September 25, 2019

Four urban centers that have all the makings of an epic adventure town—without the hype

(Photo: Joel Sheagren/Cavan)

Article written by the editors of Outside Magazine for Outside Online.

As people are being priced out of our favorite cities and as urban areas are investing more in green spaces, we asked Outside contributors to name the places they’re heading to for that perfect mix of city life and just-around-the-corner adventure. Here are their picks for the oft-overlooked, still sweet, outdoor-focused destinations to keep on your radar.

Atlanta, Georgia 

(Photo: Explore Georgia)

This unexpected adventure hot spot has been long in the making

At first glance, you may think that the South’s biggest city (population 463,878) has nothing but rush-hour traffic and career-focused up-and-comers. But look closer and you’ll find world-class access to the outdoors. From the 20-plus miles of technical trail running at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield to in-town paddling and fishing at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Atlanta is only getting better as it goes through an open-space renaissance headlined by the Beltline, a 33-mile multi-use path that, when completed, will form a car-free circle connecting neighborhoods around the city. It’s one of the largest green-space initiatives in the country. There are currently five completed sections of the Beltline (check out the Eastside Trail for its vibrant graffiti), but for real adventure, head to the interim trails, gravel and dirt paths that cut through the future Beltline corridor, offering easy off-road biking and running within city limits. 

The Georgia capital also recently scored its first purpose-built singletrack. Southside Park, located between downtown and the airport, has nearly five new miles of International Mountain Bicycling Association–designated trails cut for flow, with a dozen more miles in the works. Meanwhile, the North Face is working with the Trust for Public Land to build public climbing boulders in Rodney Cook Sr. Park, a new 16-acre green space in an underserved neighborhood on the west side of town. Next up? The city is putting $26 million into the construction of Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry, a 280-acre woodland surrounding a former granite quarry that will be the Atlanta’s largest open space. Plans include a cliff-lined lake. —Graham Averill

Colorado Springs, Colorado

(Photo: Nancy Rose/Getty)

The on-the-rise alternative to Denver

Denver’s transformation into an outdoor hub with all the amenities of city living has attracted an influx of young well-to-do types, which has led to the now familiar reality: a housing shortage and skyrocketing rents. Those looking for Front Range real estate without the hefty price tag should consider moving 70 miles south, to Colorado Springs, the state’s second-biggest city and best-kept adventure secret. At 14,115 feet, Pikes Peak dominates the skyline and features 19.5 rowdy miles of downhill biking in the summer and backcountry turns in the winter. The local ups are as exciting as the downs, including the legendary Manitou Incline, where defunct cable-car tracks are now used by hikers in search of a vicious workout—2,000 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile—and an incredible view. 

Climbers head to the Garden of the Gods, where 1,300 acres of towering sandstone formations and trad routes make it hard to believe you’re only 15 minutes from downtown. For less altitude, hometown favorite Palmer Park offers 25 miles of biking and hiking trails that snake around ponderosa pines and blooming prickly pear cacti. And although historically Colorado Springs hasn’t had the cool factor that defines the likes of Denver and Boulder, that’s also starting to change, thanks to an inflow of young creatives who are drawn to the more than 230 businesses in the arts. The city also has its fair share of hip hangouts: check out Ivywild School, a former elementary school that has found new life as a bustling food hall and brewery; Rabbit Hole, a late-night New American restaurant; and the speakeasy-style cocktail bar Brooklyn’s on Boulder Street. —Cheney Gardner    

Duluth, Minnesota 

(Photo: Gian Lorenzo Ferretti/iStock)

This adventure hub is now restoring the Saint Louis Corridor

Minnesota’s major port city is beloved for its forested parks, trout streams, easy access to Lake Superior, and more than 100 miles of hiking, mountain-biking, and running trails. But what most people don’t know is that the northern city of 86,000 is also where the 192-mile-long Saint Louis River flows into Lake Superior. For more than a century, the river’s last 39 miles, including its 12,000-acre freshwater estuary, were trashed by industrial and municipal waste. In 1976, it was finally listed by the EPA as an Area of Concern, but since a restoration initiative launched in 2014, it’s making a comeback. 

The nonprofit Minnesota Land Trust has been working with federal, state, and local agencies on the Saint Louis River Corridor Initiative, with a goal of restoring 50 percent of lost habitat in order to delist the river as an Area of Concern by 2025, though in less than a decade, impressive progress has already been made. The river is once again a fishery for muskie, walleye, and smallmouth bass, while bird species like bald eagle, kingfisher, and black tern are making a return, attracting fishermen and birders. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, one of six bands of Ojibwe that make up the tribe, can harvest wild rice once again. And for kayakers and canoers, the river is one signature away from receiving a National Water Trail designation. But for now, sweaty hikers and mountain bikers can swim at the easy-access beach at Chambers Grove Park. —Stephanie Pearson 

Olympia, Washington

(Photo: Stephen Matera/Tandem)

It has everything its Pacific Northwest neighbors have—but without the crowds

Forming a geographic midpoint between Washington’s Pacific coast and the mighty Cascade Range, Olympia is situated at the gateway to just about any outdoor adventure you can cook up. The state’s capital is certainly not its biggest or most popular city, but it has experienced a second coming of sorts, backed by outdoor-minded families who are burned out and priced out of Seattle.

Located 60 miles to the south, Olympia sits at the southern end of Puget Sound, where the intricate waterways and affordable marinas attract a strong boating, sailing, and fishing community. Right in town, there’s Priest Point Park, a 314-acre recreation area on Budd Inlet, and Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, which allocates areas for different activities, from bird-watching to hunting. Beyond that, Mount Rainier National Park is only an hour east of downtown, and Olympians (that’ll never get old) can be on a lift at Crystal Mountain Resort in less than 90 minutes. In the same amount of time, surfers can score waves in the oceanside hamlet of Westport, while the nearby Olympic Range features a lifetime of hiking and mountain-biking trails. 

After decades stuck in cultural Twilight Zone, Olympia has embraced a growing arts community, driven by artists from Arbutus Folk School and Evergreen College and locals trying to gain a foothold outside Seattle’s crowded scene. Add to that good schools and clean drinking water, and Olympia is quickly emerging as the next big thing for young and adventurous families in the Pacific Northwest. —Kade Krichko 

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