There are years, that when vacation time comes one wants a place that fills two criteria. First, relative proximity; because one doesn’t need the additional stress of replacing lapsed passports, currency exchange calculations, customs, missed connections, and colicky baby seatmates. Somewhere truly off the radar, gentle on the wallet and with something to enrich the mind, warm the soul and challenge the body. The Travel folk at Smithsonian.com have an annual mission to find and list the best small towns to visit in the USA as they proclaim “from sea to shining sea.” Top make the list, a town is defined as having a population of under 20,000 and they all make it with room to spare. In fact one admits to a year round population of only 137. They run the gamut of attractions from majestic world heritage sites to pint-size wonders. But they seem to share two qualities. One, of being viable for families, couples and lone wolves. And two, most are diversified, in that there is more than a single attraction and there’s a concerted effort to make them all-season. From the white beaches of Florida to the west coast of Alaska here are twenty towns that Smithsonian.com no less recommends filtered through the prism of Escape Here’s experts and street smarts. If Tinder had a vacation app, these are places you would seriously want to consider swiping right:
20. Vernal, Utah -Pop 10,334
Jurassic park meets the Wild West. The land around vernal is rich with fossils from the period which began about 200 million years ago and has become the most popular prehistoric period in contemporary imagination. The Carnegie Quarry contains some 1500 actual dinosaur bones embedded in the rock. The towering pink dinosaur that greets you on arrival indicates the town’s main industry. They even discovered remains of a previously unknown species of dinosaur here in 2010. There are also significant thousand-year-old petroglyphs from indigenous people as well as examples of nineteenth century homesteads. The rugged terrain around town is scenic in the extreme with three state parks with exceptional white water rafting.
19. Homer, Alaska -Pop 5310
What dinos are to Vernal, the Northern Lights Are to Homer. Once referred to as “As far as you can go without a passport”, Homer lies just below the 60th parallel, sometimes shorthand for the beginning of the real Arctic. Fall is the peak season for the Aurora Borealis but there are also a few more things to do in Homer when the Lights go out. Art galleries. The Homer Spit is not a contest but a narrow strip of land jutting into Kachemak Bay with tourist diversions. It is serious halibut fishing and a spectacular state park with glaciers, trails and kayaking which the Travel Alaska website suggests “to escape the bustle of Homer” to the extent a remote town of 5,000 can bustle.
18. Stowe, Vermont -Pop 4314
Stowe is a downhill skiing superpower but it has diversified into an interesting year round destination. Near the Canadian border the nearest big city is Montreal. Among its oft-mentioned claims to fame is a resort run by the Von Trapp family of Sound of Music Fame celebrating its 50th anniversary as winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. It is also just 10 miles from the ice cream sacred site of the original Ben and Jerry’s, complete with the graveyard for old flavors. There is an active arts scene in Stowe and some serious chefs have serious kitchens. Pretty much a ‘something for everyone’ kind of place in a small, picturesque alpine package.
17. Custer, South Dakota -Pop 2000
For the scent and sound of the old west, head to Custer for the annual Buffalo Round Up at Custer State Park, which really is a home where the buffalo roam. They are transitioned to winter grazing land each fall and would-be cowpokes can help, or go to the Arts Festival chili cook-off, or for those born to be wild, the 75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. But beyond anniversary activities Custer is blessed with superb nearby attractions, maybe some of the greatest in the country. Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Black Hills National Park and the iconic Devil’s Tower National Monument (think Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) The town dates back to 1874 and has buildings from the 1880’s but still has only about 2,000 inhabitants. And yes of course it was named after Lt. General George Armstrong Custer.
16. Thibodaux, Louisiana -Pop 14,563
2015 brought two somber anniversaries for the Pelican State. A decade since Hurricane Katrina and five years on from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, from which the fishery in nearby Thibodaux has yet to recover fully. Over a thousand displaced people from New Orleans rode it out in Thibodaux. Nevertheless, the town remains a center of Cajun history and culture. Laurel Valley village shows what’s left of the 19th century sugar plantation. There are bayou tours and the Acadian Cultural Center to take in the region’s colorful past and present. Donner-Peltier Distillers is a craft distiller that makes a series of rums named after Rougaroux, the legendary Cajun werewolf said to be stoppable only by a stack of 13 pennies because his 12 fingers can’t cope with that many. Hence the Rougaroux 13 Pennies Praline rum for your onsite tasting pleasure.
15. Whitefish, Montana -Pop 1657
Like many of the towns on the list, Whitefish is a picturesque little place that is a gateway to a stunningly beautiful large place, which in this case is the jagged natural beauty of Glacier National Park, right on the Canadian border. Three iconic North American species have been brought back from the brink of extinction in the Park; the peregrine falcon, gray wolf, and bald eagle have all been re-established. Sadly the other threatened extinction is tougher to avert. The fabulous glaciers after which the park is named are disappearing due to climate change. 150 years ago there were 150 alive and well. Today just 25 remain and the prognosis for them is dire.
14. Put-In-Bay, Ohio -Pop 137
This tiny village could be called a 2×4. South Bass Island on which it rests is just 2 miles wide and 4 miles long. It is a decidedly laid back kind of place. The town’s website promises “the best walleye and perch fishing in the United States and water-related activities abound. There are even two local wineries. The biggest annual event is the commemoration of the town’s role in the War of 1812 naval Battle of Lake Erie in which the American fleet led by Oliver Hazard Perry, whose message “We have met the enemy and they are ours” lives on in the historical lexicon. The only peace memorial in the whole park service celebrated its 100th birthday in 2015.
13. Nashville, Indiana -Pop 1082
Much smaller than its internationally famous namesake in Tennessee, Little Nashville is also an important country music center. Five miles from town is the longest running bluegrass music festival in the land. The Earl Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival was started a half century ago by Monroe himself, whose band The Bluegrass Boys was so innovative and popular, the whole genre of music was named after them. Nashville has become a little artist colony, and also claims to have some of the best mountain bike trails in the lower 48, and there’s a local vineyard as well. Just to remind you where you are it is the Earl Monroe Music Park and Campground. It is 8.5 miles to Gnaw Bone Indiana. But it’s also only 60 miles to Indianapolis if you have the urge to see a Colts football game.
12. Bayfield, Wisconsin -Pop 530
Blessed with the rugged beauty of the Lake Superior coastline, Bayfield is very much an outdoor destination. Chief among the natural assets are the Apostle Islands, essentially a National Park of a 22- island archipelago, set against the red sandstone of the shore. They are reachable by kayak in the summer to see old growth forests, historic old lighthouses and multi-shaped rock formations sculpted by wind, water and time. Their ice caves are immensely popular in winter, reached by ice-bridge and dogsled. Meanwhile back on shore, the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua tent draws country music royalty including Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett. On clear nights, the Northern Lights perform as well.
11. Edenton, North Carolina -Pop 4983
One of the prettiest towns in the Union, fetchingly placed on the shores of the Roanoke this was North Carolina’s first colonial capital. Its rich history and colonial architecture wonderfully preserved and restored, it is a prime destination for what has been the newly minted category of ‘Heritage Tourism.” The Georgian style courthouse dates back to 1767. Penelope Barker House became world famous in 1774 as a group of local women took up the spirit of the Boston Tea Party and petitioned for a boycott of English tea. The Roanoke River Lighthouse, once near derelict, has had a beautiful makeover and been moved to a prime location on the riverfront.
10. Saint Simons Island, Georgia -Pop 14,875
Part of Georgia’s Golden Isles near the Florida border, the closest city is actually Jacksonville. It has a lovely low-key beach vibe that rarely gets out of first gear, unless you’re reeling in a feisty catch on a charter fishing boat. There is just enough history to make for interesting sightseeing; the 275-year-old Christ Church Frederica and a number of old plantation slave cabins being restored. The beaches are huge at low tide and invite the book and swim treatment, but there’s lots of sailing and golf as well as kayaking through pristine salt marshes.
9. Boonville, Missouri -Pop 8319
History abounds in Boonville. Native Americans lived here and their 2000 burial grounds are a major attraction. The town was founded by Daniel Boone’s sons. It was a prominent post on the Santa Fe Trails. Four Civil War battles were fought here. The Katy Trail was a railroad and now is a 240 mile cycling and hiking trail opened in 1990. The Missouri River Festival of the Arts dates from 1975 and features classical music performed by the Kansas City and St. Louis symphony orchestras in Thespian an old theater and Civil War hospital. A short ways off are the real local celebrities the actual Budweiser Clydesdales at their home base Warm Springs Ranch. The town’s website promises “small-town charm and hospitality” and with its dining and hotel pages listing diners and RV hookups, there’s no doubt that it quaintly delivers.
8. Sevierville, Tennessee -Pop 14, 807
A statue of the town’s greatest export sits outside the courthouse and the family resort/amusement park that bears her name is not far off. The legendary musical artist and cultural icon Dolly Parton calls Sevierville her home town and Dollywood is celebrating its 30th birthday. Beyond the town’s celebrity connection, the natural superstar here is Great Smoky Mountain national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that covers more than a half million acres of incredible beauty where Appalachia meets the Tennessee Valley. It is renowned for its fly fishing, log cabins and superior hiking trails. It is the busiest national park in the county with twice as many visitors as the Grand Canyon. For a little local history, there’s Ole Smokey the first licensed moonshine distillery in the state, which may take some of the romance out of it but the stills are there to be seen and their unaged corn whiskey is there to be sampled.
7. Calistoga, California -Pop 5254
Calistoga was founded as a spa town, the brainstorm of California’s first recorded millionaire, Sam Brannan, who saw potential in the thermal springs to attract the rich and make it the Saratoga of California, which legend has it came out as the Calistoga of Sarafonia, and stuck. Mr. Brannan didn’t foresee its creation would come to be the northern point of one of the world’s preeminent wine growing regions called the Napa Valley. The spas still run but the nearby vineyards are the main attraction. There are 20 in Calistoga alone and dozens nearby. It remains commendably village-like without the precious big name boutiques and other symptoms of being turned into a theme park. September’s Harvest Table event features a 1,000 foot long table with dishes from local restaurants, but then Calistoga is a feast for all the senses.
6. Port Townsend, Washington -Pop 9210
It might not have seemed like a good thing at the time, but the town’s economic decline at the close of the 19th century, allowed a beautiful enclave of Victorian buildings to be perfectly preserved for enjoyment in the 21st. The base and coastal artillery, which the army built at Fort Worden, stabilized the economy but never saw combat action and is now a State Park with beaches, restored buildings and a cooking school as well as the celebrity status of being the set for the 1982 Richard Gere film An Officer and A Gentleman. The natural jewel near the Victorian gem is Olympic National Park, a spectacular million acres of near pristine Pacific Northwest old growth forest, glaciers, fauna, scenery and activities to any heart’s content.
5. Cooperstown, New York -Pop 1834
Abner Doubleday may or may not have invented baseball here in the 1830’s but Cooperstown and the baseball Hall of Fame have become synonymous. The usually annual Induction Day of former stars is perhaps second only to the swearing in of the President in gravitas. The town is fetchingly set in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York with all the outdoor possibilities of a northern forested lake district. Its biggest non-baseball attraction is the summer opera festival, one of the biggest in the U.S. which includes some classic American stage musicals like Carousel as well as opera classics. So if you like the outdoors, or whether your taste runs to Mickey Mantle or Madame Butterfly, there are pleasant diversions to be had in Cooperstown.
4. Traverse City, Michigan -Pop 14,764
A half million people descend on Traverse City for its annual Cherry Festival. The area is the Saudi Arabia of cherries. Its only other industries are wine growing and tourism leaving it delightfully quiet and pretty as it sits four hours north of Detroit and hundreds of miles from pretty much anywhere. It has everything except congestion. Beautiful beaches to zone out on, wine tasting shops to sip at after a day of strenuous cycling, hiking, sailing, golfing, etc. An Opera House and foodie mecca for the mind, soul and stomach. Sheltered in the bottom of a bay off Lake Michigan is Sleepy Bear Dunes national Lakeshore, once voted by ABC’s Good Morning America as the most beautiful place in America and its also been listed as one of the best places to retire.
3. Stuart, Florida -Pop 17,285 (21,000 in winter)
On the panhandle’s Atlantic coast about halfway between Vero Beach and West Palm Beach, Stuart has managed to remain quaint and sleepy for its location on the Treasure Coast, named after the 1715 sinking of Spanish galleons lavishing the beaches with its ill-gotten cargo of New World silver and gold. The Tri-Centennial is being marked by public events and exhibits. It is the self-proclaimed Sailfish Capital of the World and like so many resorts, it has added large helpings of environmental and artistic reasons to visit. It now promotes the St Lucie inlet as the most biodiverse lagoon ecosystem in the Northern Hemisphere to explore on cruises while a renovated former silent movie theater offers concerts and films. Bonus feature: Stuart is nicely located for sports fans with four baseball spring training destinations, an NFL and College Football teams as well as 2 NBA and an NHL arenas within a 2 hour radius. Not to mention the shopping at South beach.
2. Nantucket, Massachusetts -Pop 10,586
Nantucket became rich as the home of the world’s largest whaling fleet in the 19th century and never looked back. The town is a picture-perfect piece of New England and a National Historic Site. The beaches are to die for, if crowded in peak season and the weather perfectly tempered by ocean breezes. But Smithsonian omits for some reason that this is a very expensive week at the beach. The average annual income here is $139,000 a year. The merely wealthy stay in Cape Cod 30 miles north. Nantucket is the land of $800 a night hotel rooms, where richer-than-oil-sheikh types come to chill and commiserate after a grueling winter running their Fortune 500 Company. It’s intriguing to find out that Seinfeld reruns have made so much money that even Newman can afford a house here, along with Ralph Lauren, the heir to the Heinz fortune and a Google exec. If a selfie with Tommy Hilfiger is worth your children’s inheritance, Nantucket is definitely for you.
1. Estes Park, Colorado -Pop 6086
This is not a unanimous choice. Lonely Planet is not enamored with the town itself, citing crimes against tourism like strip malls and big chains. But nevertheless, it remains a gateway to one of the most awesome pieces of scenery and outdoor adventure to be had on God’s green earth; Rocky Mountain National Park, a magnet for travelers since the 1860’s. For a century the park has attracted outdoor enthusiasts for some of the best activities of their kind to be found anywhere, including the scenery, rich Native Indian culture and history, music festivals, art galleries, museums, breweries and creature comforts. A chance to get up close and almost personal with wildlife, its ideal for families, tenderfoots or hard-core outdoor types. And all that is not even counting the Stanley Hotel, said to be the inspiration for Stephen King’s book and Stanley Kubrick’s terrifying film adaption “The Shining. After a visit here you can rush back to your tent terrified about the ghost of Jack Nicholson slashing your tent apart while dropping his famous line “Heeeere’s Johnny.”