Great American Small Towns

Revised From My Article In World Property Journal, December 2021

I’ve always had a special love for mountains and places of great natural beauty. Particularly if they boast historic old towns with friendly people, funky restaurants and bars, and interesting shops. Here are some favorites…

*FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS: The Texas Hill Country is a very special place of rolling hills and award-winning wineries, anchored by this beautiful village founded by German emigrants in 1846. Named after Prince Frederick of Prussia, it still retains the flavor – and the Gemutlichkeit (pleasant ambience) – of the old days.

Though a small town, Fredericksburg actually offers two world-class attractions. The National Museum of the Pacific War gives an up-close-and-very-personal look at World War II, with real planes and PT-Boats and touching personal stories. And the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is the site of the home – and final resting place - on the Pedernales River so beloved by the 36th President.

A "Sunday House," built and used by early German settlers
A "Sunday House," built and used by early German settlers when they came into town to go to church. (Photo by Steve Winston)

On the Texas Hill Country Winery Trail, you’ll pass lush green meadows with grazing horses and family-owned wineries. The owner/vintners are happy to speak with you about their wines and to pour you samples.

There’s a surprising diversity of dining options, too. The Airport Diner – in a World War II-era hangar at the Fredericksburg Airport – is a must-see. The Cabernet Grill Texas Wine Country Restaurant serves gourmet Texas specialties and noteworthy local wines. And in a town still dotted with tiny wooden “Sunday Houses” built by early German settlers for their trips into town for church, you’ll find plenty of schnitzel and red cabbage and sauerbraten.

If you visit Fredericksburg from May through October, head for the abandoned old railroad tunnel called “The  Bat Tunnel” by locals – with good reason. Every evening at sunset, some 3,000,000 bats fly out of the tunnel, in a whirling, whipping frenzy that darkens the sky for nearly thirty minutes.

And nearby is Luckenbach, with a legendary honky-tonk in which Willie Nelson got his start.

*BEND, OREGON: The town of Bend (pop. 102,000) is located in Central Oregon, at an altitude of 3,623 feet. Most people don't associate the heavily-forested, rainy, mountainous state of Oregon with "desert." But Bend may as well be called “Heaven” to outdoor enthusiasts, because it’s a high-desert town with dry weather and snow-capped mountains. Days are filled with sunshine and evenings are cool.

The town’s right on the Deschutes River, close to the glistening lakes and the peaks of the Cascade range, which boasts good ski resorts. Many trails are open all year long…one of which will lead you up to an extinct volcano. And the High Desert Museum brings to life – in vivid color – the region’s flora and fauna.

At the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, you can explore caves and a huge lava tube, and there’s also mountain-biking, hiking, and horseback trails. Mt. Bachelor has golf, fishing, rafting, and winter sports. The High Desert Museum has exhibits on the local landscape, history, and wildlife. In the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, you can climb stairs into the Lava River Cave.

There’s one other nice thing about Bend. It hasn’t yet been discovered by the international crowd, giving it a laid-back, friendly vibe that’s disappeared in a lot of other places.

*GATLINBURG/PIGEON FORGE, TENNESSEE: The neighboring towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are a great family destination. And they may well have more attractions per capita than almost anywhere in America.

A 2.1-mile ride up the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway offer stunning panoramic vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains, which seem to stretch out forever before you. The Aerial Tram takes you up to Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area and Amusement Park, with colorful attractions, shopping and dining. Then there’s the world-class Aquarium of the Smokies, native-daughter Dolly Parton's spectacular Dollywood amusement park, and Dolly's Dixie Stampede, where you eat good ole Southern cookin' with your fingers while a colorful rodeo/circus whirls around below.

Funky, unique crafts
The Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area in Tennessee boasts funky, unique crafts. (Photo by Steve Winston)

But the most touching of all the local attractions is the Titanic Museum, a lifelike re-creation of the “Titanic,” where you’ll be given the name of one of the passengers on its ill-fated voyage, and then find out when you leave whether you “lived” or “died.”

In this region, you're also right at the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with stunning panoramas such as Cades Cove reaching into distant horizons that’ll take your breath away. The Cades Cove Valley is teeming with wildlife such as white-tailed deer, black bears, turkeys and raccoons. And there’s a Visitor Center with interesting exhibits about Southern mountain life.

And since I’m a devoted mountain climber, I love to climb Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet, the highest point in this National Park. It’s the highest point in Tennessee, too, and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi. The observation tower on the summit offers spectacular 360° views of the Smokies and beyond.

Great Smoky Mountains In Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains In Tennessee (Photo by Steve Winston)

*TAOS, NEW MEXICO: Taos is a little village of some 6,000 souls with a world-class art scene, a Native pueblo, recreational activities in magnificent panoramas, and a spiritualism - enhanced by the unique natural light - found nowhere else. The bed-and-breakfasts here (such as Hacienda Del Sol) are authentic Southwest haciendas, filled with art and historic artifacts.

Taos Mountain - "the mountain" to locals - can be seen from just about anywhere in town. To the Native Americans on the Taos Pueblo, it's the source of life itself. And the Pueblo is home to one of America’s most popular Native-American performers – Robert Mirabal, whose Native song/dance troupe has toured all over the word. (Several flutes carved by this multi-talented artist are on display in the Smithsonian Institution.)

Taos Mountain
Taos Mountain – where the “Great Spirit” lives - overlooks Taos Pueblo. (Photo by Steve Winston)

A short drive from town is the Taos Ski Valley, where you'll find a European-style village with a clock tower and interesting shops, along with hiking, biking, and horseback riding, and excellent lodging options, among them the luxurious Snakedance Condos. Up here, you can hike up to Williams Lake, an ice-blue alpine lake with a waterfall, and furry little marmots who have no qualms about coming right up to you if they smell any food. And if you're feeling really adventurous, you can climb Wheeler Peak, at 13,000 feet the highest peak in New Mexico.

Taos is also the starting - and ending - point on the Enchanted Circle, a 90-mile long auto route through the Carson National Forest, old Hispanic villages with pottery and painted doorways, and striking old churches. You’ll also pass through atmospheric Western towns like Red River, which not only boasts “gunfights” on its colorful streets but also offers excellent skiing and  good ski lodges.

*WINTER PARK, COLORADO: You'll run out of time long before you run out of things to do here. In winter, there's cross-country skiing, dog-sledding, hot-air ballooning (yes, in winter!) snow-cat skiing, snow-mobiling, ice skating, snow-shoeing, downhill skiing, snow-boarding, sleigh-riding, tubing, and sledding. In summer, there's mountain-biking, hiking, rafting, climbing, boating, camping, fishing, horseback riding, kayaking, and zip-lining. And everywhere you look, there are incredible vistas of far-off horizons and sky-piercing peaks. The Winter Park Resort is the state’s oldest continually-operated ski resort, with interesting shops and amusements and 18 eateries. And nearby are colorful Old West towns such as Georgetown (with the old-time Georgetown Loop Railroad) and Idaho Springs, where the main streets haven’t changed since the 1800’s. the town sits at the base of Mount Blue Sky. This is one of Colorado’s 58 “14ers”- peaks of 14,000’ or higher.  

*SANDPOINT, IDAHO: A few years ago, Rand McNally/USA Today readers voted Sandpoint, tucked up in the Idaho Panhandle 40 miles from Canada, as the most beautiful small town in America. This is a classic old Northwestern town, sitting astride Lake Pend Orielle, the largest lake in Idaho. The lake offers 148 square miles of fishing, kayaking, and boating among isolated little coves and inlets, with bald eagles circling overhead. And Main Street is lined with wood-frame shops and galleries, along with the century-old Panida Theater, with its old-fashioned red velvet seats, classic old films and notable performers. And another very colorful local landmark is the Common Knowledge Bookstore and Teahouse.

Schweitzer Mountain
Sandpoint’s Schweitzer Mountain overlooks Lake Pend Orielle, with Canada in the distance. (Photo by Steve Winston)

The Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, just above Sandpoint, was named as the Top Ranch In America by one media company. Here you can bunk down in authentic cabins filled with Native crafts and quilts, or in the main lodge, with the most beautiful Western Great Room I’ve ever seen. During the daytime you can go horseback riding or hiking amidst thick Northwestern forest with beautiful silence and isolated herds of cows. And at nighttime you can join the owners’ family around a roaring fire for great barbecue, great guitar-pickin’ and songs.

Janice and Roley Schoonover are fourth-generation owners, and they love showing off their ranch, and leading guests on horseback rides over mountains with see-forever views. And Roley, who’s the chef in the Great Room, creates some fantastic Western vittles.

Visitors are attracted to Sandpoint again and again, by the astounding natural beauty, world-class recreational opportunities, Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort, the historic downtown, and trails along Lake Pend Orielle.

*BRYSON CITY, NORTH CAROLINA: This is a picturesque Old South town with a statue in front of the courthouse - which sits on the town square - and an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants. Among them is a local landmark called the N.C. Clampitt Hardware Company, at which you can find classic hardware and a whole lot more.

Nantahala River
Bryson City, NC offers thrilling rafting on the Nantahala River (I’m the guy in the green hat!)

Bryson City's the home of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which will chug you through stunning old-growth forests and coves and meadows, and which has an interesting railroad museum at the old depot. In addition, this town's also the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and close to the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. The best place to stay is Lands Creek Log Cabins, a mountaintop hideout with beautiful log cabins with hot tubs on their decks. And the cabins are built on top of a rushing creek, so you can fall asleep each night to the sounds of the creek right beneath you.

Bighorn Sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park
A Bighorn Sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, Colorado. (Photo by Steve Winston)

*ESTES PARK, COLORADO: Remember the Danbury Hotel in "Dumb and Dumber?" Well, in actuality, it was the Stanley Hotel, in the picturesque Rocky Mountain town of Estes Park.

This old hotel was built by Freelan Oscar Stanley, who created the Stanley Steam Engine, a steam-powered horseless carriage. The majestic Georgian-style hotel opened in 1909, catering to the rich and famous. Jim Carrey stayed there during the filming of “Dumb and Dumber.”

But that movie's not the only reason the Stanley's gained cinematic fame. It's known to have a number of ghosts roaming the halls...and many well-documented encounters with them. Accordingly, it's where Stephen King was inspired to write "The Shining." And where he shot a made-for-TV version of it after the movie (which was filmed elsewhere) came out.

Estes Park is a nice Western town, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains and only a few miles from Rocky Mountain National Park and its incredible array of wildlife – among them elk, bears, and moose - and beautiful peaks and meadows. Nearby is the Roosevelt National Forest.

And for breathtaking views over the Roosevelt Valley, board the Estes Park Aerial Tramway in town and ride it to the summit of Prospect Mountain.