When it comes to places to take a vacation, it’s easy to think of America’s big cities: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Miami. But America is filled with wonders that are less heralded but no less magnificent, from the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest to the moss-draped bayous of the South. Along the way, there are sparkling caves, thundering waterfalls, quirky festivals, historic buildings, inspiring art and world-class food—all packed into towns with a smaller population than many college campuses.
For the fourth annual version of our list, we once again worked with the geographical information company Esri to sort the nation’s small towns (those with a population under 20,000) according to their number of cultural attractions, historical sites, nature opportunities and food-and-drink destinations, then researched to find the places commemorating important anniversaries, openings, renovations, recoveries and other milestones in 2015. Think of this list not as a ranking but as a menu, with something for every taste—whether it’s country bluegrass, Florida’s white beaches or Alaska’s blue mountains.
1. Estes Park, Colorado
Nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, Estes Park has beckoned visitors since the 1860s, when an inspired Welshman named Griff Evans established a local dude ranch. Today the town serves as base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park, which marks 100 years of existence in 2015. A year of wilderness-themed art exhibits, classes, films and concerts celebrates the park’s highlights—which include some of the tallest mountains in the continental United States and more than 300 miles of hiking trails. The park’s sights and sounds are particularly stunning in the fall, when the leaves blaze with color and bull elks fill the air with haunting mating calls.
While the town of Estes Park itself is relaxed (elk have been known to wander downtown streets), there are marked touches of class—notably the historic Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s book The Shining. This April, the hotel is adding a giant hedge maze, the result of an international design competition to create one honoring the maze in the film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, who actually filmed external shots at a lodge in Oregon and used a soundstage for internal shots. (Neither hotel ever had a maze until the Estes Park addition, confusing some horror fans). Visitors can also enjoy several new breweries and a new distillery, or just meander the scenic riverwalk alongside the Big Thompson River—but watch out for the elk.
2. Nantucket, Massachusetts
Nantucket's location helped build its fortunes during the whaling era, but also leaves "the Little Gray Lady of the Sea" vulnerable to nature's fury. January's Winter Storm Juno left residents encased in snow and ice, plunging the whole island into darkness after a storm surge hit a power station. Reward islanders’ perseverance by visiting this summer, when the cobblestone streets will come alive with people but there’s still peace and quiet to be found on the beaches. The town’s Whaling Museum (a restored 1840s candle factory) unveils a two-year exhibit this April on the sinking of the whaleship Essex, whose destruction by a sperm whale in 1820 inspired Moby-Dick as well as Ron Howard’s upcoming film In the Heart of the Sea (based on Nantucket resident Nathaniel Philbrick’s book of the same name). The only known artifacts from the disaster—a piece of twine, a sketch by a survivor—will be on display, alongside props and costumes from the movie, which opens in December. One of the museum's other big draws: A 46-foot-skeleton of a sperm whale that washed ashore on New Year's Day 1998.
But you don’t have to be into whales to visit Nantucket: its quaint houses and picturesque harbor have also drawn artists for decades (stroll the waterfront for their work on display at local galleries). In 2015 the Artists Association of Nantucket celebrates 70 years, and in June they open the Nantucket Visual Arts Center—celebrating with a week of classes, art demonstrations and the unveiling of a new sculpture garden.
3. Stuart, Florida
Perched on the most biodiverse lagoon ecosystem in the Northern hemisphere, the St. Lucie Inlet, Stuart is surrounded by opportunities to revel in nature and the arts as well as indulge your inner history buff. See the sea turtles on warm summer nights at the nearby Hobe Sound Nature Center, (gently) touch a stingray at the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, or visit the House of Refuge—a former haven for shipwrecked sailors operated by the United States Lifesaving Service and now a beautiful historical museum. Stuart also boasts the newly renovated Lyric Theatre, a former silent movie palace now hosting concerts and art-house movies. And this July, Florida’s “Treasure Coast” commemorates the event that gave the region its name—the 1715 hurricane that struck Florida’s east coast, sinking 11 Spanish galleons laden with New World silver and gold. The summer, area events include a two-day conference at the Vero Beach Museum of Art (about an hour north of Stuart), lectures and public exhibitions.
4. Traverse City, Michigan
The lakefront climate and rich soil around Traverse City have encouraged two especially delightful crops: wine and cherries. Located in one of the top wine-producing regions of the Midwest, Traverse City is surrounded by dozens of wineries and tasting rooms, including the just-opened Bonobo Winery (owned by Traverse City native and HGTV host Carter Oosterhouse and his wife, actress Amy Smart). Other new attractions include The Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park, a former state mental asylum farm currently being transformed into 25 acres of gardens with an emphasis on native plants, such as Shenandoah grass and Virginia sweetspire, and part of a larger project to repurpose the once-massive hospital into a series of restaurants, shops, offices, classrooms and greenspace.
The area also offers plentiful hiking, biking, skiing and lakeside activities (the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, declared part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 2014, is especially known for its towering dunes.) When it’s time to refuel, partake in some of the city's many cherry-oriented specialties, from salsa to sausage—a variety of which are on offer at the city’s biggest event, the Cherry Festival each July.
5. Cooperstown, New York
Some know Cooperstown best for baseball—the much-derided, but still thriving, myth says the game itself was invented there by Abner Doubleday in the 1830s, 100 years before the National Baseball Hall of Fame arrived in town—but Cooperstown's scenic beauty and cultural attractions make it more than just a beacon for sports fans. In 2015 the Glimmerglass Opera (one of the nation's biggest summer opera festivals) celebrates its 40th anniversary with productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Verdi’s Macbeth, Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica and a new children’s opera, all performed on the shores of Otsego Lake. "Glimmerglass," by the way, is the name the town’s native son, author James Fenimore Cooper, bestowed upon the lake in his Leatherstocking Tales—and it's also the name of a beer produced by the acclaimed local Belgian-style brewery, Ommegang.
6. Port Townsend, Washington
This Victorian seaport town is one of the jewels of the damp-but-gorgeous Pacific Northwest, with a heavy emphasis on the locally grown, the handcrafted and the quirky (the recent opening of the farmers’ market featured a parade of a dozen goats). Alongside the highly browsable indie shops and restaurants packed with local food, visitors come to enjoy Fort Worden, a 19th-century army-base-turned-state-park that boasts a plentiful event calendar thanks to local arts organization Centrum. The fort’s new executive chef, Lou Bair, (yes, the fort has an executive chef) will continue the emphasis on locally-sourced food, offering cooking classes and a new pub, Taps at the Guardhouse (opening in June). Aside from the bevy of learning opportunities nearby—the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, School of Wooden Boat Building, Maritime Center and Marine Science Center, to name a few—Port Townsend’s real draw is the great outdoors; it’s the gateway for Olympic National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where the misty peaks and spectacular old-growth rainforests include some of the last land to be explored in the lower 48.
7. Calistoga, California
Calistoga may be the only American city named for a spoonerism. Hoping to capitalize on local geothermal waters, in 1866 town founder Sam Brannan (California's first millionaire) declared that he wanted to make the place "the Saratoga of California," which tipsily tumbled out as "the Calistoga of Sarafornia." The name stuck, and Brannan still looms large around town—the just-renovated Indian Springs, California's oldest continuously operated spa, recently opened its first restaurant, named Sam's Social Club in his honor. The Brannan Cottage Inn, built by the man himself in 1860, also just renovated and reopened, offering guests relaxed Victorian chic. The northernmost town in the Napa Valley, there's also food and wine galore in Calistoga, including at new French bistro Evangeline, helmed by multiple-Michelin-starred chef Brandon Sharp. Visitors hoping to enjoy local bounty would do well to plan around the annual Harvest Table Event in September, when a 1,000-foot-long table with food from 20 local restaurants is set up in the middle of a downtown street.
8. Sevierville, Tennessee
Dolly Parton refers to Sevierville as her hometown, and the country star's namesake amusement park, located just seven miles from downtown, celebrates its 30th season this year with renovated facilities, a new resort and a series of energetic festivals. But Sevierville is also just a few miles from America's most-visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains, which offers great hiking and wildlife viewing amid green valleys and historic structures—including one of the best collections of log buildings in the eastern United States. Outside the park, adventurers come for the ropes courses and zipline tours (14 zipline companies operate in the area), while amateur spelunkers can enjoy the colorful caves and underground river at Forbidden Caverns. History lovers, meanwhile, should note the historic houses, churches and plantations, plus the 19th century covered bridge, as well as the Tennessee Museum of Aviation, featuring aircraft from World War II and other major conflicts.
9. Boonville, Missouri
Settled by sons of Daniel Boone, who established their salt business nearby, Boonville is home to hundreds of historic locations—from 2,000-year-old Native American burial grounds to the 1860s Rivercene Mansion, built by a wealthy riverboat captain and now a graceful bed and breakfast. There are also sites associated with the Sante Fe Trail, the Civil War and Jesse James, not to mention the Katy Trail—the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad converted into the nation's largest rails-to-trails project, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. 2015 also sees the 40th anniversary of the Missouri River Festival of the Arts, held August 27-29 at Thespian Hall, the oldest theatre still in use west of the Allegheny Mountains and a former Civil War hospital. One of the nation's most extensive collections of antique Mitchell cars and wagons also just opened up at the Mitchell Antique Motorcar Museum, while a little further out of town, you can meet the Budweiser Clydesdales at their 300-acre breeding facility, Warm Springs Ranch.
10. Saint Simons Island, Georgia
The Spanish came to the islands off the southeast coast of modern-day Georgia 400 years ago seeking gold, but it's the area's natural radiance that's said to have inspired the name “Golden Isles.” Today, the tourists usually come looking for golf, but the pristine salt marshes (some of the most extensive in the U.S.), abundant wildlife and historic sites make it more than just a resort for the sport of kings. Visit the ruins of the British colony at the Fort Frederica National Monument, see the location of the decisive battle that ended the Spanish claims on Georgia, or explore one of the oldest churches in America at the 275-year-old Christ Church Frederica. St. Simons is also home to a storied, if unmarked, site known as Ebos Landing, where a group of slaves rebelled by drowning themselves in a creek in 1807. (In African American oral tradition, the slaves actually escaped death by transforming themselves into buzzards and flying back to Africa—a story that inspired Toni's Morrison's Song of Solomon, among other works.)
There are several other sites on the island connected to the Civil War, and you can tour historic plantation slave cabins in the process of being restored to their original appearance. For something slightly more modern, climb to the top of the St. Simons Lighthouse and Museum (built in 1872) or marvel at the magnificent trees on the Avenue of the Oaks. If it's golf you're seeking, the Sea Palms Resort just completed a multimillion-dollar restoration with the addition of a restaurant, alongside a flurry of expanding properties throughout the Golden’s gorgeous chain.
11. Edenton, North Carolina
North Carolina's first colonial capital and a popular stop-off on the way to the Outer Banks, Edenton came in high on our list of towns packed with historic sites—almost the entire town is listed on National Register of Historic Places. A four-year restoration of the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse (built on stilts, it seems to float above the river) just wrapped up, while other history-rich hot-spots include the Penelope Barker House, site of the first organized political action by American women (a group of 46 local ladies made worldwide headlines in 1774 when they signed a petition to boycott British tea). The town is also staying true to its roots with an expanding small farm and local food movement. In January, the Inner Banks Inn opened a farm-to-table restaurant, The Table, while the Heritage Farm Fest in June will explore the county's agrarian life pre-1950 with a variety of demonstrations from local farmers.
12. Bayfield, Wisconsin
Mother Nature is the undeniable draw in Bayfield, where the otherworldly magic of the ice caves at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has drawn record visitors the past few years after intense periods of sub-freezing temperature made them accessible via ice in 2014. Even in milder winters, however, some of the caves are still viable destinations. The archipelago of 22 islands inside Lake Superior also boasts old-growth forests and nine historic lighthouses in addition to the colorful red sandstone cliffs (which are accessible by boat when temperatures heat up). But the outdoors aren't the only game in town: The blue-striped Big Top Chautauqua, a 900-seat tent theater, celebrates its 30th year in existence in 2015, with a lineup that includes Patty Griffin, Garrison Keillor, Lyle Lovett and Arlo Guthrie (himself celebrating the 50th anniversary of the event that inspired "Alice's Restaurant"). Meanwhile, there’s wineries, galleries, berry farms and apple orchards to tour, plus many other intriguing new attractions: a bar in an old creamery, an organic restaurant, kayak tours and a route for intrepid “ice bikers”—not bad for a town with a permanent population under 500 people.
13. Nashville, Indiana
Sometimes called “Little Nashville” after the identically named metropolis in Tennessee, this bucolic, woodsy Midwest town is paradise for country music fans and art lovers alike. Though the Little Nashville Opry (which would have celebrated its 40th anniversary this year) burned down under mysterious circumstances a few years back, there's no shortage of music in the air, from campfire jams at wineries and coffeehouses to the oldest continuously running bluegrass festival in the world, Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, just a few minutes away. (Developers are also working on rebuilding the Opry as you read this.) One of America's important regional arts colonies, Nashville also has many galleries, including one of the oldest in the nation: the Brown County Art Gallery. You can even tour the art-filled historic home, restored gardens and log cabin that belonged to the founder of colony, impressionist artist Theodore C. Steele. Nashville’s also a great place to bone up on traditional skills, from banjo strumming to broom-making, or to simply enjoy the fall color on 20 miles of tree-lined roads at Brown County State Park.
14. Put-in-Bay, Ohio
This tiny village on South Bass Island played an important role in the War of 1812—its bay was the base for U.S. naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry and his fleet during the pivotal battle of Lake Erie, now commemorated with the only peace memorial in the National Park system. Located five miles from the Canadian-American border, Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial celebrates 100 years of existence this year. (Climb to the top for panoramic views of surrounding states.)
Townspeople commemorate the events of 1812 every September with Perry's Victory Heritage Fest, featuring music, art and a recreation of an 1812 military encampment. This summer also marks the start of five years of visits from the U.S. brig Niagara, a historic replica of one of Perry’s ships that will offer tours, sailing trips and the chance to learn old-fashioned seamanship skills. Perry's Cave (where the commander found drinking water for his men) also offers historic tours, while Crystal Cave across the street features the world's largest geode, sparkling with pale blue celestine crystals. During Prohibition, revenue from tours of the cave helped save the fortunes of the state's oldest family-run winery, Heineman's; located just above the cave, the winery is still open for tours and tastings. One thing you won't see many of in Put-in-Bay: cars, since many residents and visitors prefer to get around this laid-back hamlet by golf cart instead.
15. Whitefish, Montana
Whitefish scored tops on our list for small towns in Montana, and it's a short drive to the more than a million majestic acres of Glacier National Park—a great place to see some conservation success stories, as well as challenges. Alongside over 130 lakes and 700 miles of trails, Glacier is home to three species recently recovered from the brink of extinction: the gray wolf, bald eagle and peregrine falcon. In fact, all the carnivores Lewis and Clark spotted here back in 1804 are still there. But not everything's so well-preserved: only 25 of the park's gorgeous glaciers remain, down from the 150 that existed in the mid-19th century. If climate change continues, at least one model predicts that all the park’s glaciers could disappear within decades.
You can tour the park on a rebuilt fleet of 1930s red rollback buses that traverse the Going-to-the-Sun Road, or stay at one of the many historic hotels located inside the park (many built by the Great Northern Railway, which sparked development of Whitefish itself in the early 20th century). There's also exceptional hiking, fishing and skiing nearby, notably at Whitefish Mountain Resort, which offers a unique treetop canopy tour through the forest. Closer to the heart of town, take advantage of the independent shops and funky restaurants of Central Avenue and the Railway District, where converted railway worker homes have become unique boutiques.
16. Thibodaux, Louisiana
Louisiana marks two dire anniversaries this year: ten years from Hurricane Katrina and five years from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And while New Orleans will get much of the attention, nearby Thibodaux, located in one the state's oldest parishes, helped host the displaced from New Orleans and surrounding areas after the storm. (The city’s Nicholls State University hosted more than 1,000 evacuees.) Meanwhile, the local fishing industry is still feeling the effects from the Deepwater spill, alongside other regional impacts on wildlife.
Thibodaux is full of opportunities to get to know this resilient corner of the country, from the moss-covered graves of St. John's Historic Cemetery to the plantation ruins at Laurel Valley Village (the largest surviving 19th/20th century sugar cane plantation complex in the nation). Take a swamp tour on the bayou to see alligators and turtles, or learn about Cajun life at the Jean Lafitte Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center (note the special Monday night Cajun jam sessions). And if you'd rather experience Louisiana flavor of a different kind, tour and sip at Thibodaux's first craft distillery, Donner-Peltier Distillers, where the whiskey, dark rum and sugarshine is made from local rice and sugar cane.
17. Custer, South Dakota
Squint in Custer and you might be able to imagine yourself in the Old West, especially if you’re at the Custer State Park 50th annual Buffalo Roundup (September 25-27), when about 1,300 of the shaggy beasts that normally roam the park are herded into corrals before being moved to winter grazing territory. (Prospective cowboys and cowgirls can volunteer to help out; tamer types can enjoy the arts festival and chili cook-off.) Gatherings of a different herd happen at the 75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the world's largest yearly meeting of motorcycle buffs, and the 10th Annual South Dakota Bat Festival, where biologists dispel the myths around the creatures and employ ultrasonic detectors to listen to their sounds. There's also more Old West feel with the artifacts and ephemera on display at the 1881 Custer County Courthouse (celebrating its 40th anniversary as a museum in 2015), the 50-plus buildings at Four-Mile Old West town and the Crazy Horse Memorial—the world's largest ongoing attempt to carve a sculpture on the side of a mountain. Modern-day explorers can head to Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Park (the latter is one of the longest caves in the world and is still being explored).
18. Stowe, Vermont
It's not every day you can stay in a resort run by one of the first families in musical theater history, but the Trapp Family Lodge, founded by the Von Trapps of Sound of Music fame, is managed by their descendants. Celebrate the film's 50th anniversary by skiing part of the resort's 2,500 acres, sampling some of its brewery's traditional German and Austrian-style beer or taking a family history tour featuring a Q&A with one of the Von Trapp descendants. Stowe is also home to the Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame (which hosts a film fest, races and other events) but it's not only about the powder here. The Vermont Arts Council has declared 2015 a "Year of the Arts” to celebrate fifty years of public funding, with events around the state. In Stowe, you can take in everything from vaudeville to Nashville at the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center (located at the foot of Vermont's highest mountain), or enjoy the exhibits at the Helen Day Arts Center, where the annual outdoor sculpture exhibit Exposed melds Vermont’s famous natural beauty with artistic creations.
19. Homer, Alaska
The dazzling displays of the Northern Lights are a perpetual draw in Alaska, but since we're nearing the end of a solar maximum (a peak activity period for the aurora borealis) now is a particular great time to see them—not to mention appropriate, since 2015 is the UN Year of Light. Spring and fall offer the best opportunities to catch the capricious colors, and while you might have the best chance in far northern locations, Homer offers a nice mix of viewing opportunities plus creature comforts. The southernmost town on the contiguous Alaska highway system, Homer’s got elegant-but-quirky lodging and dining, plus a packed arts calendar (the Summer Music Festival is a highlight) alongside its famed sport fishing and scenery. Aside from the bald eagles, orcas and bears, visitors often remark on the entrepreneurial spirit of local residents who’ve chosen to make this special seaside city their home.
20. Vernal, Utah
Dinosaurs are a big deal in Vernal, where a 40-foot-tall pink fiberglass one named Dinah welcomes you to town, and in 2015 the nearby Dinosaur National Monument celebrates its 100th anniversary. But there’s more to see than just dinosaurs—alongside the 1,500 dinosaur bones embedded in the Carnegie Quarry, the monument is home to 1,000-year-old petroglyphs, historic homesteading structures and some of the darkest skies in the nation (perfect for catching those constellations hidden by the big city lights). Dinosaur National Monument also holds a special place in the history of American conservation—historians say the movement was emboldened after activists defeated a 1950s dam project that would have flooded a section in the heart of the monument known as Echo Park.
Alongside plenty of other opportunities for dinosaur-oriented learning, Vernal is within driving distance of three state parks, the watersports of the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, the 50-million-year old geological formations of Fantasy Canyon, historic Old West ranches and the only building ever built by the mail—the Bank of Vernal, constructed with bricks from Salt Lake City shipped through the Parcel Post system by an ingenious businessman in 1916-17, before frantic postmasters convinced legislators to introduce weight limits.