Once again, it’s time to slow down our pace and look at those things that make America’s small towns grand: the opening of a new museum that’s been seven years in the making, a community coming together in honor of a prolific local author, and an annual Victorian Christmas celebration that’s been transforming downtown streets for 30 years. These are places that are rich in Blues music and Native American history, offer regional dining favorites like chile rellenos and fish fries, and boast walkable streets and remarkable national parks and monuments at their doorsteps.
While their populations vary, this year’s towns all have 25,000 or fewer residents, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates. They stand out for their cultural history, natural offerings, unique establishments, and reasons that make 2023 an especially good year to visit. For instance, while Los Alamos, New Mexico, is about to be thrust into the spotlight this July with the release of the movie Oppenheimer, which was filmed both in and around the town, Klamath Falls, Oregon, is set to be one of the best spots in the country to catch a rare solar eclipse come October. From a South Dakota university town that’s home to one of the oldest known cellos in existence to Amelia Earhart’s birthplace in Kansas, here are 15 small towns inspiring us to hit the road and experience America’s many incredible wonders.
Musical Small Town: Vermillion, South Dakota (pop. 11,915)
Thousands flock to this university town in South Dakota’s southeastern corner each year to experience the world-renowned National Music Museum, home to one of the largest collections of musical instruments on the planet. Following extensive renovations, the museum, part of the University of South Dakota campus, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with the late-August reopening of seven of its permanent exhibition galleries, each of them updated with graphics, stories and interactive elements highlighting the many ways that music shapes our lives (the museum also opened a 16,000-square-foot addition, including a performance hall and special exhibit gallery, in 2021). Originally named the Shrine to Music, and once called “a kind of musical Smithsonian,” the museum holds more than 15,000 instruments, from a nearly 500-year-old Amati “King” cello that’s believed to be the oldest instrument of its kind in the world to a Gibson Les Paul guitar with a shiny gold finish. Museumgoers will be able to get an inside look at guitar and violin making, hear the unique sounds of fretted instruments through an interactive jukebox, and even catch a lineup of summer concert acts, including a Norwegian-Swedish folk music duo.
Situated on a bluff along the Missouri River, Vermillion is part of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. Just north of town sits Spirit Mound State Historic Prairie, one of six places nationwide that’s known to be an exact spot where the trailblazing explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark once stood. Hike the three-quarter-mile trail to the top of the conical land formation and breathe in history.
Vermillion’s downtown is chock-full of restaurants, cafés and art galleries. Swing by Tigert Art Gallery to peruse limited-edition watercolor prints by Black Hills artist Jon Crane, or score a table at Dakota Brick House for plates of wings and poutine accompanied by pre-Prohibition-era craft cocktails. The town’s population nearly doubles during the school year, infusing its restaurants, pubs, theaters and streets with lots of lively energy.
South Dakota’s natural and cultural history are on display at the free-to-enter W.H. Over Museum, also on the university’s campus, where exhibits range from ancient fossils to Lakota beadworks. If visiting in June, don’t miss the annual South Dakota Shakespeare Festival (June 11-18), a celebration of the famed playwright that includes everything from Bard trivia to Shakespeare improv.
For a little outdoor recreation, Vermillion’s nearby 34-acre Clay County Park features a nature trail, campsites and a kayak launch, all along the last natural stretch of the Missouri River.
Historic Small Town: Portsmouth, New Hampshire (pop. 22,713)
Located just across the Piscataqua River from Maine, Portsmouth is the cultural and commercial hub of the New Hampshire Seacoast—a 13-mile stretch of rocky headlands, sandy beaches and historic communities. It’s also one of several towns along the Seacoast (the others being Dover, New Castle and Rye) celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2023. To mark the occasion, Portsmouth has planned a yearlong lineup of festivities, including three major summer events: a grand parade featuring floats, bands and street performers (June 3); the Little Italy Carnival (August 6); and a New England lobster bake under the stars (August 15). Still, these are just the beginning of this port town’s many offerings.
Market Square is the heart of Portsmouth’s walkable downtown, filled with red-brick buildings from the early 19th century that today house clothing boutiques, art galleries and bookstores—99 percent independently owned and all tax-free—as well as an ample selection of bars and eateries. Shop for artisan-made clocks and pure maple candy at NH Made, or take in panoramic river views while sipping on handcrafted cocktails or local Great Rhythm brews at Rooftop at The Envio. A tour of Portsmouth’s diverse culinary scene is sure to include Spanish-style tapas and wine from Cava, lightly buttered lobster rolls from Sanders Fish Market, and lavender lemon doughnuts (pair them with a cup of chai tea) at White Heron Tea & Coffee.
For a taste of Portsmouth’s past, head to the Strawbery Banke Museum, a ten-acre campus in the waterfront neighborhood of Puddle Dock that captures 300-plus years of living history spread among 32 buildings, many of which still stand on their original 17th-century foundations. Here visitors can watch traditional craft demonstrations like weaving and coopering, interact with costumed interpreters, and even step inside a tavern once visited by the nation’s founders.
Summer is the season for guided stand-up paddleboard tours along Portsmouth’s calm waterways, and live concerts, movies and theater productions (including night performances of “Little Shop of Horrors,” most Thursdays through Saturdays from June 23 to August 13) at riverfront Prescott Park. Come winter, Strawbery Banke hosts an outdoor skating rink at Portsmouth’s Puddle Dock Pond that is quintessential New England.
Bluesy Small Town: Clarksdale, Mississippi (pop. 13,969)
Sometime in the 1930s (or so the story goes), a young blues musician named Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil at the intersection of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale. He sold his soul for guitar mastery. Three giant blue guitars mark this legendary spot “where Blues began,” but music permeates the entire town—from a bevy of annual festivals to live tunes performed nightly in clubs and juke joints.
Blues legends Muddy Waters and Sam Cooke both spent some of their childhood here, and music venues run the gamut from the Ground Zero Blues Club, serving up Southern dishes with a mix of local performers, to the Juke Joint Chapel, converted from an old cotton gin on the grounds of the Shack Up Inn—home to a trio of sharecropper shacks restored for overnight guests. Next door is the Hopson Plantation, a former commissary building turned Blues music hall.
View a portion of the cabin where Muddy Waters lived and see singer-songwriter John Lee Hooker’s guitars at the world-renowned Delta Blues Museum, or peruse Clarksdale’s historic Arts & Culture District. Here, visitors can shop for vinyl LPs and retro Mississippi River maps at the Cat Head Blues Store; browse colorful artworks at the musician-owned and operated Hambone Gallery, featuring its own Tuesday night music series; or purchase bespoke instruments made from upcycled materials at the Lunatic Fringe Luthiery.
Each October, Clarksdale celebrates another one of its former residents with the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival, three days of porch plays, drama competitions and social gatherings honoring the legendary playwright, who died 40 years ago. A historical marker at the Cutrer Mansion, a stop on the Mississippi Writers Trail, recognizes Williams’ roots in Clarksdale and the town’s place as the setting for his dramas Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Orpheus Descending.
After a Quapaw Canoe Company-led trip on the wilds of the Mighty Mississippi, make a beeline to some barbeque. For nearly a century, the no-frills Abe’s Bar-B-Q has been the place for pulled pork topped with tangy barbecue sauce, while “world-famous” Hicks Tamales & BBQ Shop is a must-stop along the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail.
Refreshing Small Town: Skaneateles, New York (pop. 7,079)
For three decades, the residents of Skaneateles, a small town in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, have been transforming their downtown streets into a Victorian holiday village. Starting in late November, Dickens Christmas will be celebrating 30 years with a month full of weekend festivities ranging from mid-day carol singalongs to interactive storytelling events. Travel back in time with a cast of more than 40 costumed characters, including Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and Charles Dickens himself, in this 19th-century winter wonderland—one of the town’s most beloved local traditions.
However, Skaneateles itself is a year-round gem that remains relatively unknown to many. Its picturesque downtown features Greek Revival, Italianate and Romanesque Revival buildings and tree-lined streets, all situated on the shores of pristine Skaneateles Lake, a 16-mile-long glacier-dug stunner that’s also the town’s main attraction. One way to enjoy its waters is aboard the Judge Ben Wiles, a 100-seat replica steamship that hosts both sightseeing and dinner cruises.
Skaneateles’s shops run the gamut from pet boutiques to florists. Drooz and Company is a modern-day general store stocked with everything from picnic supplies (perfect for use at the town’s lakefront Clift Park) to body glitter, while The Local Branch offers a selection of leather wallets and travel accessories handcrafted in upstate New York.
Restaurants here are just as varied. They include the casual Doug’s Fish Fry; The Krebs, a historic fine-dining eatery serving up plates of tenderloin steaks and Peruvian game hen; and the Elephant and the Dove, where craft cocktails go hand in hand with smoked beef quesadillas and spice-rubbed fish tacos. Or start the day with a homemade poptart or black bottom muffin from one of the town’s delicious bakeries.
Afternoons are ideal for sipping riesling or sampling raspberry and peach liqueurs at Skaneateles’s hillside Anyela’s Vineyards, or picking hydroponically grown fruit at Strawberry Fields. Sunday matches at Skaneateles Polo Club take place throughout the summer and are free to attend. Join the locals in stomping the divots at half-time, a popular tradition. Try your hand at pickleball at the town’s Austin Park, or visit St. Mary’s of the Lake, the Catholic church where President Biden married his first wife, Neilia Hunter Biden, a Skaneateles native.
On July 28-30, the Skaneateles Antique and Classic Boat Show celebrates its 45th anniversary with knot-tying demonstrations, opportunities for kids to paint wooden toy boats, and a parade of lovingly restored watercrafts.
Whale-Obsessed Small Town: Friday Harbor, Washington (pop. 2,587)
Accessible via an easy one-hour ferry ride from Washington’s mainland, Friday Harbor is the hub of San Juan Island. Not only is this charming and walkable seaport the largest town in the San Juan archipelago (which includes Orcas and Lopez islands too), it’s also the gateway to San Juan Islands National Monument, which marked its tenth anniversary this year. The monument itself encompasses about 1,000 acres of land in the Salish Sea and approximately 75 protected sites, including wild beaches, historic lighthouses and archaeological sites (such as former camps) of the Coast Salish peoples. San Juan Island offers top-notch hiking, like the 3.6-mile Mount Finlayson loop trail, which rewards with expansive views of the Olympic Mountains, as well as kayaking and whale watching excursions. Look for orcas year-round, and humpbacks and minks April through October.
While just one square mile in size, Friday Harbor is brimming with shops selling everything from used books to Washington-made chocolates. After returning from a stop at Pelindaba Lavender Farm or San Juan Vineyard, dine on tempura-battered fish and chips with harbor views at the landmark Downriggers, or go for a savory pesto bowl and matcha tea at Salty Fox Coffee.
Friday Harbor has a high density of museums, too. Visitors can study a family tree of the Salish Sea’s resident orcas at the engaging Whale Museum, peruse works by regional artists at the San Juan Museum of Art, or step back in time with a self-guided tour of the 445-acre San Juan Historical Museum.
Scientific Small Town: Los Alamos, New Mexico (pop. 13,270)
When director Christopher Nolan’s feature film Oppenheimer premieres on July 21, New Mexico’s Los Alamos will be playing a starring role. Tucked away at an elevation of 7,320 feet among the snowcapped peaks, canyons and mesas of northern New Mexico, the town is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory—a renowned scientific institution employing some of the world’s top scientists and researchers, and one that also played a major part in the development of the atomic bomb. In fact, J. Robert Oppenheimer, also known as the “father of the atomic bomb” and the man at the center of Nolan’s biopic, served as the lab’s director during World War II.
Los Alamos visitors can learn about the creation of the world’s first atomic weapons at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which encompasses the three secret communities that supported the production of the bomb: Los Alamos; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Richland, Washington. While the Los Alamos Visitor Center is open Friday through Mondays year-round, guided tours of the park’s historic properties (most of which are located on secure U.S. government land) are offered only three-times annually in spring, summer and fall.
Throughout the year, the Bradbury Science Museum provides an in-depth look at the national laboratory’s history, a hands-on tech lab, and exhibits on plutonium and understanding nuclear weapons. The town’s annual ScienceFest (July 7-18) also offers everything from panel discussions to live demonstrations, with the theme this year being “Energy.”
For a more well-rounded view of Los Alamos, embark on one of the Los Alamos History Museum’s guided walking tours, which include a visit to an Ancestral Pueblo site and the town’s “Bathtub Row,” a stretch of homes (including one Oppenheimer himself lived in) outfitted with bathtubs—a rare local amenity at the time—reserved for top-tier scientists. Or swing by the Pajarito Environmental Education Center for planetarium star-viewing and insight into local flora and fauna, from pinyon pines to short-tailed weasels. The Navajo tacos on fry bread and chile rellenos smothered in green sauce at the beloved breakfast and lunch stop Viola’s shouldn’t be missed.
Los Alamos is the main gateway to Bandelier National Monument, a more than 33,000-acre stretch of mesas and canyons dotted with petroglyphs and ancient cliffside dwellings. The 1.4-mile-long Pueblo Loop Trail is equipped with wooden ladders for accessing cavates (small human-carved alcoves) along the way.
High-Flying Small Town: Atchison, Kansas (pop. 10,730)
As the birthplace of Amelia Earhart, Atchison has long attracted travelers interested in the story of the legendary aviation pioneer, who in 1932 became the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic. Now with the newly opened Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum (one of Smithsonian’s Most Anticipated Museums of 2023) there’s even more reason to visit. The museum honors Earhart’s legacy with exhibitions ranging from an explorable full-scale replica of a Lockheed Electra 10E cockpit to a virtual reality trans-Atlantic flight. It’s the perfect complement to the town’s other Earhart attractions, including the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum—occupying the home where the aviator was born—and the annual Amelia Earhart Festival in July, a weekend celebration that features an aerobatic air show and a birthday cake for the late pilot. July 24 marks 126 years since Earhart was born.
Perched along the Missouri River, Atchison is known as one of the most haunted towns in the Midwest. Take a stroll through the Sallie House, the former home of a local physician where visitors have experienced mysterious chills and the random movement of objects (overnight stays are welcome). Or tour the 1889 McInteer Villa, a large brick residence where slamming doors and unexplainable footsteps are known to occur. The town’s ghostly spirits really come alive in the fall, with spooky events such as haunted trolley tours.
Experience the opulence of the Victorian Age with a walk through Atchison’s 25-room Cray Historical Home Museum, or pay homage to the greater history of aviation and aerospace at the lakeside International Forest of Friendship, an arboretum with trees representing the 50 U.S. states and 35 countries where honorees, such as astronaut Sally Ride and test pilot Chuck Yeager, once resided. The town’s railway history is alive and well at its 19th-century Santa Fe Depot and attached Atchison Rail Museum, which operates the 12-inch gauge Atchison & Western Miniature Railroad on weekends throughout the summer.
Atchison’s downtown centers on Commercial Street, a former pedestrian mall newly opened to vehicular traffic. Here tourists can shop for vintage furniture at Backroad Atlas, then savor dishes like smoked mac and cheese or chicken and grits at the Riverhouse Restaurant, overlooking the Missouri River. For classes in mozzarella cheese making and growing microgreens, not to mention goat yoga, visit Atchison’s Providence Hill Farm.
Storied Small Town: Ketchikan, Alaska (pop. 8,037)
Ketchikan is located on Revillagigedo Island, 700 miles northwest of Seattle, Washington, and 235 miles southeast of Juneau, Alaska. At the southern tip of Alaska’s Inside Passage, it is known as the state’s “First City” because it’s the first Alaskan town that most cruise ships and other boats come upon when heading north from Washington State. A long and narrow town, it’s accessible only via air or water, including the Alaska Marine Highway, a state-operated ferry system that has over 30 stops and extends over 3,500 miles.
Visitors can learn the story of Ketchikan’s rich heritage at the Tongass Historical Museum through exhibitions like “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline,” an art-meets-science look at the fossil-hunting adventures of paleontologist Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and artist Ray Troll. Everything from the fossilized footprint of a Gastornis (a type of large, flightless bird that once roamed Pacific Northwest forests) to Troll’s original field books and sketches are on display through January 2024.
This picturesque town is also home to the Totem Heritage Center, featuring one of the largest collections of unrestored 19th-century totem poles on the planet, with many of the more than 30 poles retrieved from Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida villages—all local Indigenous groups. Not to mention, more than 80 standing totem poles are scattered around Ketchikan, and the number continues to grow. Visitors can watch Native carvers at work at Saxman Village’s Totem Park, just south of town.
Get a true sense of the town’s pioneering past with a stroll along Ketchikan’s historic Creek Street, a boardwalk on the banks of Ketchikan Creek connecting colorful stilt-perched structures that were home to the town’s red-light district in the first half of the 20th century. While the bulk of them today are filled with souvenir shops and seafood eateries, Creek Street’s Dolly’s House Museum is a former brothel that pays homage to the bygone era with guided tours. The creek is also a prime place to watch spawning salmon in July and August.
Whether it’s viewing black and brown bears, kayaking (often in the presence of seals, bald eagles and bubble-net-feeding humpback whales), or hopping in a float plane for a bird’s-eye view of Misty Fjords National Monument, Ketchikan is at the center of it all. The town has also been dubbed the “Salmon Capital of the World,” and embarking on a half- or full-day fishing charter is almost a rite of passage.
The town’s prime waterfront location also means that the seafood is outstanding. Try Annabelle’s Famous Keg and Chowder House, tucked within the historic Gilmore Hotel, for king crab leg and its legendary seafood chowder, or opt for Alaskan coho salmon at Bar Harbor Ale House, where the smoked pork ribs and brisket are also something to write home about.
Adventurous Small Town: Leadville, Colorado (pop. 2,593)
Colorado’s Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument became the country's newest national monument in October 2022. The small town of Leadville is a perfect base for exploring this 53,804-acre landscape, a place of mountains and valleys that served as the training grounds for the U.S. Army's Tenth Mountain Division, experienced skiers who learned mountain warfare and played a pivotal role in World War II. The monument is located within the homelands of the Ute Indian Tribe, and at the heart of Colorado ski country. In fact, nearby Cooper Hill, which today houses the family-friendly Ski Cooper resort, was home to some of Camp Hale’s more than 1,000 structures. Parts of both the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT), which runs from Mexico to Canada, and the 567-mile Colorado Trail (CT), also traverse the monument, which houses five 10th Mountain Division huts—overnight backcountry shelters open to hikers, cyclists, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Situated at 10,152 feet above sea level among towering “14ers” (mountain peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation) and in the geographic center of Colorado, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in North America. The laid-back, Victorian-era mining town’s walkable downtown is filled with colorful souvenir emporiums and outdoor gear purveyors, as well as eateries ranging from Tex-Mex to diner fare. Locally owned Treeline Kitchen serves plates of vegetable curry and BBQ pork and beans alongside a menu of craft cocktails, while gourmet pizzas with toppings like roasted red grapes and sunchokes are the norm at High Mountain Pies.
A Leadville landmark, The Legendary Silver Dollar Saloon still has relics from its Wild West days, including the same antique mirror where luminaries like author Oscar Wilde and Titanic survivor, the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, likely caught their reflection while sipping on a cold drink. Part of the new Colorado Historic Opera Houses Circuit, Leadville’s Tabor Opera House is the place to catch musicals, talent shows and Army bands, while its Mineral Belt Trail offers year-round opportunities for multiuse recreation on a paved 11.6-mile loop around town.
August 19 marks the 40th anniversary of the Leadville 100, an annual 100-mile out-and-back trail run across extreme Rocky Mountain terrain. With more than 18,000 feet of total elevation gain, peaking at a breathless 12,600 feet, the ultramarathon takes some serious guts.
A Nature Lover's Small Town: Klamath Falls, Oregon (pop. 21,977)
Get your solar safety glasses ready, because on October 14, 2023, an annular solar eclipse—in which the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, partially obscuring the Sun and creating a “ring of fire”—will be visible from Oregon’s Klamath Falls. For more than three minutes, sometime between 8:05 a.m. and 10:41 a.m. PT, spots like Moore Park, the southern shores of Upper Klamath Lake, and even Crater Lake National Park, just over 60 miles north of town, will be some of the best places in the U.S. to catch this rare event.
Klamath Falls is situated in the high desert of south-central Oregon, an area bursting with lakes, rivers and protected wildlife areas, and receiving more than 300 days of sunshine a year. The town is a haven for anyone who loves the outdoors, with anglers heading to the nearby Mountain Lakes Wilderness Area for trout fishing, trekkers hitting up area trails like the nearly three-mile-long Tomahawk Trail (which rewards with views of 9,493-foot-tall Mount McLoughlin in the Cascade Range) and rafters tackling the heart-thumping Class IV+ rapids of the Klamath River.
It’s also the starting point for the OC&E Woods Line State Trail, a 100-mile-long rail-trail that welcomes everyone from cross-country skiers to cyclists, depending on the season. Bird lovers flock to Klamath Falls for its location along the Pacific Flyway, attracting more than 350 avian species annually, including American white pelicans during the summer and the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48. In fact, the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges (there are six of them in total) make for the largest wetland complex west of the Mississippi, and a hotspot for waterfowl.
From a turn-of-the-20th-century downtown loaded with independent shops—including a music store specializing in pianos and stringed instruments, and the Northwest Makers Market for all things local—to attractions like the Klamath County Museum, which features a special exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Modoc War (an armed conflict between the Modoc people and the U.S. Army) through 2023, Klamath offers plenty of cultural opportunities as well.
Pick up some Rogue Creamery cheeses, including its award-winning cave-aged blue, at the town’s long-running Howard’s Meat Center, or stop by Oregon Mushrooms Co. (closed on weekends) for freshly foraged morels and Oregon black truffle sea salt.
Charming Small Town: Mackinac Island, Michigan (pop. 583)
This June marks 75 years since the first Lilac Festival, now Mackinac Island’s largest and most historic event. Timed to coincide with the blooming on the island of these fragrant beauties, the ten-day extravaganza (June 9-18) includes activities like lilac walking tours, planting seminars and jewelry workshops, culminating with a spectacular grand parade of marching bands and horse-drawn floats. It’s a big year for the island, which is also celebrating the 125th anniversary of its automobile ban. Mackinac has been car-free since 1898.
Often referred to as Michigan’s “crown jewel,” Mackinac Island is approximately four square miles of land flush with hiking and biking trails, secluded beaches and forest, situated in Lake Huron between the state’s upper and lower peninsulas. In fact, approximately 80 percent of the island is state park property.
The island is reachable only by air or sea, with most visitors arriving by ferry. Once here, there’s plenty to do on land as well as off, from exploring Fort Mackinac—an 18th-century European fortress and trading post where costumed interpreters demonstrate traditional skills, like blacksmithing and cannon firing—to kayaking tours and sunset cruises.
For nature lovers, the island is home to two butterfly conservatories, as well as incredible geologic formations such as the aptly named Arch Rock, which spans more than 50 feet across the water, and a towering 75-foot-tall limestone stack known as Sugar Loaf.
Pick up a kite at Great Turtle Toys downtown to fly at the island’s popular Windermere Point, or opt for something indoors, like traditional afternoon tea in the parlor of the iconic Grand Hotel. Mackinac Island’s narrated horse-drawn carriage tours are renowned, as is its nightlife, whether it’s dressing up for dancing to the music of Tony Bennett and Tommy Dorsey at the Grand Hotel’s Terrace Room, or snacking on smoked whitefish dip (an island favorite) and sipping frozen rum runners while listening to live bands at the Pink Pony, celebrating 75 years this summer. Seabiscuit Cafe even serves martinis made with fudge-infused vodka from one of Mackinac’s 13 island fudge shops.
On the way out of town, visitors can stop at Destination Mackinac and stock up on “8.2” stickers and water bottles, a reference to the island’s 8.2-mile M-185, the only state highway in the U.S. that doesn’t allow motorized vehicles.
Pioneering Small Town: Mansfield, Missouri (pop. 1,292)
In south-central Missouri, Mansfield is part of the Ozarks, a highland region that extends across five states and has its own dialect and cultural traditions. These range from oral storytelling to pie suppers, and many of them will be featured in this summer’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes place June 29-July 4 and July 6-9 in Washington, D.C.
This year also happens to be the 25th anniversary of Mansfield’s Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, the country’s largest heirloom seed business. It’s home to 1,000 different varieties of rare seeds, including those for growing goji berries, quinoa and carnivorous pitcher plants. Along with greenhouses and a store, the company headquarters is also where you’ll find Bakersville, a pioneer village that’s free to visit. Browse its old-time mercantile, tour a Western jail, or enjoy a farm-to-table meal at the vegan restaurant known for chef Youxiang Liu’s handmade Chinese dumplings.
Author Laura Ingalls Wilder lived the bulk of her life in Mansfield, and even wrote her Little House books, published between 1932 and 1943, at Rocky Ridge Farm, where she and her family resided. Now part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, the farmhouse, which she shared with her husband, Almanzo, and daughter, Rose, is open for tours. Visitors can see everything from the author’s handwritten manuscripts to her writing desk. The trio’s well-marked graves are located in the town’s small Mansfield Cemetery.
Each summer, the Ozark Mountain Players perform an original musical drama recounting the life of the Little House author at an outdoor amphitheater in Mansfield Recreational Park. September brings Wilder Days, a festival honoring Ingalls Wilder with weaving demos, pioneer history, and even a fiddle-playing competition. A small country town, Mansfield is home to shops like the mother-and-daughter-owned used bookstore A New Chapter, and the aptly named Pa & Ma’s Variety.
Laid-Back Small Town: Islamorada, Florida (pop. 7,059)
It’s been 200 years since the creation of Monroe County, the southernmost county in the U.S., and residents of its Florida Keys are celebrating. In the town of Islamorada, local chefs will be hosting a bicentennial Sea to Table Dinner highlighting the region’s exquisite seafood bounty on June 10, while the Lower Keys will see the creation of the world’s largest Key lime pie on July 3. Still, it’s Islamorada that boasts one of the best small towns in the entire 120-mile-long subtropical island stretch.
Spread out over six of the Key’s approximately 800 islands, this laid-back village features one of the only official “downtowns” in the entire region: a six-block area known as the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District. It’s filled with independent storefronts like Mystical Mermaid, stocked with everything from snorkeling gear to swimmable mermaid tails, and galleries like the artist-owned Old Road Gallery, with its custom-made clay and copper works, as well as an outdoor sculpture garden.
Islamorada is known as the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World,” and charters for catching tuna, tarpon, wahoo and more are readily available. If it’s relaxing you’re after, take a soak in the docile waters of the town’s family-friendly Anne’s Beach, or stroll along its mile-long Sea Oats Beach, one of the only white sand beaches in the Keys. Snorkelers and divers take to Islamorada’s clear waters to explore shallow reefs (including Alligator Reef and Rocky Top) and shipwrecks like Chaves Wreck, a freighter that traveled with the doomed 1733 Spanish Treasure Fleet, and swim among tropical fish.
Both Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park and Indian Key Historic State Park, accessible only by boat, are ideal for kayakers looking to spot schools of mullet, parrotfish, and maybe even a manatee, as well as blacktip reef sharks and sea turtles hiding among the seagrass. The 11-acre Indian Key houses the ruins of an early 19th-century community of wreckers, who would spot and rescue ships stranded on nearby reefs.
For landlubbers, the Overseas Heritage Trail—90 miles of paved multiuse trails linking the various Keys—runs through Islamorada. The History of Diving Museum chronicles more than 4,000 years of underwater exploration, with artifacts from diving helmets to underwater cameras. Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park’s walking trails wind through a fossilized reef and hardwood hammock, and the former quarry is also home to some amazing birdlife, including herons and brown pelicans.
As the sun sets, Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar will fry up your own daily catch, or you can savor seafood po’ boys at the old-school Islamorada Shrimp Shack. Located a half-mile offshore, the natural Islamorada Sandbar transforms into the site of the town’s biggest party each summer, complete with beach chairs, floats and plenty of sun.
Literary Small Town: Red Cloud, Nebraska (pop. 998)
Great Plains novelist Willa Cather grew up in Red Cloud, and this year the small Nebraska town is celebrating the 150th anniversary of her birth with everything from the restoration and reopening (in late 2023) of her childhood home—still decorated with wallpaper from her teenage years—to a series of festivities centered around Cather’s actual birthday, December 7. Although still in the planning stages, the activities are to include a virtual event celebrating the release of Benjamin Taylor’s new Cather biography, Chasing Bright Medusas, and readings from Cather's works. The acclaimed author's descriptions of frontier life have earned her a spot among the masters of American literature. In addition, 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for Cather’s 1922 novel, One of Ours, as well as the publication of her book A Lost Lady.
Red Cloud’s brick-lined streets and 19th-century structures are home to the Willa Cather Historic District, the largest collection of nationally designated historic sites dedicated to an author. These include the 1885 Red Cloud Opera House, which hosts musicals and live bands in the same space where Cather had her high school graduation ceremony, and the National Willa Cather Center and its museum.
Along with a permanent exhibition highlighting the author’s life and legacy, the center features a Cather-centric bookstore. It’s also the perfect place for booking guided Cather-themed tours through the town or broader Webster County countryside, or of the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, 612 acres of wild and untilled land that inspired her writing, particularly My Ántonia. With nearly two miles of trails, the prairie is open to self-guided hikes as well, and is a wonderful spot for picnicking or catching a sunset.
Built in 1902, Red Cloud’s three-story Starke Round Barn is an engineering marvel constructed without nails or pegs, and is one of the largest circular barns ever built in the U.S. Pay it a visit on the first and third Fridays of the month, May through September when it is open to the public. The Webster County Historical Museum features a wealth of pioneering and agricultural history, including personal accounts of 1879’s “Great Storm of Red Cloud,” which nearly destroyed the town.
Shop for locally produced honey and antiques, or swing by Back Alley Bicycles & Outfitters, which rents two-wheelers for a leisurely ride through town. The Corner Nook is a cozy, one-stop shop for books, apparel and a fruit smoothie or mocha, while On the Brix serves up wine, classic cocktails and local craft brews. Red Cloud’s Palace Lounge is an authentic Nebraska steakhouse.
A Growing Small Town: Soledad, California (pop. 24,190)
A decade ago, President Obama redesignated central California’s Pinnacles, then a national monument, as the country’s 59th national park. Today, hundreds of thousands of annual visitors descend upon the 26,606-acre parkland to climb its towering rock spires, explore its talus (formed from fallen boulders) caves, and hike more than 30 miles of trails.
Soledad is the gateway to Pinnacles and a buzzing small town in the midst of a revitalization. Along with the recent annexation of 654 acres of land for housing, a police and fire station, and nearly 200 acres of open space, city officials are in the concept stages of building a “shipping container village” that could transform downtown by attracting local businesses and hosting city-sponsored festivals.
With more than 20 wineries within a 31-mile radius, hundreds of acres of vineyards dot the hillsides surrounding the city. These include Hahn Estate Winery, where guests can sip older vintages and artisan flights from a deck with sweeping views of the Santa Lucia Highlands, and Wrath Wines, with a tasting room (pinot noir, chardonnay and shiraz are the specialties here) that’s open on weekends.
The historic California Mission Trail stretching from San Diego to Sonoma runs through Soledad, and its Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad is open for self-guided tours. The chapel in this 1791 structure is one of the smallest chapels in the 21 missions established between 1769 and 1823 by Franciscan missionaries, under direction of the King of Spain, to convert Indians along the Pacific Coast to Christianity. Forty-three miles south of town is the wonderfully preserved Mission San Antonio de Padua, which serves as a retreat center. Founded by Spaniards in 1771, it was California’s third mission.
For stargazing and hiking, Pinnacles’ trails include the easy mile-long Prewett Point Trail, with panoramic views of the park’s rocky towers and monoliths, and the more strenuous High Peaks and Bear Gulch Cave trails, a 7.7-mile loop with picture-perfect vistas. The park offers plenty for birders as well, especially around the east-side Pinnacles Visitor Center, where wild turkeys, California quails and yellow-billed magpies hang out. The park’s High Peaks area is an ideal place for spotting a California condor, one of the rarest bird species on the planet.