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!
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: