Big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston have no trouble getting everyone's attention. They’ve proven over and over they can deliver an exceptional travel experience full of new sights and activities. But what about the small towns spread across the country? Many of them do offer similar stunning travel experiences without the crowds associated with the major cities, and in most cases, they provide a balanced mix of city sights with outdoor experiences.
Here are five of the best small towns in the US you should add to your itinerary on your next vacation or road trip. In general, these small towns have fewer than 20,000 people, so you’ll definitely be getting some off-the-beaten-path experiences.
If you want to experience the Wild West as it used to be in the late 19th century, then you should head to Mancos, Colorado. Even though Mancos was officially founded in 1894 as a commercial trading center, the area had been settled by the Anasazi around the 10th century. Today, the downtown area is a national registered historic district that still conserves some of its original buildings from the 19th century. Among them is the Mancos Opera House with its iconic late 19th and early 20th-century theater style. Try drinking a beer at The Columbine, one of Colorado’s oldest traditional saloons.
Beyond its history, the town is also well known for its artisan community. You can either appreciate their homemade print work, jewelry, and leather goods at the local gallery in downtown or buy them from several local shops. The town is just 10 minutes away from the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, so it’s easy to head to the outdoors during summer to hike, raft, kayak, and camp, among other activities.
Back in the 1850’s, gold deposits were discovered near what would become the town of Jacksonville. Thanks to the gold boom, the town thrived for a few decades but unfortunately in 1884, when the railroad connecting eastern Oregon with the national rail network bypassed the town of Jacksonville, its economy went south.
While the bypass of the train seemed like it doomed the town forever, in a way it helped preserve its 19th-century charm with its historic buildings almost intact – making it the first town in America to be named a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
A fun fact is that today you can still see some of the famed gold that created this town in the first place – literally. The famous Jacksonville Inn was built out of sandstone with specks of gold in it. You can take a narrated walking history tour to learn about the fascinating history of the town that still to this day is being uncovered. As recently as 2004, new road work revealed some Chinese bowls and tea cups that traced back to the first Chinatown in Oregon.
Outside of town, you’ll find the famed Applegate Wine Trail that takes you through tasting rooms and wineries in and out of town. Not too far is also the Crater Lake National Park and the Lost Creek Reservoir with its switchback hike to a beautiful waterfall. These make a great day trip from Jacksonville.
Even though Gatlinburg is a small town, it is no longer a secret in the tourism scene. Millions of tourists flock to Gatlinburg to use it as a base to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited national park in the US. If the park is not enough, the town has also been made famous by Dolly Parton and her theme park, Dollywood – which is just nearby in Pigeon Forge.
For a small town, Gatlinburg has with some notable attractions like the 407-feet tall Space Needle observation tower (from where you get a bird’s eye view of the town), a ski resort, an amusement park, and a two-mile long aerial cable car ride that goes to Ober Gatlinburg.Being such an important town in the region, it is always packed with year-round events and festivals. It also has an active downtown with distilleries and artisanal shops.
This is another fairly famous small town in the US, thanks to the Pueblo, Ute, and Navajo Nations’ petroglyphs and pictographs that still decorate the surrounding areas. Also, many of the otherworldly scenes seen in Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” film were shot here.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie looking to experience some slit rock mountain trails, BASE Jumping, Skydiving, hang gliding, off-road adventures in the desert, and whitewater rafting the Colorado River, among many other adventures; then Moab should be on your bucket list. Beyond the adventure, there’s a lot of history surrounding this small town, which sits on the southern tip of “Dinosaur Diamond,” the region rich in prehistoric fossils, many of them displayed at the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail and the Moab’s Giants museum.
Moab also has two national parks in its vicinity; the Arches National Park and the Canyonlands National Park, which makes it easy to balance your time both in town and nature.
Also known as “Spa City,” Hot Springs is practically the urban version of Hot Springs National Park, located next to it. The town was built over folds in the Earth’s crust that allows ground water rise at a fast speed. This means that the naturally heated water reaches the Earth’s surface at a still hot 143 degrees Fahrenheit.
Naturally, there are several bathhouses in town, including the famous Buckstaff Bathhouse, established back in 1912, and the only bathhouse inside the national park that still operates at original capacity. A curious place to visit is the Gangster Museum of America, which shares how several of America’s notorious criminals spent their time lavishing in these thermal baths, illegally gambled in town, and produced bootleg drinks during Prohibition.
What’s your favorite American small town?
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Norbert Figueroa is an architect who hit the pause button on his career in 2011 to do a round the world trip. He's been blogging for over three years at globotreks.com, where he shares his travel experiences, budget travel tips, and a good dose of world architecture. From hiking Mount Kilimanjaro to diving with great white sharks, he is always on the search of adrenaline and adventure. Norbert is originally from Puerto Rico and he is currently based in Milan, Italy... when not roaming around the world, that is. He has traveled to more than 80 countries in 5 continents and his goal is to travel to all 193 U.N. recognized countries. Follow Norbert on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus.
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