Small towns are the pearls strung together by America’s highways. The best of them are gems, usually in friendly settings. They can be vibrant or sleepy, tired or touristy, welcoming or circumspect, hip or historic—and if they do it right, whatever they do, it works. It has been said that a small town is a place where there’s no place to go where you shouldn’t. Here are eight that you should experience:
Its neighbors—Monterey, Carmel and Pebble Beach—are each internationally-known. But Pacific Grove, where rumor has it there are more Victorian homes per capita than any city in America? It is the Zeppo Marx of California’s Monterey Peninsula. Yet it may be the most charming of the bunch.
What’s the most delightful thing about Pacific Grove? Is it the descriptions? The Chamber of Commerce touts it as Butterfly Town, USA (for the tens of thousands of Monarchs who winter there) and America’s Last Hometown. Back in 2002, Life magazine, referred to it as America’s “Most Romantic City,” offering a cover photo of a pink blanket of ice plant blooming along the coast, like a love letter from Mother Nature. It has also been called the “Mayberry of the Monterey Peninsula.”
Is it the underappreciated gems within this underappreciated gem? The four-mile recreational trail alongside Ocean View Avenue—from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to Asilomar State Beach—is a picture-perfect snapshot of wonders along the water’s edge. The Seven Gables Inn stands like a lemon-colored dream above the rocky coast. The forests and dunes at the Asilomar Conference Center offer quaint quietude. Point Pinos Lighthouse is the oldest continuously operated light station on the West Coast (since 1855). Lover’s Point is a community park consisting of leaning cypress trees, rocky outcrops and a beach tucked away like a secret, sandy escape.
Or is it the community celebrations? The area’s history of Cantonese fishermen is remembered annually in July with the Feast of Lanterns. The city is decorated with brightly colored lanterns, and the locals enjoy a Saturday pageant-and-picnic, and ooh and aah at a fireworks show. Every April, too, the late 19th century is reborn as Pacific Grove’s Good Old Days celebration, including an old-school parade. And every October the entire community gathers to watch the Butterfly Parade, a celebration of its children, in which each class from the city’s two elementary schools is dressed in its own historical or ecological costume. The kindergartners are always newly emerged butterflies.
The Million Dollar Highway in Colorado is roughly a 25-mile stretch of U.S. 550 that takes courageous travelers from Silverton through the Uncompahgre Gorge, over Red Mountain Pass and into the town of Ouray. Sometimes harrowing, at all times spectacular, it is absolutely one of the most remarkable drives in the universe. And Ouray is like a breathtaking exclamation point at the end of the journey. A town in which the entirety of Main Street is registered as a National Historic District, it certainly vies for the title of Most Charming Mountain Hamlet in the Galaxy.
Certainly, it doesn’t get much prettier. Ouray is set at the narrow head of a valley at an elevation of nearly 7,800 feet and is surrounded on three sides by 13,000-foot snowcapped peaks, so folks there like to call it the “Switzerland of America.” Here, contradictions actually complement each other. It’s an old mining town (there were once 30 active mines), but it took its name from a Native American leader—Chief Ouray of the Utes. And while it features a famous sulfur-free hot springs, it’s also the winter ice climbing capital of the U.S. (there’s an annual Ice Festival at Ouray Ice Park). Ouray also calls itself the Jeeping Capital of the World—thanks to the rugged, wildflower-lined roads that radiate from town. About one thousand people call the place home, but of course that doesn’t include the tourists.
At Niagara Falls, lofty expectations are always met. But sometimes you happen upon a surprise in the form of unexpected charm—like a pleasant little village only 15 minutes north of the falls, along the Niagara River, within sight of Canada. Lewiston (population 2,701) is one of those hamlets that manages to be both quaint and lively at the same time—historic yet still happening.
The site of the first major battle of the War of 1812, Lewiston boasts more than 30 food establishments within about a mile along Center Street. In fact, it won an online voting contest sponsored by Rand McNally and USA Today, beating 176 other towns for “Best for Food.” At the Orange Cat Coffee Co., the specialty lattes range from Berry Bomb (strawberry, blackberry, caramel) to Oscar Overload (chocolate, vanilla, caramel, Irish crème). And, of course, you have to try some authentic Buffalo chicken wings at Brickyard Pub & BBQ.
Lewiston is a festival-happy locale, hosting everything from a Jazz Festival to a Peach Festival to a Harvest Festival to a Wine & Culinary Festival. And on the south end of town, Artpark is “Western New York’s premier destination for art, music, theater and family fun.” That means performances throughout the summer—everything from a chamber orchestra to a “Frozen” family sing-a-long to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Doobie Brothers.
You can do the usual in California’s Sonoma County, opting for the wine or the seaside beaches. Or, instead, you can do something a little unusual—seeking the wonders in and around a small town in Sonoma’s center. The little known hamlet of Guerneville offers an abundance of good eats and natural treats.
Within a dozen miles of this little blip of a town, one can experience the majesty of redwood trees and the serenity of a river excursion. The Russian River runs right next to Guerneville. Rent a canoe or kayak and cruise ten miles downriver, a generally languid paddle punctuated by occasional rapids. You might spot a couple of great blue herons in the tall grass, or an osprey staring from the top of a tree, or a few red-tailed hawks circling above. It’s a naturally entertaining experience. And 805-acre Armstong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is just five miles away. There, you can stroll to the 308-foot-tall Colonel Armstrong tree and salute a living wonder.
But Guerneville is also brimming with mouth-watering meal options. Applewood Restaurant infuses France and Italy into California cuisine. Boon Eat + Drink is farm-to-table delicious. Mainstreet Station offers pizza accompanied by live jazz or blues. And for a truly unique meal, Dick Blomster’s Korean Diner offers dishes like kimchi pancakes stuffed with kale, seaweed, spring onions and oysters. And how about a dessert of a deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich with vanilla ice cream topped by Pop Rocks.
A perfect day in Vermont? It could go something like this: Wake up at a peaceful campground—say, the lovely Quechee/Pine Valley KOA in the Upper Valley of Central Vermont, where mountains and meadows and lakes and forests battle for bragging rights. Then set off a couple of miles down the road toward Quechee Gorge Village, the kind of New England hiccup where you find candle shops and antique malls and a toy and train museum—and where the establishments have names like The Lucky Elephant and Vermont Spot Country Store. Continue west along Vermont Highway 4, crossing over the Quechee (rhymes with “peachy”) Gorge and (eight miles later) into the village of Woodstock, about which 19th-century U.S. Senator Jacob Collamer once declared, “The good people of Woodstock have less incentive than others to yearn for heaven.”
Wander for a while past the shop like the Red Wagon Toy Company and the Village Butcher. Maybe grab a sandwich at Central Street Café. Then take a hike. From the Woodstock town green, cross over Middle Covered Bridge, make your way to Faulkner Park and start a gentle 1.6-mile ascent up Faulkner Trail to the top of 1,250-foot Mount Tom. Then look down. White steeples. Red-brick mansions. Covered bridges. Towers filled with bells cast by Paul Revere himself.
After more storefront browsing (don’t miss the cozy and independent Yankee Bookshop, which dates back to the 1930s), drive a few miles back toward Quechee. Stop at the Simon Pearce gallery at The Mill, which harnesses the hydro-power of a dramatic waterfall along the Ottauquechee River and fuels a glass furnace. Watch glass blowers work their magic. Then stay there for a dinner of Irish-American cuisine at Simon Pearce Restaurant with a terrace dining room overlooking Ottauquechee River Falls and its covered bridge. Properly satiated by Vermont, you’ll sleep well.
There are unique American tales to be found everywhere—in every hiccup and hamlet, in every crossroads and community. Every town tells a story, including Story, Wyoming, a bona fide blip reached via a slight detour along Interstate 25, about 20 minutes south of the city of Sheridan. There is, indeed, a bit of a storybook feeling to this wooded community nestled between North Piney Creek and South Piney Creek. And not just because you can drive along Storybrooke Lane. Nor because you can stand at the corner of East Street and Crooked Street.
Sure, maybe it’s the name that makes Story so appealing. Story Days has been a late summer tradition for three decades, offering everything from cook-offs to comedy to quilt shows. A Storytellers group meets twice monthly at the Story Library. The Story Woman’s Club has been active since 1919. There’s a Story Store at the Old Firehouse. And a Story Elementary School. And a Story Fish Hatchery. And a little guest house called, cleverly, Waldorf A Story. Not to mention a fine restaurant known as the Tunnel Inn that serves dishes like bison ravioli.
It’s rather ironic, then, that the story behind Story’s name isn’t all that compelling. Apparently, it was going to be named after a horse trader named Marshall Wolf. But there was already a Wolf, Wyoming. So instead it was named after another guy—a rancher who was instrumental in establishing the first post office. His name? Charles B. Story.
The population of Glen Arbor nearly triples during the summer when folks from all over the Midwest make their way to the area. And why not? Glen Arbor sits on a strip of land between Lake Michigan and Glen Lake, so the new arrivals have two bodies of water to choose from—not to mention the fact that Glen Arbor is in the middle of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, one of the most serenely spectacular spots in the States. All of which makes Glen Arbor an unexpectedly bustling yet almost unfathomably charming place.
What do you want out of a town? Fine dining? At Blu, you can enjoy Michigan Lake Trout along with a panoramic view of Sleeping Bear Bay. A dollop of history and a dash of quirky? The adorable Cottage Book Shop is housed in a log cabin built in the 1920s. How about local specialties? At Cherry Republic, the food creations for sale range from cherry preserves and cherry salsa to cherry fudge sauce and dark chocolate covered cherries. Rachael Ray is said to have remarked, “If Disney did cherries, it would look like Cherry Republic.” The same might be said for small towns and Glen Arbor.
When Theodore Roosevelt first arrived in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s, he was a four-eyed, Ivy League-educated pretender with an Eastern accent, as out of place on the frontier as a teddy bear at a rodeo. But he adapted to life as a lawman and rancher near Medora and later remarked, “I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” So today, Medora is the Gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. And the popular Medora Musical, performed nightly throughout the summer at the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, is an homage to TR and the Wild West days. And you can opt for a fine dinner in Theodore’s Dining Room at the historic Rough Riders Hotel.
It is a restored hotel, just like Medora is a restored western town. But it has managed the feat without falling into caricature. In fact, the relatively new, 15,000-foot North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame is for real, honoring all aspects of the region’s cowboy culture—trail drivers, homesteaders, ranchers, rodeo stars, and Native Americans.
Yes, Medora is a touristy place, catering to visitors aspiring to experience the vanished frontier—in fact, relying on them (the actual population is only 112). But that just means that the buildings are repainted every spring, and trees are trimmed, and the grounds are beautified. And come summer, try strolling through town during magic hour, when the sunset is painting masterpieces, and the scents are wafting from candy shops and ice cream parlors, and you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with the town’s catchy slogan: “Explore it. Adore it.”