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Outdoors

7 of the Most Charming Towns Near U.S. National Parks

By Daily Passport Team
Read time: 6 minutes

Travelers from all over the world come to America’s national parks for their breathtaking natural landscapes. But once you’ve hiked through forests, scaled mountains, or spent time stargazing, you need a place to rest and recharge. Fortunately, the towns located near these parks are more than up to the task. Here are seven of the most charming towns near U.S. national parks that make the perfect home base for a nature getaway.

Flagstaff, Arizona – Grand Canyon National Park

Town square in Flagstaff, Arizona
Credit: frankix/ iStock via Getty Images 

Several appealing towns skirt Grand Canyon National Park, but none brim with more character than Flagstaff. With an attractive historic downtown, a plethora of quirky shops and museums, and hotels housed in converted turn-of-the-century buildings, the city — which dates back to 1881 — is not to be missed.

Located just over 70 miles away from the canyon’s South Rim, Flagstaff is chock-full of craft breweries and restaurants dishing a rangy of tasty, creative cuisines — perfect for capping off a long day hiking the canyon. And few places on Earth offer clearer stargazing than the Lowell Observatory. At night, enjoy fantastic views of the starry sky, or visit during the day to explore hands-on science exhibits and walking tours.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Bridge over river near Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Credit: Dan Reynolds Photography/ Moment via Getty Images 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts more visitors than any other national park in the U.S., but the nearby town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a delightful destination in its own right. Offering far more than just souvenir shops, Gatlinburg is home to a vibrant folk art scene, including numerous art galleries and creative workshops, a slew of southern barbecue restaurants and pancake houses, and a scenic chairlift that takes riders to a 1,800-foot overlook of the mountains. 

Gatlinburg even has its own 400-foot-tall version of Seattle’s Space Needle, where visitors can soak in 360-degree views of the Great Smoky Mountains and the city — no hiking necessary. The area also boasts the only ski resort in the state, as well as countless hikes to the mesmerizing Laurel Falls and Rainbow Falls, Ramsey Cascades, and the historic ghost town of Elkmont. The abandoned former logging camp is now considered one of the hidden gems of the Smokies. 

Bar Harbor, Maine – Acadia National Park

Fountain in park next to colorful buildings of Bar Harbor, Maine
Credit: Peter Unger/ Stone via Getty Images

Bar Harbor is a quintessential seaside town often obscured by a salty mist sweeping only lighthouses into view. Quaint, historic wood cottages dot the town’s rolling green lawns, while seafood restaurant tables scatter out onto the docks along the narrow streets in warm weather. On the menu, you’ll find an abundance of fresh, local seafood prepared in every fashion, from buttery lobster rolls to crisp, crab cakes, spicy bisques, creamy chowders, and raw oysters plucked right from the sand skirting the coast. 

Set on Mount Desert Island, adjacent to Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor offers spectacular scenery at every turn. Along the town’s beloved Shore Path, a splattering of tide pools promise hours of outdoor fun for families and nature lovers. There are also views of distant, pine-scented islands — and one is even accessible by foot via a sandbar at low tide. (Just remember to watch the time and tide when planning your return to town.)

Jackson, Wyoming – Grand Teton National Park

Grassy field with mountains in background in Jackson, Wyoming
Credit: Jennifer_Sharp/ E+ via Getty Images 

At the rim of Grand Teton National Park (and not far from Yellowstone), the small town of Jackson has long been known for its historic hotels, classic steakhouses, cowboys bars, and independent boutiques. Hand-constructed log cabins nestled between aspens and evergreens and elk-antler arches greet visitors at each corner of the old Town Square. 

After you’re done exploring the national park, Jackson offers several opportunities for soaking in local culture — including the nearby National Museum of Wildlife Art, the Historical Society and Museum, and the Jackson Center for the Arts. Rodeos are another popular attraction in the area. Beyond world-class skiing available in the Tetons, Jackson abounds with hiking paths that meander up the wooded slopes around Ski Lake and over rushing streams. Rafting on Snake River is also a treat for thrill-seekers visiting in warmer months.

Red Lodge, Montana – Yellowstone National Park

Main street in Red Lodge, Montana
Credit: peeterv/ iStock via Getty Images 

Another noteworthy gateway town to Yellowstone National Park is the former mining settlement of Red Lodge. The town was once frequented by the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, and it still has a whole lot of Wild West charm leftover. Meanwhile, a growing number of upscale cafés and steakhouses keep the active community and tourists well-fed. And with arts and crafts shops, climbing and fishing gear stores, bookstores, and more, Red Lodge is the perfect place to take it easy before venturing into the great outdoors. 

The local Carbon County Historical Society and Museum displays impressive rodeo collections, offers ecology and geology tours of the historic Beartooth area, and contains a fascinating interactive coal mine exhibit. Nostalgic wagon and sleigh rides pulled by draft horses are also available in town. Red Lodge serves up its own slew of exciting outdoor attractions, too. From fly fishing and kayaking adventures to white-water rafting, skiing, horseback riding, and mountain biking along Wild Bill Lake, this town offers something for everyone year-round.

Visalia, California – Sequoia National Park

Clock tower and surrounding buildings seen from above in Visalia, California
Credit: DenisTangneyJr/ iStock via Getty Images 

Northern California’s Sequoia National Park protects some of the largest living organisms on the planet — namely, the park’s impossibly tall, 3,000-year-old evergreen trees. Nearby Visalia, which is roughly 40 minutes away, is the park’s main gateway town. Visalia offers its own array of wonders, with the Sierra Nevadas right at its doorstep. From white-water rafting to hiking and biking, the great outdoors provide countless opportunities for white-knuckled or relaxed fun around here. 

Visalia makes good use of its location in the heart of the country’s most fertile agricultural zone, with locally grown produce featured on the tasty menus of the town’s many farm-to-table restaurants. But history and culture flourish here, too. Much of it can be taken in from a scenic trolley ride through the downtown district, which stops at historic California mission buildings, the Fox Theater (where music performances and classic-film showings are held), and several of the city’s colorful art galleries.

Palm Desert, California – Joshua Tree National Park

Palm trees and red flowers lining pond and golf course in Palm Desert, California
Credit: Ron and Patty Thomas/ iStock via Getty Images 

Among California’s most popular destinations, Joshua Tree National Park is remarkable for its miles of interesting-shaped cacti, mountains of boulders that are perfect for amateur climbers, and lush palm forests. But the valley south of the park shelters its own enticing oasis in the middle of this desert landscape. Palm Desert, known as a mid-century modern design mecca, is a hub of culture and attractions. There’s a wide array of shopping and dining options here, along with a notable art scene, popular music festivals, rolling green golf courses, and even a Living Desert Zoo

This small city retains its Old Hollywood glamor, which is still evident on a tour of the Movie Colony. It once served as a welcome escape for the rich and famous, who were looking for a remote haven far from the drama of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, nearby Mount San Jacinto features the Cactus to Clouds trail, regarded as one of the state’s toughest hiking trails. There are also many easier hikes that skirt the town, such as the trail to Palm Canyon and the picturesque Painted Canyon. The nearby Salton Sea is another notable natural wonder not to be missed.

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