Best Outdoor City

Chattanooga has been getting a lot of press in the outdoor industry the last couple years. This is no accident. This city has undergone one of the great revitalizations in modern American history, completely transforming itself from grim pollution spewer, to clean outdoor mecca. I had a blast exploring the city and talking to the locals about what the city was and what it is now.

Best Mid-Sized Mountain Town

Though I had visited Roanoke many times during my lifetime, when I visited Roanoke for this story, it was like seeing the city for the first time. Roanoke has fully committed to being a destination for the outdoors and it is reflected everywhere. From the city government to the lifetime residents to the medical school transplants, people are focused on the city’s image as a place where the active lifestyle, and all that goes with it, can thrive.

Best Small Mountain Town

What struck me about Hot Springs on my trip there was the kindness of the locals. This is a small town with a huge heart, and that is what truly endears it to the people who pass through or come to visit the springs. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows when a hiker, or a reporter, comes through town. Besides all the recreation opportunities, which are numerous, this welcoming atmosphere is what really defines Hot Springs.

Mountain Towns map

WHAT MAKES A GOOD MOUNTAIN TOWN?

No concrete criteria exist to quantify what makes a mountain town or how you achieve such a distinction. Not every town at a high elevation is a mountain town, but not every mountain town is in the actual mountains.

So what makes a good mountain town? The simple answer, to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, is “I know it when I see it.” You can usually tell if that dot on the map has an outdoor culture the minute you pull into town. Commuters on bikes, runners on a lunchtime jog, or a full tasting room at the local brewery are all good indicators you are in the midst of a mountain town paradise. These things are a big hint that the outdoor lifestyle is central to what makes up the fabric of a community, but ultimately they are a result and not a cause.

The single most important aspect of a mountain town is, and always will be, the people. You can have all the open space and money in the world, but it is the people of any given town that define it as true mountain town or not. Without a community committed to building the infrastructure, you are left with just a town in the mountains, not a mountain town. It is the people that enable a place like Chattanooga to transform their city from the most polluted in America to the most progressive; or a sleepy stopover like Damascus, Virginia to become “Trail Town, USA.”

That’s the funny thing about outdoor recreation: it takes a commitment from the people to maintain.  Trails need clearing, rivers need cleaning, and access needs protecting. It would be easy for Asheville to rest on the laurels of its already robust outdoor reputation, but the community is constantly striving to improve the opportunities for its citizens to access the outdoors in any way possible.

Sure, bike lanes and municipal parks are great—really great—but the bottom line is these improvements attract the type of person who will settle in a town and open an independent outdoor outfitter or climbing hostel. It is this independent, can-do spirit that sustains a mountain town’s economy and infrastructure for decades to come. What makes mountain towns special is the combination of local governments, entrepreneurs, conservationists, artists, and local outdoor enthusiasts working together to maintain their happy little hamlets.

We also wanted to thank our supporters who helped make the Mountain Towns poll such a success. They have always been great supporters of our mission: inspiring people to go outside and play!

Don’t forget to vote in our Best of the Blue Ridge poll where you choose your favorite things across from across the region!