America’s growth is shifting to smaller cities. People are moving out of major metropolitan areas in search of lower prices and higher quality of life. According to the Census Bureau, half a million people moved out of New York City between 2012 and 2017. And a continuing Millennial trend is causing increased migration rates to small and mid-sized cities—especially in the wake of Covid-19
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Economic Analysis found the outdoor recreation industry to account for 2.1 percent of GDP, putting it on par with heavyweight industries like agriculture, legal services, and oil and gas extraction. It also found that the outdoor industry is growing at 3.8 percent, faster than the entire American economy. Put all these trends together and you’ll see a demand for mid-sized, growth-oriented American cities that maintain a connection with nature and the outdoors.
Life’s too short to be spent indoors or waiting in traffic. If you’re curious as to what opportunities are out there, we’ve got the list for you. Read on to get the details of the top outdoorsy towns hiring in 2021, and leave the smog in your rearview mirror.
Triangulating unemployment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), population numbers from the Census Bureau, and city-specific job growth figures at Forbes, we came up with a list of cities that meet most or all of the following criteria:
Cities in Utah have made this list in 2019 and 2020, so 2021 is no exception for this outdoor enthusiast paradise. Salt Lake City is the capital of Utah and home to approximately 165,000 people. This growing city boasts low unemployment, a generally comfortable climate, and steady job growth. The primary industries in Utah are defense and aerospace, health technology, and sporting goods. People who spend a lot of time in the outdoors can find work, and good employee discounts, at outdoor product companies based in the area like Kühl, Klymit, Backcountry, Black Diamond, Gregory, Petzl, and Rossignol.
Professionals working and living in Salt Lake City can take advantage of the proximity to all types of outdoor recreation. Skiing, rock climbing, backpacking, hiking, rock crawling, and camping are all just a short drive. Whether it be as a weekend warrior or a weeklong vacation, there is always a new adventure within a short drive of home.
Located right next to Washington DC, Alexandria, Virginia, is a booming city with excellent opportunities to spend time in the outdoors. This city has a low unemployment rate as well as a higher than average salary. The average household income is a generous $93,370 per year, nearly $35,000 over the national average (2020 data).
Many people who live in Alexandria commute to Washington DC, to work. Hence, it is no surprise that one of the largest employers in the area is the federal government, and more specifically, the Department of Defense. Other top employers include health care, education, and nonprofits.
It can get warm in the summer and cold in the winter in Alexandria, but generally speaking, the climate is mild. Over 18 miles of waterfront trails leave from Alexandria and run up and down the Potomac River, allowing commuters to get a bike ride or run in after getting home from work. Within a few hours’ drive of Alexandria are numerous parks to explore, such as the Seneca Regional Park in Great Falls, Balls Bluff Battlefield Park in Leesburg, or the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Washington DC.
Tucked right up against the north border of West Virginia, Morgantown is a college town with steady employment, low cost of living, and plenty of outdoor pursuits. The largest employers in the area are West Virginia University, West Virginia University Hospital, and Mylan Pharmaceuticals. Other large industries in the area include accommodation and food services, scientific and technical services, and construction.
There are many opportunities to get outside, either on the trail or on the water, right in town. After work, it would take no time at all to wander over to the Core Arboretum, Caperton Trail, Cheat Lake, Dorsey’s Knob Park. On the weekend, professionals can unwind by getting lost in the Cooper Rock State Forest, Monongahela National Forest, or Kumbrabow State Forest. Cooper Rock is particularly popular with rock climbers with over 350 routes, including trad climbing, top-roping, bouldering, and multi-pitches.
Chico, California is located in the northeastern part of the state on Highway 99, about an hour and a half north of Sacramento. This city of approximately 90,000 people has above-average job growth and a fun college town vibe. Beer-lovers will know this city as the home of Sierra Nevada Brewing, which also happens to be one of the largest employers. Other top employers include higher education, healthcare, and manufacturing.
While there are good employment opportunities in Chico, what makes living here awesome are the endless outdoor pursuits. Chico is only two hours from Lassen Volcanic National Park and Lake Almanor. This area is also well known for outstanding biking, be it road cycling or mountain biking. For closer to town adventures, locals can hit the links at the Bidwell Park Golf Course, play a round of disc golf at one of the many local courses, or go for a run in Butte Creek Ecological Preserve.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, sits on the southeast corner of the state, right along the border with George. While it does have a slightly higher than the national average unemployment rate, it has a much higher than average short term and long term job growth rates. Chattanooga is popular with young professionals because of the low cost of living. The average price of a home is roughly $80,000 less than the national average. Top employers in this city include health insurance, healthcare, education, and manufacturing.
This city of 176,000 people is nestled in the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau. The Tennessee River winds through the city bringing outdoor pursuits right into the middle of town. Outside Magazine has even awarded this city the title of “Best Town Ever” twice because of the wide array of outdoor activities. Outdoor ventures that are popular in this area include biking, backpacking, horseback riding, climbing, camping, caving, disc golf, running, and water sports.
Just three hours to the north of Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo is a top outdoor destination on the California central coast. Home to California Polytechnic University, this college town of 47,000 people has a lot to offer both in employment opportunities and outdoor adventures. Key industries in this area are manufacturing, health services, and construction. Unique to this region is also the high number of jobs in wine, agriculture, and recreation.
There are typically over 280 days of sunshine in San Luis Obispo, making it possible to spend time outdoors nearly year-round. One of the most popular outdoor sports in this area is surfing. Miles of nearby pristine beaches make this an excellent place to catch waves before or after work. Other outdoor activities include kiteboarding, cycling, hiking, and horseback riding.
Moab, Utah, is affectionately known as Utah’s desert playground. While it is remote and only has a population of 5,200 people, this town has low employment and steady job growth. The majority of the jobs available in Moab are related to tourism. Professionals moving to this area can expect to find work in accommodations, retail, and healthcare with relative ease. There is also very well paying work to be had in mining.
The hardest part about living in Moab is choosing what outdoor activity to pursue. Just outside of the town is Arches National Park, with outstanding hiking and backpacking. Moab also has some of the best rock climbing in the country. Climbers can trad climb, top rope, boulder, or sport climb to their heart’s content. If hiking and climbing get boring, there is always white water rafting, Jeep rock crawling, or mountain biking.
Colorado, on the whole, is a great place to live for outdoor enthusiasts. Boulder is far enough removed from Denver that it has a small college town atmosphere, but with over 100,000 residents still has excellent employment potential. Unemployment in Boulder is below the national average, while job growth is projected to outpace the rest of the country. Aerospace is the anchor industry in this area, but professionals moving to the area can also find work in bioscience, cleantech, software, natural products, and outdoor recreation.
Boulder has temperate summers and snowy winters, making it an excellent place for all kinds of adventures. Popular outdoor activities here include snowshoeing, stand up paddleboarding, mountain biking, hiking, and backpacking. Skiers will love this area in the winter, with Vail and Breckenridge less than three hours away.
For a central California beach town, Santa Cruz seems to have it all. This town of 63,000 has excellent prospects for outdoor exploration as well as great job opportunities.
The primary industries in this area are outdoor recreation, agriculture, construction, and marine sciences. For those who don’t mind a commute, Google, Facebook, Apple, and other tech giants, are only about 45 minutes away in Mountain View and Palo Alto.
The coastal redwood forests and the 29 miles of beaches offer endless opportunities to get outdoors. People who live here can take advantage of excellent hiking, tide pooling, surfing, biking, kayaking, and sailing. For after-work outside fun, there are beach volleyball games, disc golf, and outstanding running trails right in town.
Raleigh, North Carolina, is one of the larger cities on this list, with a population of nearly 450,000. A higher than the national average household income and a future growth rate more than ten percent higher than the national average make this outdoor-loving city a great place to get fresh and pursue a career. Top industries in Raleigh include cleantech, advanced manufacturing, technology, and life sciences.
Over 180 miles of greenway trails help Raleigh live up to its nickname of “City in a Park.” These greenways include paved paths and dirt trails perfect for hiking, walking, roller skating, and biking. This city is also home to two state parks: the Falls Lake State Recreation Area and William B. Umstead State Park. Nearby outdoor activities include rock climbing, kayaking, golfing.
Utah has long been regarded as a prime outdoor playground in the United States and Logan is a prime example. This small town of about 51,000 is growing rapidly and is expected to double in size by 2050. With a low unemployment rate of 2.6 percent and a higher than average job growth, this is an ideal town for those on the job hunt.
Major employers in the area include the local university, healthcare, retail, and manufacturing. Outdoor enthusiasts will find all their favorite pursuits within a short drive of Logan—world-class hiking in the summer, incredible skiing at Beaver Mountain in the winter, spectacular boating at one of the nearby five lakes. Logan also boasts a lower than average cost of living making it an affordable place to establish a home base for outdoor adventures.
This small town of almost 18,000 nestled in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains boasts low unemployment and high job growth. Top employers in this close-knit community include education, healthcare, and tourism. There is also a large number of jobs with the local Native American tribe association. Wages in Durango are also above the national average.
What truly sets Durango apart is the incredible array of outdoor pursuits available year around. In the winter there are two ski resorts and unlimited backcountry touring. In the summer there is world-class mountain biking with over 2,000 miles of trails. There is also climbing, kayaking, camping, and fishing. The famous Colorado Trail winds its way just outside of town for the adventurous through hiker.
The population in St. George has been booming with a 12.5 percent growth since 2010 landing is third in the nation for the highest growth. This once sleepy resort town now has over 85,000 inhabitants. The largest employers in the area are in healthcare, education, tourism, and with Skywest airlines. Unemployment is below the national average at 3.3 percent and job growth is at a robust 3.5 percent for the year with an anticipated 55 percent growth over the next ten years.
St. George is located in the southwestern corner of Utah, very close to the Arizona border. Thirty miles to the northeast is the incredible Zion National Park. There are also numerous state parks, national monuments, and scenic areas within a day’s drive so exploring the surrounding area will keep new residents very busy.
Just an hour to the northeast of Atlanta is the town of Gainesville, Georgia. This farming community is experiencing significant growth both in population and in available jobs. With a low 3.3 percent unemployment rate and an impressive job growth of 4.4 percent, this town is on a steady upward trend. The majority of the jobs in the area are in manufacturing, farming, education, and healthcare.
In addition to great job opportunities, Gainesville has outstanding outdoor pursuits. The main attraction in town is Lake Lanier offering excellent flat water for kayaking, rowing, stand up paddleboarding, and more. Hiking, backpacking, and mountain biking are all within easy access. Notably, Gainesville is located at the base of the Blue Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian Range.
A highly educated college town, College Station is growing rapidly and offering outstanding work opportunities plus plenty of chances to get outdoors. The cost of living in College Station is over 7 percent below the national average making this a very affordable place to live. Unemployment is also well below the national average at 2.9 percent and job growth is above average at 1.7 percent. The top employers in the community include Texas A&M, the Bryan school district, Sanderson Farms, and St. Joseph’s Regional Health Center.
Nearby, the 2,000-acre Gibson Creek reservoir offers endless options for water enthusiasts, including fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. There are lakeside live concerts in the summer at Lake Bryan and along with lots of camping and hiking options. The Texas A&M campus has a park-like setting offering strolling opportunities without even having to leave town.
Known as Hub City because of its many connections to nearby towns in when it was first established, Spartanburg sits 55 miles southwest of Charlotte. This town has a low unemployment rate of 3.8 percent and jobs here are growing faster than the national average. With a population of only 37,000 people, this town has small-town southern charm. Top employers in the area are vehicle manufacturing, higher education, and healthcare.
Right on the edge of town is Croft State Park with over 7,000 acres of land to explore and many miles of trails to hike. This town is also one of the most bike-friendly communities in South Carolina making moving around on two wheels a breeze. There is also a big softball scene for professionals needing to blow off some steam after work with a fun team sport.
Established in the 1880s, Sarasota has long been regarded as a premier resort community in Florida. Beyond the tourists and beaches, there is a vibrant community with a strong workforce. Unemployment in Sarasota is at 3.3 percent, well below the national average, and job growth is a robust 2.6 percent. Tourism and healthcare top the biggest employers in the area, but there are a fair number of manufacturing jobs as well.
What is truly unique about Sarasota is that, when it was established, golf was introduced shortly after by Scottish immigrants and it took off. Today, there are over 30 world-class golf courses in the immediate area. If golf isn’t of interest there are beautiful beaches for stand up paddleboarding and other activities. There are also stunning botanical gardens within the city limits for those needing a dose of nature right after work. Weekends here can be spent fishing in the gulf, hiking in Myakka River State Park, or kayaking to nearby islands.
With tree-lined streets and a vibrant downtown, Greenville is a charming classic southern town. It was established in the center of the old agricultural and textile region. Currently, it has roughly 64,000 inhabitants, most of whom work for Michelin North America, GE, Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, the local school district, and BMW. Unemployment here is a low 3 percent and job growth has been steadily above the national average at .7 percent per year.
With lakes, rivers, waterfalls and the Blue Ridge Mountains right in Greenville’s backyard, good work prospects are not the only reason to live here. Weekend getaways to the Great Smoky Mountains aren’t out of the question either as they are less than a three-hour drive away.
This small city of 130,000 residents in the southeast corner of Texas has seen some of the largest job growth in the country. Largely fueled by oil, gas, and startups, there has been an 8.7 percent increase in jobs here in the past year. The cost of living in Midland is below the national average and workers here earn roughly $35,000 per year, which is about $5,500 a year above the national average. Unemployment here is a very low 2.3 percent.
While many people move here for the strong work prospects, the ease of accessing outdoor pursuits makes it an incredible place to stay long term. Both the Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks are within a three-hour drive making them easy weekend destinations. Closer to the city there is the I-20 Wildlife Preserve and Big Springs State Park, offering fishing, boating, and hiking without having to travel far.
The largest city in the state at only 170,000 residents, Sioux Falls is a growing community. The population has increased by 14.5 percent in the last 10 years. There has been steady job growth of 1.7 percent in the past year, largely due to two large biomedical firms who are the largest employers in the area. There is also significant employment in manufacturing and food processing. The cost of living in Sioux Falls in 11.4 percent below the national average making this an affordable place for outdoor enthusiasts to locate.
Winters here are cold and snowy which means outdoor ice rinks—they have six!— tubing, and snowshoeing. In the summer, nearby national and state parks such as the Black Hills National Forest or the Palisades offer water skiing, hiking, fishing, backpacking, and camping.
With a metropolitan area that holds half a million people, Fayetteville is growing at one of the fastest rates in the country. A lot of that is due to it housing Wal-Mart’s headquarters, as well as the nearby Tyson Foods, both of which drive the local economy. The job count has grown .7 percent in the last year, and more than 20 percent since 2012, most of which has occurred in professional, business, and financial service sectors.
Fayetteville has also been the recipient of significant charitable investment from the Walton Foundation, and it’s apparent in the extensive bike trails that lead from downtown to the residential areas, and even reach some 26 miles up to the glittering Crystal Bridges Museum (another Walton-funded creation). A weekend trip to the Ozark Mountains isn’t out of the question, but plenty of nature is to be found closer to home in the Buffalo River, with rafting, kayaking, fishing, hiking, and camping activities being plentiful.
Provo’s had some absolutely stunning growth lately, with the job count rising by 2.6 percent in the last year, and 35 percent in the last ten. Both the information and business sectors have grown by over a third since 2012, and overall unemployment is hovering at around 2.6 percent, well below the national average. One of the fastest growing populations in the country, but still mid-sized at just over 116,000, Provo has plenty of room left to expand. and leaves plenty of room to breathe. Utah has a lot to offer the nature-inclined, and Provo’s no exception.
Located near the Wasatch Mountains, locals have more than enough to explore. Provo Canyon, Cascade Springs, Deer Creek State Park, Payson Lakes, and Provo River are just a few of the outdoor areas one can reach with ease from Provo proper for hiking, camping, and fishing. And in winter, world-class skiing and snowboarding options are available all over the state.
Located about 50 miles north of Denver, the small town of Greeley is starting to make its way onto the larger map. Its job count grew 4.1 percent over the last year, largely due to the uptick in oil and gas related work. But there have also been significant upward trends in construction, hospitality, health, and recreation. Low cost of living and low unemployment (3.1 percent) have seen the population grow over recent years, but at just around 100,000 people, there’s still a relaxed and easy going vibe.
Situated close to the Rocky Mountain National Park and more than a handful of other national forests, living in Greeley means you could feasibly visit a completely new area full of epic nature every month without ever repeating yourself. Skiing, rafting, hiking, camping, fishing, and biking make this area not just good for recreational vacations, but a healthy and active place to call home.
Right next door to Greeley is Fort Collins, and though it’s a similar size of 160,000 people, it’s predominantly college-aged, whereas Greeley skews more towards pensioners. And that youthful trend carries over into the job market, as Fort Collins has become something of a tech hub. Hewlett-Packard, Intel, AMD, and other high-tech companies have moved in, aided by Colorado State University’s research facilities. Clean energy, bioscience, and agri-tech are all on the rise. Fort Collins has seen its job count grow 2.5 percent over the previous year, and 18 percent since 2012. With only 2.5 percent unemployment, there’s still plenty of hiring demand.
Living in Fort Collins means you get access to all the state and national parks and forests that you would in Greeley—in fact, you’d be a little closer—and you’d be spoilt for choice when it came to weekends and day trips into the outdoors.
Larger than the other cities on this list, Minneapolis-St.Paul is two cities in one. As the primary business center between Chicago and Seattle, the Twin Cities maintain a healthy sense of industry, but also an impressively low 2.5 percent unemployment rate. While the job count has grown by only 1.8 percent in the last year, it’s on an upward trend. And despite its size, the Twin Cities have been likened to an East Coast or even European town for the late-Victorian architecture and cozy neighborhoods you just won’t find in many major US cities.
Outdoor options abound as Minnesota contains almost 12,000 lakes that are each over 10 acres in size. Camping, fishing, birding, biking — it’s all here. And the Twin Cities themselves are home to more than 50 parks and reserves, with 340 miles of trails chewing their way through the greater area. Situated on a tundra, winter here can be downright arctic by California or Florida standards, but it brings with it ice fishing, sledding, ice skating, and cross-country skiing, and nearby Buck Hill offers 15 ski and snowboard runs, 11 lifts, and one of the best powder-making systems in the Midwest.
One of the top in-migration regions in the United States, Boise has seen an electric 3.6 percent growth in job count in the last year, and 20 percent since 2012. Construction, health, information, manufacturing, and business sectors have all seen significant gains, while unemployment levels are some of the lowest in the country at 2.3 percent. With a population of 712,000 residents, Boise is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, and it’s not looking to slow down any time soon.
A regional hub for jazz and theater, there’s plenty to do both inside and outside the Boise city limits. In town, the Boise River Greenbelt offers fresh air and a large urban green space. Just a short drive away you have Lucy Peak Lake and State Park, the Snake River, and Shafer Butte. Whether you’re looking for cycling, trail running, camping, fishing, rafting, paddling, or just some fresh air, you can find it around Boise.
Nicknamed “The Loveliest Village on the Plains”, Auburn’s begun attracting a sizable amount of attention lately, as the city has experienced a job growth of 1.7 percent in the last year, and over 18 percent since 2012. Manufacturing jobs have seen the most significant increase, expanding 22 percent. With a population of just 61,900, it’s managed to attract industrial firms from Germany and South Korea, and Auburn University’s new engineering program is primed to serve major manufacturers like General Electric.
Famous for its fanatical devotion to football, there are plenty of other ways to get outside in Auburn: river rafting, golfing, hiking, biking, and camping. The nearby Chewacla State Park includes a 26 acre lake, swimming area, camping facilities, and trails for both hiking and mountain biking. For a little bit of a further drive, Auburnites can check out the 2,800 acre Cheaha State Park, which includes Cheaha Mountain (the highest point in the state) and the Pinhoti Trail system.
With a population of under half a million, the “Biggest Little City in the World” got a major upgrade when Tesla’s gigabit-1 battery factory was announced in 2014. So far, it’s provided Reno with 4,000 jobs, and it’s expected to support a total of 10,000 when complete. Once known as the much smaller brother of Las Vegas, Reno has rebranded itself in its own image and reaped the rewards of higher wages, more STEM employment opportunities, and a job growth of 4.6 percent in the last year. The manufacturing industry in Reno has grown 30 percent since 2015, and the information, business, and professional services have seen upticks in growth a well.
Nearby Lake Tahoe offers just about everything one could want from nature: hiking, biking, sailing, rock climbing, horseback riding, fishing, and more. In the cooler months, the area becomes a winter wonderland, with numerous world-class snowboarding and skiing opportunities just across the road from each other. And at an elevation of 6,225 feet, you’ll be guaranteed some fresh air.
With a population just under half a million for the metropolitan area, Asheville has grown every year for the past 40 years. A recent darling of Millennial media, the city has earned a host of disposable nicknames, from “The Paris of the South”, to “Beer City”, to “The Weirdest City in the US”. What isn’t a fad, however, is the city’s $17.3 billion local economy, which is driven by manufacturing, tourism, and healthcare. The job growth since last year is at a modest 1.6 percent, but trending upwards, and the unemployment levels remain below the national average.
Outdoor opportunities are plentiful. Hugged by the Blue Ridge Mountain Range, citizens of Asheville have easy access to trails, camping facilities, and local wildlife. There’s also whitewater rafting on the French Broad River, hiking to waterfalls on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and mountain biking in DuPont State Forest. And if you’re really looking for fresh air, you can even go hot air ballooning over the mountains.
Named by Forbes as the best city in America for job growth, and in the top ten for best small cities for businesses and careers, Bend’s population of 95,000 punches well above its weight. It’s seen 2.6 percent job growth over the past year, largely fueled by the tourism and healthcare industries. The allure is strong enough that some people working in the Bay Area have decided to relocate to Bend due to the lower cost of living, improved quality of life, and nearly unlimited amount of outdoor activities.
Nestled near the Cascade Mountain Range, along the Deschutes River, Bend repeatedly shows up on lists for best adventure towns in the US, with opportunities for spelunking, fishing, tubing, rock climbing, camping, and most anything else you might imagine. You can hike up Pilot Butte, cycle the Three Sisters Scenic Bikeway, ski or snowboard Mount Bachelor, or bungee jump into Crooked River Gorge. And with over 277 miles of mountain bike trails, you can pedal your way across everything from beginner run to lava fields.