College towns are a natural fit for outdoor meccas because of their populations of active students eager for a break from studying. The following places, however, are stand-alone gems for outdoor pursuits, from hiking to biking to canoeing with alligators.
One word of caution: During game weekends, especially at larger universities, accommodations fill up fast. You’ll probably have better luck staying a few miles outside of town, though you can also try calling for last-minute cancellations.
Burlington, VT: This vibrant town, on the shores of Lake Champlain, is home not only to the University of Vermont, but also to Burton snowboards, which gives a big clue about how it ranks on the adventure scale. Take your pick of activities: There are miles of hiking and riding trails thanks to the nearby Green Mountains (Stowe, Sugarbush, Smuggler’s Notch) and, for cyclists, the 363-mile Champlain Bikeway. And after a long day of playing, the culinary treats are just as tempting: cheese, chocolate or ice cream from king Ben & Jerry’s, which makes its home here too.
Boulder, CO: This eco-friendly, adventure-fanatic town about 30 miles from Denver draws some of the fittest folks in the country, with the bodies (and VO2 maxes) to show for it. Indeed, students at the University of Colorado are more likely to get together for a strenuous hike or bike ride instead of beers. Visitors should take advantage of its spectacular hiking, mountain biking, and mountain climbing. To stretch out all those sore muscles, hit up one of the dozens of yoga studios around town. Boulder is also home to the Adventure Film Festival (Nov. 18-20; www.adventurefilmfest.org).
Gainesville, FL: There’s no better place to get your gator on than the hometown of the University of Florida, and we don’t just mean in the 90,000-seat stadium where the Gators play. Lake Alice, on campus, is so full of the revered reptiles that nighttime joggers are urged to stay away. At Payne’s Prairie (www.floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie), about 10 miles south, you can canoe in alligator-infested waters and catch a glimpse of bison, wild boar, coyotes, and other wildlife that thrive on this 21,000-acre wilderness area. If you’re looking for an experience thats less Animal Planet, check out the 16 miles of biking and hiking trails that extends to Hawthorne. Another Gainesville favorite: Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, which features a 120-foot deep sinkhole that requires a descent of 232 wooden steps.
Ann Arbor, MI: The home of the University of Michigan, A2, as its locals often call it, boasts a cozy, welcoming feel and some of the best outdoor offerings in the Midwest. Mountain bikers flock to Pinckney Recreation Area, which boasts killer singletrack trails like the Potowatami, and paddlers and canoers of all skill levels take to the Huron River. Another draw? Prices for room and board seem to honor a student’s sparse budget, so you can stay on the cheap. For more info on activities, check out www.a2gov.org or www.michigan.gov/dnr.
Study up on other standout university towns with our Top 10 College Campuses to Visit.