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Hitting the books and studying in the library is only part of a well-rounded college experience. Many schools around the country are notable for having excellent access to the great outdoors, which is an excellent place to run off some excess energy, explore the geography of a region and socialize with friends. While some schools have easy access to rushing rivers and stunning mountain ranges, others are adjacent to lush parks and urban walking trails. Either way, getting outside is the best way to get a break from academics.
A number of different factors influenced our list of the best schools for outdoor sports and recreation around the country. In our research, we analyzed and weighted the following factors for over 300 different institutions.
- Proximity to excellent off-campus outdoor experiences
- Frequent weather suitable for enjoying the outdoors
- Notable natural beauty on campus
- School-sponsored outdoors activities like clubs, teams and equipment rental programs
- Opportunities for academic work in the natural world
30 Best Colleges for Outdoor Sports and Recreation
30) University of Texas – Austin, TX
Right in the middle of the Lone Star State, Austin has become a mecca for all that is hip in recent years. For outdoor enthusiasts, though, it is also a great place to launch a number of adventures and sporting expeditions. The University of Texas has many clubs and organizations that assist students who want to have fun outside, whether it’s climbing, hiking or kayaking. A diverse number of beautiful natural areas are only a drive from campus, including the Rio Grande, Gila Wilderness Area and Colorado Bend State Park. Closer by, there are fantastic swimming spots, running trails and hills to hike up directly in town.
29) Western Washington University – Bellingham, WA
Basically only a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, Western Washington’s environment is intensely northwestern, with mountains, fir trees and rugged coastline everywhere. Many state parks, like Birch Bay, Larrabee and Sucia Island, are not far to the east of WWU’s campus, all open for exploration. The campus is situated right along Bellingham Bay and students take advantage of this aquatic location by kayaking, canoeing, kiteboarding and swimming. There are also student clubs for those who want to skateboard, mountain bike, hike or play quidditch. For those that don’t want to stray too far, the campus itself is quite lovely, notable for its extensive arboretum and public art.
28) Davidson College – Davidson, NC
Davidson’s campus is close to an array of fantastic outdoors opportunities. A number of wonderful natural areas, forests and lakes are right near campus, where students go for both club and recreational sports. Swimming, boating, ultimate Frisbee and horse riding are all popular options for Davidson students. The school proper has a beautiful 100 acre arboretum right on campus and a separate 110 acre “beach campus” is adjacent to the primary 665 acre plot of land. For a rigorous liberal arts curriculum and proximity to natural beauty, Davidson is a great place to be.
27) Sierra Nevada College – Incline Village, NV
For outside-loving students, it can’t get much better than being close to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Lake Tahoe. Sierra Nevada College takes full advantage of its close proximity to both natural playgrounds with two unique academic programs, Ski Business and Resort Management and Outdoor Adventure Leadership. For the latter, students do more than just have fun in the great outdoors, but also organize community events, create new curriculum and practice crafting business plans. Away from school, students can also take classes for a variety of outdoor activities, like surfing and climbing, and also participate in organizations devoted to nature. If a student is obsessed with skiing, mountaineering or just walking around beautiful areas, SNC can’t be beat.
26) Northland College – Ashland, WI
All students who choose to attend Northland must participate in a 5- to 12-day Outdoor Orientation trip to begin their college careers with a bang. Among the trips that beginning students can take are backpacking expeditions and kayaking trips in the wilderness areas that surround the school. For students who can’t get enough water, the school is close to Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, which can be home to many aquatic field trips. The college curriculum also integrates the natural world into any academic track, as all of the student body chooses a general education track that focuses on environmentalism, agriculture or the natural history of the immediate region. The experience at Northland immerses students into the natural world in more ways than one; for instance, the picture shown above was taken during a class on the Apostle Islands!
25) Warren Wilson College – Asheville, NC
Asheville is a regional hot spot for outdoor lovers, with the Blue Ridge Mountains, plentiful whitewater, hot springs and rock climbing in the immediate vicinity. Luckily, Warren Wilson College is located smack in the middle of these great opportunities. The school also has many academic programs that are tied to its natural environment, from a forestry crew to its own farm to a GIS lab. It also is known for its popular Outdoor Leadership major, where student learn how to build trust and teamwork in the outside spaces.
24) University of Washington – Seattle, WA
For more aquatic-inclined students, the University couldn’t be in a better location. The campus is right along Lake Washington and the school’s Kayak Club supports many watery expeditions in the immediate vicinity. Not far away, Bainbridge Island and Mount Rainier each support their own array of outdoor fun, whether mountain biking or skiing. UW also has a great organization offering classes in a number of outdoor sports and tours to fantastic regional parks. There is also a well-equipped gear rental facility and three different indoor climbing facilities for students who need some altitudes.
23) Humboldt State University – Arcata, CA
Among the tall redwoods of Northern California, the students at Humboldt State are surrounded by some of the most beautiful forested land in the country. Arcata is a liberal college town close to those landmark trees as well as rugged coastline and snowy mountain ranges, which is a boon to outdoor recreation in the region. The school offers certification in wildfire management and wilderness first response, as well as its own Marine Lab not far from campus. There are multiple outdoor clubs where students can find like-minded kayakers, hikers, skiers and climbers, among other enthusiasts. The school also hosts one of the most diverse greenhouses in the state, for those who want to appreciate nature on campus.
22) Lewis and Clark College – Portland, OR
With both urban Portland and plentiful forests, mountains and ocean at the ready, Lewis and Clark has the best of both worlds. The College Outdoors Program sets up recreational activities across the board, from skiing and snowshoeing to sea kayaking and camping. They also organize trips to outdoors locations both nearby and further afield, around Oregon, Washington and California. Portland itself is also a hot spot for recreation, with running trails, bike paths and close proximity to towering Mt. Hood. Whether wilderness or city exploration are a student’s priorities, the college has a lot to offer.
21) Evergreen State College – Olympia, WA
Not far south of the stunning Olympic Peninsula – which has snowy mountains, lush rainforest and rocky beaches in one compact corner of the state – sits the idyllic Evergreen State College. With over a thousand acres of forest surrounding it, and a short drive to the serene Puget Sound, Evergreen’s campus is a beautiful place to study. The school’s Outdoor Program hosts trips to nearby destinations throughout the year and many student clubs have teams for a number of different sports. Skiing and snowboarding are relatively close and right on campus, a functioning organic farm helps feed the college population. No matter the student outdoorsy interests, Evergreen has many options.
20) College of the Atlantic – Bar Harbor, ME
At the gateway to gorgeous Acadia National Park, the environment surrounding College of the Atlantic is unlike any other. With islands, harbors, lakes and ocean as far as the eye can see, Bar Harbor is a paradise for lovers of the outdoors. The school leads trips that encompass many activities, including sailing, kayaking, diving and backpacking, among others. The college also is considered one of the national leaders in sustainability. It has made a deep commitment to renewable energy and its graduation held a zero carbon footprint, a first in the nation.
19) University of Alaska – Fairbanks, AK
The vast wilderness not far from the University of Alaska campus is ideal for students who love to explore. While the sprawling Denali National Park isn’t too far away, students can also enjoy exploring the 1,100 acres of forested land on the school’s North Campus. Student clubs run the gamut of outdoors interests, from disc golf to parkour to archery. Many academic fields also take advantage of the great wilds that surround the school, with students doing serious work in the natural sciences for a range of prominent organizations. There is more than enough outdoor adventuring to be had near Fairbanks that any student should stay busy for their four years in college.
18) University of Nevada – Reno, NV
As a sign welcoming visitors into town reads, Reno thinks of itself as “The Biggest Little City in the World.” Though it is set in a rather arid desert environment, Reno is close to skiing, mountain climbing and a variety of water sports, with Donner Pass and Lake Tahoe only a drive away. The University of Nevada at Reno has many clubs and organizations, from snow sports to hiking to kayaking, which gets students outside with groups of like-minded enthusiasts. For those wanting their academics to involve the natural world, many of the schools science majors are also able to take advantage of all the beauty that surrounds the campus. Whether they want to get credit or just have fun, UN students have great access the outdoors.
17) Appalachian State University – Boone, NC
Some of the very best mountain sports in the country are to be found in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Appalachian State is located. The school has concentrations that cater to students wanting to make this wonderful environment part of their academic life: Commercial Recreation and Tourism Management, Outdoor Experiential Education and Recreation and Park Management. There are also many non-academic ways for students who want to integrate the outdoors into their college careers, including Wilderness First Responder courses and volunteer opportunities with the Blue Ridge Parkway Corps. For those wishing to explore the outdoors outside of the United States, App State’s Outdoor Program leads trips to a variety of countries overseas for recreation opportunities.
16) University of Idaho – Moscow, ID
Within quick driving distance to multiple National Forests and surrounded by a scenic hilly landscapes, students at the University of Idaho have a lot of outdoor options close by. Popular options for exploring nature away from campus include mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, kayaking and fishing. The campus itself is full of its own natural wonders, as well. The grounds were planned by the firm that famed landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted, he of Central Park and the U.S. Capital, started before he passed away. The campus also has a fantastic arboretum for students that want to lounge under a tree but not stray too far from school.
15) Middlebury College – Middlebury, VT
As one of the more sustainable colleges in the country – it aspired to be carbon neutral by 2016 – Middlebury is fully devoted to maintaining a positive link with the natural world. Nestled in the scenic Champlain Valley, the school’s Outdoor Clubs also bring the school closer to its surrounding environment, with fly fishing, Nordic skiing and sailing among the options for curious students. The college also has its very own ski area at the College Snow Bowl, with 17 trails for students to cruise down. Students hoping to brush up on their environmentalism in their free time can check out the campus farm, recycling center and gasification plant. Working towards a greener world and having fun in it are fully blended at Middlebury.
14) University of California, Berkeley – Berkeley, CA
Though it is located in the urban Bay Area, students at Berkeley have easy access to incredible outdoors recreation, both near and far. The school’s campus sprawls out to 1,232 acres, with the majority of it preserved as trail-laced open space. The weather is consistently mild throughout the year, too, so outdoors fanatics can enjoy the surrounding ocean, bay, hills, mountains and rivers, all within a quick drive, almost every day. UC Berkeley has many clubs and student organizations devoted to spending time outside, from archery to hang gliding to gardening to surfing. Pretty much any kind of any outdoors sporting activity one could think of is doable right near campus or just a short trip away.
13) University of Arizona – Tuscon, AZ
Set in a gorgeous desert landscape, Tuscon is both a typical college town with all of the associated amenities and a gateway to a wide spectrum of outdoor recreation. Surrounded by Saguaro National Park, Tuscon Mountain Park and Santa Catalina Natural Area, there a plenty of wild places to explore near town. The environment is notable for its near-constant sunshine, too, so there are many days every year to mountain bike, hike, run and climb. The U of A leads a handful of outdoors trips, like sea kayaking and backpacking, through its extensive recreation center’s Outdoor Adventure program. There are also several courses, both credit and non-credit, for curious students to take advantage of while there.
12) University of Hawaii – Honolulu, HI
If one has the ability to stay strong and focus on studying while surrounded by a paradise island environment, the University of Hawaii is a fantastic place to go to school. Dramatic mountain ridges and stunning beaches are all close by, so students can run, hike, bike, swim and surf to their heart’s content. The school has a number of outdoors-oriented clubs and groups for students who want to meet like-minded adventurers and fellow sports fanatics. There are also ways to take organized classes for some these activities, too, with official classes in everything from sailing to scuba diving being offered most semesters. The UH Student Recreation Services can act as a hub for working out, adventuring and seeing all that the island has to offer.
11) Berry College – Mount Berry, GA
The world’s largest contiguous college campus can be found at Berry College, located in lovely northern Georgia. At a whopping 27,000 acres of land, over half of which is considered a wildlife management area, Berry has plenty of natural space for students to explore and enjoy. The school’s Outdoor Leadership Development Program helps students access the surrounding environment with credit and non-credit classes. Among these options are canoeing, spelunking, mountain biking and rope courses. If students want to see the region outside of the enormous campus itself, there are also plenty of national forests, nature preserves, mountains and rivers a quick trip away.
10) University of California, Santa Cruz – Santa Cruz, CA
For the students who decide to become banana slugs (the school’s official mascot), UCSC has plenty to offer for the outdoors obsessed. Set in a redwood-filled mountainous landscape right along the Pacific Ocean, the school’s campus is unparalleled in immediate access to natural beauty. The recreation department has a stocked gear rental program and also organizes many trips and classes that take advantage of the area. Unlike many universities in the country, UCSC also has its own Scuba Certification program, so students can both dive for fun and learn to become instructors. On the academic side of things, many students engage with the natural world through marine biology, forestry or a handful of other renowned programs.
9) Boise State University – Boise, ID
With a campus situated between serene desert and stunning mountain range, Boise State has quick access to diverse outdoor opportunities. River sports, mountain biking, hiking and many other activities can be done with only a quick trip away from the school’s campus. Every Friday during the winter, the nearby Bogus Basin Ski Resort has night skiing for only $25 for students. BSU also has a stellar Outdoor Program that assists students in their quest for outdoor fun, with courses in rafting, backpacking and rock climbing, among other sports. Whether students are seeking fresh powder in the winter or whitewater, BSU has it all.
8) University of Colorado – Boulder, CO
At the foothills of some of the country’s most awe-inspiring mountains, UC Boulder students have incredible opportunities for outdoor adventuring. Backpacking, mountain biking, camping, climbing skiing and snowboarding might be the sports one would easily imagine local students doing, and opportunities for them are all plentiful. But there are also student clubs for archery, disc golf, sailing and bocce ball on campus. Often ranked as one of the most active and fit towns in the country, Boulder’s proximity to both the Rockies, as well as to rushing Boulder Creek and Arapahoe National Forest, make this location ideal for explorers and casual enthusiasts alike. For prospective students looking for a blend of academia and mountains, UC Boulder is a true utopia.
7) University of Oregon – Eugene, OR
Not far from the coast, from the desert, from rushing rivers or from snow-capped mountains, Eugene is an ideal location for adventurous students. The tree-lined campus is a wonderful arboretum and is considered one of the more bike-friendly schools in the country. With a fully stocked DIY bike maintenance shop, it’s a great place to be a cyclist, whether for sport or transportation. The Outdoor Program at the UO also offers an array of surfing, camping, hiking and skiing trips to nearby locales throughout the year. The university is a paradise for outdoor fanatics of all stripes.
6) University of Utah – Salt Lake City, UT
Nestled between the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountains is the University of Utah, with its easy access to plentiful outdoor recreation. For students obsessed with catching fresh powder, the school is only a bus ride to some of the state’s renowned ski areas. In warmer weather, world-class climbing, river rafting and backpacking are right around the corner from campus. The U’s Outdoor Adventures rental shop is considered one of the most comprehensive in the country and is able to set students up with gear for a wide range of outside activities. There are also many student groups, classes and workshops that are devoted to preparing students for their next adventure.
5) Colorado State University – Fort Collins, CO
With the Rocky Mountains only a short distance away and an array of campus properties set in a variety of beautiful natural environments, CSU is a stellar place to enjoy the outdoors. The central campus in the quaint town of Fort Collins is only one part of the university experience – there is also an agricultural campus, a Foothills Campus, many university research stations and thousands of acres of Colorado State Forest close by. For those who live for anything aquatic, the six miles of water at nearby Horsetooth Reservoir is a fantastic place to enjoy fishing, boating and swimming. There are also plentiful clubs and student organizations to participate in, from skiing to mountain horse riding to skydiving. No matter your outdoors interests, it can all be found at CSU.
4) Stanford University – Palo Alto, CA
Renowned for its prestigious academics, Stanford is also an excellent place for students to participate in an array of fantastic outdoor activities. Close to the mountains, the ocean, verdant forests and the immediate hilly landscape, Stanford is ideal for everything from surfing to rock climbing to backpacking. Students can join trips to nearby locales with a number of diverse student groups, like the alpine club or the windsurfing club. Those wishing to see the snowcapped mountains of the Sierras can go a few hours east and others who might want to see massive trees can drive several hours north to check out the famous coastal redwoods. The campus itself, designed partly by Frederick Law Olmsted, is thought to be one of the most beautiful in the country, so students can also enjoy natural beauty as they hit the books.
3) University of Wyoming – Laramie, WY
Students at the University of Wyoming are lucky to be surrounded by some of the most spectacular wilderness in the country. With Medicine Bow National Forest, the Snowy Range Mountains and Banforth National Wildlife Refuge all within a short drive of the Laramie campus. There are many student groups, from hunting to skiing to climbing, that all take advantage of this stunning environment. UW students also can take a handful of non-credit classes that take them away from the books and into nature, including kayaking, fly fishing and mountaineering. The campus in Laramie is also designed with the great outdoors in mind, with beautiful open spaces and tree-lined paths for students to enjoy.
2) Hampshire College – Amherst, MA
Though the school is known for its small student body, design-your-own-major curriculum and lack of formal letter grades, Hampshire also has stellar options for outside fun. The school’s Outdoor Programs, Recreation, and Athletics (OPRA) has relatively extensive equipment rental access, a stocked bike shop, martial arts classes and trips to the area’s excellent mountain bike trails. Most notable are the program’s far-flung outdoors field trips, ranging from rock climbing in Spain to paddling the Grand Canyon to skiing in Canada. The Pioneer Valley surrounding Hampshire also has great local opportunities for trail running, kayaking, rock climbing and cross-country skiing. Whether for its experimental approach to college learning or its adventurous outdoor recreation choices, Hampshire is a unique place to go to school.
1) Montana State University – Bozeman, MT
There aren’t many other colleges that are so immersed in fantastic natural surroundings. With world-class skiing a mere stone’s throw away and rich farmland all around the campus, MSU has much to offer to nature lovers. Bozeman is only 90 miles north of Yellowstone National Park, while Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks are also within reach for backpacking, camping and whitewater. The school organizes trips to these locales and also to some further away places, like to Mexico or the Canadian Rockies. The Outdoor Recreation Center is open year-round for equipment rentals and student clubs are devoted to a range of interests like logger sports, ultimate Frisbee and alpine skiing. Many students with an itch for the outdoors think MSU is an ideal place to study and enjoy nature.
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Author: Jeff Gitlen