Some of the very best places anywhere to be active and enjoy the outdoors are in the North Country. When it comes to some of the great outdoorsy towns in the U.S., places like the Pacific Northwest, the coasts, and Mountain West get much of the press. We think that you are missing out if you don’t experience all that the North has to offer.
The birthplace of fat tire biking, the hotbed of Nordic skiing, the epicenter of wilderness paddling, not to mention some of the best hiking, fly fishing, and mountain biking in the world are all in the North. When you combine those activities with charming and vibrant outdoors-focused towns, you get some true destinations.
Here are our favorite active outdoors towns of the North.
Burlington is no longer the hidden gem it once was, but it is still absolutely underrated as far as outdoors communities go. At a population of just over 40,000, it is the 2nd-largest town on our list. Walkable, hip, and a little weird in a good way, Burlington has an identity all its own. Being a college town (University of Vermont) gives Burlington a nice mix of population – everything ranges from professionals to students and folks just passing through. It also gives Burlington a varied and fun food scene. The views of nearby Lake Champlain, with a backdrop of the Adirondack mountains, make Burlington picturesque in addition to being close to the outdoor action. With that lake so close, water sports like paddling and fishing are very accessible, and the hiking and biking scene nearby is excellent – as it is all through Northern Vermont. Our favorite: Cycling in the Lake Champlain area, with its more than 1,000 miles of bike trails stretching up to the Canadian border. Your day on two wheels may include a ferry ride and crossing a few 150-year-old covered bridges.
Ely is tucked away deep in the Northwoods of Minnesota, but its popularity with outdoor adventure seekers has made it a thriving little community of about 3,500. Originally a mining town in the middle of a forest, the designation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness back in 1978 shifted the focus decidedly to the outdoor industry. Today, Ely is the gateway to the Western side of the Boundary Waters, a unique area with over 1.1 million acres, 1,100 lakes, and 2,500 different canoe routes for a paddler to explore. While the active paddling and exploring by water is the main event here, the hiking (often also in the Boundary Waters area) is challenging and excellent too. If you like to fish, don’t forget your rod and tackle box, as the walleye and bass fishing is second to none – especially on the larger lakes like Vermillion. Ely itself has a great, down home restaurant scene that ranges from comfort food to some local farm-to-table options. Our Favorite: If you are in Ely, you are missing out if you don’t do a paddling tour. We are talking good, old-fashioned canoe paddling (but with some pretty darn advanced equipment). Find a local outfitter (there are several) to point you in the direction of a great route that will hit a few lakes and portages inside the BWCA. You can do a paddling daytrip route, or if you are more adventurous you can plan a multi-day trip into the wildnerness.
Bar Harbor, Maine
Bar Harbor is not easy to get to – but then again, most of the towns on this list are not. That is what makes them so special and unique. Bar Harbor is a cut above many of the seaside Maine towns, just because of its close proximity to Acadia National Park. Acadia is a gam of a park that offers excellent activities, both on land and water. The rock climbing scene is seriously underrated, but quickly being noticed. Hiking, kayaking, and cycling are all top-tier in the Bar Harbor area, but the water activities are really what make it special, in our opinion. Bar Harbor itself is a town of just over 5,000, but that population swells in the height of the summer tourism season, as plenty of campsites, AirBnBs, and hotels offer lodging for visitors. Don’t overlook visiting Maine in September and October, when colors are great and temps are still comfortable. With many great restaurants, a handful of breweries, and plenty of shops – there is a good rainy day plan if the weather doesn’t cooperate. Our favorite: Explore the Acadia Park coastline via kayak, either by bringing your own or by renting through any number of kayak rental places in town.
You will sense a couple themes develop on our list, and Marquette embodies two of them. First, we really like college towns as they embrace a diverse, outdoorsy, and active vibe. Second, we really love all that both sides of Lake Superior have to offer. The largest freshwater lake in the world is a favorite of ours less for the water itself, but more for what lies along its shores. Marquette is a great town of about 20,000, a college town (Northern Michigan University) and a gateway to the rustic Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We chose it over some of the smaller towns in the region just because it has more variety in dining, nightlife, and lodging. In this part of the world, most outdoor activities focus on either being on the water (kayaking, sailing) or next to it (hiking) but don’t underestimate some of the interior hikes which have impressive vertical given the rugged topography of the Upper Peninsula. Plenty of single track mountain riding trails exist for those who want to get some pedaling in. Our Favorite: A must-do is to kayak the Pictured Rocks lakeshore of Lake Superior – a stunning display of colorful geology just a bit to the east of Marquette. This national park follows 40 miles of incredible shoreline on the south edge of Lake Superior.
Grand Marais, Minnesota
Grand Marais, MN has it all. Not to be confused with a town by the same name in Michigan (also very nice), it is a quaint village on rocky North Shore of Lake Superior. From looking out past the lighthouse into the endless lake, you might think you are on the coast of Maine or Newfoundland. The shoreline soon gives way to a dense pine wilderness as you go inland, and up in elevation. This varied topography makes for excellent kayaking and hiking, and there is excellent mountain biking around nearby Lutsen. Given the rocky cliffs, the rock-climbing scene is deceivingly good as well. The canoeing in the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area is world-class, as it is in Ely (also on the list), and the Nordic ski scene in the winter is outstanding. Grand Marais offers a great home base for exploring, as well as a high-quality restaurant scene as several respected chefs have moved to the area. Rent a room or bring your travel trailer or roof top tent, and make Grand Marais home for a while. Our Favorite: The challenging hikes, along the Gunflint Trail which goes North from town into the middle of the wilderness, offer sweeping vistas of multiple wilderness lakes. The Caribou Rock hike is a personal favorite.
While we did not include many mountain towns on this list – ranking mountain towns is really a separate topic – we consider Montana to be “northerly” enough to warrant a mention. The fact is that Whitefish has a different feel than towns in some of the other mountain states, being more remote, rugged, and authentic. There are many great towns set against the mountains in Montana – Bozeman and Missoula to name a couple. But one great northern mountain town that shares the ethic of the other towns on this list – no pretense, and highly accessible to the outdoors – is Whitefish. Near Glacier National Park, Whitefish is a great home base for those who want to explore the Northern Rockies. The downhill skiing at Whitefish Mountain is excellent, and those same mountains provide some of our favorite mountain biking in North America. Hiking is outstanding (this can be Grizzly country, so remember bear spray) and the scenery is breathtaking. What makes Whitefish special, as far as mountain towns go, is that it sits on the edge of 7-mile-long Whitefish Lake, giving you access to sailing, watersports, and excellent trout and pike fishing. Whitefish itself is a town of about 7,000 people that started out as an old trapping town, and is just 20 minutes up the road from the larger but equally cool northern mountain town of Kalispell. Our Favorite: The 7-mile Summit Trail at Whitefish Mountain is a singletrack mountain bike trail that provides incredible views from the top. The trail itself is suitable for capable riders of all skill levels, and gives you more than 2,000 feet of incline if you do the entire route.
Portland is the largest city on our list. We almost didn’t include it because of its size, but we felt that at 65,000 residents it barely made the size cut. It made the outdoor activity cut, however, with flying colors. Portland is situation right on Casco Bay on the coast of Maine. The coast at this point is less rocky and rugged than further Northeast and Acadia, so it offers a different type of outdoor activity. Hiking and running trials abound, many with excellent coastline views. Sea kayaking is abundant and accessible, and given the terrain around Portland you can paddle through some protected areas if the waters are rough. The mountain bike scene is excellent, with some difficult singletrack trails as well as many less-technical routes, and in the winter you can hit the Nordic ski trails or head north to some of the downhill areas. The nearby coastal area is fun to explore — 20 minutes in one direction and you will be to Freeport, home of the iconic retailer of outdoor clothing, hats, and equipment LL Bean, and 20 minutes the other way and you will be at Kennebunkport, the famed coastal summer home of presidents. Portland itself, being a bit larger, is a culinary destination in its own right – especially for local seafood. Our Favorite: There are many choices of ways to get outside, but we lean toward fly-fishing when in this area. The brook trout are abundant on the nearby rivers (Maine has 97% of the US’s native brook trout population) and you if you want to cast into the Casco Bay flats you have a great chance of catching striped bass.
Hanover, New Hampshire
Hanover is a 10,000-person town full of some really smart people, thanks to Dartmouth University taking up residence there a couple centuries ago. Founded in 1761, Hanover has the distinction of being the oldest town on our list. That level of seasoning makes it a town full of character and history, something that seems to go hand-in-and with being a good outdoors venue. Outside of the charming and vibrant community, there is a ton to do outside. New Hampshire’s excellent network of cycling trails are all accessible from or near Hanover, and a quick drive gets you to Franconia Notch State Park and White Mountain National Forest – two great areas with elevations eclipsing 6,000 feet (Hanover’s elevation is a mere 590 feet – so you can get an idea of the vertical this area offers). What Hanover is famous for with outdoor enthusiasts, of course, is that it is near the end of the Appalachian Trail. Our Favorite: Go for a few-mile hike at the start (or the end, depending on which way you look at it) of the Appalachian Trail. The trail at this point is hilly but accessible for hikers of many abilities.
Situated in a protected spot on the southern shore of Lake Superior, Bayfield won our hearts over the first time we visited. A quintessential nautical town, Bayfield is the smallest town on our list at only about 500 people. That is a bit deceiving, though, because the combination of number of small towns within a 10-12 mile stretch of shoreline give you critical mass for everything you might need. When it comes to outdoor activities, the name of the game here is being on the water. Sailing is outstanding – as many sailing trips, daytrips, and tour companies allow you to get on the water. For those who are not confident with a sailboat, the kayaking and paddle boarding is incredible as well. Where do you go? To Madeline Island, and the Apostle Islands. You explore, but from the water. The Apostle Islands give you an assortment of destination spots, all part of a National Lakeshore area. If you are a land-lover, you will find ample hiking and mountain biking options as well. Our Favorite: Contact one of the local Bayfield kayak guides (you can find many online) and have them take you on a half day or full day tour of the rugged lakeshore and island area. They will supply all the gear so you just need to focus on having fun. If you decide to go by yourself, just watch the weather and bring a good map.
Lake Placid, New York
Lake Placid is best know to anyone over about 45 years old as the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics and the “Miracle on Ice”. Amazing how one incredible hockey game can become forever connected to a town. Lake Placid has lots to offer, though, outside of the Olympic venue. Even before there was any Olympic fanfare, Lake Placid was known as an outdoor playground. Thanks to its setting in the Adirondack Mountains, there is enough elevation change to make cycling, hiking, and rock climbing challenging. Fly fishing in the Ausable River is excellent, especially for trout, and there are even some landlocked salmon to be caught in nearby lakes. Together with Wilmington, some 13 miles away, the region boasts some of the best cycling terrain in the Northeast. A resurgence of good restaurants has also made Lake Placid an excellent place to unwind after a day outside. Our Favorite: We love Mirror Lake, with its calm water and gorgeous backdrop. Grab a paddle board and paddle and head out to explore the water, or if you prefer to stay dry, run or walk the 2-mile trail that loops the lake.