St. Anne's Church Mackinac Island, Michigan. Image credit Michael Deemer via Shutterstock

8 Most Scenic Small Towns in the Northern United States

The Northern United States, often referred to in terms of the Northeast and Midwest regions by the US Census Bureau, is defined by its distinct seasons, with cold, snowy winters and warm summers. Economically and historically, the North has been a center of industrial innovation, home to the birth of the automotive and steel industries. It has landmarks from the American Revolution and early colonial settlements, especially in states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Educational institutions in the North are among the most prestigious in the country, including Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale.

However, the Northern United States is not just a hub of industrial and academic activity; it is also home to scenic small towns that blend historical charm with natural beauty. These eight should not be overlooked.

Mystic, Connecticut

The seaport at Mystic, Connecticut.
The seaport at Mystic, Connecticut.

Mystic, Connecticut, is set along the banks of the Mystic River and is a coastal village that bridges the towns of Groton and Stonington. Mystic was once a leading seaport where shipbuilding was the cornerstone of the local economy. The geography of Mystic, with its access to the sea, fostered not only a thriving shipbuilding industry but also engaged in whaling and fishing. The architectural landscape of Mystic includes a mix of colonial, Federal, and Victorian styles that line its streets.

The Mystic Seaport Museum is the largest maritime museum in the nation and looks into Mystic's seafaring past. The museum provides a hands-on learning experience, allowing visitors to step aboard historic vessels and watch shipbuilding in action. The Mystic River Bascule Bridge is not only functional but a piece of art in itself. This drawbridge, which spans the Mystic River, is a focal point in the town and offers picturesque views of the harbor. Finally, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center has over ten miles of hiking trails winding through diverse ecosystems. Visitors can enjoy bird watching, spotting local wildlife, and learning about the area's native plants and animals.

Cooperstown, New York

Homes in Cooperstown, New York
Homes in Cooperstown, New York.

Cooperstown is a quintessentially American village that embodies the rural Northeast. It is located at the southern tip of Otsego Lake, within the rolling hills and landscapes of the Leatherstocking Region in central New York State. Founded in the late 18th century by William Cooper, the father of the famed American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, the village quickly became a cultural and economic center in the area. Cooperstown's architecture comprises early American styles, with Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian buildings.

Begin your journey at The Farmers' Museum, an open-air museum that offers a deep dive into 19th-century farm life. Visitors can experience early American settlers' agricultural practices, crafts, and daily routines. Just a short drive from the museum, Glimmerglass State Park is on the shores of Otsego Lake, the "Glimmerglass" of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. Here, visitors can go hiking, swimming, picnicking, and bird watching. Finally, stop at the Fenimore Art Museum, which houses an impressive collection of American folk art, Native American art, and photography. It is in a neo-Georgian mansion with views overlooking Otsego Lake.

North Conway, New Hampshire

A rainbow over the shops, restaurants, and church of a New Hampshire tourist town
A rainbow over the shops, restaurants, and church in North Conway, New Hampshire. Image credit Keith J Finks via Shutterstock

North Conway is in the heart of New Hampshire's White Mountains. This village is part of the larger town of Conway, established in 1765, and is home to forests, rugged mountain peaks, and the winding Saco River. Historically, North Conway emerged as a key settlement in the 19th century, partly due to its strategic location along the Maine Central Railroad. Its architectural jewels include the historic train depot and the Victorian-era hotels and inns.

Start your exploration aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad, where you can step back in time on a vintage train ride through the landscapes of the Mt. Washington Valley. These rail journeys include narrations. Then, check out Diana's Baths, a series of small waterfalls and pools within the White Mountain National Forest. Just a short and accessible hike from the main road, it is a peaceful retreat. Cap off your adventure with a visit to Cranmore Mountain Resort. In winter, the resort is a snowy playground with skiing, snowboarding, and tubing, catering to all skill levels. Come summer, it shifts to an adventure park with mountain coasters, zip lines, and aerial adventure parks.

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport Cliff Walk.
Newport Cliff Walk. Image credit Cavan-Images via

Newport, Rhode Island, is a town on Aquidneck Island and is flanked by Narragansett Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the south. Established in 1639, Newport flourished as a place for trade, shipping, and military. The town examples architectural evolution, from its colonial homes and meeting houses of the 17th and 18th centuries to its opulent Gilded Age mansions built by America's wealthiest families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Newport's further hosted the first US Open tournaments in golf and tennis.

Begin your Newport explorations at The Breakers, the most opulent among the Newport mansions and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family's social and financial prominence during the Gilded Age. This Italian Renaissance-style palazzo shows the lavish lifestyle of America's elite at the turn of the 20th century. Do not miss the natural beauty of Newport at the Cliff Walk. This 3.5-mile public walkway borders the edge of the shoreline and has stunning ocean views on one side and a glimpse of Newport's historic mansions on the other. Finally, Fort Adams State Park was once a key defense post guarding Narragansett Bay. Now, it offers guided tours on its strategic importance and architectural sophistication.

Cape May, New Jersey

View of a boat with a Cape May sign on the beach in Cape May, New Jersey
Cape May sign on the beach in Cape May, New Jersey. Image credit EQRoy via Shutterstock

Cape May is distinguished by its position as the southernmost point of New Jersey, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, creating a coastal locale. It has been a pivotal maritime site throughout American history, notably during periods of exploration, trade, and defense. Established as a city in 1851, but settled earlier in the 17th century, Cape May is recognized as one of the country's oldest vacation resort destinations.

Take a visit to the Cape May Lighthouse, which has guided sailors since 1859. Climbing to the top of this historic lighthouse gives panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and Cape May Peninsula. Next, the Emlen Physick Estate is an 1879 Victorian house museum that educates visitors on the domestic life of the well-to-do Physick family in the Victorian era. The estate has preserved interiors and exhibitions. Conclude your visit with a walk along Sunset Beach, with the sun setting over Delaware Bay. Sunset Beach is not just a place for relaxation but also a site of contemplation, with the remains of the SS Atlantus, a concrete ship from World War I, visible off its shores.

Saugatuck, Michigan

Waterfront buildings near the entrance to the Oval Beach on Lake Michigan in Saugatuck, Michigan.
Waterfront buildings near the entrance to the Oval Beach on Lake Michigan in Saugatuck, Michigan.

Saugatuck, Michigan, is a small town on the banks of the Kalamazoo River, just a short distance from where it meets Lake Michigan. It has rolling dunes, forests, and clear waters. Historically, Saugatuck was inhabited by Native American tribes before European settlers arrived in the 19th century. The town quickly became a bustling port and a center for lumber and shipbuilding because of its advantageous location on the river and proximity to the Great Lakes. Saugatuck became a prominent art colony and tourist destination as the lumber industry waned.

Saugatuck Dune Rides provides guided tours that include an adrenaline rush as guests navigate the shifting sands. It also offers educational insights into the ecological and historical significance of the dunes. Mount Baldhead Park is home to Mount Baldhead, one of the area’s most recognizable landmarks. It requires a steep climb of over 300 steps leading to the summit. The effort is rewarded with views of Saugatuck, Douglas, and Lake Michigan. Last, take a visit to Oval Beach, one of the most beloved beaches on Lake Michigan's shoreline. It has soft, sandy beaches and clear waters, ideal for swimming, sunbathing, and sunset watching.

Mackinac Island, Michigan

Overlooking Mackinac Island
Overlooking Mackinac Island.

Mackinac Island, located in Lake Huron between Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas, is best known for its limestone bluffs and dense forests. Established as the second national park in the United States before being transferred to Michigan, Mackinac Island's history is palpable in its well-preserved 19th- and 20th-century architecture and the absence of motor vehicles, which are banned from the island to maintain its historic character.

Fort Mackinac is perched atop a bluff overlooking the Straits of Mackinac. This well-preserved fort and interactive museum offers a glimpse into 18th and 19th-century military life, with original buildings dating back to the American Revolution. Next, Arch Rock is a natural limestone arch that towers 146 feet above ground level. It is accessible via hiking and biking trails. The formation's natural beauty and the legends surrounding it capture the imagination. End your time on Mackinac Island with a visit to one of its butterfly houses. Visitors have the chance to walk among hundreds of vibrant butterflies in carefully curated gardens that replicate their natural habitats.

Bayfield, Wisconsin

Boats in the harbor in Bayfield, Wisconsin
Harbor in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

Bayfield, Wisconsin is perched on the shores of Lake Superior and is the gateway to the Apostle Islands. Its location on the northernmost point of Wisconsin provides vistas of the lake and access to the surrounding archipelago. Founded in the mid-19th century, Bayfield's history is deeply intertwined with the fishing, lumber, and shipping industries that thrived due to its strategic position along major water routes.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is an archipelago of 22 islands with beaches, historic lighthouses, and sea caves carved by the waves of Lake Superior. Kayaking along the waterways to view these sea caves up close is an unforgettable experience. Meanwhile, the Bayfield Maritime Museum has exhibits on commercial fishing, boat building, and the lives of lighthouse keepers. It houses artifacts, photographs, and stories from the local maritime community. Finally, the Bayfield Apple Company is a family-owned orchard in a microclimate created by Lake Superior, allowing for the cultivation of apples and other fruits that are sweet and flavorful. A tour of the orchard offers a hands-on learning experience about sustainable farming practices.

The Northern United States has a tapestry of scenic small towns that blend history, nature, and architecture. Mystic, Connecticut, with its maritime past and colonial buildings, and Cooperstown, New York, steeped in early American history and rural landscapes, exemplify this blend. North Conway, New Hampshire, in the White Mountains, and Newport, Rhode Island, known for its Gilded Age mansions and coastal vistas, further have experiences rooted in their natural landscapes and legacies. These towns, along with others, are examples of the diversity of the Northern United States, inviting visitors to head upwards to discover its scenic gems.

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