Best Adventure Colleges in the Blue Ridge

When I was a senior in high school, my goal was not just to go to college; I wanted to go to college as far away as possible from my northern Virginia hometown. But when the acceptance letters rolled in and the dollar signs started showing, I quickly realized that my romanticized higher education plans were simply not going to pan out.

My solution? Deny every acceptance letter I had received, apply (past deadline) to a small private college in southwest Virginia that I had never heard of, and wing it. Fortunately, that small private school, Emory & Henry College, accepted me and provided enough financial support to seal the deal. Beyond my misbegotten decision-making process, the one allure that Emory & Henry College held above the rest was a seemingly awesome outdoor program. With less than 1,000 students, Emory & Henry’s tightknit community easily paved the way for my discovery of the incredible opportunities for outdoor recreation in and around the college campus.

For the majority of my life, I had been a Pony Clubber and a band geek, but never a kayaker, never a backpacker. When my four years at Emory & Henry were drawing to a close, I had morphed from ballerina to dirt bag. I had picked up a summer job raft guiding on the New River Gorge, had spent three months bushwhacking and canoeing with the NOLS Amazon semester, and had become intimately familiar with the many wilderness playgrounds of southern Appalachia.

College selection can be a stressful and overwhelming matter. Here at Blue Ridge Outdoors, we want to make it easier. We selected the top 32 adventure schools, and readers voted for their favorites in a March-Madness-style tournament bracket.

After six weeks and over 350,000 votes, our readers decided on the two best adventure colleges that went above and beyond the call of adventure. Appalachian State University, located in Boone, N.C., not only won the big school bracket but also dominated overall with 11,232 votes in the final round. Brevard College, located a couple hours southwest in Brevard, N.C., trumped the small school bracket and came in second overall with 5,391 votes. How did two schools from the Old North State manage to wipe away 30 other colleges and universities across the Blue Ridge? The answer I heard time and time again involved two words: location and community.


1. Appalachian State University

  • Landmark Programs: Wilderness Orientation Program, Instructor Development Program, month-long domestic and international expeditions, outdoor program scholarship
  • International Travel Opportunity? Yes: New Zealand, Wales, Fiji, Canadian Rockies, Italy
  • On-Campus Facilities: Indoor climbing wall, 50-meter pool
  • Service Opportunities: Blue Ridge Parkway, trail maintenance, Watauga Opportunities and Watauga High School Project Recreation
  • Most Popular Outdoor Activity: Climbing
  • Playground: Beech Mountain, Roan Mountain State Park, Linville Gorge Wilderness, Table Rock, French Broad River, Stone Mountain, N.C., Watauga River, New River

“I’d never been an outdoor person,” says senior Appropriate Technology major Charlotte Garvey. “Now, I do climbing, kayaking, rafting, everything I can.”

Garvey is one of the roughly 17,000 people in the ASU community who has access to the adventure opportunities available through Outdoor Programs (OP). “I’ve learned that I can do a lot more than I originally thought,” she says. “Coming into college, I was pretty shy, pretty introverted, but I’ve become a lot more willing to push past my boundaries. The community that OP has is the closest and most supportive family outside of my own that I’ve ever had.”

That sense of community is something OP Associate Director Rich Campbell says is one of ASU’s strongest selling points.

“It’s the community’s atmosphere of collaboration and support that really sets us apart,” Campbell says. “We work with Cultural Affairs to run the Banff Film Festival and our photography competitions. We also work closely with the Sustainability Department to create new programs and biking initiatives. ASU really tries to maximize what we have in our own backyard, and any student, regardless of major, can participate on any level in OP.”

Zachary Silverman, a senior psychology major, is one of the students who has taken his participation in OP to a new level. As the Climbing Wall Programmer at ASU, Silverman is responsible for opening up the campus indoor climbing wall to students, faculty and staff. He says the opportunities OP provided him were the reason he was able to develop his rock climbing skills and push to a higher standard.

“I feel like OP has a lot of good energy because students come to ASU and are immediately embraced by people who are amped on the outdoors,” says Silverman.

Andrew Hawley, one of the full-time coordinators for OP and a person who is definitely amped on the outdoors, has made outdoor recreation and education more than just a career; for Hawley, the outdoors is a way of life.

“We offer everything from a backcountry cooking clinic in our warehouse to 30-day international trips. It’s not just for the hardcore. It’s for everybody.”

For the students who choose to make some facet of outdoor recreation a part of their academic careers, the Recreation Management department at ASU provides three different concentrations in the field: outdoor experiential education, recreation and parks, and commercial recreation.

Kristian Jackson, a faculty member in the Recreation Management department and volunteer boss for the local Rocky Knob mountain bike park, says that the relationship between OP and the students and faculty from the Recreation Management department is what makes the adventure scene at ASU truly unique.

“We need more people to be outside, enjoying nature and adventure and realizing, through these activities, that they are capable of more than they thought,” Jackson says.

With some of the East Coast’s best mountain biking, climbing, and whitewater paddling within an hour’s drive from the ASU campus, it’s easy to see why the university has worked to develop a comprehensive and inclusive outdoor curriculum into its academics. Developed in the late 1970s, OP has a long history of providing adventurous experiences for the ASU student body.

“App State really embraces the fact that we’re in such an amazing outdoor environment and that, for students, it’s a great part in the development of their academic careers,” says senior marketing major and OP member Wes Overvold. “Outdoor recreation allows people to get in touch with their wild spaces. You’re not going to protect anything that you don’t love, and OP helps you realize that. Being outside has been imperative to my collegiate success.”

2. Brevard College

  • Landmark Programs: Immersion Semester, Voice of Rivers source-to-sea experience, BC Bikes program
  • International Travel Opportunity? No
  • On-Campus Facilities: Indoor Climbing Wall, mountain bike loop
  • Service Opportunities? Yes: Trail service, American Canoe Association, Adventure Education Conference, practicum professional skills development program, Boys & Girls Club
  • Most Popular Outdoor Activity: Paddling, Climbing, Biking
  • Playground: Pisgah National Forest, Looking Glass Rock, French Broad River, Dupont State Forest, Green River, Tuckaseegee River, Chattooga River, Nantahala National Forest

At Brevard College, WLEE is not so much an acronym as it is an identity. Pronounced ‘Willy,’ the WLEE, or Wilderness Leadership & Experiential Education, program is one of the college’s landmark majors. With roughly 600 students at the college, about 10 percent of those are WLEE majors.

Clyde Carter, an Associate WLEE Professor and one of the founding fathers of the program, says that the proximity of Brevard College to so many outdoor resources makes it a unique gem for prospective students looking at a career in outdoor recreation.

“What I love at Brevard College is that a lot of people have already found that passion,” Carter says, “so the students are excited about being in the outdoors.”

The experiential education component of the WLEE program is a core value of Brevard College in general, but the lessons learned by taking the reins and guiding a group of fellow students into the backcountry is incomparable according to Assistant WLEE Professor, Robert Dye.

“I have a 15-year-old son,” Dye explains, “and I’ve noticed that he and his peers have lives that are scripted and contained. There’s always a coach or teacher or instructor and they aren’t allowed to fail. Because of that, they are not accustomed to failing and recovering or making decisions with hard consequences. The WLEE program teaches students to make real decisions, because I think a decision without a consequence is not a real decision.”

Dye most recently experienced the value of this lesson during the 2013 Voice of Rivers trip, a three-week, source-to-sea expedition that followed the Suwanee River from the headwaters in the Okefenokee Swamp to the Gulf of Mexico.

“I’d say the three values that are integral to the trip are the human experience, the environment, and independent thinking,” Dye says. “As a faculty member, that last one’s the scariest to teach, but it’s also one of the most exciting times when you get a student to challenge you in a respectful and appropriate way.”

For Andrew Gunan, a theatre and criminal justice double major, the three-week paddling trip was more than just a step outside his comfort zone; it was more like a 13-hour plane ride and a couple bus stops away.

“Originally, I wanted nothing to do with the outdoors,” Gunan says. “I was a city boy, and city boys just don’t do things like that. But when I saw how fun it looked, I couldn’t resist. When you’re separated from the world for three weeks, you learn a little bit about yourself.”

Gunan says that the river experience taught him how to work with people he may or may not like, a lesson that he knows will carry over into his career pursuits.

“My biggest challenge with the outdoor industry was being comfortable in communicating with all different walks of life,” says 2012 WLEE graduate Jim Wall. As a kayaking instructor and guide for Green River Adventures, Wall knows that those basic communication skills he gained at Brevard were instrumental in helping him be a successful entertainer and educator.

WLEE Coordinator and Associate Professor Jennifer Kafsky says that outdoor recreation is important for just that reason.

“I see people let down their guard and become more authentic,” she says. “It offers such a great opportunity for community building too.”


West Virginia University 

  • Landmark Programs: Diverse winter and spring break trips, Leadership Training seminars, freshman orientation program, SOAR sophomore retention program, first collegiate canopy tour and training center.
  • International Travel opportunity? Yes: Patagonia, Fiji, New Zealand
  • On-Campus Facilities: Challenge Course, Canopy Tour, indoor climbing wall, Outdoor Rec Center with equipment rental unit
  • Service Opportunities? Yes: US Fish & Wildlife Service, Highlands Conservancy, Coopers Rock Foundation, Friends of Deckers Creek
  • Most Popular Outdoor Activity: Whitewater paddling, climbing
  • Playground: Coopers Rock, Seneca Rocks, New River, Cheat River, Dolly Sods

Through hands-on freshman orientation programs, Adventure WV provides incoming students with a means of developing environmental and cultural awareness as well as service learning and community collaboration.

“We use the outdoors to facilitate a sense of belongingness, both with the state of West Virginia and the college community itself,” says Greg Corio, Adventure WV Director.

Corio knows all too well what that sense of belonging means to a student. As a WVU alumnus, Corio decided to create an outdoor orientation program as his graduate project, which then turned into his full-time job.

“You can use the outdoors as a metaphor for being successful in life,” he says. “Yes, it may hurt and yes, it may be hard, but you can push through any challenge and come out on top.”

Third-year student Paris Winfrey is in the process of experiencing just that, having just now changed his major to business.

“That’s what I like about Adventure WV though,” Winfrey says. “It fosters individual growth but maintains a solidarity between everyone through our love of the outdoors.”

Georgia Tech

  • Landmark Programs: CORE Leadership Program, Tech Treks orientation trips, strong volunteer base
  • International Travel opportunity? Yes: France, China, Scotland, Chile, Canada
  • On-Campus Facilities: Climbing Wall, Leadership Challenge Course
  • Most Popular Outdoor Activity: Kayaking, Caving
  • Playground: Springer Mountain/Amicalola Falls, Chattahoochee River, Boat Rocks, Sope Creek, Kennesaw Mountain, Tumbling Rock, Steward Springs, Howards’ Waterfall

“What we do isn’t rocket science, but we do what we do with rocket scientists as staff,” says ORGT Director David Knobbe.

This is most certainly true. Georgia Tech’s prestige in the world of higher education does not include any outdoor recreation curriculum, and you certainly won’t find a major in kayaking here. Despite Georgia Tech’s renown for science and math programs, the ORGT has generated mass interest among such scholarly students.

“Georgia Tech is a school of super high achievers who are super self-motivated,” says ORGT Assistant Director Matt Marcus. “Students here are aggressive in their pursuit of excellence. If they are going to get into something, they are going to GET INTO something. If they don’t learn the highest level of an activity, they see it as a waste of time.”

Both Knobbe and Marcus are themselves accomplished outdoorsmen, having individually thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail prior to working for Georgia Tech. The two are proud of their grassroots program, which boasts over 150 current student and dedicated alumni volunteers.

University of Tennessee

  • Landmark Programs: Student Outdoor Leadership Education, Bike Safety and Long-Term Rental Program
  • International Travel opportunity? Yes: Costa Rica, Mexico
  • On-Campus Facilities: Vol Wall climbing gym, rental center, bike shop
  • Service Opportunities? Yes: All Access Outdoor Festival
  • Most Popular Outdoor Activity: Kayaking, Climbing
  • Playground: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Roan Mountain State Park, Cherokee National Forest, Rumbling Bald, N.C., Tellico River, Clingmans Dome, Tenn./N.C., Tennessee River, Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, Obed Wild & Scenic River, Big South Fork

UTOP Director Benjy Darnell wasn’t always a certified, safety-inclined outdoorsman. In fact, he hardly knew anything about it until he scrambled up a spray painted boulder and contemplated how neat it would be to climb up something taller.

“I was from Powell County, so rock climbing was a completely new concept to me. All I knew was hunting and cow tipping. But I can remember exactly how it felt to climb on top of this dinky rock. I was so elated, and that’s what got me started climbing.”

From living out of his truck and climbing for four years to learning to whitewater paddle in middle age, Darnell says the outdoors really broadened his horizons.

“It gave me definition,” he says. “The outdoors opens up a new world to people, and for graduating high schoolers, college is a new world after all. The outdoors is really a venue for these students to try new things and to connect that to an accomplishment. Building on that creates a metamorphic learning opportunity where students realize they can accomplish way more than they ever thought.”


Davidson College

  • Landmark Programs: Semester-long Wilderness Leadership Skills course, Backcountry Odyssey orientation program
  • International Travel opportunity? No
  • On-Campus Facilities: Climbing wall, equipment rental unit, high and low Challenge Course, disc golf course, trip planning support
  • Service Opportunities? Yes: Long Branch Environmental Center, Hall Fletcher Elementary School
  • Most Popular Outdoor Activity: Backpacking, Kayaking
  • Playground: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pilot Mountain, U.S. National Whitewater Center, South Mountains State Park

For Davidson Outdoors Director Ed Daugherty, the outdoors have always been important in his life. A 1985 Davidson alumnus himself, Daugherty has been intimately familiar with the paddling world for most of his life. He slalom raced at an amateur level for eight years before going on to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) to teach and guide for 14 seasons. When he wasn’t working on the water, Daugherty was playing on the water and traveled everywhere from Siberia to Central America to execute personal paddling trips on an international level.

When he began working for Davidson Outdoors in 1992, his comprehensive skillset and outdoor experience inspired students all over campus.

“Davidson Outdoors emphasizes the importance of experiential learning by encouraging students to take risks (physical, social or emotional), make crucial decisions and explore themselves while outside their comfort zone,” writes Davidson third-year Haley Sanner. “College culture does not always support the importance of experiential learning in conjunction with the theoretical learning that happens in the classroom. Balancing theory with experience helps develop students who are ready to face challenges in the real world.”

Maryville College

  • Landmark Programs: Mountain Challenge trips fulfill academic credit, freshman orientation programs, Mountain Challenge Fellowship
  • International Travel opportunity? Yes: Costa Rica, Ecuador, Canada
  • On-Campus Facilities: Alpine Tower, Low Ropes Course, College Woods
  • Service Opportunities? Yes: Environmental service projects, facilitates outdoor trips for underserved parts of surrounding community
  • Most Popular Outdoor Activity: Flat water paddling, trail sports
  • Playground: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Ocoee River, Hiwassee River, Little River, Chilhowie Lake, Tellico Lake

When Mountain Challenge director Bruce Guillaume started the program 25 years ago, he had no idea that he would also be starting a lifelong career.

“I know what everyone takes for granted,” Guillaume says. “I’ve found that when you’re fit and you’re outside, you feel better and do better. Not to mention it’s fun.”

Guillaume’s passion for the outdoors runs in the family. His daughter, Emily, attends Maryville College and is also a staunch advocate for outdoor recreation and the adventure opportunities available through Mountain Challenge.

“We’re committed to bringing passion and a sense of earnestness to outdoor recreation,” she says.

That earnestness transcends basic outdoor recreation. The Mountain Challenge program is housed in one of the few LEED-certified buildings in the country, which speaks to the program’s values.

“I back-doored becoming an environmental person when I started the program 25 years ago,” Guillaume says. “Back then, I could take the outdoors much more for granted than I could now. But because I enjoy this stuff so much, there becomes this duty to take care of where you play which is so important to outdoor recreation.”

Emory & Henry College

  • Landmark Programs: LEAD (Leadership Education and Development) program, Semester-A-Trail, activity courses for academic credit
  • International Travel opportunity? No, but maintains partnership with NOLS international semesters, which are available for study abroad credit
  • On-Campus Facilities: Climbing tower, indoor bouldering cave, disc golf course, indoor heated pool
  • Service Opportunities? Yes: Appalachian Teen Trekkers, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, South & North Fork Holston River Cleanup, Keep Bristol Beautiful
  • Most Popular Outdoor Activity: Hiking, Kayaking
  • Playground: Grayson Highlands State Park, Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Holston River watershed, Virginia Creeper Trail, New River, Backbone Rock, Hidden Valley, Hungry Mother State Park, Jefferson National Forest, George Washington National Forest

When Emory & Henry Outdoor Program Director Jim Harrison thru-hiked with his wife in 1997, they made a stop in Damascus, Va., 20 miles away from the Emory & Henry College campus. After completing their southbound voyage, the two relocated to Damascus and never looked back.

“The people we met who shared their stories with us revitalized my soul,” Harrison says. “In building the E&H Outdoor Program, I initially wanted to create opportunities for people to have the same kind of experiences I enjoyed on the A.T., to make meaningful connections with the backcountry and with people.”

Harrison has gone above and beyond that, building a program that started as a day hiking club to a comprehensive outdoor program that facilitates everything from week-long adventures in the Florida Everglades to whitewater paddling excursions 20 minutes from campus.

“There is an inevitable beatdown in the powerful and humbling forces of the rivers and mountains,” Harrison says. Yet no matter what the day’s adventure may bring, Harrison holds true to some advice a fellow paddler and friend always says. “Who’s the best paddler on the river? The paddler who is having the most fun.”


Warren Wilson College  //  If you want to get dirty and support a good cause, WWC’s Outdoor Programs hosts the Jason Hunt Memorial Challenge every year. The memorial was founded in honor and remembrance of WWC student Jason Hunt who valued helping at-risk youth through outdoor experiences.

Radford University  //  Are you outdoors? If not, you might want to get off the couch and join RU Outdoors on one of their amazing trips, from horseback riding to tree canopy cruising and skydiving.

Lees-McRae College  //  Serious about climbing? So is LMC. Check out their competition rock climbing team and the annual Reel Rock Film Tour that Outdoor Programs hosts.

Washington and Lee University  //  The W&L campus location is prime for outdoor adventures. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, the Outing Club can help facilitate everything from flyfishing on the Maury River to caving in one of Virginia’s 3,650 known caves.

UT-Chattanooga  //  UTC Outdoors offers incoming students the chance to be a part of WILD, the Wilderness Institute for Leadership Development. WILD takes its members into the wilderness once a month to recreate in a variety of settings and learn how to be a good leader.

UNC-Asheville  //  Gear rentals, kayak roll clinics, bike shop, you name it UNCA’s Outdoor Programs has it. What’s more, for those that are serious in taking their outdoor pursuits to the next level, consider joining the Outdoor Leadership Training Program which not only covers backcountry skills but also history and philosophy of outdoor education, risk, and group dynamics.

Western Carolina University  //  Base Camp Cullowhee at WCU offers the greater Cullowhee community opportunities for adventure through its outdoor-oriented events, such as the Tuck River Cleanup, the Catamount Adventure Camp for kids, and the Rock & Rumble Fest/Bouldering Competition.

Liberty University  //  Running is big at Liberty and the Student Activities Board offers a variety of races under the Liberty Mountain Trail Series to accommodate the interest. From the Deep Hollow Half Marathon & 5k to the Arctic 5k, there is sure to be a race that will challenge your innermost Rambo and get the adrenaline flowing.

University of the South  //  Most universities have on-campus trails, but Sewanee’s campus knocks them all out of the water, boasting over 50 miles of trails that are open to students for hiking, biking, horseback riding and even overnight camping.

University of Richmond  //  Natural High is not about doing drugs. It’s a program dedicated to getting Richmond’s college students away from the books and out in the woods.

James Madison University  //  JMU is nestled in the mountains surrounding Harrisonburg, Va., so it’s only natural that outdoor adventure should rank high among JMU students’ “things to do” list. If you can’t get off campus for a few hours, check out JMU’s indoor climbing gym for some extra practice.

Duke University  //  Duke’s competitive attitude goes beyond academics and football. The University hosts an annual Outdoor Adventure Race and the Crimpin’ Crazies Climbing Competition for Duke’s adventurous community.

University of North Carolina  //  Experience Carolina and broaden your perspective with UNC’s multitude of outdoor recreational opportunities, from a comprehensive Challenge Course to WAFFYS (Wilderness Adventures for First Year Students).

University of Maryland  //  Want to go to Altamira, Costa Rica, Guadalupe and Panama? How about Fiji and Norway too? Come to UMD and discover a bottomless vault of adventure leadership courses at home and overseas.

Clemson University  //  CU boasts an impressive Cycling Club that has been in existence for over 20 years and races across the Southeast as part of the Southeastern Collegiate Cycling Conference (SECCC).

University of Georgia  //  If you thought you couldn’t kayak for school credit, think again. UGA offers PE credit for its fall and spring semester courses as well as its two-week adventure trip to Costa Rica.

Vanderbilt  //  Ever dreamed of trekking through the Grand Canyon but never knew how to go about fulfilling that dream? Vanderbilt can help with its 18 years of experience traveling to and within the steep red walls in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park.

Penn State  //  Yes, it is possible to learn to SCUBA dive at a state school. Just ask PSU’s Paul Rentschler, SCUBA Diving Supervisor and underwater guru.

Virginia Tech  //  Venture out into the wilderness with VT’s Venture Out program, which provides everything from night ski and snowboarding excursions to SUP sessions.

University of Virginia  //  Whether you’re an amateur or an experienced skier or snowboarder, the Virginia Alpine Ski and Snowboard Team offers powder lovers a chance to get the adrenaline pumping and the competitive edge on at least twice a week at the nearby Wintergreen Ski Resort.

University of Kentucky  //  Rafting on the Chattanooga, climbing in the Red River Gorge, DOG SLEDDING in Michigan?! You name it, UKY’s Outdoor Pursuit team can make it happen.

University of South Carolina  //  Reduce, reuse, and rebicycle with the USC’s Abandoned Bike Project, which revitalizes left-behind bikes for new owners.

University of Alabama-Birmingham  //  Not everyone wants to attend a group-intensive backpacking trip. For the independent-minded, check out Outdoor Rec’s gear rental center and Bama Bikes program.

Places to Go, Things to See: