20 Best Colleges and Universities for Outdoor Adventurers
| Staff Writers
Are you ready to find your fit?
Whether you prefer salty ocean swells to rock scrambles at ten thousand feet, school doesn’t have to interfere with your thirst for adventure. In fact, many studies find that supplementing academia with the exploration, exercise, and challenges awarded by outdoor adventuring can dramatically improve one’s academic performance. Luckily, there are innumerable colleges and universities that will put you in direct proximity to national trails and parks, rock walls, the best beaches, white water, and more. We have listed here some of the best colleges and universities for outdoor adventurers. Our criteria takes into account this proximity as well as the national ratings of the school, its outdoor emphasis, and the opportunities for earning credit outside the classroom. One thing to note below is that the tuition rates reflect annual undergraduate costs and do not include room and board and other fees. Our data comes from the university and colleges’ websites as well as nationally recognized U.S. News and World Report and The National Center for Education Statistics.
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Montana State University is a public, land-grant university located in Bozeman, Montana. They offer undergraduate degrees in over fifty fields, as well as nearly fifty masters degrees, and eighteen doctoral degrees. The city of Bozeman serves all-season adventurers with ski resorts, mountain lakes, rugged peaks, and canyons just minutes from campus. Students can take off on the weekends to engage in some world-class ice climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, and more. And, of course, Yellowstone National Park is a mere half day’s drive from campus.
Nestled between the Cascade and Coastal ranges, Eugene is home to adventurers of all stripes: cross-country skiers, trail runners, backpackers, mountaineers, and more. Crater Lake National Park is only a couple hours away and the Three Sisters Wilderness area draws climbers, hikers, skiers, snowshoers, and campers all year long. And, of course, the ocean is only an hour to the west. The University of Oregon, walking distance of downtown Eugene, is consistently ranked on national lists, especially those including sustainability practices in their credentials. The university offers over three hundred undergraduate and graduate degrees.
In close proximity to multiple 14ers (mountains with summits of over fourteen thousand feet), ski resorts, miles of backpacking and hiking trails, Boulder, Colorado ranks as one of the best cities in the U.S. for outdoor recreation. The renowned University of Colorado Boulder is comprised of over 150 academic programs with a faculty led by Nobel laureates and MacArthur Fellows. Sierra Magazine named the university as one of the “Coolest Schools” in the United States for its emphasis on climate change efforts and green sustainability.
Located in Hawaii’s state capital, Honolulu, the University of Hawaii is in direct proximity to the aqua blues of the Pacific Ocean and the black rocks of volcanic terrain. For those who prefer boards, boats, and beaches, they will find ample opportunities to combine academia with adventure. Only one mile from Waikiki and Ala Moana, the University of Hawaii makes an array of activities available to its students, from snorkeling to kayaking, as well as clubs and organizations that promote physical health and sustainability. The University of Hawaii is consistently ranked among the best in national universities and graduate programs.
With a curriculum specifically designed to emphasize the importance of social, economic, and environmental sustainability, Green Mountain College was ranked second in Princeton Review’s “Top 50 Green Colleges.” Whether you choose to major in biology or adventure education or the arts, Green Mountain gives its students the opportunity to creatively infuse their education, even providing the option for students to design their own major. Located just south of the Green Mountain National Forest, there are innumerable hiking, camping, and climbing opportunities.
Overlooking the San Juan Islands and the Bellingham Bay, Western Washington University is only an hour’s drive from Mount Baker and Olympic National Park. The Pacific Northwest offers dynamic landscapes—from rugged coast to snowcapped mountains, rainforests to whitewater rivers—and thus equally dynamic adventuring opportunities: skiing, rafting, hiking, climbing, and more. Western Washington University only adds to the opportunities, being well recognized for its Huxley College of the Environment, the first ever college dedicated to environmental science and policy in the U.S.
Ranked eighth in the nation among public liberal arts colleges, the University of North Carolina Asheville (UNC Asheville) has been recognized for its small class size, award-winning faculty, and its emphasis on student-teacher mentorship. Situated in the Blue Mountains, Asheville as a city has also been recognized for its cultural diversity, progressive politics, and outdoor recreation, namely whitewater rafting and kayaking. Outside Magazine cites Asheville as one of the “Best Outside Towns” and Frommer’s named it as one of “The Top 7 Places to Live in the U.S.” UNC Asheville encourages its students to get outside by offering trips, lessons, a bike shop, and more.
The University of California, Santa Barbara is a renowned school that has been included in innumerable rankings, including “Best National Universities” and the “Best Global Universities,” and the faculty is comprised of Nobel Prize laureates, Field medalists, members of the National Academy of Sciences, and more. The campus is also known for its proximity to solid swells. Big Drakes, El Capitan, Driftwoods, Campus Point, and Coral beaches are all within city limits and offer surfers everything from world-class waves to regional classics. If water isn’t your thing, there’s also the Los Padres National Forest that borders the city and Sequoia National Park is only a half day’s drive.
Spearfish, South Dakota is located just north of Black Hills National Forest, just east of Thunder Basin National Grassland, and only an hour from Badlands National park, and Spearfish is the home to Black Hills State University. The campus is within an hour and a half drive from over two thousand climbing and bouldering routes. For those who like to ice climb, mountain bike, ski, and snowboard, the campus is only minutes from the Northern Black Hills. Students can even choose to major in Outdoor Education, which prepares them for careers in state and national parks, nature centers, zoos, aquaria, non-profits, lodges, field stations, wilderness programs, and more.
The flagship institution in the University of Maine system, the University of Maine Orono was included in Princeton Review’s Green Honor Roll, a prestigious list that recognizes schools for their commitment to sustainability. Orono, Maine is located on the Penobscot River, is adjacent to numerous national wildlife preserves and forests, and is just an hour from Acadia National Park. At Orono students can participate in the Maine Bound program, which gives them the opportunity to earn outdoor experience at all skill levels. There are options to rent bikes and gear, to tackle challenging ropes courses, take backpacking trips, go sea kayaking in the Everglades, rock climb with guides, and much more. Finally, the University of Maine has been designated an arboretum.
Only an hour from Olympic National Park, Evergreen State College is an experimental public liberal arts college where there are over sixty emphases to choose from, covering everything from biology and art history to somatic studies and sustainability. Not only is Evergreen considered one of the best colleges on the West Coast, as ranked by The Princeton Review and the U.S. News and World Report, but Evergreen has over a thousand acres of land that serves as a natural lab for scientific field research. Whether you’re inspired by the Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean, Mount Rainier, or all three, Evergreen is in the middle of it all.
Boise is home to many ski resorts, miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, gnarly rock climbing walls, and zippy rivers. Outside Magazine named it one of the “Best River Towns in America” and Boise has been ranked as one of the healthiest, most active cities in the U.S. A major public research university, Boise State University has an enrollment of nearly twenty-three thousand undergrads and offers over two hundred degrees. In and near Boise there are over 130 miles of hiking and biking trails, twenty-five miles of Boise River Greenbelt, over two thousand acres of skiable terrain, and nine mountain summits of over twelve thousand feet, called the 12ers.
A land-grant, space-grant, research university, the University of Arkansas is situated in the middle of the Boston Mountains, part of the Ozark Mountain range. Like some of the other schools on our list, the University of Arkansas encourages their students to get outside by renting out camping, hiking, and climbing gear. One of the main colleges within the university, the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food, and Life Sciences, encompasses the School of Human Environmental Science and offers nearly five hundred scholarships annually. There are hundreds of hiking trails, swimmable lakes, and kayakable rivers in the Ozarks.
The flagship university in the University of California system, UC Berkeley is a public research university and is considered one of the best in the world, and in under four hours of driving you can stand in one of the most beautiful, inspiring valleys in the world: Yosemite. If climbing up El Capitan isn’t of interest, and you’d rather pull on a wetsuit, California’s coast offers an array of surfing and snorkeling options. Or, if you don’t want to venture too far, Berkeley’s campus contains many wooded areas, including its renowned eucalyptus grove, which has the tallest stand of hardwood trees in all of North America. UC Berkeley is a world-renowned institution; faculty and alumni have won seventy-two Nobel prizes, eight Field Medals, and eleven Pulitzers, in addition to Turing Awards, Olympic gold medals, and more.
Portland, Oregon is only a short drive from innumerable hiking trails, climbing routes, ski resorts, and major national parks and forests. Reed College is a very small (there are only 1,400 undergrads) private, liberal arts college known for its forested canyon nature preserve at the center of campus. The Reed Outdoor Programs and Education (ROPE) center offers students the opportunity to get outside in a number of ways, from gear rental to student-led backpacking trips, from whitewater kayaking trips to rock climbing ventures. Through the backpack co-op, students are free to rent all kinds of gear—snowshoes, clothes, trail anthologies, maps, and so much more—to get them out into the Pacific Northwest landscape.
Middlebury College is a small, private, liberal arts college in Middlebury, Vermont. With an acceptance rate of less than twenty percent, Middlebury is highly competitive. Despite the small size of the undergrad population, however, students come from all over the U.S. and from dozens of countries all over the world, and it was ranked fourth best liberal arts college by U.S. News and World Report this year. Located on the foothills of the Green Mountains and east of the Champlain Valley, Middlebury College places strong emphasis on sustainability and even offers the opportunity to live in a Solar Decathlon home.
Only a little over an hour’s drive to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff’s mild weather and varied terrain brings in a slew of hikers, climbers, campers, runners, and mountain bikers. Northern Arizona University’s Flagstaff campus hosts twenty thousand undergrads with the largest amount of students enrolled in elementary education, biology, and nursing. Northern Arizona offers its students many opportunities to get outdoors, even renting gear such as mountain bikes. There are also numerous certifications and trips for the outdoorsy, including backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon, wilderness first responder courses, Verde River rafting expeditions, Havasupai Falls backpacking trips, challenge course facilitator certification, and Leave No Trace training. Northern Arizona University is unique in that it offers its students the Pledge Program, which guarantees the same tuition rate for all four years.
Known mostly for its dense Mormon population, Salt Lake City is in the nexus of several mountain ranges and glacial-carved canyons. Winter sports—notably, snowboarding and skiing—are extremely popular, and so there are numerous ski resorts in or near Salt Lake. But if snow isn’t your thing, the mountains and rivers of Salt Lake provide the opportunity to hike, camp, rock climb, mountain bike, fish, boat, and more. The University of Utah is situated right in the middle of it all. With more than one hundred undergraduate majors and nearly one hundred graduate programs, the university is a major public research institution known for its scholarly achievements: numerous Rhodes Scholars, Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows, and more have graduated from the University of Utah.
The flagship campus in the University of Alaska system, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) is a land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant institution. Being that the campus is located only two-hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, it is a university known for its arctic and northern research. In fact, UAF is comprised of several major research units: the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station; the Geophysical Institute; the International Arctic Research Center; the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center; the Institute of Arctic Biology; the Institute of Marine Science; and the Institute of Northern Engineering. With the White Mountains, the Alaska Range, and the Yukon River all in reach, UAF students find themselves proximal to a specific kind of adventure—that of untramped wilderness.
Situated between the edge of the Redwoods and the Pacific coast, Humboldt State University is comprised of three colleges: the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences College; the Professional Studies College; and the Natural Resources and Sciences Colleges. Additionally, Humboldt boasts a number of off-campus facilities, including a wildlife care facility, a natural history museum, an art gallery, a mountain-top astronomical observatory, a marine biology research center, and more. Humboldt offers nearly fifty undergraduate majors and has notoriously small classes with an average twenty students. For those looking to be close to the ocean and thousand-year-old forests, Humboldt is an affordable choice.
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