Looking for an urban vacation destination with great outdoor options? Try these 10 cities.
It’s not just creature comforts that have outdoor travelers booking city breaks this year. As national parks become overcrowded, gas prices soar, and rental cars remain scarce, urban adventures can be accessible alternatives to more distant travel. And such excursions serve as object lessons in “near nature” — reminders that meaningful encounters with the natural world are often closer to the pavement than we think. Plot ? Here’s a highly subjective, adventure-inspired list of the best US cities to get you out and about this summer. (Population figures are based on 2022 figures from the World Population Review.)
Duluth, Minnesota: Mountain Biking Heaven
Only six regions on earth have earned the International Mountain Bicycling Association’s gold-level trail center designation, and they include this Midwestern lake port with a network of more than 90 miles of mountain bike trails. Day hikes abound, but for post-trail bragging rights, take the ultra-classic 40-mile Duluth Traverse, a largely beginner-friendly route that runs the length of the city. However, it’s not just about Duluth’s single track. Hikers on the approximately 300-mile Upper Hiking Trail meander through town, and there are paddlers of all kinds on the St. Louis River Estuary National Water Trail, with designated routes running from from 1 to 12 miles.
Salt Lake City: an alpine flower garden
An assorted set of Wasatch Range glacial valleys known for their feathery snow, SLC’s Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons become flowery playgrounds after skiers leave. Both canyons have plenty of places to fish, bike, and climb, but all you need to explore the annual wildflower bonanza is a sturdy pair of walking shoes. Donut Falls and Albion Basin hikes feature Lupine, Indian Paintbrush and Rocky Mountain Columbine, usually peaking in mid-July during the Wasatch Wildflower Festival, when naturalists lead walks guided florals.
Miami: the capital of the sun
Asphalt quickly gives way to sand in Miami. Keen travelers might find themselves paddling with the manatees of Virginia Key Beach Park an hour after riding the MIA. Use the 8.5 mile Rickenbacker trail and you can even get there by bike. Within the city limits, the options for sun and sand seem endless, including South Beach and the untouched shoreline that caps Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. But it’s Miami’s enviable perch near two spectacular national parks that propels the city to the American adventure charts. Discover coral reefs and mangrove forests within sight of downtown at Biscayne National Park, or head west to visit the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States at Everglades National Park.
Las Vegas: Desert Rat Delight
A constellation of desert parks is reward enough for venturing beyond the Strip. (There’s a reason legendary rock climber Alex Honnold calls Vegas his home.) About a half-hour from downtown is the scenic Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where hikes to springs flanked willows pass climbers scaling some 3,000 routes in the trad, sport and bouldering sub-disciplines. Rock formations get trippy at the 40,000-acre Valley of Fire State Park, an Aztec red sandstone wonderland with petrified logs and Anasazi petroglyphs. Summer temperatures can soar in the desert; on the hottest days, cool off at Boulder Beach, about a mile long, by Lake Mead.
Bend, Ore. : Outdoor #lifestylegoals
You hardly need to ask newcomers to Bend why they came; for cyclists, climbers, paddlers and skiers, outdoor adventure is a way of life here. Trail runners flock to 51 miles of trails in town, including miles of dirt roads that wind their way to the edge of the Deschutes River. The 37-mile Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bike Trail is a treat for road cyclists, while downhill mountain bikers head to the Mt. Bachelor Bike Park, serviced by ski lifts. Not everything is so painful: floating the Deschutes in a rubber inner tube is a summer rite of passage.
San Diego: For Ocean Explorers
An unbroken string of great surf spots line San Diego’s 70-mile coastline, including beginner-friendly La Jolla Shores and bigger waves at Black’s Beach, where clothing is optional. Water sports of all kinds await you. Try deep-sea fishing for mahi-mahi, scuba diving aboard HMCS Yukon in “Wreck Alley” or kayak through kelp beds off La Jolla. Dry off on a hike through the 1,500-acre Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve, where trails descend steeply through sagebrush and chaparral to a wide, sandy beach.
Flagstaff, Arizona: The World of Runners
Olympic running hopefuls travel to Flagstaff to hone their altitude endurance, but this nearly 7,000-foot city has plenty to offer more casual athletes, too. Connecting downtown to the canyons and prairies is Flagstaff’s 56-mile Urban Trail System, or you can join the serious types who hike for miles on the scenic Lake Mary Road. Surrounding the town is the world’s largest contiguous stand of ponderosa pine forest, and some of the best trails are a walk through the woods. (Try the 3.5-mile Schultz Creek Trail, which connects to a maze of trails in the Coconino National Forest.) For full immersion in the local scene, sign up for one of the group runs listed on the Run Flagstaff website.
Charlotte: Whitewater Playground
Give it to Charlotte for fun. Among the offerings at its 1,300-acre US National Whitewater Center is the world’s largest man-made whitewater river, where visitors can tackle Class II-IV rapids by kayak and stand-up paddle board or during guided rafting trips. A 45ft ropeless climbing wall juts out over a pool of water at his solo deep-water climbing complex – billed as the first of its kind – and there are more than 50 miles of free trails for mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners.
Chattanooga, Tenn. : A multi-sport marvel
An enviable location in the Tennessee River Gorge hints at Chattanooga’s adventure bounty. Think orange and gray Cumberland Sandstone for rock climbers, running Lookout Mountain, half a dozen mountain bike trail systems, and paddling the Tennessee River. If that’s still not enough, there’s Class III-V whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River, which runs through the nearby Cherokee National Forest and hosted the 1996 Olympic whitewater events. Chattanooga is the only place to top Outside magazine’s “Best Cities of All Time” list twice.) with your room reservation.
Burlington, Vt. : Dreaming of dirt road
Getting outside is Burlington’s whole personality in summer, and sunny days fill its Lake Champlain waterfront with stand-up paddleboards, sailboats and kayaks. Cyclists are out in force, and the 13.4-mile Island Line rail trail connects the city via a seasonal bicycle ferry to the islands of Lake Champlain. But Vermont’s unique offering for cyclists is perhaps its network of scenic dirt roads – more than half of the state’s roads are unpaved – which in recent years have seen gravel cycling events such as Rooted Vermont. With a base in Burlington, cyclists can retrace Rooted Vermont’s past routes or tackle a few sections of the Green Mountain Gravel Growler, a 255-mile dirt-road bike path that connects some of the state’s best craft breweries. .
Smith is a Vermont-based writer. His website is jenrosesmith.com. Find it on Twitter and instagram: @jenrosesmithvt.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.