College campuses differ in every way imaginable, from location and size to age, grandeur, and access to cities or nature. It’s hard to make a choice about what matters. In that vein, we wanted to provide a roundup of the top 10 schools that we consider the best for those students who want an academic challenge and also seek easy access to the outdoors. The following is a list of academically selective schools that also offer a range of outdoor activities and opportunities to immerse yourself in nature. If your priorities are academic rigor and fresh air, then these schools are a great place to start.
Location: Hanover, NH
The winters might be cold but Dartmouth and its facilities and location provide amazing year-round access to the outdoors. Home to the first and largest collegiate outing club in the nation, the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC) headquarters are on campus in Robinson Hall (“Robo” for short). In addition to renting gear to hike any one of the hundreds of trails on the mountains of the Upper Valley, you can rent cabins owned by the DOC if you want some time in the woods, or ski on the Dartmouth Skiway in Lyme, Vermont. The DOC also organizes outdoor trips for freshman before orientation begins--nearly 100% of incoming freshman participate in First Year Trips. The Appalachian Trail also includes Hanover, so the hill winds truly do run through the vein of the small college town.
University of Colorado, Boulder
Location: Boulder, Colorado
UC, Boulder is basically down the street from the Rocky Mountains, so you can imagine the amount of trails and opportunities for outdoor experiences year-round. Students take advantage of the opportunities to ski, run, hike, bike, longboard, and climb both on campus and off-campus. UC, Boulder is also home to the oldest collegiate ski club in the country. The school organizes camping trips and offers countless outdoor courses for students to take to educate even the most beginner outdoorsman or woman.
Location: Lewiston, ME
Tradition runs deep at Bates when it comes to embracing the outdoors. Students take advantage of the school’s proximity to Lake Auburn and Katahdin (a terminal end of the Appalachian Trail) with sunrise boat rides and annual hikes. Bates is responsible for maintaining 3.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Once a year, Bates students clothe themselves in quirky costumes ranging from bananas and superheros to zebra-print onesies and participate in the Puddle Jump, where students plunge into the freezing Lake Andrews on campus.
University of Vermont
Location: Burlington, VT
UVM’s campus is close to so many natural wonders--Lake Champlain, Mt. Hunger, Stowe Mountain, and Sugarbush, to name a few. The University’s outing club offers free transport to many outdoor activities and organizes over 100 outdoors trips every year. One tradition for UVM students is to hike Mt. Hunger and enjoy hot chocolate under a full moon. Inside the classroom, UVM also has a strong environmental science and studies curriculum. Students can choose from over 22 ENVS concentrations or majors.
Location: Ithaca, NY
Ithaca is, indeed, gorges. And flush with waterfalls--over 100 of them exist within 10 miles of the college’s campus. Students at Cornell can take outdoors classes through the outing club’s “Workshop Series” like outdoor cooking, orienteering, and belaying for college credit. Fall Creek runs through Ithaca and features trails along the two famous gorges. Nearby Taughannock Falls and Tremain State Parks have miles of trails, waterfalls, and river beds to hike. For those who enjoy being outdoors at less of an incline, there are many vineyards and cider houses nearby in the Finger Lakes region and students can kayak on Kayuga Lake when the weather permits.
University of California, Santa Barbara
Location: Santa Barbara, CA
UCSB is located on the ocean (read: perfect conditions for surfing, ocean kayaking, and paddleboarding) and is close to everything from Yosemite and Santa Cruz Island to Gibraltar and the Colorado River. Students mountain bike, hike, climb, kayak, and run through these natural areas on a regular basis. You can participate in any number of trips that the UCSB Department of Recreation organizes or easily plan your own exploratory adventure. UCSB organizes a First Year Trips program for incoming freshman to take advantage of the outdoors and bond with their fellow classmates.
Location: Davidson, North Carolina
The campus of Davidson spans over 650 acres and boasts a 100-acre arboretum, making campus an adventure in and of itself. The campus has its own Lake Campus on Lake Norman (yes, that’s its name) and exists in close proximity to Fisher Farm Park, Rural Hill Nature Preserves, and Lake Norman State Park offering countless trails for hiking, biking, and climbing. Davidson also has a ropes course and climbing wall on campus for students to explore. Whether you’re canoeing in the Everglades, sea kayaking, or sailing in the Outer banks, you’ll certainly never be bored or have a shortage of activities to dive into (pun intended).
University of California, Berkeley
Location: Berkeley, CA
Students at UC Berkeley can take advantage of everything that Northern California has to offer, in addition to the 800-acre undeveloped eco-preserve on campus. Given the area’s microclimate and close proximity to a diverse array of environments, it’s hard to be bored when you’re outdoors. Students can go skiing at Mammoth, explore Point Reyes National Seashore, hike through McNee Ranch State Park, or take advantage of the offerings of the Cal Hiking and Outdoor Society. Students are also known to participate in a vast array of unique outdoor activities like archery, quidditch, hang gliding, dragon boating, and gardening.
Location: Atlanta, GA
Outdoor Emory is not only the campus’ largest student organization, but it’s run completely by and for the students. The Student Outdoor Adventure Retreat (SOAR) is a 3-day trip organized for incoming freshman, who choose from a number of outdoor trips like kayaking, rafting, mountain backpacking, and caving. The trips range in difficulty from absolute beginner (for those who don’t even own hiking shoes) to experienced outdoorsman so no one is left out. Nearby Lake Lanier and Talladega Forest are just a couple of the outdoor offerings near the campus. Located just a couple of hours from the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Springer Mountain, students can hike parts of the AT and explore to no end.
Location: Portland, OR
Reed Canyon, the pride of Reed College, is a 28-acre watershed and exists at the center of the college’s campus. Students take great pride in maintaining it, and there’s even a semi-annual dedicated to its preservation: Canyon Day. Students come together and participate in the necessary maintenance of the canyon and bond during the college’s oldest tradition. Columbia River Gorge and Willamette River are also nearby for students to explore on day-trips. For students interested in embarking on multi-day adventures, they can rent free gear from the outing club and embark on a journey up Mt. Hood or explore Seaside beach.
All of that said, this list is by no means exhaustive. Though we highlighted colleges in a few different areas of the U.S., there are colleges throughout the rest of the country with incredible outdoor offerings. No matter what, the best way to get a feel for a college is to plan a visit. If you have any questions or need help talking through your interests or college location preferences, please send us an email or give us a call.