My Top 10 'Authentic' Small Towns in America
There are "artsy" small towns. "Outdoorsy" ones. "Swank" ones. "Cool" ones. But this list is different. It's about "real," "authentic" American small towns... where nature is beautiful, shops are unique, and smiles are genuine.
And some of them may surprise you... No. 10 - WOODSTOCK, NEW YORK -
Woodstock is like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, with atmospheric old shops selling antiques, crafts, and books. At night, restaurants like the historic Fernwood emit a warm, homey glow. In winter, the Catskill Mountains are covered in snow. And the stunning natural beauty all around - captured on canvas by the great Early-American painters who moved here - is highlighted by partially-frozen waterfalls. The Kaaterskill Clove is a mountain-top waterfall that's actually the tallest in New York State - Niagara included. For a charming mountain hideaway, stay at a vacation-rental called the Waterfall House. No. 9 - FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS -
This town in the Texas Hill Country was founded by German settlers in 1846, and it still retains the Gemutlichkeit of the old days. Here, you'll see "Sunday Houses" built by settlers for their forays into town to go to church. The schnitzel and the red cabbage and the sauerbraten are superb at the Altdorf Restaurant & Biergarten, and the Auslander. Small family wineries dot the hills. If you've a taste for the unusual, head for the "Bat Tunnel," an abandoned railroad tunnel where, every day at sunset, some 3,000,000 bats fly out, in a whirling, whipping frenzy that darkens the sky for nearly thirty minutes. And at the nearby crossroads of Luckenbach, made famous by Willie Nelson, you'll hear cowboys reciting "Cowboy Poetry"... tall tales that get taller by the telling.
No. 8 - BRYSON CITY, NORTH CAROLINA - This is a classic Old South town, with a statue in front of the courthouse, a town square, and an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants. At N.C. Clampitt Hardware Company, you can find old-time hardware that you never thought you'd see again. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad will take you on a stunning ride through forests and meadows and "hollers" (small valleys). Bryson City's the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park...and to spectacular rafting trips in Nantahala Gorge with Wildwater Rafting Co. And Fontana Guides can take you on fishing, boating, or hunting trips into the heart of the Smokies. The best place to stay is actually above Bryson City; Lands Creek Log Cabins is a mountaintop hideout with beautiful log cabins built above a rushing creek.
No. 7 - ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN - Elkhart Lake sits in the picturesque glacial-hills of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. During the early 1950s the village transformed into an open-road race circuit as top sports car drivers took on the hills and sharp corners. Today the racecars are gone. But the historic circuit is still marked with signs like "Wacker's Wend," "Kimberly's Korner" and "Dicken's Ditch." The town is filled with historic resorts and B&B's, eclectic dining and shopping, and lively pubs...all within an easy walk of wherever you're staying. And, of course, it's filled with opportunities to explore the lake by boat, self-propelled or otherwise. And after you've explored it and worked up an appetite, stop by for some great comfort food at the Black Pig.
No. 6 - WINTER PARK, COLORADO - Winter Park is a colorful, one-street Colorado town with a lot to do - and to see. The views will take your breath away, from the 12,000-foot peaks you drive through to get here (on a very winding road) to the eye-filling views of the Fraser Valley. The town was founded by miners searching for gold and silver. Today it's filled with hikers, bikers, and rafters in summer, and skiers and snow-boarders in winter. Deno's Restaurant is a fun place, packed with locals. The High Country Stampede Rodeo takes place weekly in summer. And the Winter Park Resort is one of the best ski villages in America, filled with atmospheric cafes, shops, and restaurants, along with great hiking and skiing, and plenty of family amusements (including mini-golf and an alpine slide).
No. 5 - COEUR D'ALENE, IDAHO - This town up in the Idaho Panhandle is nothing if not "authentic." Its main street is lined with red-brick shops, bistros, and galleries, and old-time street lamps with hanging flower pots. It sits on scenic Lake Coeur D'Alene, with 125 miles of mountainous shoreline. The lake is great for kayaking; dotted with isolated, beautiful coves, with bald eagles soaring overhead. Tubbs Hill, a rugged, wooded peninsula jutting into the lake, offers great hiking and expansive views. Outside of town, the Route of the Hiawatha is a thrilling mountain-biking experience through abandoned railroad tunnels. The best accommodations in town can be found at The Coeur D'Alene Resort, with 340 luxurious rooms (many with incredible lake views), three excellent restaurants, a golf course with the world's only floating green, its own lake-cruise boat, and a float-plane offering dramatic panoramas of northern Idaho.
No. 4 - FLOYD, VIRGINIA - There's only one stoplight in Floyd (pop. 425). This tiny town is set on the Blue Ridge Plateau, where the ridges roll on forever into smoky horizons. It's a genuine slice of Americana that you thought had disappeared long ago. The Blue Ridge Parkway, considered by many the most beautiful road on Earth, is here. So are the Jacksonville Center for the Arts and the Floyd Artisan Trail, lined with craftspeople creating painted and woven and carved and clay masterpieces.
The Chateau Morrisette, Virginia's biggest winery, is nearby, as is the historic Mabry Mill. And Floyd's also a key stop on The Crooked Road, Virginia's heritage music trail. In fact, the biggest event in town is the weekly Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store - you can't miss it - where pretty much the whole town turns out for a genu-wine toe-tappin', foot-stompin' hoedown!
No. 3 - CODY, WYOMING - This is the quintessential western town. Rodeo rules, cowboys proliferate, and the town was founded by the world's greatest showman, Buffalo Bill Cody. Visitors can belly up to the bar given by Queen Victoria to Buffalo Bill, or see the rodeo on any summer night. There's a world-class museum - actually five museums under one roof - that cover Western art, firearms, Plains Indians, natural history and, of course, Colonel Cody. There's great hunting, trout fishing, rock climbing, horseback riding, hiking, kayaking, skiing near Yellowstone National Park, and ice-climbing on frozen waterfalls in winter. If you stay at the Chamberlin Inn you can ask for the room in which Ernest Hemingway stayed...and see his name on the register. And, of course, there are majestic snow-capped mountain ranges rolling into the distance, and plenty of "Big Sky."
No. 2 - WALLACE, IDAHO - Wallace has the only downtown in America listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings, with pointed roofs and rounded cupolas and red-brick, all look like they were built in the late-1800's...because many of them were! A stroll around town will bring you to storefronts such as the Oasis Bordello - which actually operated until 1986 (something about the Sheriff being on the payroll!)! It's a museum now. But, in its heyday, it was one of six bordellos servicing the 3,000 miners who worked around here. The Northern Pacific Railroad Depot - a prime example of 19th-Century Northwestern architecture - is now a museum, too. You can visit the most famous manhole-cover in America, at the intersection of Bank and Sixth, which proudly proclaims Wallace as "The Center of the Universe." You can don a hard-hat and enter gold and silver mines that operated until recently. And there's even a ghost town nearby, eerily silent today, but with bunkhouses and mine shafts and conveyor belts once filled with thousands of workers.
And, now, my pick for the "Most Authentic Small Town in America"...
No. 1 - GRAND LAKE, COLORADO - Imagine a tiny town of a few hundred, sitting on the shore of a huge alpine lake surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Then, imagine that this town has wood-planked sidewalks, funky Western restaurants, friendly folks with wide smiles and cowboy hats, fresh mountain air, craftspeople in colorful old studios, quaint bookshops and galleries, first-class live theater, and, oh, yes - the southern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. You've imagined Grand Lake! This is the home of Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre, which stages some of the best live theater in the state. It's the home of Sagebrush BBQ & Grill, where the salted peanuts are all-you-can-eat (or toss on the floor), the local beers are plentiful, and the barbecued ribs are memorable. You can take a boat-cruise around the lake, past wood-and-stone palaces belonging to folks such as actor Tim Allen or the Hall family (as in "Hallmark"); if you're lucky, you might even see a 2,000-pound bull moose on shore. You can stay at the Western Riviera Motel, overlooking the lake; ask for "The Treehouse," a rustic Western cabin at the top of a hill. Or go even higher, to the magnificent Grand Lake Lodge, inside the National Park and overlooking the town.
My definition of "authentic," of course, may be different than yours. But these are my top ten. What are yours?