It’s not just convenience that’s enticing outdoor travelers to book city breaks this year. With national parks becoming overcrowded, gas prices soaring and car rentals remaining scarce, urban adventures can be an accessible alternative to traveling further afield. And such field trips serve as object lessons in “close nature”—reminders that meaningful encounters with nature are often closer to the pavement than we think. Fascinated? Here’s a highly subjective, adventure-inspired list of the best US cities to get you outdoors this summer. (Population figures are based on 2022 figures from the World Population Review.)
Duluth, Minnesota: A mountain biker’s paradise
Only six areas on earth have been recognized by the International Mountain Bicycling Association as a Gold-level Premier Ride Center, and that includes this Midwestern seaport with more than 90 miles of mountain bike trails. Day trips abound, but if you want to brag after the trail, tackle the ultra-classic 40-mile Duluth Traverse, a largely beginner-friendly route that runs the length of the city. But Duluth isn’t just about the single track. Hikers on the approximately 300-mile Superior Hiking Trail meander right through town, and the St. Louis River Estuary National Water Trail has paddlers of all kinds with designated routes ranging from 1 to 12 miles.
Salt Lake City: An Alpine Flower Garden
SLC’s Big and Little Cottonwood Gorges are coordinated glacial valleys in the Wasatch Range, known for their feathery snow. Both gorges are plentiful for fishing, biking, and rock climbing, but all you need to explore the annual wildflower bonanza is a sturdy pair of hiking shoes. Hikes to Donut Falls and Albion Basin showcase lupins, Indian Paintbrush and Rocky Mountain Columbine, which generally peak during the Wasatch Wildflower Festival in mid-July when naturalists go on guided flower hikes.
Miami: The Sun Capital
Asphalt quickly gives way to sand in Miami. Motivated travelers could paddle with manatees at Virginia Key Beach Park an hour after shutting down at MIA. Use the 8.5 mile Rickenbacker Trail and you could even get there by bike. Within the city limits, the options for sun and sand seem endless, including South Beach and the pristine shoreline that covers Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. But it’s Miami’s enviable spot near two spectacular national parks that catapults the city onto America’s adventure list of honor. Find coral reefs and mangrove forests within sight of downtown in Biscayne National Park, or head west to visit the United States’ largest subtropical wilderness in Everglades National Park.
Las Vegas: The Desert Rat’s Delight
A constellation of desert parks is a bounty 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 willow-lined springs pass climbers who do about 3,000 routes in the areas of trad, sport and climbing climb bouldering sub-disciplines. Rock formations soar to dizzying heights in the 40,000-acre Valley of Fire State Park, a red Aztec sandstone wonderland with fossilized tree trunks and Anasazi petroglyphs. Summer temperatures can rise in the desert; Cool off on the hottest days at Lake Mead’s mile-long Boulder Beach.
Bend, Oregon: #lifestylegoals outdoors
You hardly need to ask newcomers from 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 inner-city trails, including miles of dirt trails that heave to the edge of the Deschutes River. The 37-mile Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway is a great spot for road bikers, while downhill mountain bikers head to the Mt. Bachelor Lifted Bike Park. It’s not that exhausting: Letting the Deschutes float in a rubber tube is a summer initiation rite.
San Diego: For ocean explorers
An unbroken chain of great surf spots lines San Diego’s 70-mile coastline, including beginner-friendly La Jolla Shores and bigger waves at clothing-optional Black’s Beach. Water sports of all kinds lure. Try deep sea fishing for mahi-mahi and scuba diving on the HMCS Yukon in Wreck Alley or kayaking through kelp beds off La Jolla. Dry off on a hike through the 1,500-acre Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, where trails climb steeply through sagebrush and chaparral to a wide sandy beach.
Flagstaff, Arizona: The World of Runners
Olympic runners head to Flagstaff to improve their endurance at altitude, but this nearly 7,000-foot city has plenty to offer casual athletes, too. The 90-kilometer Flagstaff Urban Trails System connects downtown to canyons and meadows, or you can join the serious types as they cover miles on the scenic Lake Mary Road. Surrounding the city is the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest, and some of the finest downhill skiing is through the forests. (Try the 3.5-mile Schultz Creek Trail, which connects to a maze of trails in Coconino National Forest.) To fully immerse yourself in the local scene, sign up for one of the group runs held at Run Flagstaff website are listed.
Charlotte: whitewater playground
Hand it to Charlotte because she’s making fun of her own. Offerings at the 1,300-acre US National Whitewater Center include the world’s largest artificial whitewater river, where visitors can tackle Class II-IV rapids in kayaks and stand-up paddleboards or on guided rafting tours. A 45-foot rope-free climbing wall towers over a pool of water at its deep-water solo climbing complex — billed as the first of its kind — and there are more than 50 miles of free trails for mountain bikers, hikers, and more trail runners.
Chattanooga, Tennessee: Multisport Wonder
An enviable location in the Tennessee River Gorge hints at Chattanooga’s wealth of adventure. Imagine: orange-grey Cumberland sandstone for rock climbers, Lookout Mountain trail running, half a dozen mountain bike trail networks and paddle boarding on the Tennessee River. If that’s not enough, there’s Class III-V whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River, which flows through the nearby Cherokee National Forest and was the site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater events. (Need convincing? Chattanooga is the only place to top Outside magazine’s “Best Cities Ever” list twice.) To get into the adventure-travel energy here, stay at the Crash Pad, a climbing-themed hostel where you you can book a boulder pad with your room reservation.
Burlington, Vt.: Dirt Road Dreaming
Getting outside is Burlington’s whole personality in summer, and sunny days fill the Lake Champlain boardwalk with stand-up paddleboards, sailboats and kayaks. Cyclists flock, and the 13.4-mile Island Line Rail Trail connects the city to the Lake Champlain Islands via a seasonal bicycle ferry. But Vermont’s unique offering for bikers might be its network of scenic dirt trails — more than half of the state’s roads are unpaved — which have hosted gravel cycling events like Rooted Vermont in recent years. With a home base in Burlington, cyclists can retrace Rooted Vermont’s past or tackle some sections of the Green Mountain Gravel Growler, a 255-mile dirt bike route that connects some of the state’s top craft breweries.
Smith is a writer from Vermont. your site is jenrosesmith.com. Keep finding her Twitter and Instagram: @jenrosesmithvt.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning a trip. For travel health advice information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interactive map of travel advice by destination and the CDC’s travel health advice website.