Published: September 2008Best Places to Live: Where to Live and Play Now!
Photo: Bait and tackle store

Next Great Adventure Towns: Central

The next great adventure towns aren't just the best base camps for outdoor pursuits, they're smart investments.

Text by Sarah Tuff and Greg Melville
Photograph by Richard Hamilton Smith
1. Grand Marais, Minnesota
The Explorers’ Club
>>Photo Gallery: Top 12 Cities Weekend Scouting Reports >>
Set on Lake Superior’s rocky northern shoreline, this Minnesota outpost has some of the best of everything—in every season. The Gunflint Trail, a paved byway that runs straight out of town, accesses 143 miles of cross-country skiing classics in winter and a slew of singletrack in summer. Hook up with a team of huskies to sled the frozen Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or paddle through the 1.1-million-acre expanse when the weather warms. You can also build your own canoe, kayak, and skis at the North House Folk School, Grand Marais’s unofficial community center. Residents come together to push for renewable energy resources or protect their colorful waterfront from big-box stores. "We don’t want a run of strip malls," says local Arctic explorer Lonnie Dupre, who trains his sled dogs among the thick groves of aspen, birch, and sugar maple trees. The number of roads Dupre crosses from his house on the way to the North Pole? One: the Trans-Canada Highway. We can’t all be polar explorers, but luckily jobs in tourism are plentiful.
Population: 1,414
Median home price: $199,378

2. Rapid City, South Dakota
These days, the glimmer of gold in the Black Hills may be the reflection off a mountain biker’s helmet. Rapid City’s 300 miles of two-wheeling trails were joined this summer by a dirt-jump park. Kitschy Rushmore attractions add flavor, but locals head to a community theater or a classical music hall instead.
Population: 62,715
Median home price: $152,950

3. Traverse City, Michigan
Weekend Retreat
Hiking in Sleeping Bear Dunes is still a favorite in this quiet Lake Michigan resort spot, but with Broneah Kiteboarding now in town, soaring alongside the 400-foot sand swells is an option too.
Population: 14,407
Median home price: $150,375

4. Bardstown, Kentucky
We ain’t gonna lie: Bardstown’s status as the world’s bourbon capital drew us in, but its rivers flow as freely as the whiskey. Paddlers convene at Sympson Lake, and a whitewater park is in the works downtown. Not in the liquor business? Lexington and Louisville are both less than an hour’s commute.
Population: 11,128
Median home price: $113,300

5. Mobile, Alabama
Kristian Aboud, 30, owner of Five Rivers Delta Safaris
Why I made the jump: "I was commuting to work in Mobile as a wine distributor and realized there was untapped potential here for ecotourism. The delta is just beautiful, and there’s a new $10 million park. Mobile has a lot of charm, with its own Mardi Gras and great Victorian architecture. Plus, it’s a safe city."
How I found a job: "I’d been looking for suitable locations for hovercraft tours for four years. Mobile had this whole underutilized river system sitting right on its doorstep, so I set up my own operation."
Favorite trail: "The Bartram Canoe Trail gets deep into the delta and has floating platforms you can camp on to keep away from the gators."
Population: 192,830
Median home price: $137,300

6. Lafayette, Louisiana
Best for: Paddlers
Crawfish boils are always a social affair. And lately so are kayaking and backpacking forays into Acadiana Cajun-Creole country, courtesy of Pack & Paddle. The city is booming with jobs too; it’s one of the few in Louisiana with population growth. Cruise the Atchafalaya Basin bayous and chow down on crawfish.
Population: 114,214
Median home price: $171,900

7. Hermann, Missouri
A Missouri-style nod to France’s cycling-and-wine culture, Hermann has the country’s longest rails-to-trails track, a new bikable bridge, and the Tour of Hermann Bike Race—stoked by seven wineries nearby.
Population: 2,751
Median home price: $119,950

8. Mountain View, Arkansas
Hot Bargain
The Arkansas Beanfest has been a town tradition since 1982. (Maybe that’s why a one-bedroom cabin goes for only $75,000.) Still, fresher options beckon with the newly expanded Ozark Highlands Trail and first-rate fishing holes and canoeing waters. Angling guides net an income here, while others gun for cash prizes in the Fest’s Outhouse Race.
Population: 3,060
Median home price: $126,130

9. Peoria Illinois
Peoria’s fresh set of forest-lined singletrack has made it a new Midwest hub, thanks to the Peoria Area Mountain Biking Association’s trailblazing efforts. Come evening, pedalers and paddlers hit the revamped riverfront for microbrews and live music.
Population: 113,107
Median home price: $135,304

10. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
The Green Address
The NBA’s bid to relocate here was a smart play: Okies have 78 miles of city trails, a Farmers Public Market, and 3,000 annual hours of sunshine. And the Army Corps of Engineers’ recent overhaul has made the Oklahoma River a mecca for elite water sports.
Population: 537,734
Median home price: $124,900

11. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Home to the world’s biggest music festival—almost a million people come every year for Summerfest—Milwaukee keeps rocking through fall with a slew of free concerts along the shores of Lake Michigan. Also on tap: The new 35-mile Urban Water Trail leads paddlers through the city’s three rivers, while singletrack, kiteboarding launchpads, dive sites, and surf breaks (seriously) are minutes from Miller Park.
Population: 573,358
Median home price: $129,800

12. San Antonio, Texas
Lone Star Revival
Austin’s not the only Hill Country hub worth considering. Now that San Antonio is sprucing up its eponymous river—with waterfront hiking and biking trails, canoe races, and cafés—Fiesta City is regaining some of its Alamo-era swagger. In May residents voted to use $125 million to shore up the San Antonio River Improvements Project, which will extend the city’s Venice-inspired River Walk from two to thirteen miles and add nearly 460 acres of parkland. Steven Schauer, of the San Antonio River Authority, sums it up well: "The people here want their river back for recreation." They’re also reclaiming their land. Last year locals lobbied to save an old dairy farm on the outskirts of town from development; it will now be converted into 311 acres of urban green space. Outside city limits, hikers can wander through 8,622 acres of mountain laurel and Spanish moss in Government Canyon State Natural Area, while road cyclists head northwest to the wildflower-flecked hills. And in the heat of the Lone Star State summers, a new crop of vineyards and a handful of brewpubs (Blue Star gets our vote) are just a pedal away.
Population: 1,296,682
Median home price: $155,300

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