Although I love a good city escape, I’m far happier visiting smaller towns and exploring rural areas. It’s likely because I grew up in one. My hometown boasts a mere 1,330 people as of the 2020 census. Sometimes a small town is just a pit stop on a road trip. Sometimes it is a destination all on its own. Here are my 10 of my favorite U.S. small towns that I’ve visited, whether it was love-at-first-sight or it took time to grow on me.
My 10 Favorite U.S. Small Towns
Port Orford, Oregon
The southern Oregon coast was one of the most common vacation destinations for my family when I was a kid. I’ve driven the southern half many times. Of all the towns you pass through, Port Orford is definitely a favorite. It’s at the end of a spectacular stretch of coast where Highway 101 hugs the ocean from the Oregon-California border northward. If you pass through, make sure to stop at the The Crazy Norwegian’s Fish and Chips for lunch.
At the far northern end of the Napa Valley sits the tiny town of Calistoga. It boasts a lovely little downtown with some excellent restaurants, plus plenty of surrounding wineries. You can also visit the nearby Old Faithful Geyser of California, something I enjoyed as a kid and have taken my own kids to see. It’s the best of Napa Valley with less traffic and fewer people.
If you’re coming up from the Bay Area, driving up State Route 29 is the easiest way to get here. I prefer the drive over from Highway 101 on State Route 128. Or you can brave the pass over Mt. St. Helena from Lake County.
I cannot imagine that there is another place in this world quite like Whittier. It might be my favorite place that I visited during a summer trip to Alaska. Located in a spectacularly beautiful setting on Prince William sound, surrounded by multiple glaciers, the tiny town is a popular tourist destinations. It also boasts a fish processing plant, and the majority of the towns inhabitants live in a single high-rise. Recreational opportunities include both hiking and fishing. I saw well over a dozen pink “humpy” salmon in a creek at Lu Young Park, and watching those fishing was plenty entertaining, as you couldn’t go five minutes without someone hooking a salmon. To top things off, the only way to access the town by land is to drive through a one-lane tunnel through the mountains.
Set against a backdrop of quintessential Utah red canyon hills, Kanab is a small town in the middle of a bunch of outdoor opportunity. I’ve only been there once, and briefly, but I enjoyed the visit. It’s just over the Arizona state line, and the gateway to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. You’re also an hour from Zion National Park, and even less from Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park (which I hadn’t heard of before my visit). Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument are also within easy striking distance. It’s like Sedona, but cheaper, and with less immediately beautiful geology, but a whole lot more in the surrounding area.
Taos, New Mexico
Taos is known for art, skiing and the historic Taos Pueblo. The Taos Plaza and shops all around it are a fun place to enjoy for an afternoon. But the pueblo is the gem. We took a guided tour of the Taos Pueblo after entering the UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site. The multi-story adobe buildings are carefully restored and maintained. Definitely worth visiting, and I’m sure it’s high on many people’s lists of favorite U.S. small towns.
St. Augustine, Florida
Now, I don’t know if St. Augustine is truly classified as a small town, but I think it fits the bill. As the longest-inhabited European-settled town in the United States, historic St. Augustine is worth visiting. I enjoyed it immensely with two of my kids in summer 2020. The lighthouse and maritime museum were enjoyable as well. Plus, you’re not far from some nice Florida beaches.
Hear me out. You might not think there is anything to Nevada beyond Las Vegas, but you’d be wrong. Very wrong. If you ever want to have a road trip where you can contemplate life as you fly past mile after mile of lonely desert, drive from Las Vegas to Reno. Or drive the circuitous route I took from Ely to Carson City. In either case, you’ll pass through the odd town of Tonopah. For most, it’s just a place to put fuel in your car and continue onward (which I certainly did, as there is nothing around for quite a while). But I did take a walk around this dusty old silver mine town for a bit. You can see some of the old, abandoned buildings and mining infrastructure from the road. Whether you want to see some of the history or stay at the world-famous Clown Motel, there’s something for everybody.
Set against the impressive Bitterroot Range, I’ve loved the two brief times I’ve visited friends in Hamilton. I have some great memories, from enjoying a coffee at Big Creek Coffee Roasters, to walking on ice-covered Lake Como, to laughing over lunch at Nap’s Grill. I need to get back. Montana is a state I’ve spent far too little time visiting.
If there is one town in Virginia that I’d choose to live in, I think it would be Staunton. At around 20,000 people, it’s a bit bigger than most of the other U.S. small towns on the list. With plenty of nearby hiking, Shenandoah National Park to the north, and the history of Charlottesville and Monticello nearby, it’s a gem of the Blue Ridge. If you’re in town, be sure to enjoy an excellent prime rib dinner at Mill Street Grill.
I can’t escape a list of favorite U.S. small towns without a plug for my hometown. Ferndale, the Victorian Village of Northern California, draws visitors from all over to our picturesque little Main Street. There are many beautiful examples of Victorian architecture in town. Whether you want to browse the shops,
Other Favorite U.S. Small Towns?
With such a vast country to explore, I’m sure there are many other small towns that are top picks by readers. What are some of your favorite U.S. small towns?