Editors Sound Off: Our Best Towns
The four finalists for Best Town Ever are all great picks. While voting raged on, our editors (and a special guest) shared what they love about this year's top towns.
You cast more than 1.5 million votes in our biggest Best Town Ever contest to date. One town may have triumphed, but you loved 15 other amazing places, too—from Burlington Vermont to Anchorage Alaska.
But before we reveal the winner, a word on our rankings.
This list is ordered by the number of votes you gave each town in our March Madness–style Best Towns Tournament—and the place that received the most votes was crowned our Best Town Ever. In fact, our winner absolutely crushed every voting round. But we also did our own evaluation of each finalist, which resulted in a very scientific number known as the O-Score.
The O-Score Explained
To develop our own Outside Score, we tapped a rocket scientist (seriously) to combine factors like number of outfitters, miles of trails, and number of bike shops—plus considerations like unemployment rates, median incomes, and, yes, an editors’-choice variable—into a single mathematical formula. The resulting O-Score is intended to summarize just how livable a place is, even if that differs from how readers voted. O-Scores are assigned on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being paradise and 0 being Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Kidding, Tulsa—we love you!)
16. Montpelier, Vermont
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Total Votes: 23,560
Welcome to the only state capital in the union without a McDonald’s. Which is just one sign that this town (pop. 7,787) is socially and politically progressive. Also: in 2016, Vermont will become the first state to require labeling of genetically modified foods.
Of course, when you’re smack dab in the middle of the beautiful Green Mountains, you tend to be mindful of your environmental impact. In the winter, locals ski Mount Mansfield’s backcountry or make the 40-minute drive to the Sugarbush or Mad River Glen ski resorts. In the summer, there’s canoeing on Mad River, hiking on Mount Hunger, and mountain biking around Millstone Hill. If that’s not enough, New Hampshire’s adventure-packed White Mountains are just two hours away.
Mud season doesn’t seem to slow anyone down. “I try to extend the ski season as long as possible, and when it’s over I transition straight to bike season,” says Bryan Redmond, a conservationist who likes the trails at the North Branch Nature Center.
Montpelier feels like a quaint New England town, with old-timey characters who’ve been sugaring maples for generations. But in the winter and spring, when the Vermont legislature is in session, the vibe gets serious: after all, there’s a world to change, one small town at a time.
Make the Move
Opt for the Meadow neighborhood, less than a mile from downtown and next to Hubbard Park, which has homes around $300,000 (citywide median: $208,300). State government dominates the area economy, though foodies can also find work at Cabot Creamery or the New England Culinary Institute (median household income: $60,587).
15. Houghton, Michigan
Total Votes: 26,353
Yes, Houghton (pop. 7,700) is out there. It’s about as far north as you can get in the state, on the far point of a peninsula (the Keweenaw) that’s already on a remote peninsula (the Upper). And yes, the winters are eight months long. But that means that your neighbors and the students at Michigan Tech—who double the population during the school year—are not only your friends but your adventure partners, too. And there’s plenty to do, even in winter.
More than 28 miles of World Cup-caliber nordic trails track the outskirts of town (Michigan Tech will host the National XC Skiing Championships in 2015 and 2016), and nearby Mount Bohemia claims the best powder east of the Rockies, with an annual average of 273 inches and 900 feet of vertical. Come summer there’s boating, surfing, and kiting on Lake Superior and the 23.5-mile Portage Canal, weekly outdoor concerts downtown, and some of the country’s most underappreciated mountain-bike trails at Copper Harbor. “There’s not one outdoor sport you can’t do here,” says Caleb Wendel, an avid mountain biker and owner of Houghton’s Rhythm Bike and Board.
Climbers head to Cliff Drive, to scale Shit Hooks and some 70 other routes rated to 5.11d, or ice-climb Horsetail Falls at Red Ridge, where 40-to-80-foot cliffs overlook Lake Superior. Anglers aim for Pilgrim River to fish for trout or catch spring steelhead on the Elm and Misery Rivers south of town. To refuel, grab a Widow Maker black ale at Keweenaw Brewing Company, and don’t miss the pork and beef pasty at Roy’s Pasties and Bakery.
Make the Move
Any house in town is well situated, but look for one in the $100,000 range close to Portage Canal for the best access to local restaurants, Lake Superior, and trails (citywide median: $130,000). The largest employers include Michigan Tech and Portage Health (median household income: $23,912).
14. Nashville, Tennessee
Total Votes: 26,898
The Athens of the South may be best known for country music and soapy TV shows about country music, but in the past decade the town (pop. 624,496) has broken out of its rhinestone shell and emerged as one of the region’s most unexpectedly adventurous outposts.
Mayor Karl Dean instituted a bike-share program with 23 stations, beefed up Nashville’s greenway, and increased bike lanes to 142 miles. That’s just the small stuff. “We have some of the most badass road biking in the South and a growing singletrack portfolio,” says cyclist Patrick Harkin, 43. Harkin likes the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway for road biking. “It’s like the Blue Ridge Parkway without the mountains or traffic. You can ride for 25 miles and never see more than two cars,” he says.
Mountain bikers and trail runners flock to Warner Parks, a nearly 3,000-acre oasis with nine miles of freshly built, flowing mountain-bike trails. Paddleboarders head to dozens of lakes inside the Cumberland River Basin, and trail runners explore singletrack winding through Warner. Fuel up at Fido, which has organic options for vegetarians and carnivores—try the Local burger, a blend of ground beef and lamb.
Make the Move
Hillsboro Village—near leafy, landscaped Vanderbilt University—is a walkable neighborhood with homes priced around $369,000 (citywide median: $165,000). The city is a regional hub for education, manufacturing, and health care (median household income: $45,982).
13. Portland, Maine
Total Votes: 30,230
With an influx of bike commuters and locally sourced eateries, and a burgeoning art and music scene, the East Coast’s Portland (pop. 66,000) is starting to resemble its beard-dominated West Coast counterpart.
“I’ve watched the transformation from a rough-around-the edges city to a thriving cultural destination,” says Piper Panzeri, a 42-year-old who runs sea-kayaking outfitter Out in the Open Adventures. Now the First Friday Art Walk and the Portland Symphony Orchestra draw big crowds, and a growing immigrant population has boosted restaurant diversity, with Somalian and Vietnamese spots next to the fish-and-chip stands you’ve come to expect.
Because this is still Maine, after all, where lobstermen bicker on the Coast Guard’s radio channel, the cobblestones of Old Port hark back to the town’s 19th-century roots, and seafaring adventure abounds. “I can’t live without Casco Bay and the islands,” says Panzeri.
When locals aren’t sea kayaking, they’re mountain-biking Bradbury Mountain State Park’s and Cape Elizabeth’s combined 30-plus miles of trails or surfing and paddleboarding the 60-degree summer water at Scarborough and Higgins beaches (in wetsuits, of course). And popular shop Gorham Bike and Ski leads a Friday-morning coffee ride—a 52-mile loop with a cappuccino stop midway in Yarmouth.
Sure, winters can be long and rough, but locals don’t mind. They congregate for full-moon nordic skiing at Riverside Golf Course and break out the pond-hockey gear.
Make the Move
Back Cove, a neighborhood on the water, has Victorian houses in the $200,000 range (citywide median: $241,700). L.L.Bean and the Maine Medical Center are two of the area’s largest employers (median household income: $44,487).
12. Charleston, South Carolina
Total Votes: 32,178
The South’s coolest coastal city oozes hospitality and has one of the country’s finest culinary scenes. But what really sets it apart is the water. Charleston (pop. 125,583) sits at the tip of a peninsula shielded from the Atlantic by outlying islands and surrounded by Charleston Harbor and its web of estuaries. “There are so many options,” says Josh Wilson, 34, a triathlete and former professional surfer. “Surf, paddleboard, fish, kiteboard—any sort of water-based adventure, you can do it here.”
Hunting redfish by kayak in the marsh is a local obsession, and for more rugged adventure (think deserted islands, sun-bleached trees, and gators) residents catch a ferry to Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge for oceanfront wilderness kayaking. For the best surf in South Carolina—particularly in the fall—Wilson recommends the Washout, a consistent, user-friendly break on Folly Beach, and points paddleboarders and kayakers to the Folly River’s expansive maze of marshy inlets.
Of course, remaining on land is just as fun. Charleston’s notable chefs, like Sean Brock at McCrady’s, are the most famous people in town, so expect adventurous twists on southern fare in practically any of the city’s restaurants. Wilson’s favorite is the Vendue hotel’s Drawing Room, where fresh-from-the-boat seafood is paired with fingerling potatoes fried in duck fat.
Make the Move
James Island, a ten-minute drive from Folly Beach and downtown Charleston, has homes for $265,000 (citywide median: $225,000). The city’s largest employers are the military base and the Medical University of South Carolina (median household income: $50,873).
11. La Crosse, Wisconsin
Total Votes: 35,394
La Crosse (pop. 51,647) is small-town friendly—everyone says hello—but punches above its weight in adventure. “The potential is overwhelming at times,” says Jacob Sciammas, who teaches recreation management at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. “There’s no need to ever drive, really.”
There are dozens of in-town multisport trails in Hixon Forest and Myrick Park, where five new miles are in the works, including a two-mile mountain-bike downhill and larger pump track. Plus, there are storage facilities that opened this summer.
Sciammas, a cyclist and skier, says you can connect trails for hours of running, hiking, fat or mountain biking, snowshoeing, or skiing. Link Oak or Vista Trail to the wooded singletrack of the Human Powered Trails in Hixon Forest, Myrick Park, and Medary Quarry. Families can bike the 32-mile packed limestone Elroy-Sparta, which connects to several other routes in the area.
There’s no lack of water in La Crosse, either. “Paddling the endless sloughs of the Mississippi or the La Crosse and Black Rivers is a must,” Sciammas says. Don’t miss the Fourth of July Riverfest, where you can sample local brats and—of course—cheese curds.
Make the Move
To bike everywhere, set down roots with a $120,000-range home near the burgeoning downtown (citywide median: $129,100). For employment, look to the University of Wisconsin (median household income: $39,014).
10. Boulder, Colorado
Total Votes: 39,613
It’s easy to poke fun at Boulder, with its profusion of Priuses, roving bands of shaven-legged cyclists, and aggressive Whole Foods customers. But one man’s punch line is another man’s paradise. “Boulder has this young, energetic vibe, and pretty much everything is geared toward healthy lifestyles,” says Ben Hoffman, a 31-year-old professional triathlete.
The Kitchen, one of the country’s original farm-to-table spots, serves healthy fare like local quinoa, and opportunities for outdoor recreation surround the city. For cyclists, “there’s an amazing diversity of terrain, from rolling farm roads to mountains,” says Hoffman. “You can get up Lefthand Canyon or Flagstaff Road and disappear from the masses pretty quickly.” In town, gyms like Colorado Athletic Club have Ironman coaches and outdoor pools—“a rarity in Colorado,” says Hoffman—and the reservoir hosts regular open-water swims.
With the University of Colorado campus and a population of more than 100,000, Boulder also has the cultural trappings—and, crucially, job opportunities—of a large city. The Boulder Theater hosts indie films and popular bands, and the Bitter Bar serves craft cocktails to mustached men in skinny jeans. Google established a satellite campus here in 2007, and dozens of tech startups are transforming Boulder into a mountain-town Silicon Valley.
Make the Move
Home prices are high (citywide median: $489,500), but you can find one for as low as $330,000 in North Boulder. CU-Boulder is the major employer, but the tech industry continues to grow (median household income: $56,206).
9. Missoula, Montana
Total Votes: 40,530
KEEP MISSOULA WEIRD, reads a popular bumper sticker in this western Montana college town (pop. 68,394). By red-state standards, Missoula is anomalous; a liberal outpost, it’s Montana’s biggest cultural center, yet it maintains a small-town feel. “It’s a really open, diverse community,” says Mike Wolfe, a lawyer and professional ultra-runner. “You can be whoever you want to be here.”
The University of Montana, the town’s largest employer, cultivates youthful brio, but most activity revolves around the downtown stretch of the Clark Fork River. Brennan’s Wave attracts paddleboarders, kayakers, and the odd surfer, and every Wednesday in summer the city hosts bands, food vendors, and kids’ activities in riverside Caras Park. Nearby, Draught Works Brewery slings locally brewed ales, and Big Dipper Ice Cream makes flavors like strawberry peppercorn from scratch. “You’ll go there at seven at night and there’ll be 150 people in line,” says Wolfe. “People show up just to hang out.”
Of course, residents love this town best for what lies just beyond. “Trail access here is ridiculous,” says Wolfe. “I live downtown, and I can run out my front door, be on singletrack in two minutes, and go six hours without crossing a road.” Wolfe’s favorites include the 1.8-mile Mount Sentinel Trail, which climbs 2,000 vertical feet to views of the valley, and, for mountain biking, the buffed trails in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area.
One downside: “The winters can be long and gray,” says Wolfe. But skiing and snowboarding at the Montana Snowbowl is just 20 minutes away, Whitefish Mountain Resort is a couple of hours, and Big Sky Resort is under four.
Make the Move
The Upper Rattlesnake Valley has houses around $599,000 (citywide median: $238,300); it feels rural, but you’re a ten-minute ride from downtown. The university is the largest employer, but there’s also a growing biotech industry (median household income: $39,076).
8. Louisville, Kentucky
Total Votes: 47,271
Louisvillians have a lot to be proud of. There are the bourbon and the horses, of course, but there’s also one of the country’s only urban forests, a 389-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. (It’s like a miniature Central Park, but more laid back.) There’s a burgeoning bike-trail system, much of which parallels the Ohio River, and the city hosted the Cyclocross World Championship in 2013.
But what the population of 605,000 may be most proud of is Louisville’s future. “There are so many cool things in the works,” says Derek Fetko, a road and mountain biker. “The biggest is the Parklands of Floyds Fork,” a 4,000-acre park being developed right outside town.
By the end of 2015, expect 19 miles of greenway and a bike park with flow trails and pump tracks. Can’t wait? Fetko recommends Cherokee Park’s ten-mile, in-town mountain-bike system, known for its rolling hills and technical sections.
If you’re a runner, head to Jefferson Memorial Forest, 6,527 acres of wilderness with 35 miles of trails. Then refuel at Holy Grale, an old church that’s been converted into a gastropub that Fetko says serves the best burger in town, and wash it all down with—what else?—a good bourbon.
Make the Move
Head to the perpetually hip Highlands, where houses go for $185,000 (citywide median: $139,400) and you can run or ride Cherokee Park straight from your door. To make a living, look to health care and to companies like GE, Ford, and UPS (median household income: $44,111).
7. Burlington, Vermont
Total Votes: 52,743
To understand how Burlington’s frat boys, Birkenstock-wearing professors, and young professionals happily coexist in the town of 42,000, just look at the bulletin board at City Market, the organically stocked co-op and the only grocery downtown. Flyers advertise evening bike races, a jazz festival on Church Street, yoga retreats at nearby vineyards, and a global-health lecture at the University of Vermont (home to nearly 10,000 students).
Situated on the shores of Lake Champlain, with the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west, Burlington’s residents have easy access to water and peaks. You can bike along Lake Champlain’s waterfront, rent a sailboat at the Community Sailing Center, cliff-jump at Red Rocks, or mountain-bike the Sunny Hollow trails. When frigid winter temperatures send other New Englanders inside, these hardy Vermonters are nordic skiing at the Intervale, snow kiting on frozen Champlain, or backcountry skiing near the Bolton Valley resort, just 30 minutes away.
“I’ve lived and traveled all over the West, and Burlington is hard to beat,” says runner R.J. Thompson, a UVM grad who works in solar installation and is training to break the speed record on Vermont’s 273-mile Long Trail. “There’s a kindheartedness among people that can’t be found in many other places.”
Make the Move
Look for a colonial home priced around $300,000 (citywide median: $259,500) in the diverse Old North End neighborhood, close to the lake. If you can’t land a job at UVM, try the health care sector or Burton, which is headquartered here (median household income: $43,135).
6. Asheville, North Carolina
Total Votes: 70,665
Few towns force you to make the kinds of decisions you’re faced with in Asheville (pop. 85,712). Do you hang out downtown amid the dizzying number of breweries? Or do you road-bike the Blue Ridge Parkway? Do you paddle the Class V juggernaut Green River or hike the Appalachian Trail?
Professional kayaker and avid mountain biker Pat Keller grew up in the area and watched it become one of the South’s most vibrant hubs of culture and adventure. “It’s hard to touch Asheville if you’re into adventure sports,” Keller says. He suggests expert boaters looking to go big head to the Class V-plus Toxaway River, while mere mortals should look to Ledges Whitewater Park, a string of Class II rapids on the French Broad River 15 minutes north of downtown.
Mountain bikers have all of the Pisgah National Forest in Asheville’s backyard. Bent Creek, located ten miles from town, is some of the nearest singletrack, but Keller likes Staire Creek, located in Big Ivy, a largely forgotten tract of the Pisgah. “It’s rutted out with big rocks—you have to hop from one side of the trail to the other,” says Keller.
Asheville treats foodies just as well. The Small Plate Crawl shows off the city’s finest dishes, like ginger-spiced potato cake over garbanzo bean stew at James Beard Award nominee Chai Pani. But the city is best known as a beer hub. Keller’s favorite: Wicked Weed Brewing, which is turning heads with its sour beers.
Make the Move
West Asheville has 1920s-era bungalows going for as little as $189,000 (citywide median: $195,500). Outfitters, health care, and the food and beverage industries make up the largest share of the local economy (median household income: $42,333).
5. Ithaca, New York
Total Votes: 86,418
“Ithaca has the demographic of a city, but it’s a small, outdoorsy college town,” says Ian Golden, who owns Finger Lakes Running Company. The many ravines, waterfalls, and creeks that surround it make it picturesque. And thanks to the apple festivals, the chili cook-offs, an oddly thriving roller-derby scene, and the free-spirited Ithaca Festival parade (don’t miss the chainsaw band), it feels downright eclectic.
Plus, the city is in the midst of a long-anticipated revitalization. The Cayuga Lake Blueway Trail will establish more paddler-friendly put-ins around the lake by 2016, and a $200,000 grant from the EPA is turning an abandoned factory into an Ithaca Falls overlook and park. The improvements are inspiring a steady migration of New York City residents to head upstate. “After more than a decade in New York, I knew Ithaca was going to be the place to put down roots,” says Marc Magnus-Sharpe, who moved to town for a job with Cornell Outdoor Education and to take advantage of the area’s outdoor opportunities.
You can sail and paddleboard 38.2-mile-long Cayuga Lake, which borders town. Nearby Shindagin Hollow State Forest offers 16 miles of twisting singletrack. And, in the winter, there’s nordic skiing along groomed trails at the Swandrome and downhill skiing at Greek Peak Alpine Resort, just 20 miles away.
Make the Move
The Fall Creek neighborhood, where homes are priced around $200,000 (citywide median: $184,400), is close to the scenic Cascadilla Gorge. The universities are major employers, but there’s also a growing tech industry (median household income: $29,230).
4. Anchorage, Alaska
Total Votes: 86,601
No one moves to Anchorage, one of the country’s northernmost cities (pop. 300,000), without good reason. For most, that reason is wilderness. “We have bears that wander around the neighborhoods,” says Erin Kirkland, author of travel guide Alaska on the Go.
More than 200 miles of trails thread through downtown, the Cook Inlet, and the Turnagain Arm, and six mountain ranges unfurl within spotting distance of the city. Winters can be difficult—there’s as little as six hours of daylight in December—but “as long as you stay active, you’ll be fine,” says Kirkland. No one thinks much of donning a headlamp to skate-ski Kincaid Park or of heading 40 miles south to ski Alyeska Resort under lights. Downtown, breweries like Midnight Sun and Glacier Brewhouse host two other favorite Alaskan pastimes: beer drinking and storytelling, a veritable sport.
Summer, however, is when Alaska really comes alive. “Where the city ends, the wilderness begins,” says Kirkland. There’s not a single sport you can’t do here, be it sea kayaking at Resurrection Bay or mountain biking at Kincaid. “It’s pretty amazing to live in that.”
Make the Move
In Spenard, an up-and-coming neighborhood with houses around $265,000 (citywide median: $277,100), cafés have outdoor seating, a farmers’ market supplies local veggies, and trails lead into the woods. The Anchorage satellite of the University of Alaska is now the system’s largest and employs some 2,200 people. Tourism and the oil and gas industries are also economic drivers (median household income: $76,495).
3. Minneapolis, Minnesota
Total Votes: 93,164
If you’re an outdoor nut with an urban bent, make Minneapolis your hub. It’s a full-blown city (pop. 400,070) but has 6,744 acres of parks, some 20 lakes, and more than 70 miles of maintained trails—all within city limits.
“There’s a lot of passion and energy here,” says Steve Yore, a mountain biker and nordic skier. Downtown’s 700-acre Theodore Wirth Park has a 3.5-mile loop—great for lunch breaks. “There are races every weekend. It’s a strong community,” Yore says—even in winter, when there’s a growing fat-bike scene.
The region is a mecca for canoers and kayakers, with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area four hours north and the Chain of Lakes in town. “I can put a canoe in Brownie Lake a half-mile from my house and paddle over to Uptown’s restaurants,” Yore says. He aims for what locals call Eat Street, 17 blocks of restaurants, where he can fill up on Malaysian cuisine at Peninsula and then paddle home.
Make the Move
Golden Valley, with homes around $250,000, is a great base for families who want quick bike access to parks and downtown. Young couples and single folks should head for the hip Uptown neighborhood and homes in the $270,000 range (citywide median: $216,800). For employment, try the University of Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic, and companies like Quality Bicycle Products (median household income: $48,881).
2. Provo, Utah
Total Votes: 185,602
A few things might strike you as unusual in Provo (pop. 116,000). Candy stores and ice cream parlors outnumber bars, it can be tough to find a coffee or tobacco shop, and traffic regularly stops for runners and cyclists. Welcome to what locals call Happy Valley, a series of communities centered on Provo and Orem, wedged between the 11,000-foot Wasatch Range and 95,000-acre Utah Lake.
About 45 miles south of Salt Lake City, the area was a bastion of conservative Mormonism for decades. While more than 75 percent of the populace still identify as church members, residents say the county has become more open: last year, the area hosted its first gay-pride festival, and two universities, Brigham Young and Utah Valley, enroll more than 60,000 students, who inject the community with youthful energy and ideas.
Mayor John Curtis has made a point of attracting new residents and businesses like Google Fiber, the search giant’s broadband service. With the help of Utah’s business-friendly tax laws, big employers such as Adobe and Duncan Aviation recently established campuses here, and startups like Qualtrics and Nu Skin are flourishing. Plus, in 2012, the FrontRunner commuter rail opened, connecting Provo to Salt Lake City with a 60-minute ride.
All of that is nice, but the sunny climate is what really keeps everyone happy. “Provo is one of those places where you can be powder skiing in the morning and rock climbing in the afternoon,” says Stacy Taniguchi, a professor of recreation management at BYU. Climbers head 30 minutes out of town to Rock Canyon, which has cragside parking and more than 400 routes, or to American Fork, 20 miles north, with some of the country’s oldest, hardest routes. Road biking is popular, and each August, pro cyclists race through on the Tour of Utah. “On any given day, driving through the county, you’ll be dodging pelotons,” says Taniguchi. On the other side of town, sailors and paddleboarders hit Utah Lake, and about 15 miles north, Sundance Resort has more than nine miles of nordic ski trails and 42 downhill runs on 2,150 feet of vertical.
The trade-off: Provo is still largely a strip of franchise restaurants and motels, although “we’re starting to get a lot of ethnic restaurants that are locally owned,” says Taniguchi. Try Yamato for sushi or J Dawgs, a hot-dog stand started by a couple of BYU students, for more laid-back grub. Nightlife is pretty vanilla—the big events in town are the Outdoor Summer Cinema movie nights and the Rooftop Concert Series. It can feel a little sleepy on Saturday night, but come Sunday, you’ll pretty much have the trails to yourself.
Make the Move
Neighborhoods on the Wasatch Front like East Bench offer mountain views, access to trails, and home prices in the $300,000 range (citywide median: $210,300). The most common jobs are in the software and tech industries (median household income: $40,288).
How Duluth Won It
Readers cast 1.5 million votes in our six-round, 64-town tournament. Duluth dominated from the start, netting a far greater percentage of the vote than the competition.
1. Duluth, Minnesota
Total Votes: 221,350
On a recent summer morning at the Duluth Rowing Club on Park Point, a seven-mile sandbar that separates the town’s harbor from Lake Superior, roughly 40 high school athletes gather to launch their sculls into the bay. Despite the 50-degree temperature and 25-mile-per-hour winds whipping up whitecaps on the big lake, which a few surfers are exploiting, the kids on the harbor are wearing shorts and T-shirts. This morning’s wild weather is nothing after having skied through a winter that set a new town record for the most consecutive days—23—with temperatures below zero.
Duluthians seem to thrive on extremes. The city of 86,000 stretches for 26 miles along the westernmost tip of Lake Superior and has 6,834 acres of city parkland, 178 miles of wooded trails, and 16 designated trout streams. Which explains why Duluth has produced more than 150 Olympians—like long-distance runner Kara Goucher, nordic skier John Bauer, and the entire 2010 curling team.
“In Duluth, you know you’re alive,” says Don Ness, the 40-year-old, six-foot-three mayor. Ness’s Twitter bio reads, “Husband, dad, mayor—in that order,” but he’s also a runner and a serious music fan. He recently tweeted a photo of his buddy Chris Coleman, the mayor of St. Paul, playing Bob Dylan covers at a local bar, a subtle reminder that the master balladeer was born here. In 2011, Ness had such a high approval rating, 86 percent, that he ran for his second term uncontested. “Despite the weather, or maybe because of it,” he says, “Duluthians are super passionate about this city.”
It shows in their willingness to invest in outdoor infrastructure, such as cross-country ski trails and downhill ski areas like Spirit Mountain. This summer, the city council expected to pass a 0.5 percent tax on lodging, restaurants, and bars that would generate $18 million over 15 years to enhance recreational opportunities along the St. Louis River corridor on the city’s gentrifying West End. The Duluth Traverse, 100 miles of purpose-built trails, scheduled to be 80 percent complete by 2017, will be one of the largest urban mountain-bike trail systems in the world.
That’s just the first of what Duluth hopes will be a string of adventure infrastructure improvements. The Minnesota Land Trust, a nonprofit organization working with the city on the Traverse and other projects, recently hired Hansi Johnson, former regional director for the International Mountain Biking Association, as the outdoor czar. His job will be to optimize every recreational venue the city has to offer. “I’m finding opportunities in ice climbing and kayak put-ins and cross-country skiing,” says Johnson.
Of course, a trail is useless unless people get out on it, and a new group of young, active entrepreneurs are doing just that. “We were in Boston and looking at towns all over the country to start a family,” says 31-year-old Emily Vikre, who recently opened Vikre Distillery along the waterfront in Canal Park with her husband, Joel. “I’m floored by the amount of support we’ve been getting. It helps that we’re making artisanal booze, but people have done everything from connect us to other businesses to help us bottle gin.”
Laura Mullen is another transplanted entrepreneur. She grew up in Duluth and moved back from Minneapolis in 2012 to open Bent Paddle Brewing Company with her husband and couple Bryon and Karen Tonnis. The brewery, which uses soft Lake Superior water in its beer, operates out of a renovated warehouse attached to a sleek taproom. It went from producing 1,500 barrels in the first seven months to 6,000 barrels in the first full year. Just down the street, Goodsheet, a design company with 100 employees, uses recycled materials to create outdoor furniture and kitchen cutting boards. The company’s 2013 revenue was $20 million, and its headquarters are right off the Superior Hiking Trail, a 296-mile foot-path that starts in Duluth and ends at the Canadian border. “Duluth had the access to nature we wanted,” says Greg Benson, CEO of Loll Designs, a Goodsheet subsidiary.
The city’s entrepreneurial spirit and love of wilderness go way back. At the turn of the 20th century, Duluth had the most millionaires per capita of any city in the country, thanks to the timber, shipping, and mining industries. And those millionaires got outside: between 1911 and 1923, the Duluth Rowing Club won more than 20 national championships, and the 115-foot Big Chester ski jump—which towered above the pines at Chester Bowl ski hill, in the middle of the city—was once the largest in the world.
My dad, the grandson of Swedish immigrants, was born and raised in Duluth, and he had his first experience on the ski jump when his neighbor pushed him down it. He and my mom used a similar philosophy to raise their five kids in Duluth. To speed up our skiing progress on a busy Saturday, Dad paid the one-dollar fee, dropped us at Chester Bowl, and drove away. We also had free rein to wander our wild neighborhood. Tischer Creek was out the back door and spawned trout big enough to eat. At the top of our dead-end street was glorious Hartley Field, a 660-acre city park I used as my own personal wilderness. Which is why the recognition from Outside doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to those of us who grew up here—we’ve known it’s the Best Town Ever for a long time.
Make the Move
You can find homes in the Riverside neighborhood for $140,000 (citywide median: $148,600). The largest employers are St. Mary’s/Duluth Clinic Health System and the local branch of the University of Minnesota (median household income: $41,311).
A Final Word, Now That Word's Out
Every year, when Outside releases its annual Best Towns issue, the editors receive threats from residents of places like Bend, Oregon, and Missoula, Montana, suggesting they’ll cause bodily harm for encouraging the hordes to move to their personal paradise. Most often, people complain about flocks of “Californians.” The term implies successful people from the coast who roll into town with big shiny SUVs and fistfuls of money, driving up real estate prices and unleashing development.
I’ve been a resident of Missoula for more than 30 years, a refugee from the flatlands of the Midwest. The mountains and rivers have always been here, but the lively energy and community have not. I remember one gray winter day in particular, three decades ago, when I drove down the deserted main street, Higgins Avenue, as snow flurries spun over frozen asphalt and drifted into empty parking spots. Brown paper covered storefront windows. Mills had closed, and there were no jobs. I felt like the last person in town. It was the twilight zone.
Today, downtown Missoula is an incredibly vibrant place. Yes, we have our share of big-box stores and McMansions on the edge of town, but we also have elegant bistros nestled beside working-class bars, art galleries and literary gatherings, elaborate trail systems, restored rivers, and tremendous open space. This took the work of people who really cared and were willing to spend the money to make these things happen. I know many of these people, and a lot of them moved here because they heard through the grapevine—or maybe even from Outside—that it was a great place to live. Then they helped to make it exactly that. I couldn’t be more grateful.