The 12 Best U.S. Cities for Outdoor Adventures
Calling all nature lovers: These cities boast more than just a lively downtown scene.
When some people think of travel, the first thing that comes to mind is the bar and restaurant scene. For others, it's premier museums and iconic art. But other travelers prefer to see the great outdoors, filling their days with challenging hikes, scenic vistas, rugged terrains, and opportunities to climb, swim, and explore. If that last one sounds like you, you're in luck, as we spoke with travel experts to learn which cities they recommend for those looking to get outside. These hotspots have a ton to see, from touring national parks to lounging on beautiful beaches to kayaking across tranquil lakes—and some spots on this list may even surprise you. Read on to find out which 12 U.S. cities you can visit for unforgettable outdoor adventures.
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Johnson City, Tennessee
Nashville may be famous for its country music and rowdy bars, but adventurers will want to check out Johnson City in northeast Tennessee instead.
"While many cities boast that they have outdoor adventure opportunities, you often have to drive 30 minutes to an hour from the city to enjoy them. When visiting Johnson City, you can literally be at a trailhead to hike in 10 minutes from downtown," Anna Cook, travel blogger and founder of Stuck On The Go, tells Best Life. "You can be at one of the best mountain biking parks in the area in five minutes. Outdoor adventure opportunities are at your fingertips in Johnson City."
You can also mountain bike at Tannery Nob or try your hand at whitewater rafting on the Nolichucky River. As for hiking, Cook recommends checking out Buffalo Mountain, Beauty Spot, or Roan Mountain.
"This is just a sampling of the outdoor adventure opportunities in northeast Tennessee!" Cook says.
Book your trip between late spring and early fall to ensure you have warm weather, but if fall foliage is your thing, you can wait until peak leaf-peeping season to visit Johnson City.
"Spring and summer will bring beautiful wildflowers and summer will be the most popular time for rafting," Cook explains. "You can't beat the stunning fall foliage of the Blue Ridge Mountains though."
New York, New York
We know what you're thinking—the Big Apple is a spot for skyscrapers, and it's probably not what comes to mind when you hear "the great outdoors."
But according to travel expert Becca Siegel, from Halfhalftravel.com, one New York City borough is a haven for adventurers and nature enthusiasts alike.
"You might be surprised that Brooklyn, New York, is one of the best spots in the U.S. for outdoor adventures," Siegel says. "In Brooklyn, you'll find the City of New York's largest 'forest,' which is the Ravine, in Prospect Park (designed by the makers of Manhattan's Central Park)."
She notes that an "urban hike" through Prospect Park will have no shortage of wildlife sightings, including birds and other small critters. Even better, the "buzz of the city melts away when you hear a waterfall and look up at tall deciduous trees."
There's also plenty of waterfronts to take in the view, Siegel says. You can explore Brooklyn Bridge Park "with its winding paths and city views" or head south to Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach "where locals like to take the subway and have a day in the sun."
Siegel suggests taking a trip to see all Brooklyn has to offer between May and October. However, if you can visit during spooky season, you won't be disappointed.
"At the end of October, you can enjoy fall foliage throughout the leafy neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Park Slope," Siegel says.
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You might know Seattle as a hub for coffee aficionados, but this city is ripe with outdoor beauty that's ready for exploration year-round. Seattle is even nicknamed "the Emerald City" due to its lush green surroundings, including mountains, lakes, and some of the state's most amazing hikes.
"There's mountaineering on the big volcanoes (Rainier and Baker), world-class rock climbing in the Cascades, downhill skiing 45 minutes from downtown, and cross-country skiing a few hours from the city," says travel guru Scott Kubly, founder of Cabana, a modern mobile hospitality company.
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Referred to as Red Rock Country, Sedona offers a never-ending supply of breathtaking views, happy hiking, and opportunities for outdoor escapades.
"Sedona is a city unlike any other and a magical destination perfect for adventure seekers," says Naveen Dittakavi, founder and CEO of Next Vacay. "It's surrounded by surreal red rock formations, steep canyon walls, and pine forests. Aside from its natural beauty, there are plenty of outdoor activities you can enjoy."
Visit the Verde Canyon Railroad, drive the scenic routes, go on a Pink Jeep tour, or book a helicopter ride for aerial views. Some of the best hikes are Devil's Bridge Trail, Cathedral Rock, and Bell Rock, where you'll take in some truly jaw-dropping views, according to Dittakavi.
"Catching the sunset from one of these incredible spots and stargazing at night in Sedona are two unforgettable experiences to add to your bucket list," Dittakavi says.
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Los Angeles, California
The desert is certainly rich in beauty, but sometimes, the water calls your name. Enter Los Angeles, an excellent basecamp for outdoor explorers who want to travel up and down the center of California's coast.
"Los Angeles pretty much has it all. You have amazing food all over the city, beaches in town and all the way up and down the coast, wineries with delicious sips and incredible views, and killer slopes for skiers and snowboarders only two hours away," says Kubly. "Hike up the fire trails to Griffith Observatory for stunning views of the city, or join the famous rollerskating scene at Venice Beach."
If you're up for a drive, Kubly recommends renting a convertible or Jeep and driving the Pacific Coast Highway 1 from Los Angeles to Malibu. You'll get sights on sights for the whole ride—not to mention delicious food on both ends of the trek!
There's also plenty of natural beauty to admire heading away from the coast, such as Joshua Tree, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and the Mojave Desert.
South Lake Tahoe, California
South Lake Tahoe is another great spot in California—and it's a gorgeous three-hour drive to get there from San Francisco. As a bonus, this city is beautiful any time of the year.
"During the winter months, South Lake Tahoe's powdery mountains are huge attractions for snowboarders and skiers," says Heath Hammett, CEO of rental search platform VacationRenter. "In summer, the clear blue waters of Lake Tahoe are the perfect setting for kayaking, paddle boarding, and other aquatic activities."
South Lake Tahoe is also near a handful of nature parks, such as Emerald Bay State Park and El Dorado National Forest, both of which offer countless hiking trails and camping grounds.
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There's no doubt about it: A visit to Moab will make you feel like you're in a theme park for outdoor lovers.
"Unquestionably, one of the top cities for outdoor adventure in the United States is Moab, Utah," Taylor Beal, owner and author of the travel blog Traverse With Taylor, tells Best Life. "Moab is a smaller town that, overtime, has grown significantly due to its proximity to Arches National Park. There is a massive amount of things to do outdoors in the area, and Utah's natural beauty truly shines through."
Arches is exceedingly popular, and that's for good reason, according to Beal.
"It's one of the most premier parks in the nation, and the wow factors here are incredible," she explains. "The most popular hike, Delicate Arch, will reward travelers with the view that is commonly seen on the Utah license plate. You can even hike down into the middle of the arch for an amazing photo op."
If you're visiting Moab with kids who aren't up for a more taxing hike (but still want to be outside), Beal says that you should check out the Sound and Light river boat tour and show.
"This unforgettable experience will take you and your family onto the waters of the Colorado River and into Utah's canyons as a light show complete with music plays on the walls around you," Beal gushes.
As far as the ideal time to visit, Beal says that spring is your best bet, as opposed to summer.
"You do not want to go to Moab in the summer! Seriously, avoid it at all costs. It is massively crowded, and boy, does it get hot!" Beal warns. "Travel, instead, during the spring. The temperatures are perfect for hiking, and you'll get a more local feel from Moab. Plus, you won't have to wait in (very long) lines on the one-lane roads to get in and out of the town and the park!"
Fort Collins, Colorado
Fort Collins is located about an hour from Colorado's capital in Denver—and it's a destination where adventurers will feel right at home.
"Fort Collins is abundant with national parks, forests, and mountain ranges, making it an outdoors enthusiast's dream," says Hammett. "If you visit Fort Collins, be sure to [check out] Roosevelt National Forest. Vibrant with lush greenery and mountainous scenery, the national forest is the perfect place to rock climb, hike, [or try] horseback riding."
The Cacha la Poudre River is also a great spot for white-water rafting, swimming, and outdoor picnicking. Hammett says it's not too far from Horsetooth Falls, which offers an unforgettable panoramic view of Fort Collins once you reach its peak.
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St. Petersburg, Florida
St. Petersburg set the record for the longest number of consecutive sunshine days in the world, which means its "Sunshine City" nickname is well deserved. The year-round glorious weather makes planning a visit easy, and once you're there, the adventure doesn't stop.
"St. Petersburg is a postcard-perfect seaside destination with 35 miles of stunning white sand beaches," notes Dittakavi. "You'll be surrounded by wildlife and have access to the most exhilarating outdoor activities, from hiking and windsurfing to kayaking and parasailing."
Dittavaki says you shouldn't miss your chance to visit St. Pete Beach, which TripAdvisor named the number one beach in the U.S. and number five in the world in 2021. Known for its gorgeous views of the Gulf of Mexico, this beach destination offers visitors plenty of thrilling water sports activities.
Also, check out Shell Key Preserve (clear kayak recommended), drop by the secluded Caladesi Island State Park, or go snorkeling over the ruins of Fort Dade located off the coast of Egmont Keys.
Want to do it all? Get yourself to Bend, Oregon.
"Travelers flock to Bend to visit Newberry National Volcanic Monument, which is made up of 54,000 acres of volcanic land, remnants of an explosion that occurred over 1,000 years ago," says Hammett. "Bend is also home to Smith Rock State Park, where many come to hike, bike, horseback ride, and camp. This park is best known for its various rock climbing routes—the most famous being the Monkey Face spire."
He adds that the Deschutes River is located just a few miles away from Smith Rock and is the perfect spot for anyone who wants to fish, kayak, canoe, or go whitewater rafting.
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Minnesota has been dubbed the land of 10,000 lakes, and believe it or not, that's an understatement. The state actually boasts over 14,000 lakes and is also home to 66 state parks. Located about two hours north of the Twin Cities, Duluth will put you near a hearty supply of satisfying outdoor exploration.
One of the biggest draws is Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is located in Ely. Stretching over 150 miles across the U.S. and Canada border, it's comprised of over one million acres of unspoiled natural beauty. Duluth is also near Voyageurs National Park, George Washington & Jefferson National Forests, Cloquet Valley, and Sax-Zim Bog (a birder's paradise).
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For the best of many worlds, head to Austin, Texas where you can enjoy delicious dining, great music, the arts, and plenty of open-air activities. Nearby Hill Country and West Texas beckon visitors with their scenic landscapes and outdoor activities, including swimming holes, tubing rivers, and natural springs.
"Check out Hamilton Pool Preserve or Jacob's Well," Kubly suggests. "And if you feel like driving out to West Texas, stop by Fredericksburg and Enchanted Rock, then keep going out to Balmorhea Pool and the Davis Mountains for hikes, swims, and endless picturesque views."
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