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When it came to ranking North America's best places to learn, live, work, and play, we did our homework, canvassing hundreds of colleges and enlisting an able crew of undergrad reporters. Then we narrowed the honor roll down to 40 schools that turn out smart grads with top-notch academic credentials, a healthy environmental ethos, and an A+ sense of adventure.
1 UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT SANTA CRUZ
Santa Cruz, California
LOCAL COLOR Beautiful beaches, great surf, redwood forests, coastal mountains, and a Mediterranean climate make UC Santa Cruz, on the northern tip of Monterey Bay, a hard place to study. Everything about this seaside oasis (pop. 55,000) is eclectic, from the surfers, farmers, students, and Silicon Valley refugees who call it home to the quirky early-20th-century architecture. On weekend mornings, you'll find kayakers on the Class III-IV San Lorenzo River, surfers paddling out to Steamers Lane, at Lighthouse Field State Beach, and scuba divers descending to the kelp forests in Monterey Bay. When the adrenaline wears off, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the spot to people-watch.
WORD ON THE QUAD Seventy percent of the 2,030-acre campus, which sits in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, is undeveloped. The largely native-Californian student population is a laid-back, liberal crowd that whizzes through the campus's elaborate 11-mile trail system on (what else?) Santa Cruz mountain bikes. UCSC's academic strengths are as diverse as the town: The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (a.k.a. the Farm and Garden program) teaches students to develop food sources that are environmentally sound and socially responsible; the Institute for Marine Sciences has backyard access to microscopic plankton and massive blue whales. The Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports offers everything from scuba lessons and surfing outings to day hikes and multiday backpacking trips in the Santa Cruz Mountains, as well ashow Calia variety of outdoor meditation arts.
EXTRA CREDIT Winter's the rainy season (30 inches annually) in this otherwise sunny paradise, and students celebrate its onset with a naked run through campus on the first drizzly day each year.
VITAL STATS CONTACT: 831-459-0111, www.ucsc.edu; STUDENT BODY: 13,000 undergraduates, 1,300 graduates; TUITION: residents, $5,829; nonresidents, $12,980; room and board, $10,314
RACHEL SANDERS 2 UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
LOCAL COLOR At 5,430 feet and framed by the Flatirons, Boulder, about 30 miles northwest of Denver, is the quintessential modern mountain town. Of the 95,000 people who live here, a whopping 70 percent have bachelor's degrees, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Software development, biotech, engineering, and university jobs are plentiful, and, equally important, Boulder's mountain parks system offers 200 miles of multi-use trails. Places like Chautauqua Park and Flagstaff Mountain crawl with the town's ubiquitous ür-athletes in training; runners roam the six-mile Boulder Creek Path and the trails up Boulder Canyon; and the Switzerland Trail, a jeep road just west of town, is popular with mountain bikers. Rocky Mountain National Park is less than an hour's drive northwest, with 359 miles of wilderness trails weaving over dozens of 13,000-foot summits.
WORD ON THE QUAD The neo-hippie culture at the University of Colorado at Boulder may not be completely dominant, but everyone seems to advocate recycling and alternative energy, with many students choosing science or social policy majors in the interdisciplinary environmental studies program. Plenty are proud to have turned down admission to Ivy League schools in favor of the Colorado mountains, and the active CU Recreation Center and hiking club cater to this spirit.
EXTRA CREDIT It's the powder, stupid: Colorado has 25 resorts, and CU's ski and snowboard club runs a $7 weekend bus to Vail, Breckenridge, and Keystone.
VITAL STATS CONTACT: 303-492-6301, www.colorado.edu; STUDENT BODY: 22,000 undergraduates, 4,400 graduates; TUITION: residents, $3,846; nonresidents, $19,826; room and board, $6,648
3 MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE
LOCAL COLOR With white-steepled churches, clapboard houses, and a central green, Middlebury (pop. 6,000) is so cute it's almost a cliché. Vermont's longest river, Otter Creek, runs through the middle of town, and experienced kayakers paddle under the old Main Street bridge and run 18-foot Otter Creek Falls, the same water that's used downstream to brew the local Otter Creek Ale. Fifteen minutes east, the Green Mountains offer more than 500 miles of hiking trails, singletrack in Branbury State Park, and cross-country ski routes out of Middlebury College's 1,800-acre Bread Loaf mountain campus (site of the eponymous summer writing conference). But don't let Middlebury's quaint look and jocky vibe fool you: This is a progressive, cultured place, home to artisans, writers, scholars, farmers, hybrid cars, and a bustling natural-foods co-op.
WORD ON THE QUAD Some of the ivy-covered limestone buildings at Club Midd, as it's affectionately nicknamed, date back to the college's founding, in 1800, but the campus has a cutting-edge environmental conscience: Sixty percent of waste is diverted through recycling and composting, a battalion of communal bikes and an electric bus provide an eco-friendly alternative to cars, and new building projects use locally harvested woods. Midd kids are as passionate about the environment as they are about adventure: Nearly 10 percent are environmental studies majorsfounded in 1965, it's the oldest ES department in the countryand 950 belong to the 72-year-old Middlebury Mountain Club, which runs freshman orientation and weekend and spring-break adventures from Vermont to Yosemite.
EXTRA CREDIT Each February, 100-plus "Febs" don caps and gownsand strap on skis, snowboards, snowshoes, toboggans, and even a few kamikaze canoesfor the traditional "ski down" graduation ceremony at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl.
VITAL STATS CONTACT: 802-443-5000, www.middlebury.edu; STUDENT BODY: 2,350 undergraduates; Comprehensive fee: $38,100
MICHAEL LEIGH HOYER
4 WARREN WILSON COLLEGE
Asheville, North Carolina
LOCAL COLOR Tucked into the hazy Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville (pop. 69,000) is an enclave of liberal Appalachian hip, with more art deco architecture than any American city north of Miami. Sixth-generation landowners share hillside neighborhoods with transplanted New Englanders and California yuppies. Just out of town, the Green River Narrows hosts one of the most extreme whitewater races in the world each November. And for the hyperactive athlete: The Bent Creek Experimental Forest offers miles of singletrack, road riders convene every Tuesday at Liberty Bikes for a morning ride, and runners can join the Asheville Track Club. Prefer solitude? Hop onto the Mountains to Sea Trail, which links up with the AT about 100 miles west at Clingmans Dome.
WORD ON THE QUAD Warren Wilson is one of the most earth-friendly colleges on the planet. Mountain-chalet architecture mixes with ivy-covered red-brick buildings, and students grow fresh vegetables in a pesticide-free garden. The whole school, in fact, runs on a student work force, with tasks ranging from sorting mail to building a new dormitory. Hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders don't even have to leave the 1,200-acre campus, as more than 25 miles of trails cut through the grounds. Warren Wilson's environmental studies program is the biggest on campus, and students can choose between sustainable agriculture, conservation biology, environmental policy, environmental education, and sustainable forestry. The Outing Program lends gear free of charge and organizes a wide variety of classes and off-campus outings like surfing, hang gliding, and caving.
EXTRA CREDIT "The Bubba" is a once-a-semester party where half the school tramps out to Dogwood Pasture to have a good ol' time around a blazing bonfire.
VITAL STATS CONTACT: 828-298-3325, www.warren-wilson.edu; Student Body: 765 undergraduates, 82 graduates; TUITION: $16,674; room and board, $5,120
DAVID KENNEDY JONES
5 MONTANA STATE UNIVERSITY
LOCAL COLOR It's not hard to see why Bozeman, the hub of southwestern Montana's Gallatin River Valley, appeals to the adventurous. The trout-filled Yellowstone, Gallatin, and Madison rivers offer world-class fly-fishing, rafting, and kayaking just outside town, and Bozeman is surrounded by four Rocky Mountain ranges, which draw hikers, bikers, and rock climbers. Residents (28,000 of them) and visitors (tourism is Bozeman's top industry) satisfy their cultural cravings downtown, home to art galleries, performance spaces, and coffeehouses. The dinosaur collection at the Museum of the Rockies, overseen by renowned paleontologist Jack Horner, is nationally respected.
WORD ON THE QUAD Though green space is in short supply on Montana State University's 1,170-acre campus, there's enough of it nearby to keep the nature-loving undergrads more than satisfied. When Bobcat students aren't hanging out in the Standing Room Only coffee shop or studying in the Leigh Lounge at the student union, you might find them planning their next adventure at the Outdoor Recreation Center. MSU offers a number of majors for the environmentally inclined, notably land rehabilitation, wildlife management, and environmental biology. Students in the civil engineering program specialize in bioresources engineering and apply their skills to local conservation projects.
EXTRA CREDIT Dozens of funky animal sculptures, created by students and profs, are paraded across the campus mall each April during Art Infusion, a tradition sponsored by the MSU School of Art.
VITAL STATS CONTACT: 888-678-2287, www.montana.edu; STUDENT BODY: 10,600 undergraduates, 1,300 graduates; TUITION: residents, $3,807; nonresidents, $11,444; room and board, $5,120