Courtesy of Louisiana Office of Tourism
Photo by Cathy McNair
Alpine, Texas, has views similar to its popular neighbor, Marfa. It’s a bigger small town, but more under the radar.
Veer off the beaten path to small-town U.S.A. for the ultimate in summer fun.
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Phoenicia, Taos, and Ojai? Been there, done that, already ’grammed it. It’s time to add a new small U.S. town (defined here by having a population of 16,000 or fewer) to your summer bucket list. Here are seven lesser-known—but still super sweet!—destinations to consider, from a charming cowboy town in the mountains of Montana to a mushroom mecca in Pennsylvania with a Main Street so darn picturesque, Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted it any prettier.
At the start of every May, thousands of tourists descend upon the 8,139-resident town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, aka the “Crawfish Capital of the World” and birthplace of crawfish étouffée, for the annual Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. But this tiny Southern charmer in St. Martin Parish, two hours west of New Orleans, offers good eating all year long. Hit up Poche’s for étouffée and pork backbone stew, Acadiana Jerky Co. for boudin sausage and smoked spare rib po’boys, and Cajun Claws for down-home seafood boils.
Beyond grub, Breaux Bridge is close to the cypress-rich canoe country of Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, or you can go birding and ’gator-spotting at the swampland preserve at Lake Martin. There’s skeet shooting aplenty and jambalaya cookouts, along with quirky bric-a-brac shops like Lagniappe Antiques. Plus, don’t miss the 63-year-old dance hall La Poussiere, where you can two-step across a thundering hardwood floor to live Cajun and zydeco music.
Tucked into scenic Teton Valley and straddling the Idaho-Wyoming border, this town of 1,660 makes a great base for exploring Grand Teton National Park. And unlike Jackson Hole, its flashier cousin across the border, accommodations here (like the cozy-simple Teton Valley Cabins) are a fraction of the price. In Driggs’s old-fashioned downtown, you’ll find huckleberry milk shakes, a local specialty, at the century-old Corner Drug soda fountain; moose paintings for sale at The Local Galleria; Shakespeare in the Parks on a midsummer’s night; and free outdoor symphony concerts in the Driggs City Plaza. Morales Home Made makes stellar tacos, while Grand Teton Brewing Company does decent beer and even has an area where you can park your horse, since this is legit cowboy country.
On the fringes of town, the Spud Drive-In Theater is a worthwhile roadside attraction whether you plan to see a movie or not; you’ll know you’ve found the right place when you spy a gargantuan potato on a flatbed truck at the entrance. There’s hiking and mountain biking in every direction, but for more adventurous types: Teton Balloon Flights will get you high; the indoor wall at Teton Rock Gym will wear you out; and Teton Aviation will take you on a private one-hour glider flight over some of the most majestic landscapes west of the Mississippi.
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With a comparatively whopping 15,479 residents, this lakeshore beauty is the biggest small town on our list. First stop for any Traverse City newcomer should be Grand Traverse Pie Company, where even Oprah has an opinion on which of the 12 cherry pies is the best (Old Mission with plump Michigan Montmorency fruit, in case you were wondering). Other foodie draws include a visit to Light of Day Organics, Michigan’s only certified biodynamic tea farm; elevated brunch fare like root vegetable waffles with poached eggs and fried sage at Sugar 2 Salt; old- and new-school deli sandwiches from Folgarelli’s and Raduno; and crazy-good pit-smoked meats at the classic Ham Bonz diner.
Art deco architecture pops up all over town (we love the mechanic’s garage at Randy’s Olde Town Services), and you can spend a few hours wandering a state mental hospital turned shopping village at Grand Traverse Commons, one of the largest historic preservation and adaptive reuse developments in the country. If you visit only one shop in the Commons, make it Landmark Books; the used bookstore specializes in rare and out-of-print Michigana. Bonus: Traverse City is also a convenient base for accessing Michigan’s majestic Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 25 miles west, where the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and Dune Climb to Lake Michigan should not be missed.
This historic 6,174-resident town in Pennsylvania’s Chester County, 40 miles southwest of Philadelphia, is known as the “Mushroom Capital of the World” (and you can smell it in the air). Its other claim to fame is Longwood Gardens, heaven for horticulturalists with its Japanese wisteria, Spanish bluebells, Carolina allspice, and other seasonal blooms. An idyllic, tree-lined Main Street cuts through the town center, dotted with an award-winning farm-to-table restaurant (Talula’s Table), a squeezably cute pie shop (Nomadic Pies), a made-in-the-USA clothing and accessories boutique (State & Union), and a third-wave coffeehouse that doubles as a community hub (Philter). Skedaddle off the main drag and you’ll find a host of Mexican eateries supported by the local Latino community (El Rinconsito and La Peña Mexicana spring to mind). Oh, and about that famous fungus—you can pick up souvenir shiitakes at The Mushroom Cap or catch a mushroom-cooking demo at The Woodlands at Phillips Mushroom Farms.
While its elite ice-climbing park put Ouray on the map, this old silver mining town is just as appealing to travelers in the summer months. Clocking in with 1,013 full-time residents, it sits in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, some 7,792 feet above sea level, at the north end of the spectacularly scenic and dangerously steep Million Dollar Highway. The area is chock-full with thermal hot springs and vapor caves, but it’s worth keeping your clothes on long enough to hike the scenic waterfall at Box Canyon Falls Park and to explore Ouray’s ridiculously quaint Main Street. See a live music performance (or a Jumanji screening—whatever, no judgment) at the 131-year-old Wright Opera House; poke around the historic Ouray Alchemist frontier pharmacy museum; and scour the antiques at Rb Horsetraders, all located on the town’s main drag.
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Wherever you go, you’ll be encircled by rugged Rocky Mountain goodness. Serious hikers should carve out a day for bagging a 13,000-footer; rock climbers can scramble up the red-cliffed, multi-pitch Sandia Mountains, accessible via the Old Twin Peaks Trail; and the rest of you lazy bums can hitch a ride up to Corkscrew Gulch, Imogene Pass, and/or Yankee Boy Basin by booking a seat on a 4x4 scenic tour with Colorado West Jeeps. They handle the driving; you do the gasping and photographing. Win-win.
So you’ve been to Marfa. For a far West Texas getaway that doesn’t draw a nonstop stream of zombie Instagrammers—yet—make way for dusty, trusty Alpine. With around 6,000 residents, it’s three times the size of #Marfa and just a half-hour away. This high-desert horse town with rolling landscapes offers a surprise a minute: It’s home to The Smokin’ Cuban, a food truck dishing up authentic ropa vieja and tostones; Cedar Coffee & Supply, a sophisticated coffee shop that wouldn’t look out of place in L.A. or Chicago; and Big Bend Saddlery, a gold mine for tooled leather journals, cowhide rugs, and handsome bolo ties.
There are old-fashioned frontier murals around every bend; Big Brewster, painted by Texas artist Stylle Read on the side of Kiowa Gallery, is a national treasure. Alpine is also ripe for side-tripping, seeing how it’s just 40 miles to the University of Texas’s McDonald Observatory, host of popular planet-scoping stargazing sessions, and 72 miles north of Big Bend National Park, one of the least visited (and most breathtaking) national parks in the lower 48. Tip: August is an especially good time to go to Alpine because that’s when the Big Bend Ranch Rodeo hits town.
This eclectic Montana mountain town (population: 7,529), located one hour north of Yellowstone National Park, is the ideal escape for travelers seeking a mix of nature, arts, and shopping. Livingston’s historic downtown looks straight out of a movie: all weathered brick facades hung with vertical signage and set against a painterly backdrop of snow-capped peaks. (In fact, A River Runs Through It was filmed here.) There are plenty of kooky stores to explore around town: Babione’s Wilson Boots Emporium is like stepping into the Wild West, with the exotic footwear to match, while the Livingston Kite Company sells a high-flying selection of single-line kites. Catch a musical at the Shane Lalani Center for the Arts or soak your bones in a mineral bath at Chico Hot Springs in nearby Pray.
Livingston is also a jumping-off point for a plethora of outdoor regional activities. Anglers can fish for wild trout on the Yellowstone River, hikers can pick up half a dozen trails in town, and there are numerous outfitters who’ll gladly sit you on the back of a horse or in the front of a river raft for a day of white-knuckle adventuring.
This article originally appeared online in July 2018; it was updated on May 22, 2019, to include current information.