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Outdoor Schools

The best outdoor schools in the Blue Ridge

Some people will tell you that college is a time to buckle down, get serious, and focus solely on your studies. Don’t listen to them.

There is no greater enabler for excellence in academia than balance. The ability to do what you love in the outdoors, hit the books, and spend time with good people in the same day is the recipe for a happy and fulfilling university career. Have you ever had the pleasure of welcoming the first rays of sunlight on your favorite mountain bike trail before class? Or walked out of your last exam of December finals and headed straight to the slopes for an evening of soulful shredding? Or felt the fuzzy afterglow of adrenaline in calculus after a blitz of the local class IV creek? Exertion in nature also gives us a fulfillment that turbocharges our creativity and energy in the academic realm.

The adage “work hard and play hard” could not be more appropriate for college years.Fortunately for us, the Blue Ridge is rife with exceptional educational institutions with world-class recreation at their doorstep. If you’re looking to couple a great education with close-to-home, world-class outdoor recreation, here are the best schools for every sport.

whitewater paddling

University of North Carolina at Asheville

Location: Asheville, N.C.

Student Body: 3,700

Educational Focus: Liberal Arts

Tuition: In-State $5393, Out-of-State $19,025

Notable Alums: Becky Weiss, Leland Davis, Pat Keller, Tom Visnius, Willow Koerber

UNCA and the city of Asheville are steeped in whitewater culture more than anywhere else in the world.  The host region of the legendary Green River Narrows Race and a myriad of other kayaking-related events, Asheville is an ideal location for the aspiring steep creek paddler.

Chris Bell, economics professor at UNCA and long-time paddler, says that the school is special because of the small class size and breadth of education that comes with being one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation. “UNCA is a place where you are going to develop personal relationships with your professors and interact directly with them, rather than TAs,” Professor Bell says. “There is a deep paddling heritage at UNCA, and the rivers and community are an excellent enabler to take your paddling to the next level.”

Aside from their long list of first descents and race wins, UNCA alums and professors also give back to the paddling community. Professor Bell runs the community information site BoatingBeta, and alum Kevin Colburn is executive director of American Whitewater. Intermediate paddlers can participate in weekly roll sessions on campus all winter, as well as guided river trips with the UNCA Outdoors Program during spring and fall.

UNCA is lauded for its sciences, with the atmospheric sciences, health and wellness promotion, and environmental studies being some of the top programs at the school. Some of its atmospheric science professors are members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which received the Nobel Prize in 2007.

Hit List

The Ledges of the French Broad, an excellent class II training ground, is only 10 minutes down the street.  From campus, it is 35 minutes to the Green River Narrows, and a 1.5 hour radius brings you to the entire gamut of paddling: Nantahala, Nolichucky, Big Creek, Rocky Broad, Wilson’s Creek, Raven Fork, Toxaway, Horsepasture, and U.S. National Whitewater Center.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: With an alumni list that includes kayak and standup paddleboard icons, Virginia Tech allows the perfect combination of spectacular whitewater and strong academics to create outdoors leaders.

Eastern Tennessee State University, based in Johnson City, has excellent health sciences and medical academics and a primo location to enable year-round paddling.


University of Virginia

Location: Charlottesville, Va.

Student Body: Undergraduate 14,591, Graduate 6,515

Educational Focus: Business, law, medicine, engineering

Tuition: In-State $23,984, Out-of-State $48,988

Notable Alums: Edgar Allen Poe, Woodrow Wilson, Robert Kennedy

Founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1825, the University of Virginia and the city of Charlottesville are steeped in American heritage. UVA is consistently ranked in the top 5 public institutions in the nation, and from an athletic standpoint, it provides a particularly strong foundation to chase your running dreams.

The school and the town embrace the sport like few other places in the country, and there is an unlimited variety and quantity of opportunities to push your personal limits. On a collegiate level, the cross country and track athletes are consistently competitive on the national stage. Several UVA athletes placed well in the U.S. Olympic Trials this year in a variety of track events, including the 800 meter and 4×400 relay. Recent UVA rosters have also included ACC champions and All-Americans.

The dedicated cross country course at nearby Panorama Farms is an excellent training location. The UVA Center for Endurance Sport, a technique and fitness research facility open to students, has also sent top tier athletes to the Ironman and other elite events worldwide. Running is a way of life in Charlottesville, and the community buy-in is fostered by personalities such as Gill and Francesca Conte, professional runners who host their own local radio program as well as a show on National Geographic.  Throughout the year, there are over 25 community races with a variety of distances and characters.

The university itself offers a unique and memorable culture.  The architecture on campus is spectacular, and Jefferson’s work ethic and ethical standards come across in the excellent academics and student-run honor code system.  As a testament to the high level of academics that the school offers, past visitors and speakers include the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, FDR, and Queen Elizabeth II.

Hit List

There are several excellent running trails in town and nearby.  O-Hill and the Rivanna Trail are popular destinations close to campus, and a short trip into the mountains opens up unlimited trail possibilities.  A perfect destination in that regard is the Appalachian Trail in nearby Shenandoah National Forest.


Brevard College: This tiny school happens to be in one of the best training zones in the world for running, and Dr. Jack Daniels and other top minds in the sport are noticing.

Furman University: As long-time host of the NCAA Southeast Cross Country Championships, and home of the Furman Institute of Running (FIRST), this school is deeply invested in the sport. The spectacular campus, academics and alumni network make it a great choice.

NC State: They have dominated track and cross country, developed Olympians, and won national titles.

mountain biking

Clemson University

Location: Clemson, S.C.

Student Body: Undergrad 15,836, Graduate 3,743

Educational Focus: Engineering

Tuition: In-State $11,524, Out-of-State $27,682

While many may dismiss Clemson as a Division I party school, it also takes its fun seriously. Clemson is the best mountain biking university in the Southeast.

The trail networks of Issaqueena Forest are a renowned hub for cross country mountain biking, and the university has its own downhill track that is maintained by the Clemson Freeride Club. This trail plays host to one collegiate and one open race per year, and its excellent jumps and wall rides have also attracted the Red Bull Night Shift event in the past. The club has a high-energy atmosphere, and members pitch in to build the many world class features that they share with the community. Club members also participate riding trips to the Trials Training Center in Chattanooga, Snowshoe Mountain, Moab, and other world-class destinations.

Hit List

The aforementioned downhill track is complete with pumptrack, dual slalom course, downhill track, dirt jump set, and trick booter. It is a ten minute drive from campus, so bring your hardtail and all-mountain or DH rig. Urban riding opportunities abound on campus as well, and much of the landscape is sessioned by passionate student riders between class.


James Madison University: This Harrisonburg, Va., school has the GW in its backyard and an active club for the beginner and intermediate rider. World-class riders emerge from JMU every year, and local legend Jeremiah Bishop trains nearby.


road cycling

University of Georgia

Location: Athens, Ga.

Student Body: Undergrad 26,000, Graduate 9,000

Educational Focus: Journalism, law, education

Tuition: In-State $21,250, Out-of-State  $39,460

Notable Alums: Ryan Seacrest, R.E.M., Terrell Davis

Cycling has deep roots in Athens, with the UGA Cycling Club flourishing as a student resource since 1988. Soon after its inception, riders from the school attended the first collegiate nationals in 1989. Leading cycling manufacturer Specialized quickly saw the value in the club, and remains one of its largest sponsors.

The town itself has great pride in its cycling culture. The BikeAthens nonprofit has advocated successfully for bike lanes on all major thoroughfares, and the moderate winters allow for pleasant riding and training throughout the winter. is the hub for area group rides, and the lack of major highways near the town mean that endless miles of scenic country roads are available in any direction. Aside from the many races that occur in Athens itself, students have quick access to Atlanta events as well.


University of the South: This private college located on the Cumberland Plateau provides a perfect base to access some of the finest road riding in Tennessee.

Studying at outdoor school


West Virginia University

Location: Morgantown, W.Va.

Student Body: 22,711

Educational Focus: Engineering, neurosciences, forensics

Tuition: In-State $5,674, Out-of-State $17,844

Morgantown is an oasis of outdoor adventure.  Farmers markets and organic farms abound, and the hiking and backpacking opportunities nearby are unparalleled.

The trail options start right in town. The Monongahela River flows adjacent to campus, and the Caperton Trail allows for 10 miles of running, hiking or biking along the river.  The Mon & Deckers Trail is also an excellent option for petroleum free hiking. It extends out from town for 29 miles and offers up great scenery and fewer people the farther you go. Coopers Rock State Forest is also a popular spot for school trips, with 50 miles of trails, old-growth forests, and spectacular rock overlooks of the Cheat River.

The school itself is an academic powerhouse, having produced 25 Rhodes Scholars.  WVU is affiliated with the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, which is dedicated to studying Alzheimer’s and other diseases that affect the brain. Forensics and Investigative Study is also a leading program, and a partnership is forged with the FBI in biometrics research.

Hit List

Whether camping in Red Creek Valley or enjoying the views from Bear Rocks, Dolly Sods Wilderness is a great place to get away from it all. Check out the Breathed Mountain Loop, a 16.2 mile overnighter that will make you feel like you’ve been transplanted to Northern Canada.  Also explore the various sections of the Otter Creek Trail network an hour from town.


Berry College: This Georgia liberal arts institution has the largest contiguous college campus in the world. Much of this, including Lavender Mountain, and the Cohutta Wilderness is within striking distance.

Emory & Henry: Strong liberal arts academics and a hiking-centric culture close to the A.T. make E&H a backpacker’s dream school.


University of Tennessee Chattanooga

Location: Chattanooga, TN

Student Body: 9,891

Educational Focus: Business, engineering, nursing, psychology

Tuition: In-State $5,398, Out-of-State $18,932

UT Chattanooga has a vibrant metropolitan campus in a city that is flanked on all sides by Tennessee’s signature sandstone mountains.  The area has been quickly rising to prominence as an epicenter for adventure sports, and its proudest asset is certainly the climbing.

The University recently constructed a 44-foot indoor climbing wall on campus in the Aquatic and Recreation Center, which served as a catalyst for a school climbing club and the Chatt Nasty competitive climbing team. Just outside of campus are many world-class climbing destinations. Foster Falls is regarded as one of the best sport climbing areas for experienced climbers, and some of the routes dip into the elite 5.14 realm.  Walnut Wall is also an excellent jump-off point for beginners and intermediates, allowing a smooth progression into the sport.

The university itself has a wide range of programs, with much of the focus being placed on its nationally ranked business school.  The city is an outdoors hub, and its social focus is the waterfront area along the Tennessee River.  It’s immediately apparent when looking out at the SUP boarders and kayakers that Chattanooga residents love being outside.

Hit List

Tennessee Wall is an excellent trad location whose south-facing wall is nice and warm in the wintertime. Suck Creek, Sunset, and Three Star round out the trad portfolio, and the Obed is an excellent sport climbing destination a bit farther away. One added bonus: deep water soloing on several walls on the Tennessee.


Virginia Commonwealth University: An on-campus climbing wall and other outdoor options within Richmond city limits make this school an urban outdoors classic.

NCSU kayaking

skiing / snowboarding

Appalachian State University

Location: Boone, NC


Student Body: Undergrad 15,460, Graduate 3,400

Educational Focus: Business, education

Tuition: In-State  $6,288, Out-of-State $15,201

At over 3,300 feet of elevation, Boone and the surrounding High Country of North Carolina towers over much of the state.  The school itself is a combination of a small liberal arts school and large research university. From an educational perspective, the Walker College of Business is one of the focal points of the University.  With both undergraduate and MBA programs, the business focus is on entrepreneurship.

Snow sports are App State’s specialty.  With three resorts within a 40 minute drive of campus, students have an unlimited supply of the slopes for before, after and sometimes during class.  Beech and Sugar Mountains are popular resorts in nearby Banner Elk with excellent conditions, and Appalachian Mountain is the local favorite, with many student specials and nighttime ski options.

The Appalachian State Ski And Snowboard Teams are dominant forces in the Southeast Conference and at nationals. The two teams compete in a variety of events including Giant Slalom, Boarder Cross and Super-Pipe.

Hit List

Beech and Sugar are 40 minutes away, and Appalachian Mountain is 10 minutes away.  The region also has excellent mountain biking and kayaking options.  The App State Mountain Bike Team competes strongly throughout the conference, and the paddling community centers around the nearby Watauga, Elk, and Doe Rivers.


Liberty University: This private Christian school in Lynchburg boasts its own on-campus ski hill and the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre.


Warren Wilson College

Location: Swannanoa, N.C.

Student Body: 896

Educational Focus: Environmental science, English, outdoor leadership

Tuition: $26,675

“We’re not for everyone… but then, maybe you’re not everyone.”  Warren Wilson’s tagline captures the flavor of this off-beat outdoor school. Located in the heart of whitewater country, Warren Wilson paddlers benefit from  the coaching of Olympian Lecky Haller.  Warren Wilson’s bike team is also extremely strong.  Coached by professional Cannondale Factory Rider Cassandra Perkins, the fully supported Varsity Team consists of 27 passionate students.  These athletes compete across the gamut of the sport, including cross country, short track, dual slalom, and downhill disciplines.  The school also has a gorgeous trail network that extends from campus up and down the Swannanoa River, and there are four ski resorts within an hour and 20 minutes of campus.

Not only are the recreational opportunities top-notch, but the culture of the school fosters a petroleum-free and sustainable lifestyle. Ninety percent of students live on campus, and a large percentage of them do not have vehicles. Bikes are a way of life at the school, and this mentality is augmented by other environmental initiatives, including the option to live in the Ecodorm. This is the nation’s first college dorm to be certified as LEED Platinum, and hosts an active permaculture garden, composting toilets, and a train car buried in the front yard to collect rainwater.

In order to graduate, students must complete 15 hours of weekly service on campus and 100 additional hours of community service. Students work in organic gardens, build and maintain trails, and help protect the forests and mountains that surround the school.

Hit List

Within 15 minutes of campus are the excellent Kitsuma and Heartbreak Ridge trails that make perfect dawn patrol riding destinations for before class. Beech, Sugar, Wolf Laurel, and Cataloochee ski hills are all close by for an evening snow session, and the Bent Creek trail network and Pisgah National Forest provide an unlimited supply of trails for running and hiking.


Virginia Tech: Tech proudly takes a mention here, after being so close in contention for the top spot in every other sport category. A strong engineering program rounds out its many surrounding outdoors assets.

Lees McRae:  This small school has everything that any outdoors athlete could want: two ski hills within minutes, highly competitive road and mountain biking teams, accessible whitewater, and unending trails for running and hiking. •

outdoor high schools

The benefits of outdoor education aren’t just reserved for college students. Across the country, outdoor programs for interested middle-and high-schoolers are tapping into a wilder way of learning.

The Blue Ridge School in Charlottesville, Va., a boarding school for boys in grades 9 through 12, offers electives in everything from Wilderness First Aid to a class on the history of the Appalachian Mountains. The program incorporates both hands-on and theoretical approaches. The mountain biking team builds and maintains their own trails. Students learning about back-country expeditions not only backpack, but develop course materials for future classes.

The Miller School of Albemarle, also in Charlottesville, Va., offers world-class cycling and mountain biking to its students. The endurance team, coached by champion racer Peter Hufnagel, is one of the most competitive high school cycling squads in the country. The Miller School also fields an elite mountain biking team and recently hosted the Virginia State Mountain Bike Championships. Students at The Miller School participate in a variety of outdoor service activities, clubs, including rides with Horses as Healers and gardening with Charlottesville’s Parks and Recreation.

Evergreen Community Charter School, part of the public school system in Asheville, N.C., embodies the values of outdoor and experiential learning. Students participate in building permaculture gardens and instructors use the natural world in every lesson. Students from kindergarten through eighth grade are challenged by “expeditionary learning,” an educational plan developed from Outward Bound in which core curriculums are weaved into real-time adventures undertaken by the students with faculty supervision.

The Arthur Morgan School is a progressive boarding school in the Celo community of North Carolina, where seventh, eighth, and ninth grade students are trained in Quaker values and Montessori philosophy. Students sing together each morning and participate in communal meetings to decide school policy. Students learn through hands-on experience, taking on the maintenance of school buildings and farms—and in adventures farther afield, during annual 18-day service trips structured around one educational theme.

The French Broad River Academy, also in Asheville N.C., is a private middle school for boys only. They’ve structured their curriculum around the river flowing past the school—The French Broad. Students engage with the river on every level—from practical field classes on conservation and navigation, to studying the history and literature of the ancient river to engaging with the complex civic life generated by  the French Broad.

The Lovett School of Atlanta, Georgia is another private school that has dedicated itself to providing students with experiential learning opportunities. Service trips for freshmen in the Atlanta area include helping a local organization connect the homeless with farm-fresh produce. A rafting trip for sophomores emphasizes conservation and ecology, and as juniors, Lovett students band together for a four-night, five-day backpacking and mountain climbing trip in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina.

At The Outdoor Academy in Brevard, N.C., sophomores from around the country walk up the mountain ridge that surrounds the school and silently greet the sunrise together. There’s a natural emphasis on nearly every aspect of school life—in math class, students might work on building a solar oven or sewing a quilt, then study Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry in a literature class, and end the day collecting firewood and harvesting vegetables.

The Sheridan School Mountain Campus in Luray, Va., where students who study at Sheridan’s City Campus in Washington, D.C., immerse themselves in a natural learning environment. Ensconced in the Shenandoah National Forest, the Mountain Campus provides a chance for students in grades K-8 to put the Sheridan’s schools “Challenge by Choice” philosophy into practice, deciding for themselves how much to particpate in the adventure of rustic living and outdoor skills—including kayaking, backpacking, environmental education, and outdoor leadership.

Read about one man’s experiences at Seneca Rocks Climbing School!

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