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!
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: