The magic of some small towns is often palpable upon entry. Some places have a certain je ne sais quoi that comes from a unique blend of geography, history, amenities, and, of course, the people. American small towns are particularly well-known for their friendly charm and state-specific identities. Though there are several options to choose from, the following ten small towns in the United States should serve as a sufficient highlight reel for this beautiful country.
This slice of rugged Alaskan heaven combines all the critical components of The Last Frontier. The small town of Homer is located on the Northern side of Kachemak Bay, looking out upon the splendor of the Kenai Mountains and Kachemak Bay State Park And Wilderness. Visitors can easily enjoy the sights, sounds, and indulgences of the community, camp on the Homer Spit, or adventure deeper into the surrounding wilderness. A guaranteed life-long memory is to hop on a floatplane tour across Cook Inlet to Katmai National Park and Lake Clark National Park to watch healthy populations of hefty Alaskan brown bears in their natural habitat.
This high-altitude, Victorian-era gold and silver mining town has a robust and creative spirit. During its prime, Leadville exhibited all the glamor of a quintessential Wild West saloon town. After the mines closed down, the scrappy residents had to reinvent themselves to keep the community afloat. Utilizing its prime location between the Mosquito and Sawatch Mountain Ranges, Leadville has been transformed into an outdoor recreation/adventure race tourist town. The Leadville Race Series now keeps the town busy year-round with an endless combination of running and mountain biking events. This reinvention was kicked off in 1983 with the infamous Leadville Trail 100 Run, a grueling but beautiful 100-mile ultramarathon. There are more approachable races to choose from, but just coming out to support and spectate is a rewarding experience in and of itself.
Saint Augustine, Florida
Saint Augustine, or the "Ancient City," is the oldest continuously-inhabited European city in the United States (founded by the Spaniards in 1565). As such, there are plenty of historical sites to explore while also enjoying the typical Floridian temperatures and waterfront setting. The cobblestone streets of the old town are just the beginning of the antiquitous amblings. Make sure to add Flagler College, the St. Augustine Lighthouse And Maritime Museum, and Aviles Street (the oldest street in the oldest city) to the exploratory itinerary. Along the way, take the time to appreciate the old-fashioned houses and range of other museums (from art history to medieval torture) that pepper the former port town.
St. Charles/Geneva, Illinois
Just 35 miles West of Downtown Chicago and even closer to the international hub of O'Hare Airport are the sister communities of St. Charles and Geneva, Illinois. Both are situated on the Fox River and offer a soothing setting with some light social activities peppered in. The area is rich in boutique shops, vintage hotels, individualized restaurants/cafes, dog-friendly parks, riverside walking paths, and friendly faces. This tri-city area (which also includes Batavia, which is just a little further south down the river) exudes plenty of small-town goodness while still being within shouting distance of one of the great American cities.
This charming New England shoreline settlement was once a seaport and safe harbor for building ships and weathering storms. The old captains' homes are still sprinkled throughout town. Nowadays, the maritime vibes reverberate strong and true while also accommodating modern attractions such as the Mystic Aquarium and the Mystic Museum of Art. And, of course, a waterfront New England village is going to have plentiful eateries. Clam chowder might be the first instinct, but do not overlook the steam-powered Clyde's Cider Mill, which is a fall favorite for hot apple cider and fresh donuts.
Just south of Flagstaff, Arizona, is the ubiquitous red rock landscape of Sedona. This small city is known for its thriving arts scene, its emphasis on new-age spiritualism, a vibrant health and wellness scene, and oodles of scenic outdoor activities. The adjacent 1.856-million-acre Coconino National Forest, plus four wilderness areas and two state parks in the surrounding area, provide the playground for keen mountain bikers, climbers, anglers, runners, hikers, rafters, horseback riders, and ATV/motorcycle buffs.
Maplewood, New Jersey
The Township of Maplewood, New Jersey, is a mere 30 to 40-minute commute from The Big Apple. The quiet and captivating streets of downtown Maplewood Village will act as a welcome respite for anyone looking to escape the city for a few days. Settle in fully by booking a stay at one of the enchanting inns or B&Bs, shop for local produce at the summertime farmer's market, and just generally enjoy a slower pace of life in a place where jaywalking is not an extreme sport. Plus, given the proximity, a field trip to Manhattan is always an option if anyone wants to inject a controlled stint of fun and excitement without committing to an extended stay.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Switch to island time on this 4.35-square-mile, car-free resort town in Mackinac County. "Big Turtle," as the island is referred to in the indigenous Odawa and Ojibwemowin languages, is nestled between Michigan's Northern and Southern Peninsulas, surrounded by the waters of Lake Huron. Take the ferry from Saint Ignace (to the Northwest) or Mackinaw City (Southwest), and from there, boot around on foot, rent a bicycle, or take a step back in time with a ride on a horse-drawn carriage. Make sure to indulge in some of Mackinac Island's world-famous fudge, tour Fort Mackinac, enjoy the nightlife, and plan for one of the island's festivals that are scattered throughout the calendar.
Sleepy Hollow, New York
The infamous setting of Washington Irving's, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is nestled on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, only about 32 miles, or an hour's journey by car or train from New York City. This quaint and colorful village is part of the ironically and eerily-named town of Mount Pleasant in Westchester County. Enjoy the lovely yet spooky scenery while keeping one eye open for the Headless Horseman. The community celebrates its identity with cemetery tours and a particular emphasis on the Halloween festivities. But there are also lots of regular sights and sounds to enjoy. Sleepy Hollow always has live music events going on, including a solid lineup of jazz performances.
Forks/La Push, Washington
Cozy up in the thick of the Pacific Northwest, Forks is beautifully located on the Olympic Peninsula, between the rugged Pacific Ocean beaches and the Olympic Mountains, including the 7,980-foot focal point of Olympic National Park, Mount Olympus. Make sure to pack your waterproof clothing as Forks takes the crown for the rainiest town in the contiguous United States. The whimsical surroundings and lack of sun inspired the setting for the best-selling series Twilight, which uber-fan tourists will surely get a kick out of. Otherwise, visitors typically use this spot as a leaping-off point for Olympic National Park/the Hoh Rainforest (to the East), to explore the beaches and unspoiled coastline of La Push (to the West), to take advantage of the bountiful fishing, and to appreciate the layers of Native American cultures.
All of these small towns throughout America are well worth a visit. Depending on what speaks to you, you may just find yourself returning to your favorites, again and again. Though big cities, by definition, have an automatic draw, lately, more and more people are rediscovering the appeal of quaint and personable communities that are also closer to nature.