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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

(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)

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. 

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About Jackie Mansky

Jacqueline Mansky is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She was previously the assistant web editor, humanities, for Smithsonian magazine.

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