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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)

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.

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