Outside’s Best Towns 2013
These are the best places to live in America.
The goal was simple: find America’s best place to be healthy. We wanted a town with ample trailheads, nearby adventure, great farmers’ markets, and, hopefully, a competitive gear-shop scene. To pick it we turned to you. In our third-annual crowdsourced contest, readers cast more than 21,000 votes online and raved about these 18 towns. All are amazing places, but one stood above the rest: Park City, Utah.
ParkTake a glimpse inside the little rural paradise that has us head over heels in love.
Picking the Winner
To find the best place to live well, we started with the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual list of the country’s 50 healthiest cities, then added a few small and midsize active towns that the metro-centric pool overlooked. We called local runners, cyclists, climbers, and surfers to help narrow the finalists to ten places where it’s easy to eat healthy, find work, and quickly access great trails, beaches, and mountains. Then we put them up for a three-week vote on Facebook.
Greenville, South Carolina, made an impressive showing—the city of 60,000 had the most votes with 7,154—but for per capita excitement, no place was as passionate as Park City, which received two-thirds as many votes (5,179) as it has residents. We sent in two editors to scout it out, and they confirmed our suspicion: this is the place you want to live now.
Park City, Utah
Median Household Income: $61,383
Median Home Price: $765,600
Unemployment (countywide): 5.3 percent
“Know how I can tell that’s a local?” asks Dana Williams, the 58-year-old mayor of Park City, Utah, nodding toward a fit thirty-something guy in a flat-brimmed baseball hat. “The bandaged wrist.”
We’re sitting on couches at the open-air Silver Star Café, a mining-themed restaurant that serves spectacular halibut. A 2013 Porsche 911 with a pair of titanium mountain bikes strapped to the roof sits in the parking lot. Every few minutes, little knots of bikers pedal past. This being a small town, Williams, who looks a bit like Jack Nicholson, can barely complete a thought without getting a hug from a constituent.
But he does manage this: “You guys should have put us in the fight a long time ago.” Williams is referring to the drubbing Park City gave the other active-towns finalists, from Bozeman to San Diego, in this year’s Best Town Ever contest. The mayor is accustomed to winning big. He was elected to his third term in 2009 with 78 percent of the vote. But he won’t be running for reelection in November.
“I can’t afford it anymore,” Williams says. He supplements his $1,700 monthly salary by working as a barista at a local coffee shop and playing gigs with his rock group, Motherlode Canyon. His position empowers him to perform weddings, so if you hire his band to play yours, he’ll officiate for free, which he has done more than 300 times in the past decade. In other words, the mayor is doing what many locals are: everything he can to stay in the West’s most booming adventure locale.
Park City feels like a Colorado ski town dropped into Utah’s 12,000-foot Wasatch Range, with one significant difference. Unlike Telluride or Aspen, it has a major city, Salt Lake, and an international airport 30 minutes away. Local love for Park City can feel a little over the top—it got two-thirds as many votes in our contest (5,179) as it has residents. To see if that affection was justified, I parachuted in for a 72-hour, Chamber of Commerce-led recon tour. What I found was a town that breeds the active lifestyle.
In winter, Parkites can access three world-class ski areas from town: Deer Valley, Park City, and the Canyons. Then there’s climbing, hiking, and camping in 500,000 acres of wilderness in the nearby Uinta Mountains, 370-plus miles of trails, a blue-ribbon trout stream (the Provo River), and an Olympic training center built for the 2002 Salt Lake Games. More than 100 Olympians still live here. There are also lax(er) liquor laws than elsewhere in the Beehive State—and Utah’s first distillery since Prohibition, High West.
I went to a mountain-bike camp where city employees taught eight-year-olds to ride a pump track. In a nearby soccer field, 70 women—many pregnant, most already moms—were charging through a CrossFit workout. The high school even has an Adventure PE class, where students get credit for leaving campus to mountain-bike, trail-run, or ski or snowboard with friends.
But living in utopia is expensive—60 percent higher than the national average. Less than a third of the town’s population has their primary residence within city limits. Those who can’t swing a million-plus for a house either hunt for deals—small homes can be found for as little as, er, $350,000—or head 15 miles downvalley for something in the $200,000 price range. All of this gives Park City its reputation as a ritzy toy town, but it’s still in Utah, one of the most rural and conservative states in the nation.
As the mayor puts it, “Utah kids are raised through the barrel of a .22.” In Park City, that redneck influence generates mind-boggling combinations of rough-and-tumble culture and highbrow approach to adventure. The executive chef at the five-star Stein Eriksen Lodge carries a knife on century-length road rides (for “general safety,” he says)—and the sommelier once shot a five-point buck wearing his double-breasted work suit.
The real trick to being a Park City local is finding a way to stay. When Robert Redford started the Sundance Film Festival in 1981, it brought tourists, hotels, and world-class restaurants (12 and counting). Every January, 50,000 moviemakers, celebrities, and film buffs descend on Sundance. Tourism now brings in more than $50 million a year. “It makes the town tick,” Williams says.
Park City’s greatest challenge seems to be courting the wealthy without ousting the middle class. So far it has struck a balance. Part of that is because locals can commute to high-paying finance and real estate jobs in Salt Lake, and there’s a small but vibrant outdoor industry in town, with Backcountry.com, Rossignol, and Ramp skis calling Park City home. Not surprisingly, it’s tourism that provides 60 percent of the living-wage-paying jobs, with medical care not far behind. “Everybody here either is or pretends to be a pro athlete,” says Stacy McCooey, 31, a physical therapist at one of the town’s six clinics. “That means great job stability for me.”
The single most important reason Park City has kept a middle class may be Utah’s ingenious tax code. Second-home owners pay twice what year-round residents do. With a median home price of $765,600, that goes a long way toward giving the city money for environmental and social initiatives. There’s a gravity-fed water pipe that generates power for 120 local homes, solar panels on City Hall, and a free-anywhere-in-town bus system that’s safe enough for kids to ride alone.
If all this makes Park City sound like a liberal enclave in the red state of Utah, that’s because it is. I spend Sunday afternoon talking to residents at Park Silly, the weekly farmers’ market. Vendors hawk scented candles, elk jerky, and goggle defogger to a crowd that is uniformly white and absurdly fit. While Mayor Williams is on the market’s stage, getting lost in a harmonica riff during a cover of J.J. Cale’s “When This War Is Over,” I meet Andy Beerman, a businessman, a former NOLS instructor, and one of Park City’s next mayoral candidates. He’s concerned that I haven’t seen enough of the town’s trails. I tell him I have only 45 minutes before my next appointment. That’s plenty, he says.
“There are two ways to be cool here,” Beerman says as we grab bikes at his house. “You’re either a brilliant athlete or you’re filthy rich.” Then he stands on his pedals and drops me on a singletrack climb that leaves from his doorstep.
Greenville, South Carolina
Median Household Income: $40,925
Median Home Price: $188,200
Unemployment: 6.9 percent
In the past two decades, this former mill town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains landed big employers like GE, Michelin, and BMW and transformed itself into a small city that’s alive with parks, leafy streets, bike paths, and a thriving foodie scene. Which has Greenvillians psyched.
Citizens pulled out all the stops in an effort to top our list, putting signs on lawns, bombing our Facebook page (more than 7,000 people voted), and even organizing a parade down Main Street led by the mayor. While Greenville didn’t win, we wouldn’t hesitate to consider a move here. There are more than 200 downtown events each year, from a weekly music series (Greenville Heritage Main Street Fridays) to a three-day arts festival (Artisphere) to frequent cycling races (including the 2013 Para-Cycling Open).
Voters lauded the parks and greenways, particularly the 18-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail—a virtual pedestrian super-highway—and the strong cycling and running communities. “I’ve lived in Greenville for 12 years and have gone from couch potato to marathon runner,” says reader Marisa Marshall, a marketing project manager for tech company ScanSource. And the weather encourages everyone to get outside. “Pretty much ten months out of the year, I can be hiking, biking—anything I want,” says Brad Willis, a 39-year-old freelance writer.
Food and Nightlife: There are 112 independently run restaurants within a square mile of the town’s center. “Greenville is turning into a serious food town, with new places popping up all the time,” says Katie Faulk, a local barista. Coming for a weekend? Hit food trucks Neue Southern and Asada for lunch and The Owl, a top gastropub, for dinner. Try the chimichurri bison with poblano hash and smoked onion.
Access: “I can decide at lunch that I want to be on a beautiful trail and be there in less time than it takes to get takeout,” says Willis. Greenville is also easy to escape. Voters lauded the Green and Chattooga Rivers and Saluda Lake for paddling, Lake Conestee Nature Park for hiking and biking, and Dupont State Forest or Pisgah National Forest for mountain biking. All of which are within an hour’s drive.
Biking: This spring, Greenville debuted its B-cycle bike-share program. “There are bike lanes all over the place,” says Tonya Morris, 50, an aesthetician and avid mountain biker. “And some of the best mountain-bike trails are right in our backyard at Paris Mountain State Park,” which has 15 miles of trails within four miles of downtown. Don’t miss the two-mile section locals call Kanuga. “It’s super flowy and smooth,” says Ty Houck, 42, who manages natural spaces for Greenville County.
Population: 345,610 (metro area: 953,000)
Median Household Income: $56,939
Median Home Price: $545,700
Unemployment: 5.2 percent
Honolulu might look and act like a city—it’s Hawaii’s most urban area, and cultural crossover makes for a diverse food scene (kimchee Reuben, anyone?). But there aren’t many places on earth where you can paddle into a head-high roller at dawn, ride a beach cruiser to work, and be staring into a 300,000-year-old volcanic crater on the city’s fringes by dusk. Which may explain why the island of Oahu’s biggest city maintains a mellow vibe despite big tourism, transportation, and military-defense industries. “Even our lawyers don’t wear suits,” says Crystal Evans, 42, owner of Hiking Hawaii. “We work just enough.”
Food and Nightlife: The cuisine is a rich and spicy mix of Asian, American, and Pacific. Being in the tropics certainly helps. “This is Hawaii, so we get everything from fresh parrot fish to Chinese turnips,” says Fernando Duldulao, who supervises the 25 farmers’ markets in and around the city that form the People’s Open Market. How fresh is it? Order the fish wrap at Diamond Head Cove Health Bar, and chances are the swordfish was swimming just a few hours ago.
Access: Oahu offers at least 35 hiker-worthy trails that wend through jungles, along the coast, or up volcanic peaks. “In ten minutes you can be in a totally different world,” says Evans. One of her favorite hikes: the 4.3-mile out and back up the three peaks of 1,644-foot Mount Olomana, near Kailua, which includes a Class 4 scramble up a spectacularly exposed shark fin high above the windward coast.
Surfing: The island has no fewer than 125 beaches along 112 miles of shore, including the megabreakers at the famed North Shore, about 45 minutes northwest of Honolulu. In town you’ll find 76-acre Ala Moana Beach Park, a forgiving left that won’t auger you into the bottom. And on down days, notes reader John Lopez, “you can cast for large bonefish or go snorkeling.”
Median Household Income: $44,412
Median Home Price: $269,000
Unemployment: 4.8 percent
People who’ve migrated to southwest Montana sometimes say that they didn’t find Bozeman so much as it found them. “The place you live helps to create who you become,” says Carol Flaherty, a yoga instructor. What kind of person does Bozeman create? Someone who hikes in half a dozen mountain ranges, fishes world-class trout streams, and refuels with grass-fed beef from local ranches.
All that nature means abundant Priuses and a local vibe that can border on self-righteousness—”People will notice if you don’t volunteer in some way,” says Mike Harrelson, a 55-year-old PR director. But that’s no reason to complain. As Robin Hoover, the executive director of Yellowstone Country, the local visitors bureau, puts it, “One can be totally immersed in nature without having to leave home.”
Food and Nightlife: “People here value knowing where their food comes from,” says Kelly Wiseman, 53, manager of the Community Food Co-op. “At the same time, they want quality.” That means you can keep it real with a Powderbird hot turkey sandwich at the Co-op Downtown (yes, Bozeman has two co-ops) or step it up with a house-infused sage-tequila margarita at Plonk across the street.
Access: “The norm is a little different here,” says Dan Center, 34, communications manager at the Gallatin Valley Land Trust. “You do a 20-mile trail run and someone else is doing 50.” But what do you expect with 67 miles of trails in town alone? Plus the Gallatin, Bridger, Absaroka, Madison, and Crazy mountains are all within day-tripping range, as is Yellowstone National Park.
Skiing: “Within an hour you have access to three awesome ski resorts,” says reader Mariska Mackenzie-Heyboer, a part-time cycling instructor. Winter lasts a long time at Big Sky, Moonlight Basin, and Bridger Bowl, which offers 300 acres of controlled backcountry. Native Kristy Norman puts it best: “Powder, powder, and more powder!”
Median Household Income: $41,466
Median Home Price: $165,500
Unemployment: 8.8 percent
Mochaccino-sipping Seattleites may call it Spokompton for its perceived crime, but the city is about as dangerous as Bend and safer than Colorado Springs.
Set on the eastern edge of Washington, where the desert meets the Rockies, Spokane lives up to its motto: “Near nature and near perfect.” Within minutes of downtown, you can paddle past moose on the Little Spokane River, climb 5.13 sport routes in Deep Creek Canyon, or hike the Spokane River Gorge.
“You can be in the river three minutes from your office,” says Jeanna Hofmeister, who works at the visitors bureau, “and have no idea that you’re just outside downtown.”
There are also five ski resorts within a two-hour drive. “The skiing around Spokane is absolutely top-notch,” says reader Anthony Gill. “Mount Spokane is only 45 minutes away, and Schweitzer is one of the most underrated resorts in the country.”
Home to Gonzaga University, regional government, and Fairchild Air Force Base, Spokane has the economy to support the diverse dining (e.g., there are eight Vietnamese restaurants) and vibrant neighborhoods of a big city—the South Perry District has health-food stores, trendy boutiques, and a Thursday farmers’ market with the best of eastern Washington produce. “Between a bike and Spokane Transit, you can get almost anywhere,” says reader Barb Chamberlain.
Food and Nightlife: You hardly need to remove your spray skirt at The Flying Goat, an artisanal pizza joint near Riverside State Park. The Manito Tap House has 50 local and imported beers on draft. And breakfast is served all day in an old railway car at Frank’s Diner. (Try the Joe’s Special.)
Access: There’s plenty of good stuff within city limits, from the Spokane River to the rugged singletrack in 10,000-acre Riverside State Park. And adventures farther afield are easy.”Spokane is the best trailhead ever,” says Chamberlain. Head two hours north into the Colville National Forest for multiday backpacking, or drive four hours to Idaho’s iconic Selkirk Mountains and Lochsa and Salmon Rivers.
Biking: “You can pound out 100 road miles on the Palouse, get downhill crazy at Camp Sekani, do the 37-mile Centennial Trail, or charge 35 miles straight up to the top of Mount Spokane,” says Jon Snyder, a 44-year-old member of Spokane’s City Council. “If you like to log miles instead of dodging crowds, it’s the perfect place to ride.”
Median Household Income: $62,162
Median Home Price: $497,200
Unemployment (countywide): 8 percent
Carbondale is only a 30-mile bike ride from Aspen, yet it still has weekly summer rodeos and cattle drives through town.
In other words: it hasn’t become another Colorado boomtown—yet.
Located 6,200 feet high on Colorado’s western slope, the town is at the confluence of the prime trout waters of the Roaring Fork and Crystal Rivers.
“We live in town, and my husband can walk to the river,” says Erica Sparhawk, who works for Clean Energy Economy for the Region, a local nonprofit. “He pretty much thought he’d died and gone to heaven.” Many locals work in nearby ski towns like Aspen, although Carbondale does have a thriving green-energy economy, thanks to businesses like Sol Energy, Garfield Clean Energy, and Sunsense. Of course, with world-class biking, fly-fishing, rock-climbing, kayaking, and running at Carbondale’s doorstep, it’s a wonder anyone works at all.
Food and Nightlife: Carbondale is a small town with big-city cuisine. “Hands down, it has the best restaurants downvalley,” says reader Sunny Kay Harrison. Locals fill up at restaurants like the Village Smithy, Tortilleria La Roca, and chef Mark Fischer’s hot new restaurant Town (pork belly! Carbondale-raised steaks!). Each Wednesday during the summer, the farmers’ market fills the town with fresh peaches, locally-raised meats, and, of course, potatoes. (Carbondale has a Potato Day festival.)
Access: You hardly need a tank of gas to reach the surrounding wilderness. The 181,000-acre Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and its 100 miles of trails are just an hour from town. In winter there’s skiing at Aspen and Snowmass and at the cheaper Sunlight Resort in Glenwood Springs.
Biking: “On every trail or road ride, you see friends along the way,” says Tom Stevens. “And the local watering hole has so many bikes parked outside, you can barely get in.” The 44-mile paved Rio Grande Trail runs from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, with a spur up the Crystal River. Nearby road-biking opportunities include quad-burning, 12,000-foot Independence Pass, while Prince Creek and Red Hill offer prime mountain biking just outside town.
San Diego, California
Population: 1.3 million (metro area: 3.2 million)
Median Household Income: $63,739
Median Home Price: $477,100
Unemployment Rate: 8.9 percent
“For me there is no better place than San Diego,” says Josh Landan, president of Saint Archer Brewing, a company he started in the Miramar neighborhood along with—what else?—14 surfers and skaters.
“The weather is 70 degrees. You can skate everywhere, bike everywhere, hike, camp, surf. Want winter? It’s two hours to the snow.”
Indeed, seasons don’t mean much in this sun-steeped city, where hundreds of miles of trails, ample coast, and some 6,000 farmers with heirloom offerings make the living pretty sweet. “Everyone in the world is trying to get here,” says reader Alfredo Martinez Jr.
Food and Nightlife: Farmers’ markets are a daily occurrence, and some of California’s best chefs fight to get the freshest artichokes, squash blossoms, and peppers from the Chino family at Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe. “There’s no excuse not to eat healthy here,” Landan says. Reader Ryan Kephart agrees: “No matter what, it seems like you’re never more than five minutes from an amazing postride burrito session.”
Access: The green spaces here are mostly blue, with more than 70 miles of beaches and places like the 6,000-acre Underwater Park and Ecological Preserve in La Jolla, a popular snorkeling spot. Topside, hikers, horseback riders, and bikers head to Mission Trails for 40 miles of paths among the chaparral. “Sunset Cliffs has to be one of the most beautiful runs in the country,” says reader Chris Poole.
Surfing: You don’t have to be a hardcore bro to tackle the forgiving beach breaks that roll in along the two-mile stretch from Mission Beach to Pacific Beach, where anything from a northwest to a southwest swell is rideable. Swami Beach in Encinitas, a right point break, can be more challenging. Plus, “Sometimes you see whales and dolphins swimming while you surf,” notes reader Kalin Schmitz. Did we mention the 70 miles of coastline?
Population: 636,479 (metro area: 4.6 million)
Median Household Income: $51,739
Median Home Price: $381,900
Unemployment Rate: 6.4 percent
Readers praised Boston for its small size, walkability, and athletic culture. “It’s the best sports town in America,” says Josh Rowe, a 44-year-old performance-marketing manager for New Balance. “Everyone’s a fan of some sort, and the Boston Marathon is beyond a running event—it’s part of the city’s fabric.”
New Englanders have learned to squeeze every ounce out of summer in the city’s 2,200 acres of parks or by paddling the Charles, and they join ubiquitous sports clubs each winter. “You can find everything from jujitsu to boxing to CrossFit,” says Regina O’Brien, 48, fitness director at Benefitness Health Club. There are also burgeoning pop-up fitness tribes like the November Project, which organizes free weekly workouts. And it’s easy to find a job, thanks to more than 50 universities in the metro area, abundant science and medical centers, and a thriving financial district.
Food and Nightlife: Owing to its immigrant heritage, the city has diverse food roots, from the North End’s famed Italian restaurants to Russian cuisine in Brookline. But what readers loved best was unanimous: the seafood. “Try Summer Shack. They do great oysters like good New Englanders—not fancy or pretentious,” says Nathan Miles, associate meat coordinator at Whole Foods Market.
Access: “Boston is active, young, and a very green city with the parks and the river,” says Rowe. But it’s also easy to escape. The Berkshires, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the beaches of the Cape and North Shore are all within three hours.
Running: “The Boston Marathon is a huge draw, but we have races year-round and a lot of running clubs,” says reader Charlie Felder. Locals love the 18-mile path along the Charles River, the reservoir at Cleveland Circle, and Jamaica Pond.
Median Household Income: $46,413
Median Home Price: $287,500
Unemployment Rate: 5.7 percent
People come to the Mad River Valley as much for what it lacks—traffic, noise, pretention—as for what it offers: the Green Mountains out the back door, the Class II-III Mad River, and the great local food that comes with living in a historic farm town.
“Virtually every restaurant and school uses locally grown and organic ingredients,” says Susan Klein, 52, director of the Chamber of Commerce.
Another boon: the mellow, small-town vibe. “You know the people from out of town because they blow their horns,” says Gary Kessler, a 53-year-old race director. “Visitors specifically mention how friendly people are here.” And though it’s rural, the valley has low unemployment, thanks to strong year-round tourism. Even better: Cabot Creamery is moving its international headquarters there in 2014.
Access: “The big news this year is they’re finally putting in a sidewalk, so that gives you some idea of how undeveloped it is,” says Peter Oliver, a writer. You’re never more than a few miles from the 273-mile Long Trail, a ski area, a village green, or the Mad River.
Skiing: Two of the East Coast’s best ski resorts are within six miles of Waitsfield: sprawling Sugarbush and local favorite Mad River Glen, known for black diamonds and a no-frills attitude. “Fine woods, steeps, and drops to keep the hardiest of skiers and riders in tune,” says Evan Oppenheimer, a mental-health counselor.
Biking: Locals have ridden the old maple-sugaring roads on hardtails for decades, but that hasn’t stopped them from creating flowing new singletrack, too. Take the 1.2-mile Revolution Trail. “It’s old-school riding—lots of turns and roots and rocks and hills,” says Kessler. “It connects to 20,000 acres in Camel’s Hump State Park, where you can get lost for hours.”
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Population: 599,199 (metro area: 1.3 million)
Median Household Income: $44,973
Median Home Price: $129,300
Unemployment Rate: 4.8 percent
Before you spit out your wheatgrass smoothie, let us explain. Six years ago the city, a longtime oil-and-gas hub, was dubbed one of the fattest in the country by Men’s Fitness. This wasn’t too surprising. The official state meal includes chicken-fried steak and pecan pie.
What is surprising is how the city’s government responded. It has since funded youth fitness programs, built a 70-mile-and-growing trail system, expanded the historic farmers’ market, and collectively shed a million pounds—even the mayor chipped in and lost 40. In other words: it’s on its way to being one of the heartland’s best places to be active.
Voters raved about the running opportunities—like the Thursday-night 5K Pack Pint Runs, which end with free beer from Coop Ale Works—though the wind can prove challenging. “But that makes for wonderful sailing, kiteboarding, and windsurfing at Lake Hefner,” notes 26-year-old Arts Council employee Liz Blood.
Most of the action is centered around the Boathouse District on the Oklahoma River, where you can paddle rented kayaks and SUPs. But the city also has urban rock climbing at Rocktown—a grain elevator turned climbing gym where outdoor and indoor routes run nine stories high and there’s ice climbing in the winter.
Food and Nightlife: It’s no surprise that OKC has great beef—it’s long been an epicenter of the ranching industry. But there are also dozens of ethnic eateries like Inca Trail. “The ceviche is out of this world,” says Blood. And the Blue Door, a BYOB venue, hosts some of the city’s hottest bands. That’s not to mention the NBA’s exciting Thunder.
Access: The 2,500-foot Wichita Mountains, one of the nation’s oldest ranges, is just two hours southwest of the city. Park at the Treasure Lake parking lot and follow the creek to a hidden water-fall. The area is home to the best rock climbing in Oklahoma, with routes up to 5.11c.
Biking: One benefit of being flat—OKC is perfect for two-wheeled commutes, even if the scene is still growing. “It’s easy to find a shower and a place to lock up your bike,” says reader Russell Bainbridge. Mountain bikers hit the Bluff Creek Trail, a 3.5-mile singletrack loop with natural obstacles and hairpin turns. “You’re in the middle of the city, but you wouldn’t know it,” says Blood
Fort Collins, Colorado
The Front Range is full of small towns with great outdoor access. But Fort Collins stands above the rest thanks to its backcountry terrain (like 10,276-foot Cameron Pass), its prime location on the brown-trout-filled Cache La Poudre River, the great biking scene, and, of course, the microbrew-dominated economy.
“The biking is largely supported by the beer culture,” says Adam Irrer, who helps run Michigan’s Coppercraft Distillery and lives full-time in Fort Collins. “New Belgium started it by funding things like a bike library, so that people can get a bike when they come into town.”
Active, educated young people are flocking here—the population has grown more than 10 percent in the past five years—but the ample breweries and yoga studios have helped it maintain a laid-back vibe.
Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Minnesota
Minnesota’s Twin Cities (pop. 673,000; metro area: 3.3 million) have a thriving theater scene, one of the nation’s best contemporary art museums in the Walker Art Center, and 12 Fortune 500 companies. Plus, says Aaron Ankrum, a 31-year-old musician, “It’s all really accessible. You’re not going to be locked up in crazy New York traffic.”
There are also hundreds of miles of bike trails (“Diehards even bike-commute in winter,” says Ankrum), a new baseball stadium downtown, and 10,900 acres of parks, including Lake Calhoun—host to sailing in the summer and epic pond-hockey tournaments in the winter. And one of the great wildernesses in the country—the big, burly waters of Lake Superior—is just a few hours north.
Carrboro, North Carolina
It’s located right next to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but this outpost of 20,000 has a much slower pace than a rowdy college town. It’s a bastion of liberalism (it elected the state’s first openly gay mayor) and one of the epicenters of the locavore movement. There are more than 200 farms within a 50-mile radius, and the harvest is funneled into the weekly farmers’ market, the local-favorite Open Eye Cafe, and the Weaver Street Market, a co-op referred to as “Carrboro’s front yard.” The town also has 213-acre University Lake, a haven for SUPers and kayakers. And trails along Bolin Creek and in the Horace Williams Tract are popular with runners, although “there are a lot of nameless gems, too,” says Jen Ellis, of local outfitter Townsend Bertram and Company. Don’t feel like running? You can also get around via city bus—they’re 100 percent free.
San Anselmo, California
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and something amazing happens: the people disappear. Nearly 50 percent of 520-square-mile Marin County is protected open space, from redwood groves to beaches to preserves like Point Reyes National Seashore and Muir Woods.
Adventure sports are a way of life—the country’s oldest trail-running race, the Dipsea, was first held in Marin in 1905, and practically every high school now fields a mountain-bike team. Of the county’s 28 towns, San Anselmo, population 12,500, offers the ideal combination of access (35 minutes from both Point Reyes and downtown SF) and culture (more than two dozen restaurants). “It’s an amazingly accepting and friendly place,” says Jelani Bertoni, founding director of The Bicycle Works, San Anselmo’s nonprofit community bike shop. It’s paradise—with a hefty price tag. The 2011 median home price was $851,000.
The nation’s capital (pop. 632,000; metro area: 5.8 million) is better known for museums and memorials than parks. But the driven young professionals who live here have 7,617 acres of parkland at their disposal—more natural space per person than in any other city this size. Rock Creek Park, which bisects the northern end of the city, is the perfect choice for everything from running on the Western Ridge Trail to long out-and-back road rides.
And that’s just within city limits. “They’re a little farther afield, but Great Falls Park and Annapolis Rocks are also great escapes for climbing the Argonaut route, biking along the C&O Canal, and kayaking the Potomac Gorge,” says Ben Wessel, an environmental campaigner. Bonus: through the ambitious, more than $7 million Sustainable DC initiative, the city is attempting to increase renewable-energy use by 50 percent by 2032 and increase park access so that no resident is more than a ten-minute walk from green space.
Between the art museums, architecture, professional sports teams, and restaurants, the city of 2.7 million (metro area: 9.7 million) has long been one of the best cultural cities in the world.
Guess what? It’s also one of the best places to be active.
Take the Lakefront Trail, which everyone from walkers to serious cyclists use to travel 18 miles along sandy beaches, from the Indiana state line up to Evanston. “It’s a little congested downtown,” says Nick Brand, assistant director at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an avid rider. “But north or south of the city, there are places you can fly.”
That’s to say nothing of the city’s substantial recreational leagues (hundreds of teams in every sport imaginable, from kickball to beach volleyball), the unrivaled Green City farmers’ market, and great runs like the Chicago Marathon. And while the traffic can rival L.A.’s, the city, which made waves a few years ago with its Green Roofs initiative, is well on its way to completing a 645-mile network of bike paths and protected lanes by 2020.
Little Rock, Arkansas
In recent years, this city of 195,000 has become a runner’s paradise. Since 1993, federal, state, and local governments have funneled more than $62 million into what has become the Arkansas River Trail System, a 34-mile network that loops around the Little Rock Metropolitan area. The trails connect 38 parks that cover more than 5,000 acres.
“You can bike or run loops for miles,” says Leah Thorvilson, 34, a marathoner who works at GoRunning, a local store. Life here isn’t just about sweat, though; thanks to a strong aerospace industry, the town’s economy is one of the most stable in the South, and residents convene at a twice-weekly farmers’ market, free weekly summer jazz concerts in the River Market district, and Pinnacle Mountain State Park, with 2,356 acres of hiking and mountain biking.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
The best thing about A-squared, as locals call it, is that you never have to leave—there are great ethnic restaurants, a world-class university, bike lanes galore, and superb trails, like the 35-mile Border2Border.
“The Huron River is completely flanked by the Border2Border,” says James Morse, a photographer (and paddler and cross-country skier and mountain biker) who has lived in Ann Arbor for the past five years. “You can go a very long distance without having to turn around, and almost never see cars.”
But then again, there’s a reason the city’s 113,934 residents (and 43,000 college students) escape on weekends: the surrounding area has everything from 17 miles of singletrack at the Potowa-tomi Trail, in nearby Pinckney State Recreation Area, to the 976,043-acre Huron-Manistee National Forests only a couple of hours up Interstate 75. Go Blue!