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Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns

02.07.19

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Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
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  • Arches National Park is just outside of Moab.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Riding the slickrock near Moab, Utah.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway outside of Tucson, Arizona.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Kayaking the Colorado River near Las Vegas.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Sunset over Las Vegas from Frenchman Mountain.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Backcountry skiing near Bend, Oregon.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Tumalo Falls near Bend, Oregon.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • The icy Mirror Pond in Bend, Oregon. Drake Park.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • High Peaks of the Adirondacks near Lake Placid, New York.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • The Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • In Wilmington, North Carolina, forest trails are just as close as sandy beaches.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • The Via Ferrata over Telluride, Colorado.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Jackson affords direct access to the Teton Range and Grand Teton National Park.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Backcountry skiing near Jackson, Wyoming. - Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Kayaking on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park near Jackson, Wyoming.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Overlooking Lake Tahoe from Martis Peak near Truckee, California.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Views above Lake Tahoe are regular sight for Truckee-area skiers.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Fort Walton Beach near Pensacola, Florida.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Paddling by the lighthouse and sand dunes near Ludington, Michigan.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Camping in the dunes on Bear Island, North Carolina.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Ocean overlook in Santa Cruz, California.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
  • Lush redwood forest near Santa Cruz.- Best U.S. Desert, Mountain, and Beach Towns
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Pro Contributor

The face of our planet is sculpted with landscapes of myriad forms, each as fundamentally intricate as the next, all intertwined in the fabric of elements that make up the Earth. As humans we play favorites, though, and certain scenes tend to stir the soul and capture the imagination more than others. Beaches, mountains, and deserts are three of the environments most of us find especially enchanting. They also provide exceptional backdrops for outdoor adventures.

To satisfy our fascinations and serve our daily needs, we created the beach town, mountain town, and desert town. Almost every hub for adventure has a town to go with it, but choosing favorites among these can be hard. Just as we each prescribe unique feelings on a landscape, everyone looks for something different in a place to live or visit.

For the purpose of this list, we've chosen one criteria on which to focus the most, which is access to a diversity of outdoor activities. From any of these towns, it's easy to get out and enjoy not only the quintessential deserts, mountains, or beaches of the area, but also a variety of other outdoor adventures in all seasons. Each one happens to be a fine place to live, as well.

A Windy Point sunset overlooking Tuscon, Arizona. Denis LeBlanc.

Deserts

Tucson, Arizona

Tucson is the big city of Southern Arizona, but its gridded neighborhoods and community hotspots make it feel smaller than it is. The surroundings are simply stunning, with vast Sonoran Desert and the soaring Catalina Mountains. 

Moab, Utah

A tourism mecca with a small but solid locals' scene, Moab is smack in the middle of Utah's dramatic red rock country. On the literal edge of town are colossal rock towers, chiseled canyons, and sandstone arches, but there's even a rushing river and snow-capped mountains seemingly out of nowhere on this arid landscape. 

Frenchman Mountain over Las Vegas, Nevada. Shaun Hunter.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas may be famous for a lot of things besides the outdoors, and it is definitely a big city rather than a town, but it would be severe disservice to southern Nevada to ignore its incredible outdoor opportunities. Getting out of the city is actually quite easy, and its smaller surrounding towns are right on the boundary of urban and wild.

Bend, Oregon

It's nowhere near the Southwest, but Bend is in the high desert, on the dry side of the Cascades Range. Considered by many a mountain town, Bend affords access to the best of both desert and mountain life, and as such this lively central Oregon town has become a hotspot for all types of outdoor activities in all seasons. In Bend you can easily choose between mountain biking shady forests and running sunny rivers in summer, or between skiing volcanoes or desert hiking in winter.

The village of Lake Placid, New York. John Haywood.

Mountains

Saranac Lake, New York

This friendly, community-minded village among the Adirondack High Peaks, together with its fancier and more famous neighbor Lake Placid, make the ultimate base camp for adventure in the Northeast. These mountains are well known for colors in fall, snow sports in winter, plus hiking and water sports in the summer. There is simply too much to squeeze into one season or even a year, so why not set up shop for a while?

Asheville, North Carolina

Western North Carolina is a mosaic of mountains far more vast and intricate than you would know, until you drive way down the windy back roads, hike the rocky trails, or paddle the whitewater rivers that abound there. At the center of it all is Asheville, a small city with a strong outdoors culture.

The Via Ferrata over Telluride, Colorado. Jonathan Stull.

Telluride, Colorado

The San Juan Mountains don't get as much attention as Colorado's Front Range, but they are certainly no secret either. This range in the southwest corner of the state has its own cast of 14,000-foot peaks, ski resorts, wilderness trails, and lots more. The small town of Telluride is most known for skiing, but it sits strategically among four seasons and multiple lifetimes of adventure.

Jackson, Wyoming

On the streets in Jackson you're equally likely to meet world travelers, classy vacationers, local ski bums, or any other type of outdoor lover. Located near near two national parks, three national forests, and several ski resorts, Jackson is both a crossroads for tourism and a happy home to mountain-minded locals.

Floating the Truckee River. Aron Bosworth.

Truckee, California

Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Lake Tahoe, Truckee is often one of the snowiest places in the U.S. thanks to it's location among the first significant mountain range that winter storms rolling in off the Pacific Ocean encounter. The town is poised perfectly in a valley beneath tall peaks that draw in record breaking snowfalls during winter, yet experience summers that are sunny, warm and mild. Truckee has access to countless trails, lakes, a river, and multiple ski resorts right near town, with the largest lake in the Sierra just short hop down the road as well.

Stormy skies above Pensacola, Florida. Aaron Goodwin.

Beaches

Pensacola, Florida

Sitting on a calm bay on the far west end of the panhandle, the small city of Pensacola is just two bridges away from Gulf of Mexico waves and an easy drive from numerous freshwater and terrestrial adventures on the mainland. Florida's famous freshwater springs are among the destinations you can find nearby.

Wilmington, North Carolina

Wilmington doesn't sit right on the beach, but it makes the list because of the diversity of beaches as well as inland activities within after-work or easy weekend driving distance of its riverfront downtown. Paddling, mountain biking, hiking, and camping are all surprisingly accessible on this stretch of Carolina coast.

Ludington, Michigan

When you think of beaches, you probably think of the ocean, but the Great Lakes have sandy shores and breaking waves as well. One of the best places for year-round adventure is Ludington on Lake Michigan. It's the best of all seasons, with water activities in the summer sun and snow sports in winter.

Seabright Beach near Santa Cruz, California. John Cody.

Santa Cruz, California

In a state packed with diverse landscapes and world-class recreation, Santa Cruz still stands out. With beaches, forests, and hills right around town, and mountains not far away, this place very nearly has it all. Its climate is cooler and cloudier than the quintessential California beach town, but adding a layer of clothing is a small price to pay for the year-round adventures found here.

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