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.
Salida, Colo. (Pop. 5,433)
This adventurer's paradise, three hours southwest of Denver, is an unexpected oasis of activity surrounded by abandoned mining communities. Salida's unique setting helped it escape the fate of its ghost-town neighbors: Of the 50-plus mountains in Colorado that rise above 14,000 feet, 15 of them encircle Salida, creating a climate ripe for year-round outdoor sports, including biking, skiing, kayaking, and—what the city is best known for—white-water rafting. Each year, Salida hosts FIBArk on the Arkansas River, the oldest white-water festival in the country, run since 1949. Recently, the town has been gaining just as much attention for its burgeoning arts scene. Blocks lined with colorful Victorian buildings make up the largest historical district in Colorado, a fitting spot for the annual Art Walk, a three-day showcase of local talent. Salida's food offerings can be just as creative. New grocery store Ploughboy sells only organically grown, local foods, including tilapia produced in the prison aquaculture program in nearby Canon City. Former Iron Chef America contestant Kurt Boucher puts French and Asian touches on fresh ingredients and wild game at the Butcher's Table. And for a slight change of pace, visitors can retreat to the Tudor Rose B&B, a country manor with Rockies views.
Bluff, Utah (Pop. 320)
Many consider Bluff to be a lot like Moab before it took off. The community is located in the verdant San Juan River valley, bordered by 300-foot-high sandstone bluffs, rolling ranchland, and the Navajo Nation. In fact, some of the most sacred Native American sites in the country, like the rock art and ruins of the ancient Anasazi culture, are just outside the city limits. In Bluff, there are carefully restored old pioneer homes open for tours, along with a surprising number of quality lodges and B&Bs for such a tiny town, like the Desert Rose Inn, a timber lodge with a two-story wraparound porch and expansive red-rock views. In recent years, white-water rafting enthusiasts have discovered Bluff, and a number of outfitters, like Wild Rivers Expeditions, have set up shop here, offering outings to the Class IIIs along the San Juan.
Bolinas, Calif. (Pop. 1,238)
Tucked away among coastal eucalyptus groves an hour north of San Francisco, Bolinas is the sort of fiercely independent bohemian community people have come to expect from northern California. Once home to counterculture luminaries like '60s rock band Jefferson Airplane and beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, this hamlet has only grown feistier in the decades since. Bolinas can be reached solely by unmarked roads—and that's by design. The unofficial "border patrol" is so dedicated to keeping the town locals-only that its "officials" steal any highway signs that make it easier for tourists to invade. (Reportedly, no sign has lasted longer than 36 hours.) It's not hard to see why residents want to keep Bolinas a secret. Its peaceful beaches are a favorite of novice surfers, as well as large populations of herons, egrets, and harbor seals, and its bars and eateries are as good as any you'd find in the Bay Area: Smiley's Schooner Saloon is one of the state's oldest continuously operated bars, established in 1851, and the Coast Café serves super-fresh mesquite barbecued oysters, sourced from nearby Drakes Bay.
Astoria, Ore. (Pop. 9,738)
Consider this small Pacific Coast town a miniaturized version of San Francisco—its architecture is dominated by Victorian homes clinging to steep wooded hillsides, its weather is mild year-round, and its hip local hangouts make for a hot nightlife scene. Astoria sits at the mouth of the Columbia River, and the area's temperate rain forest is home to bald eagles and brown pelicans. As the oldest town west of the Rockies—the area was first settled by none other than Lewis and Clark—Astoria started out as a roughneck port, populated by sailors and cannery workers. Today, that crowd has largely been replaced by artists and indie-rock musicians, but the freewheeling vibe remains. Nightly shows at live-music venue the Voodoo Room bring in big-ticket acts, and artisanal coffeehouses, galleries, and boutiques occupy the 1920s buildings downtown. One highlight: The waterfront Columbia River Maritime Museum has stirring exhibits devoted to hundreds of shipwrecked boats, victims of the Oregon coast's sometimes violent swells.