Most Delightful Small Towns to Visit

There’s something about small towns that ignite our imaginations

Filled with charm and plenty of friendly locals, small towns are synonymous with American life. To help you decide which towns to visit, we’ve narrowed it down to places with a population of fewer than 50,000 that offer scenic beauty and plenty of attractions plus have a unique character all their own. So ditch the city crowds and start planning your small-town getaway. 

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

You’ll find the perfect mix of adventure and relaxation in this Arizona small town. The 100-plus hiking trails are great for nature lovers while the vortexes draw holistic enthusiasts and the spas cater to visitors looking to unwind. For a bit of retail therapy, head to Tlaquepaque arts village. Conclude your day with a visit to one of the local wineries for a tasting and to purchase a bottle of wine.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why Go To Sedona

Sedona is regularly described as one of America’s most beautiful places. Nowhere else will you find a landscape this dramatically colorful. The towering red rocks and jagged sandstone buttes matched against a blue sky have beckoned to artists for years. Oh yeah, did we mention that the area is home to more than 100 hiking trails? Don’t forget to bring your boots!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gatlinburg

Located in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, this Tennessee town offers both wild adventures and down-home charm. Gatlinburg boasts three different entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the 150-plus hiking trails are sure to please hikers of all skill levels.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why Go To Gatlinburg

When you’re not in the park enjoying its natural wonders, you’ll likely spend time admiring it from several of Gatlinburg’s top attractions, including the Gatlinburg Space Needle and the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway. But Gatlinburg isn’t just a gateway to the Smokies. This small mountain town is a destination in its own right, and one that’s particularly popular with families thanks to kid-friendly diversions like Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and the Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williamsburg

This quaint Virginia town boasts a Colonial district where visitors can see gunsmiths, milliners and more at work, all of whom wear period clothing. You can also visit several historic buildings, including the Governor’s Palace. Not a history buff? Take a stroll through Merchant’s Square for specialty shops.

Historic Jamestowne © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why Go To Williamsburg

Williamsburg and the nearby cities of Jamestown and Yorktown are breathing monuments to some of the best-known figures of America’s colonial history. Patrick Henry, George Washington, John Smith, Pocahontas and more.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab

This eastern Utah town serves as a gateway to the otherworldly rock formations found in Arches National Park and the numerous canyons and buttes in Canyonlands National Park. The town itself hosts countless festivals including the Moab Folk Festival, the Moab ArtWalk, and the Moab Trashion Show where participants create fashionable clothes from recycled materials. Plus, you can explore the city’s prehistoric history by visiting dinosaur-themed attractions like the Moab Giants Museum & Dinosaur Park.

Colorado River near Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why Go To Moab

One of the top adventure towns in the world, Moab is surrounded by a sea of buckled, twisted and worn sandstone sculpted by millennia of sun, wind, and rain. Main Street’s traffic instantly confirms Moab’s reputation as a gathering place for outdoor recreation.

Stowe Community Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stowe

Stowe makes for an enjoyable spring or summer vacation (thanks to its outdoor offerings and events), a fun fall trip (thanks to its kaleidoscopic foliage), and a great winter getaway (thanks to its ski slopes). This quaint Vermont town is set in a valley and backed by mountains which means exploring Mother Nature by foot, bike, ski, or zip line is top priority for most travelers. When it’s time to wind down, visit one of the area’s breweries.

Von Trapp Family Lodge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why Go To Stowe, Vermont

Are you daydreaming of the European Alps but don’t have the dough to go? Consider the quaint—and more affordable—Vermont village of Stowe. This classic New England town is filled with malt shops and general stores, as well as charming churches and working farms. You’ll think you’re nestled in a sleepy village in the Alps. At least the von Trapps thought so; Stowe’s Trapp Family Lodge is where the melodious family of The Sound of Music fame settled because it reminded them of their Austrian home.

Worth Pondering…

Life is not long and too much of it must not pass in idle deliberation how it shall be spent.

—Samuel Jackson

Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

One of the biggest questions that most travelers to the area ask is, “when is the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains?” Like other big questions, people may ask themselves, the answer to this depends heavily on the person asking the question.

What are your plans for this week or next?

Mowing the lawn, playing golf, or shopping.

You can do any of those things most anytime, any day for the rest of your life. Now is the best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One reason to visit now is that the summer crowds are gone and leaf peeking season is a month away. Stay home during July, August, and October, unless you enjoy bumper to bumper traffic jams. 

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another reason to visit now is nature. Wildflowers are still blooming, trees are displaying their finest greens, and animals are active. Plan to go between now and late-September, if possible.

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following is a plan for you to see the most on a long day trip. If time is available, break your tour into two or three more manageable days.

Get an early start on a weekday and head for Townsend, Tennessee.

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forget Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Dollywood. They are great but they’re not woods and waters and flowers and wildlife. They are Disneyland.

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Interstate 40 and then Highway 321 through Maryville. This is a one hour, 45-minute drive. In Townsend, turn right at the “Y” and head for Cades Cove. 

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An 11-mile one-way loop road circles the Cove, with stopping-off areas at several homesteads, three churches, a working gristmill, and a number of trails and overlooks.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the busy months, it can take most of the day to drive the 11 miles. It can be gridlock. You won’t have that traffic problem this time of year if you avoid weekends.

Cades Cove, John Oliver Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We had visited twice previously; over 30 years ago and about 12 years ago when we gave up due to gridlock on the loop road. On that day, the traffic was heavy, bumper to bumper. On this visit, we purposely avoided the weekend.

Cades Cove, Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch for animals such as deer, wild turkey, and bear. There are a couple of side roads to the left, part-way around the loop, called Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. Take them about a mile to the end and then back. They provide good possibilities for seeing wildlife.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Halfway through the Loop, make a point to stop at the Visitors Center in the Cable Mill Area. Photo opportunities are ample and restrooms available. Wander the Cable Mill Historic Area, explore the Visitor Center, Blacksmith Shop, LeQuire Cantilever Barn, Millrace and Dam, Cable Mill, Smokehouse, Gregg-Cable House, Corn Crib, Barn, and Sorghum Mill. During our visit we spent considerable time here walking the area, soaking up nature and the history of the area, and talking with docents.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Millrace and Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the Cades Cove loop stop at a couple of the well preserved log cabins and churches and imagine your great grandparents or some pioneers living back then. Continue around the loop and then back down towards Townsend.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Drive-through Barn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Back at the “Y” go straight toward Gatlinburg. The 18 miles will take you 45 minutes to drive on the winding, stream-side road. Definitely stop at Sugarlands visitor center to see the displays, view the short movie, and browse the gift shop. It is well worth the stop.

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Sugarlands, turn right toward Cherokee, North Carolina. On the way up the mountain to Newfound Gap, there are a couple of great hikes like Chimney Tops (four miles round-trip) or Alum Cave Bluffs (about four-and-a-half miles roundtrip). But if you take time for these hikes, you will have to complete the rest of the tour another day.

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Newfound Gap there is a giant parking lot, restrooms, the Appalachian Trail crossing and the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

Parking lot at Clingman’s Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just past Newfound Gap, turn right and go seven miles to Clingman’s Dome. You will find ample parking, a small gift shop, and a one-and-a-half mile roundtrip paved path to the top of the mountain. Everything is really different up here at 6,643 feet in elevation. The trees, the plants, the views, the air, are all just a different, unique, and refreshing environment.

Clingman’s Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Clingman’s Dome, retrace your route back to the main road through the park (Highway 441) and again head toward Cherokee. Stop at Oconaluftee visitor center. Wander the old time farm that often has folks docents demonstrating soap making ad other pioneer skills. Oconaluftee is also the best place to see elk outside of the Cataloochee Valley, which is a whole other trip.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.

—Ashley Monroe