavily involved in the creation of the Virgin Islands National Park (which takes up two-thirds of Saint John), donated more than 5,000 acres of the island to the National Park Service.

Rockefeller encouraged eco-friendly tourism, and the island delivers on that front. Just ten minutes from downtown Coral Bay, the beautiful and environmentally conscious Concordia Eco-Tents, provide a hospitable place to stay.

Editor's Note, April 25, 2016: The photograph for Coral Bay has been updated to replace the previous image, which was incorrectly labeled as Coral Bay, Saint John. We regret the error. 

Road Trip Destinations:

Cloudcroft, New Mexico

Cloudcroft’s roots as a town can be traced to the building of the railroad between Alamogordo, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas in 1899. The railroad’s owners wanted to learn about the mountains east of Alamogordo and sent a survey team to report back. In Cloudcroft, the party found lush wilderness, as well as a view that made the clouds appear as though they were blanketing the ground.

Locals call the town “9,000 feet above stress level” for a reason. The travel destination, 40 miles from White Sands National Monument, is away from it all. Surrounded by the Lincoln National Forest, most come to Cloudcroft to cross-country ski or ice skate in the winter. In the summertime, the high altitude climate is a respite from the heat of New Mexico sun.

The Lodge Resort and Spa is the place to stay when you’re in town if you have an adventurous spirit. It comes with its own ghost: Rebecca. Not to worry though, popular legend says that the young chambermaid, who mysteriously disappeared from her quarters, is friendly. Real guests of the summer resort, first built for the railroad workers, include Judy Garland, Clark Gable and Pancho Villa.

There might be no better way to spend the day in Cloudcroft than on a trail. The wildflowers are already in bloom, meaning that the meadows around the town have transformed into a lush, colorful blanket. Pack a picnic lunch and trek out to one of the many waterfalls nearby to enjoy the quiet paradise. 

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Hot Springs, Arkansas

Known as “Spa City,” this Arkansas escape near Hot Springs National Park’s claim to fame is—what else—its bathhouse row. The town is built atop folds in the earth’s crust, which means that groundwater rises up to the surface relatively quickly, making its open fountains naturally heated to a toasty 143 degrees Fahrenheit.

The mineral water in Hot Springs is free to bottle, though visitors will have to pay to soak in it at Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has been around since 1912. Buckstaff holds the distinction of being the only bathhouse within the boundaries of the Hot Springs National Park that is still operating in its original capacity (others on the row have since been converted to a museum, a welcome center and a soon-to-be bed and breakfast).

One of the most charming traditions in Hot Springs is somewhat new, the “Stuart Pennington Running of the Tubs.” Now in its 11th year, the race, which is held every May, celebrates the town’s mineral water by having teams push their own tubs down the town’s Central Avenue. Racers must carry soap, bath mats, loofah mitts and towels on their persons. It’s a spectacle certain to offer some good, clean fun.

A must-visit spot for a meal is also a favorite haunt of Bill Clinton’s: McClard’s BBQ and Tamales. The restaurant has been serving pit-smoked barbeque and tamale plates since 1928. It doesn’t hold the distinction of being Arkansas’ oldest dining establishment, though; that honor goes to another Hot Springs staple, the Ohio Club. It started in 1905 as a bar and casino, and can boast a colorful history befitting its age. Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Bugs Moran and Lucky Luciano were all once patrons of the establishment.

Curious what these notorious criminals were doing in Hot Springs? One of the area’s many museums has you covered. The Gangster Museum of America shares how these rough and tumble characters came to town for the therapeutic hot springs but stayed for illegal gambling, as well as bootleg drinks during Prohibition. Also worth a visit: the Mid-American Science Museum. The Smithsonian Affiliate museum features the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk, an outdoor exhibit that extends into the area’s nearby forest canopy.

Editor's Note, April 18, 2016: We originally mistook many of the events above as happening in Hot Springs Village, and not Hot Springs. While the Arkansas city would normally be ruled out for making our Best Small Towns list because its population is larger than 20,000 residents, Hot Springs' appealing qualities, as well as its proximity to Hot Springs National Park makes it a natural for our list.  We regret the error.

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