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5 Small-Town Adventure Escapes in the US

Outdoor Insider Guides
by Chris Weiss Nov 1, 2010
Jackson, New Hampshire

Jackson is a New England village of under 1,000 that fits the stereotype well (think covered bridge, white-steepled church, rolling hills…).

But, located in the valley below Mt. Washington — the Northeast’s tallest — and pretty much surrounded by the 750,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, Jackson also provides outdoor adventure right out of town.

Winter is a great time to visit, as the village sits within one of the largest, most seamlessly integrated cross-country skiing networks (pdf) in the Eastern U.S. The Nordic system begins in town and incorporates 68 trails over 148 kilometers of terrain.

Skiers can connect village restaurants and lodges with more difficult backcountry routes through the national forest. You can even ski into the night by moonlight or headlamp.

In terms of alpine skiing, Jackson is within easy reach of ski areas like Wildcat, Black Mountain, and Attitash, with more not much farther. And the trailhead for the Northeast’s best-known backcountry bowl, Tuckerman Ravine, is about 10 miles up the road.

After the snow melts and the mud hardens, visitors and residents turn to the White Mountains for hiking, climbing, camping, and backpacking.

Hikes range from short scenics like Diana’s Baths to difficult wilderness treks such as the 11-mile, scree-filled Tripyramids. Head north to Great Glen Trails for a comprehensive system of biking trails, from rolling, dirt-road cruisers to plunging, technical singletrack.

Bare Essentials: A pair of cross-country skis, shoes, and poles may prove more important than a car in this neck of the woods.

Cheap Digs: The Appalachian Mountain Club runs a series of backcountry huts and lodges in the Presidential Range that can be linked together for hut-to-hut trips or used as staging points for day-based adventures. Plenty of campgrounds can also be found throughout White Mountain National Forest.

Helping Hand: Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, the nonprofit that runs all of the trails, offers lessons and rentals. In summer, you’ll find biking and kayaking tours, rental equipment, and lessons at Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center.

Hanalei, Hawaii

I was sure when I started this piece that the list could run hundreds deep, so selecting the #5 town wasn’t easy. I knew it had to be in the West, and my mind drifted up and down the coast, locking on dozens of towns in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona…

But nowhere else in the country will you find white sand beaches surrendering to green 13ers, so the choice of Hawaii was clear. And few other places let you explore both the big breaks and big mountains of Hawaii like Hanalei.

Located toward the end of Highway 56 on the island of Kauai, Hanalei is a tiny town of about 500. Its waters are home to some of Kauai’s best breaks, including Tunnels and Pine Trees. Not only are there waves running from grom to pro, but paddling out opens up views of white surf splashing against jungle-covered mountain bases.

More than just a pretty backdrop, Kauai’s mountains provide one of the most intense hikes anywhere: the Kalalau Trail, beginning in Haena State Park at the terminus of Highway 56.

This strenuous, 11-mile route snakes along the pali (cliffs) of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast between remote beaches, waterfalls, and rainforest valleys. What makes the hike attractive is also what makes it dangerous: traversing the sharp, steep coastline along a narrow, cliff-hugging band of earth hundreds of sheer feet from the crashing breaks of the Pacific below. It can be particularly treacherous after rain turns it into a slick, muddy mess.

The reward for risking life and limb: the namesake beach that can only be reached on land via the 11 miles of soul-checking trail you just came in on.

Bare Essentials: Whatever surfboard you can fit in your car, and a pair of deep-lugged, non-slip hiking boots.

Cheap Digs: Hiking the entirety of the Kalalau requires a permit, and overnight trips require an additional camping permit. Other nearby camping options include the county parks of Haena (distinct from Haena State Park) like Hanalei Beach and Anini Beach.

Permits are required regardless of where you sleep, and it’s best to secure them months in advance. Both the state and county park offices are in Lihue, Kauai.

Helping Hand: To learn the ropes of surfing on the world-class breaks of Hanalei Bay, grab some lessons from Hawaiin Surfing Adventures.

Community Connection

For more idea on how to put some adventure in your life, check out the Travel and Adventure Jobs archive list over at the Notebook.

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