• Photo: Pdomara/Flickr

    La Crosse, Wisconsin

    Thousands of years ago, when glaciers bulldozed their way down the spine of the continent, they missed a 16,000-square-mile swath of bluffs, hills, and valleys along the upper Mississippi River. La Crosse (pop. 52,000) now sits in the heart of that region, known as the Driftless Area. “This section of the state will make you feel like you’re out west,” says Tammy Vanden Heuvel. “Hundreds of miles of top-shelf terrain,” says financial adviser Brian Harris. Local Michael Scott notes: “It’s in the middle of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge, giving us 240,000 acres of river and wetlands to explore.” Residents consistently praised Human Powered Trails—a local non-profit that has constructed 15 miles of singletrack in and around 800-acre Hixon Forest Park—as well as the roughly three dozen arts organizations, more than a dozen annual festivals (including Weinerfest), and the vibrant, pedestrian-friendly downtown. —Ryan Krogh
  • Photo: Qfamily/Flickr

    Bristol, Vermont

    Clear water and mountain access—that’s what stands out in the sleepy little town of Bristol (pop. 3,700), which lies at the foot of the Green Mountains. In a state full of swimming holes, Bristol is home to an unfair number of great ones. “Split Rock, Bartlett’s Falls, and Circle Current”—on the New Haven River, just north of town—“are less than a quarter-mile apart,” notes Bristol native Caleb Elder. Other readers pointed to “Camel’s Hump, of course,” the 4,083-foot mountain just north of town—great for hiking and mountain biking. The family-oriented town is a diverse community with a sizable number of architects, contractors, and professors (Middlebury College is 15 miles south). A big Saturday night is “homemade ice cream at Lulu and dinner and beers at the Bobcat Inn and Brewery,” says Middlebury adjunct professor Bill Hegman. But Burlington is only about an hour away, as are Stowe’s slopes. —Abe Streep
  • Photo: Dctim1/Flickr

    Great Falls, Montana

    Long known as a rough-and-tumble railroad stop, Great Falls (pop. 58,000) has experienced a resurgence thanks to an expanding recreation corridor on the Missouri River, jobs from Montana State University and Malmstrom Air Force Base, and the C.M. Russell Museum Complex, which houses some 2,000 pieces by prominent western artists. These days, residents say, it holds its own against any Montana river town. “If it isn’t the waterfalls on the Missouri or the out-of-this-world trout fishing, it’s the fact that you can roll out in any direction and find yourself in true wilderness,” says local Mark Cruse. And that’s the real appeal: situated where the Great Plains smack into the Rockies, the city is within two hours of one of the largest and most remote wilderness areas in the lower 48, the Bob Marshall. —Meaghen Brown
  • Photo: Proxy Indian/Flickr

    Davenport, Iowa

    As one-fourth of the 400,000-strong Quad Cities metro area, which straddles the Mississippi River on the Illinois state line, Davenport (pop. 100,800) defies the region’s rep for cornfields and grain silos. There’s culture (the local Figge Art Museum houses some 4,000 pieces) and rugged recreation (local non-profit Friends of Off Road Cycling manages some 30 miles of flowing singletrack within city limits). Readers were quick to highlight the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, which brings some of the world’s top jazz musicians to town for four days each August, as well as the more common Midwest outdoor pursuits: “Unreal bass and walleye fishing on the Mississippi,” says local Brandon Morris. Corwin Kruse sums up the city best: “Bix, blues, and the lovely Mississippi.” —Ryan Krogh
  • Photo: Gene Bisbee/Flickr

    Cle Elum, Washington

    Tiny Cle Elum (pop. 1,800) is part of the only slightly larger Roslyn and South Cle Elum metro area (pop. 3,300). But what the town misses in population it makes up for in access to the big outdoors: four-million-acre Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Cle Elum and Kachess lakes, and the fish- and float-friendly Yakima River—Washington’s only blue-ribbon trout stream, where conservation groups are working on a comprehensive salmon and steelhead recovery project. “Great town with a rich history, and steps away from superb fly-fishing, scenic trails, and the best doughnuts ever at the Cle Elum Bakery,” says local Derek Young. “The surrounding area is spectacular,” says Brian Lenihan. “Great early-season hiking, biking, and skiing.” And while the nightlife is lacking, Seattle is only an hour and a half away. —Ryan Krogh
  • Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr

    Jackson, Wyoming

    There’s a reason Jackson (pop. 9,500) is home to Exum Mountain Guides and approximately half the sponsored skiers in the country. But what’s overlooked in the panorama of the Tetons is the hundreds of miles of world-class fishing, rafting, and kayaking on the Snake River. In 2009, local conservation groups celebrated the passage of the Snake Headwaters Legacy Act, which protects some 400 miles of river. Today, as resident Scott Bosse points out: “Teton County has more Wild and Scenic river miles than any county in America.” Sure, real estate is astronomically expensive (many “locals” actually live in Victor, Idaho, just across Teton Pass). Then again, you’re paying for a front-porch view to what reader Eddie Lee calls “the best of the Rockies—totally God’s country.” —Meaghen Brown
  • Photo: Jeffrey Beall/Flickr

    Salida, Colorado

    Salida (pop. 5,200) is all about the Arkansas River, which offers multiple options: rafting Browns Canyon, kayaking the whitewater park at F Street Bridge, and fly-fishing for wild trout at Stockyard Bridge. “Salida equals water, mountains, sun, and snow,” says Anthony Newsom. Mountain bikers get their fix on the 25-mile Monarch Crest Trail—nearly half of which is above the tree line—and skiers can rip some of Colorado’s best backcountry (1,000 acres’ worth) through Monarch Mountain. Plus, every June the city hosts FIBArk, the oldest whitewater festival in the country. In other words, there’s a lot to love here. As resident Kyle Benson put it: “Please stay away from Salida. Don’t ruin the last great holdout.” Sorry, Kyle. —Ryan Krogh
  • Photo: TimohtyJ/Flickr

    Columbia, South Carolina

    Residents consistently touted three things about Columbia (metro-area pop. 768,000): the Broad, Congaree, and Saluda rivers, along with the seemingly endless number of forests surrounding them. “Congaree National Park, Harbison State Forest, Sesquicentennial State Park, Three Rivers Greenway, Riverfront Park, Earlewood Park,” says native J. T. Martin. “You can go tubing right through town” on the Congaree, says local Linda Oakleaf—which, just downstream of Columbia, flows through the last remaining old-growth bottomland forest in North America. The food’s great (lots of southern comfort staples mixed with the now ubiquitous food trucks), and the gallery scene in the riverfront Congaree Vista District is terrific. Summers get sticky, but as Marc Donald points out, “It’s an hour and a half to the Blue Ridge Mountains and coastal beaches.” —Ryan Krogh
  • Photo: Don Hankins/Flickr

    Eugene, Oregon

    Readers were quick to note, as resident Jacob Bendicksen did, that Eugene (pop. 156,200) is a “runner’s paradise.” There are 42 miles of trails inside city limits, track legend Steve Prefontaine called the place home, and Nike was founded here, on the University of Oregon campus. But there’s also Cougar Hot Springs, the Oregon coast, Class III kayaking on the McKenzie River, and skiing at Willamette Pass. “It’s all minutes away,” says Sean Gumin. Economically, the Euge is bustling, and it’s as progressive as any Oregon town (“Awesome politics!” says resident Nick Birdseye.) Plus, a new LEED-certified housing unit is being built downtown for the city’s four colleges, which add 45,000 students to the population each fall. Its nickname may be Track Town, USA, but the city is a whole lot more than that. —Kyle Dickman
  • Photo: Loco Steve/Flickr

    Sacramento, California

    Fun fact: the Sacramento River valley once held one of the largest grizzly bear populations in North America. The wilderness has since been tamed, but California’s capital city (pop. 471,900) gets props for its ongoing effort to revitalize downtown—its 20-year Railyards Project calls for some 12,000 new housing units, a marketplace, and pedestrian malls on a 240-acre riverfront site. What hasn’t changed is the great outdoor access. “We’ve got the 32-mile American River Bike Trail, Lake Natomas, and great trail running around Folsom Lake,” says Clint Welch. “One or two hours west and you’re at the coast; one or two hours east and you’re in the Sierra Nevada.” A surprising number of residents complained that the NBA’s once promising Kings weren’t doing so hot. But if you ask us, fealty for a suffering sports team is always a good sign of a town’s collective spirit. —Ryan Krogh
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