The Nominees for America's Coolest
We've pulled together a list of 20 nominees from coast to coast. Cast a vote to determine the readers' top 10 American small towns—and check the September 2011 issue of Budget Travel Magazine to see the winners.
La Pointe, Wis. (Pop. 285)
The only town on the only inhabited island in Lake Superior's Apostles archipelago, La Pointe is a close-knit community filled with galleries and artists' workshops. The heart and soul of the town, though, is Tom's Burned Down Café, a lakeside "bar" consisting of nothing more than a large tent covering an open-air deck. Opened in the 1950s by a notorious Chicago divorcée, Tom's burned down in the '90s—rumor has it, the owner set it aflame to collect the insurance money. But still, the bar prevailed: By noon the next day, a local had cleared away the ashes and filled the deck with beer. Patrons were back that very night. Now, each year, the tent goes up around Memorial Day, and all summer, residents and tourists come for nightly music that ranges from Celtic fiddles to country rock. In January, when the lake freezes over and the ferry can no longer make the 25-minute trip to Madeline Island from the mainland, people drive cars across Lake Superior, following a trail marked by locals' old Christmas trees.
Ripon, Wis. (Pop. 7,479)
Set smack in the middle of Wisconsin, about 90 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, Ripon is a traditional, rural community steeped in history. Leading up to the Civil War, the pro-abolition Republican Party was founded here, and many original buildings from that era still stand. For the past 20 years, an aggressive downtown revitalization program has transformed Ripon's historic district into a vibrant retail center, and more recently, a Milwaukee-based developer announced plans to invest at least $40 million in downtown renovations, including purchasing old storefronts and converting them into upscale restaurants and apartments—and installing a Wi-Fi system that will cover the entire town. When the weather is warm, Ripon's locals congregate for special events, like the Friday-night free concert series, the blowout sidewalk-sale weekend on Maxwell Street, and an Oktoberfest in September, complete with microbrewed beer, brats, and classic car shows. But perhaps nothing is celebrated more here than baked goods: Rippin' Good Cookie bakery is a local favorite with undergrads at Ripon College, and in 1994, the town collectively set a record for baking the world's largest cookie—measuring in at 907.9 square feet—a feat now commemorated every summer with a big festival.
Victor, Idaho (Pop. 1,159)
Across the rugged Teton Valley, the tonier ski town of Jackson, Wyo., tends to get all the attention (and the celebrity visitors). But locals here make a clear choice for the more low-key community of Victor. The jagged peaks of the Tetons loom over Victor's meadows and streams, and the broad Main Street is flanked by Old West–style storefronts. The Victor Emporium has been serving its famous huckleberry milkshakes for more than 50 years, and Pierre's Playhouse hosts movies, concerts, and plays. In the summer, there's golf at Teton Springs' Headwaters Club, fly-fishing on the Snake River, and open-air movies screened at the Spud Drive In. In the winter, Victor's resident ski-film companies head to the nearby slopes at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Grand Targhee Resort.
Cooke City, Mont. (Pop. 142)
Just four miles from Yellowstone National Park's seldom-used northeast entrance (no long lines—even in peak summer season!), Cooke City shares the park's renowned geography and wildlife. Bears, moose, buffalo, and elk roam the pristine Alpine forests just outside town, and the trip into Cooke City is an epic introduction: From the city of Red Lodge, you drive along the Beartooth All-American Road, which swoops up and over the snowcapped Rockies on the way into Cooke City. Main Street anchors a loose gathering of locally run outfits like the general store, and log cabins are scattered all over town. Some are private residences, while others are for rent, like the Antlers Lodge's 18 structures, which surround a central 1913 cabin. Despite its tiny size, Cooke City hosts a massive fish fry every summer, an annual tradition since the 1920s. Year-round, the family-run Buns "N" Beds offers fresh BBQ smoked right on the premises.