It’s not just creature comforts tempting outdoorsy travelers to book city breaks this year. As national parks face crowding, gas prices soar and rental cars remain scarce, urban adventures can be accessible alternatives to more far-flung journeys. And such excursions serve as object lessons in “nearby nature” — reminders that meaningful encounters with the natural world are often closer to the pavement than we think. Intrigued? Here’s a highly subjective, adventure-inspired list of the best U.S. cities to get you outdoors this summer. (Population figures are based on 2022 numbers from the World Population Review.)
Duluth, Minn.: Mountain biking paradise
Just six areas on earth have earned the top-tier gold-level Ride Center designation from the International Mountain Bicycling Association, and they include this Midwestern lakeport with a more than 90-mile network of mountain bike trails. Day rides abound, but for post-trail bragging rights, take on the ultra-classic 40-mile Duluth Traverse, a largely beginner-friendly route spanning the length of the city. It’s not only about the single track in Duluth, however. Through-hikers on the approximately 300-mile Superior Hiking Trail stroll right through town, and there are paddlers of all sorts on the St. Louis River Estuary National Water Trail, with designated routes that range from one to 12 miles.
Salt Lake City: An Alpine flower garden
A matched set of Wasatch Range glacial valleys known for feathery snow, SLC’s Big and Little Cottonwood canyons become blooming playgrounds after the skiers clear out. Both canyons have plenty of places to fish, cycle and climb, but all you need to explore the yearly wildflower bonanza is a sturdy pair of walking shoes. Hikes to Donut Falls and Albion Basin showcase lupine, Indian paintbrush and Rocky Mountain Columbine, which generally peak during mid-July’s Wasatch Wildflower Festival, when naturalists lead guided flower walks.
Miami: The sunshine capital
Asphalt cedes quickly to sand in Miami. Motivated travelers might find themselves paddling with Virginia Key Beach Park manatees an hour after wheels-down at MIA. Use the 8.5-mile Rickenbacker Trail, and you could even get there by bicycle. Within city limits, options for sun and sand feel 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 vaults the city onto America’s adventure honor roll. Find coral reefs and mangrove forests within view of downtown at Biscayne National Park, or head west to visit the United States’ largest subtropical wilderness within Everglades National Park.
Las Vegas: Desert-rat’s delight
A constellation of desert parks is ample reward for venturing beyond the Strip. (There’s a reason legendary rock climber Alex Honnold makes Vegas home.) About a half-hour from downtown is scenic Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where hikes to willow-flanked springs pass rock climbers scaling some 3,000 routes in the trad, sport and bouldering sub-disciplines. Rock formations turn trippy in the 40,000-acre Valley of Fire State Park, a wonderland of red Aztec sandstone with petrified logs and Anasazi petroglyphs. Summer temperatures can soar in the desert; on the hottest days, cool off at Lake Mead’s approximately mile-long Boulder Beach.
Bend, Ore.: Outdoor #lifestylegoals
You hardly need to ask Bend newcomers what they came for; to cyclists, climbers, paddlers and skiers, outdoor adventure is a way of life here. Trail runners flock to 51 miles of in-town trails, including miles of dirt paths that hew to the edge of the Deschutes River. The 37-mile Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway is a romp for road cyclists, while downhill mountain bikers head for the lift-served Mt. Bachelor Bike Park. It’s not all quite so strenuous: Floating the Deschutes in a rubber inner tube is a summertime rite of passage.
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 every kind beckon. Try offshore fishing for mahi-mahi, scuba diving the HMCS Yukon in “Wreck Alley” or kayaking through kelp beds off La Jolla. Dry out on a hike through the 1,500-acre Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, where trails drop steeply through sagebrush and chaparral toward a wide, sandy beach.
Flagstaff, Ariz.: Runner’s world
Olympic running hopefuls head to Flagstaff to hone their endurance at altitude, but this nearly 7,000-foot-high city has plenty to offer more casual athletes, too. Linking downtown with canyons and meadows is the 56-mile Flagstaff Urban Trails System, or you can join the serious types putting in miles on scenic Lake Mary Road. Surrounding the city is the world’s largest contiguous stand of ponderosa pine forest, and some of the finest runs are a romp through the woods. (Try the 3.5-mile Schultz Creek Trail, which connects to a maze of paths within Coconino National Forest.) For a full immersion in the local scene, sign up for one of the group runs listed on the Run Flagstaff website.
Charlotte: White-water playground
Hand it to Charlotte for making its own fun. Among the offerings at its 1,300-acre U.S. National Whitewater Center is the world’s largest man-made white-water river, where visitors can tackle Class II-IV rapids in kayaks and stand-up paddleboards or on guided rafting trips. A ropeless 45-foot climbing wall juts 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-to-use trails for mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners.
Chattanooga, Tenn.: Multisport wonder
An enviable Tennessee River Gorge location hints at Chattanooga’s adventure bounty. Think: orange-and-gray Cumberland sandstone for the rock climbers, Lookout Mountain trail running, a half-dozen mountain bike trail networks and paddling on the Tennessee River. If that’s still not enough, there’s Class III-V white-water rafting on the Ocoee River, which runs through nearby Cherokee National Forest and hosted the 1996 Olympic white-water events. (Still need convincing? Chattanooga is the only place to top Outside magazine’s “Best Town Ever” list twice.) To dip into the adventure-travel energy here, stay at climbing-themed hostel the Crash Pad, where you can book a bouldering pad with your room reservation.
Burlington, Vt.: Dirt-road dreaming
Going outside is Burlington’s whole personality in summer, and sunny days fill its Lake Champlain waterfront with stand-up paddleboards, sailboats and kayaks. Cyclists come out in force, and the 13.4-mile Island Line Rail Trail links the city via seasonal bike ferry to the Lake Champlain islands. But Vermont’s unique offering for bikers may be its network of scenic dirt routes — more than half the state’s roads are unpaved — which, in recent years, have seen gravel cycling events such as Rooted Vermont. With a home base in Burlington, cyclists can retrace Rooted Vermont’s past courses or tackle a few sections of the Green Mountain Gravel Growler, a 255-mile, dirt-road cycling route that links up some of the state’s best craft breweries.
Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Her website is jenrosesmith.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @jenrosesmithvt.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.