Lack of crowds and a desire for off-the-beaten-path destinations in driving distance from major cities are propelling small towns into the spotlight this fall and winter. According to a travel safety barometer released Sept. 9 by MMGY Travel Intelligence, safety scores around transportation and lodging are the highest they’ve been since March. And travelers continue to favor outside activities, too—making small towns with bountiful outdoor scenes (and beautiful fall foliage, to boot) even more enticing for a quick getaway. Here are eight charming small towns nature lovers can explore over the next few months.
Beaufort, North Carolina
Part of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, along the southernmost Outer Banks (which came into the spotlight this summer with Netflix’s hit show by the same name—ironically filmed in South Carolina), Beaufort is a romantic spot to visit any time, but especially in autumn. The oak-lined streets here are green nearly year round, but cooler fall temperatures (think: highs in the low 70s) make activities like biking with Hungry Town Tours’ through this town of 4,400 particularly enjoyable. Book a paddleboarding or kayaking excursion to see the wild horses on Shackleford Banks or take a ferry to Cape Lookout to climb its famed lighthouse for a bird’s-eye view of Beaufort. Unwind with a porch pounder, as the locals call an afternoon cocktail on the patio, at the boutique Inn on Turner—a charming, historically preserved bed-and-breakfast with an expansive double porch complete with rockers for lounging.
Celebrating its 100th birthday this year, the agricultural town of Banks is known for its incredible outdoor recreation, as it marks the beginning of the 21-mile hiking, biking, and horseback riding Banks-Vernonia State Trail. Banks is often a drive-by spot for travelers from Portland heading to the Oregon coast. Yet there are plenty of reasons to make it your day-trip destination in the Tualatin Valley, especially in the fall. For starters, the Banks-Vernonia State Trail is never so beautiful as it is in October. Hikers and bikers will encounter 13 trestle bridges straight out of a storybook, and you can even rent a tandem bicycle for two at the trailhead. Also in the area, pick your own pears and apples and scoop up a jar of honey made on the premises at Bell’s Orchard, tee it up at the walkable, links-style Quail Valley Golf Course, or book a reservation at Apolloni Vineyards in nearby Forest Grove for tasting flights of Italian-style pinot noirs.
Little St. Simons Island, Georgia
Many are familiar with St. Simons Island, the largest barrier island in Georgia’s famed Golden Isles. More of a secret, however, is its much smaller cousin, Little St. Simons Island, which opened to the public in 1979 after serving as a private hunting ground for decades. It’s accessible only via private ferry and home to seven miles of beaches and 11,000 acres of undeveloped wilderness, providing a true paradise for nature lovers. The only on-island hotel is The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island, which accommodates 32 guests in historic cottages. Staying at the all-inclusive hotel feels like stepping back in time. There are no restaurants, so you’ll enjoy low-country cuisine prepared by The Lodge’s chef, but served in your room or packed as picnics for excursions like bird watching. Located on the migratory Atlantic Flyway, the island’s known for being one of the best spots in the country for seeing elusive species in the wild.
Barely an hour’s drive west of Washington, D.C., Loudoun County’s rolling hills and mountainous backdrop feel worlds away from the chaos of the capital. Quaint Middleburg, with fewer than 1,000 residents, is among the most charming small towns in the area, attracting visitors from Elizabeth Taylor to John F. Kennedy over the years. Day trip to more than 20 wineries and four cideries within a 30-minute radius—including Greenhill Winery & Vineyards (tasting room reservations required), a rumored favorite of Michelle Obama’s—as well as the newly opened Knead Wine downtown, a boutique wine shop and gourmet pizza spot. Stay in one of the private cottages at the historic Goodstone Inn, and make reservations at their restaurant, The Conservatory, one of the most coveted fine dining experiences in Virginia.
When the stifling heat and humidity of an Alabama summer subsides, fall is the ideal time to visit the northern part of the state. Tuscumbia, a two-hour drive from Nashville, is home to the Shoals—an area comprising four towns built around trade on the Tennessee River in the early 19th century. The area is steeped in musical history (Paul Simon, Wilson Pickett, and Etta James all recorded here). Tuscumbia, the smallest of the quartet, is home to fewer than 9,000 people, yet lays claim to one particularly famous former resident: Helen Keller. You can visit her birthplace, Ivy Green, filled with original furnishings and hundreds of mementos. Park your car in downtown Tuscumbia to stroll through Spring Park, treat yourself to an old-fashioned sundae at Palace Ice Cream and Sandwich Shop, shop art and antiques at Fiddledee D, and admire iconic Greek Revival architecture at Colbert County Courthouse—all within easy walking distance of each other—for a quintessential southern afternoon. You’re sure to find yourself saying “y’all” and “yes, ma’am” before you go.
If you loved the fictional town of Spectre, Alabama in Big Fish, you can experience a similar setup—complete with quaint cottages, a chapel-esque town hall, and a village green down the middle—at Barnsley Resort in Georgia. It’s located within Adairsville, a town an hour from Atlanta with fewer than 5,000 residents. Find plenty of antiquing and dining in the historic downtown—Adairsville is the first town in America to be listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places. But if you’re craving an outdoors-centric resort experience, Barnsley can’t be beat in autumn. The fall foliage throughout the grounds is spectacular—take in the view from the Jim Fazio golf course, guided horseback rides, or the Bavarian-inspired beer garden. New this season, you can try your hand at axe throwing and archery. Be sure to visit Barnsley’s newly open Rice House restaurant, with a rotating menu based on produce from the on-site garden and nearby purveyors. Or, simply relax by the fire pits and make s’mores on a chilly fall evening.
Snowmass Village, Colorado
This less-crowded alternative to Aspen, with only 2,800 permanent residents, is a popular tourist spot come ski season but a bit of a hidden gem in autumn. The golden foliage around Snowmass peaks in early to mid-October, but visitors can explore more than 90 miles of hiking and biking trails even as it fades. Pack your hiking boots to hit the four-mile, moderately difficult Rim Trail South to capture spectacular shots from the iconic Spiral Point. Expert bikers can take their pick of hard-core trails, nearly empty in the fall. Alternately, if you prefer a more leisurely biking experience, take the former railroad-track-turned-trail from Snowmass to Woody Creek Tavern. Woody Creek is a cash-only spot known for its tamales and margaritas (and a favorite of writer Hunter S. Thompson). For a culture fix, head to Anderson Ranch Arts Center to see rotating indoor and outdoor exhibitions from internationally acclaimed artists.
Less than three hours from Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, tiny McHenry is a prime destination for anyone hankering for wide-open spaces. Start with the DIY Fall Foliage Driving Tour (find directions online) as you head into McHenry. Nature lovers can also head to Wisp Resort for an adrenaline rush on the ropes course or a ride on the 3,500-foot mountain coaster. Then, block off time for Deep Creek Lake, the state’s largest freshwater lake, to squeeze in one more weekend of water sports like boating, kayaking, and canoeing before the season comes to an end. Check in to the 11-room Lake Pointe Inn B&B, located on the lake’s shoreline. Be sure to order a cheese plate to enjoy on the private wrap-around porch with a glass of wine.