These Gateway Towns Might Be Cooler Than the National Parks Next Door

Use one of these singular towns as a base for your next outdoor adventure.

Three people in two yellow kayaks on bay, with mountains in background

Seward is a popular cruise port, but its icy environment merits closer inspection.

Photo by Supriya Kalidas

National park gateway towns aren’t just pitstop points where you can stock up on trail mix or refuel the car. All across the USA, these active-minded communities are the lifeblood of the national park system, where rangers live and play when they’re off duty. And while they’re uniquely situated for maximum nature appreciation, outdoorsy pursuits are often only one piece of the puzzle: From the Hawaiian rain forest to the West Texas desert to the coast of Maine, these small towns are often brimming with historic architecture, creative cuisine, and unexpected finds. Here, nine small towns that are almost as cool as the national parks next door.

Big Bend: Marathon, Texas

  • How to get there: The nearest major airport is about a 150-mile drive away in Midland.
  • Distance from the park: 40 miles to Big Bend National Park

West Texas is sprawling, and if you’re arriving by air, you’ll likely be flying into Midland, about 195 miles from the nearest entrance to Big Bend, Persimmon Gap. On the very long drive south, you’ll be refueling in Marathon, but plan to stick around longer. With a population under 400, this funky town oozes Old West charm and feels a bit like Marfa before the art-school kids arrived. The main hub is the Gage Hotel, which was opened in 1927 by cattle baron Alfred Gage. These days, the hotel still has its hand in many of the town’s businesses: It runs the 12 Gage Restaurant, where you can order dishes like braised quail and chicken-fried steak; White Buffalo Bar, which slings killer margaritas; Brick Vault Brewery & Barbecue, housed in a former gas station; and V6 Coffee Bar, next to a gift shop of the same name where you can buy creosote bush CBD balm and leather coasters made by a local saddlery. When you’re done exploring the galleries of photographers James H. Evans and E. Dan Klepper, head out of town to stargaze at the Marathon Sky Park, which has a pair of Dobsonian Reflector telescopes and offers nightly star parties.

A red car drives east on Groveland's historic main drag, lined with buildings from the turn of the 20th century

Groveland’s historic main drag is lined with buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Hotel Charlotte.

Photo by Sundry Photography/Shutterstock

Yosemite: Groveland, California

  • How to get there: Groveland is less than 150 miles away from airports in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Fresno, and Sacramento.
  • Distance from the park: 24 miles to Yosemite National Park

Founded as a gold mining camp in 1852, Groveland sits next to the Stanislaus National Forest (with its 78 lakes and more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails) and is a half-hour drive to Yosemite’s Big Oak Entrance on the park’s western side. The town was originally called Garrote, the Spanish word for death by strangulation, and a nod to the swift frontier justice during those early days. In town, you’ll find the Iron Door Saloon, which opened in 1852 and claims to be the state’s longest continuously operating watering hole; look up to see about $4,000 in cash pinned to the ceiling, part of a long-standing tradition that sees tipplers launching thumbtacks skyward.

A much newer place to stop for a drink is the Around the Horn Brewing Company, named for the Gold Rush–era practice of taking a boat from the East Coast around the southern tip of South America to try to strike it rich in California. You can get a primer in this history at the Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum or at the Hotel Charlotte, opened in 1921 by a pioneering Italian immigrant named Charlotte DeFerrari. Today, it has rooms that are traditional and cozy without indulging in Victoriana kitsch; some rooms come with clawfoot tubs and brightly patterned wallpaper.

Aerial view of low buildings next to a winding road, with red-rock formations and bright blue skies with puffy clouds in background

Dramatic red-rock formations loom large no matter where you are in Springdale.

Photo by Jay Dash

Zion: Springdale, Utah

  • How to get there: The regional airport in St. George, Utah, is about 45 miles away, but if you’re flying in from farther afield, you’ll likely be driving in from airports in Las Vegas (160 miles) or Salt Lake City (310 miles).
  • Distance from the park: 1 mile to Zion National Park

Think about this former Mormon farming community as the welcome mat to Zion: Located right on the park’s door step, it began transforming into a gateway town in the 1910s, after President Taft established Mukuntuweap National Monument (later called Zion) and amenities began opening to meet tourist needs. Situated along the banks of the Virgin River in the shadow of dramatic red-rock cliffs, the town makes for a great home base for exploring the national park.

It’s now home to dozens of inns, cabins, and hotels, including the Cliffrose, Curio Collection by Hilton, where you can book a much-needed posthike massage at the Five Petals Spa. Spend time here wandering around shops and galleries in search of gems, minerals, and fossils or Native American art and jewelry (at Tribal Arts Zion) and finish with a dinner at King’s Landing Bistro, where the seasonal menu might include fried quail with apple cider waffles or vegan chili and cornbread. After fueling up in the morning at Feellove Coffee or Deep Creek Coffee Company, in-the-know adventurers hop on the free shuttle to enjoy the seasonally car-free national park.

A red-roofed house and barn behind a field of lavender

Sequim’s surprisingly sunny climate has earned it the title of Lavender Capital of North America.

Photo by Francisco Blanco/Shutterstock

Olympic: Sequim, Washington

  • How to get there: Seattle–Tacoma International Airport is about 115 miles away.
  • Distance from the park: 17 miles from Olympic National Park

At just under 1 million acres, Olympic National Park encompasses a dizzyingly diverse array of landscapes, including temperate rain forests, Pacific coastline, glaciers, and towering mountains. It also gets—much to the chagrin of campers and hikers—a lot of rainfall. Bucking that trend is “Sunny Sequim,” which sits in a rain shadow and only gets about 16 inches of precipitation a year, compared to 10 feet of rain in Forks, about 60 miles away as the crow flies on the western side of the peninsula. That climate, similar to the south of France, has earned Sequim (pronounced “skwim”) the title of the Lavender Capital of North America, and in season, you can pick the fragrant herb at farms around town or taste it in ice cream or lattes.

On the north side of town, you’ll find the Dungeness Spit, the longest sand spit in the country, which juts out more than five miles into the Strait of Juan de Fuca as part of a national wildlife refuge; it makes for a great out-and-back hike, during which you might spot harlequin ducks, snowy owls, harbor seals, orcas, and bald eagles. You can take in similarly gorgeous coastal views from the Juan de Fuca Cottages.

Boats in a harbor with mountains and dramatic cloudy skies in background

The whale-filled fjords surrounding Seward are best explored by boat or kayak.

Courtesy of Josh McCausland/Unsplash

Kenai Fjords: Seward, Alaska

  • How to get there: From May to September, you can take the Alaska Railroad’s daily Coastal Classic Train from Anchorage or drive the 125 miles yourself along the Seward Highway, a National Scenic Byway.
  • Distance from the park: 12 miles from Kenai Fjords National Park

Much of this glacier-filled national park is accessible only by airplane, boat, or on foot, but there’s one section around Exit Glacier, near its northernmost tip, that you can drive to, and it’s conveniently located about a 15-minute drive northwest of Seward. This southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad on Resurrection Bay has come a long way since its days as a Russian fur trading post and a World War II–era military base. These days, Seward is a popular cruise port, but you’re missing out if you only drop in for a day.

The wildlife-rich waters of the adjacent fjord form the basis of the tourism experience here, whether you’re fishing for halibut and salmon on a guided charter or cruising in search of orcas and migratory species like humpback, minke, fin, and gray whales. On land, you’ll find the state’s only public aquarium, the Alaska SeaLife Center, where you can plan special experiences like feeding Steller sea lions, octopus, or puffins, and restaurants serving fjord-fresh seafood like spot prawns and king crab. To truly immerse yourself in the vibe here, book one of the stylish rentals at Salted Roots Cabins, which are hidden in a forest south of town.

The Volcano Art Center, located in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, was the original Volcano Hotel in 1877

The Volcano Art Center, located in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, was the original Volcano Hotel in 1877.

Photo by Phillip B. Espinasse/Shutterstock

Hawai‘i Volcanoes: Volcano, Hawai‘i

  • How to get there: The town is about a 100-mile drive from Kona International Airport.
  • Distance from the park: 1 mile to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, on the Island of Hawai‘i, is home to two of the most active volcanoes in the world, and spouting, bubbling, smoking eruptions are commonplace here. About a minute’s drive from the park entrance, the community of Volcano Village is bursting with energy of a different kind: creativity. Surrounded by red-blossoming ōhi‘a lehua trees, the town is home to one of the two outposts of the Volcano Art Center, which hosts gallery shows, hula performances, movie nights, and live jazz (the other, pictured above, is inside the national park), and Volcano Garden Arts, a farmhouse-turned-gallery with a café that serves locally grown coffee. Nearby, you’ll find the Volcano Winery, the southernmost winery in the United States, which bolsters its selection of grape-based wines with varieties made from guava, macadamia blossom honey, and white tea grown out back. Among the coolest places to stay in town is the Volcano Rainforest Retreat Bed & Breakfast, where mornings start on your cottage’s lanai as you listen to native birds greet the day.

Banded caught lobsters (L); coastal Bar Harbor, Maine

Fresh lobster and bracing walks are on the menu in Maine.

Photos by Michelle Heimerman

Acadia: Bar Harbor, Maine

  • How to get there: The town is about 175 miles from Portland or 280 miles from Boston.
  • Distance from the park: 0 miles to Acadia National Park

Butting directly up against the Mount Desert Island section of New England’s only national park, Bar Harbor has attracted well-heeled travelers with names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Astor since the Gilded Age. These days, you can still immerse yourself in the glamour of those days at spots like the Balance Rock Inn, which occupies the grand 1903 summer “cottage” of a Scottish railroad tycoon, and the Bar Harbor Historical Society, headquartered in a 13,000-square-foot château built the same year. For a different side of regional history, don’t miss the Abbe Museum, Maine’s only Smithsonian-affiliated cultural institution, which tells the story of the Wabanaki Nations. This being Maine, lobster looms large, and it’s estimated that Bar Harbor consumes more than 5 million of the crustaceans annually. Sure, you can sample lobster in the mac and cheese at Side Street Cafe, the benedict at Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast, or rolls anywhere around town, but for the ultimate experience, order a scoop of the special ice cream at Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium, studded with buttery chunks of frozen lobster.

Viewed from lake: a pontoon boat near an arched bridge, evergreen trees, and tall green mountains

During the warmer months, you can find the residents of Grand Lake spending most of their time in, on, or around the sparkling body of water.

Courtesy of Grand County Colorado Tourism Board

Rocky Mountain: Grand Lake, Colorado

  • How to get there: Denver is about a 100-mile drive southeast of Grand Lake.
  • Distance from the park: 1 mile to Rocky Mountain National Park

Estes Park is the famed eastern gateway to the Rockies, but on the park’s western edge sits the decidedly quieter Grand Lake, which hugs the shore of Colorado’s largest and deepest natural lake at an elevation of 8,369 feet above sea level. Formed by glaciers about 12,000 years ago and originally called Spirit Lake by the Utes, the body of the water is an all-seasons playground for the residents: In summer, they enjoy the sandy beach or explore these waters by kayaks or stand-up paddleboards; in winter, they ice fish for kokanee salmon and trout or play hockey on its frozen surface. (You could try swimming, but remember that the water rarely breaks the mid-60s Fahrenheit.) Embrace the rugged western spirit with a stay at the Grand Lake Lodge, which has a lovely lakefront porch with swings and rocking chairs and a collection of recently renovated historic cabins; they were originally ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog and feature cozy Pendleton blankets.

Aerial view of crossroads in small town of Townsend in Tennessee

The perennially popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park is surrounded by characterful small towns.

Photo by RodClementPhotography/Shutterstock

Great Smoky Mountains: Townsend, Tennessee

  • How to get there: Nearby cities include Knoxville (30 miles), Asheville (110 miles), and Chattanooga (125 miles); if you’re traveling from farther afield, you can also fly into Nashville (200 miles) or Atlanta (190 miles).
  • Distance from the park: 0 miles to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains consistently ranks as the most visited national park in the country, attracting 12.9 million visitors in 2022. Dotting the surrounding foothills are a slew of gateway towns, many of which indulge in a bit of Appalachian kitsch. Townsend, on the other hand, has been dubbed “the peaceful side of the Smokies,” and the experience here is decidedly more focused on the region’s natural wonders: tubing down the Little River, taking a dip in the Townsend Wye swimming hole, or driving the nearby Cades Cove scenic loop to spot white-tailed deer, black bears, and wild turkeys. In town, creature comforts abound at places like Dancing Bear Lodge and Appalachian Bistro, which serves elevated takes on country cooking like confit rabbit succotash and sweet-tea-brined pork chops, and Peaceful Side Social Brewery and Craft Kitchen, where you can pair locally made beers with a smoked trout sandwich or black-eyed pea hummus. And while the posh Blackberry Mountain resort is located in neighboring Walland, we’re also partial to the fun-loving charms of Little Arrow Outdoor Resort and its collection of tiny homes, cabins, and glamping tents.

Nicholas DeRenzo is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Brooklyn. A graduate of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, he worked as an editor at Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel and, most recently, as executive editor at Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Sunset, Wine Enthusiast, and more.
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