WHEN I FIRST DECIDED to escape the suburbs for the mountains about five years ago, I thought the most difficult part — deciding to abandon the safe, static experience I’d come to call my life — was over.
Turned out, the most difficult question was not so much “How?” as it was “Where?” There are so many worthwhile destinations in the U.S. that I had a hard time finding the ultimate outdoor playground to call home.
These five small towns provide a mixture of solitude and adventure that people looking to escape urban and suburban landscapes will definitely appreciate. They’re closed in by some of the wildest lands on the continent and, in some cases, claim more trail miles, river miles, and vertical feet than full-time residents.
I’ll never forget the first time I traveled to Zion National Park.
As I came around a bend on UT-9, the sharp, claw-like spires of Eagle Crags jumped from the background. On that particular trip, they were covered by swirls of thin but defined mist.
My stomach took a small drop; I was slightly intimidated by the magnitude and acuteness of the sky-slicing rock, but mesmerized and drawn in at the same time. Zion was going to be sick.
After a short trip under the crags, you roll into Springdale, a town of 500 surrounded by sandstone walls. Before venturing into the colored desert that branches out from town, grab a coffee and frittata at Cafe Soleil or a Pretzel B.L.A.T (BLT + Avocado) at Oscar’s Café under the red-and-white cliffs, while working out how you’re going to put those calories to use.
If you can, strike up a conversation with a local; chances are good they’re an expert — paid or otherwise — in one or more forms of Zion exploration.
First-timers won’t want to miss Zion classics like the Narrows, Angels Landing, and Emerald Pools, but more savvy canyoneers should take a peek at Tom’s Utah Canyoneering Guide for routes with more intensity.
If you prefer rolled knobbies over boots, travel just west of town to Rockville, cross over the Virgin River on Bridge Lane, and take the choppy, dirt road out to Gooseberry Mesa, where you’ll feast on flowy desert singletrack and otherworldly slickrock.
As you pedal along the North Rim, take a peek over the edge into the dizzying, cavernous pit filled with cliffs, fins, and buttes painted in bands of vermillion and white.
And if you happen to be an experienced big-wall climber, you probably already know about the 2,000ft vertical faces you can find spread around the park.
Bare Essentials: A pair of 5-10 Canyoneers and a full-suspension mountain bike will go a long way toward opening up the terrain around Springdale.
Cheap Digs: The park has about 300 campsites, and more primitive camping is available on the BLM land near Gooseberry Mesa.
Helping Hand: If you’ve never navigated a canyon, let a guide from Zion Adventure Company help you with your first go. They’ll set you up, get you out there, and make sure you arrive home in one, smiling piece.
Bryson City, North Carolina
The 1,500-resident town of Bryson City sits near the eastern border of the park, wedged between the Smokies, Plott Balsams, and Cowee Mountains. Entering via Bryson avoids the mega-churches and Dolly Parton theme parks that pollute the Tennessee side around Pigeon Forge.
[Editor’s note: When I was in Bryson City last spring, I was invited on a pre-opening tour at Nantahala Brewing and got to sample their first commercial batch of IPA. Recommended.]
In addition to being the jumping off point for the Smokies, Bryson City is a good place to be for a variety of outdoor sports.
To the southwest is the Nantahala Gorge, where the tumbling waters of the Nantahala River cut through the national forest of the same name. The river is home to popular whitewater rafting, where you’ll find a selection of dam-controlled Class II and III rapids.
To the north, the Tsali Loops roll and twist over 23 miles of smooth, bermed singletrack that’s among the 45 or so Epics designated by the IMBA.
For hikers and backpackers, the AT hooks around Bryson City, climbing up over the Fontana Dam on the way to its highest point: Clingman’s Dome inside Great Smoky NP.
Bare Essentials: Bring your mountain bike for some of the East’s best and a pair of water shoes for whitewater rafting or kayaking.
Cheap Digs: Bryson City is littered with RV campgrounds, and you’ll find plenty of other camping options in Nantahala National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains NP (Deep Creek is the closest to town).
Helping Hand: Located at the crossroads of the AT and the river, the Nantahala Outdoor Center bills itself as the nation’s largest whitewater rafting company. NOC will teach you how to paddle, lead you on river trips, and teach you other skills like wilderness survival and backcountry first aid.
Run your finger along a map of Alaska for more than two seconds and you’re bound to touch a tiny, backwoods village that borders on the huge mountains, isolated wilderness, or wild water that Alaska is known for.
Haines hits all three.
A town of 2,500 located between the peaks of the Chilkat and Coast ranges and the icy waters of the Chilkoot and Chilkat inlets, it’s developed quite a reputation thanks to the unending procession big-mountain ski movies that cut footage here.
In the air, single-engine planes serve up “flightseeing” tours of nearby Glacier Bay National Park and provide dropoffs for skiers, fishermen, and climbers looking for a lift into the sharply pitched mountains and remote water bodies of the region.
On water, kayaking through the Inside Passage opens up quintessential Alaska: fjords, glaciers, whales, sea otters, and other wildlife. Like Alaska itself, the sights of the Passage are huge.
And on land, Haines is most notorious for its spines, pillows, cliffs, chutes, and first descents that draw notable pros like Jeremy Jones and Seth Morrison each winter. If you’ve ever stared fearfully at a shot of a line that made your anus clinch, there’s a good chance it originated in the mountains around Haines.
Bare Essentials: A pair of fat skis or a big board and a few of your favorite games or movies for heli down days.
Cheap Digs: Haines is sandwiched between Chilkat and Chilkoot State Parks to the south and north, respectively. Both offer camping.
Helping Hand: For a taste of it all, contact Alaska Mountain Guides and Climbing School. If you’re coming solely for the tasty pow, Sean Dog of Alaska Heliskiing is the local icon to show you the way.
And get Matador founder Ross Borden’s take in Photo Essay: Heliskiing with SEABA in Haines, Alaska.
See how Chris wraps up the list on page 2.