Certain towns define themselves through their outdoor activities and their open-air cred. Hanalei, Kauai, has its waves. Boulder has its slopes. Durango has its trails. And you? You have two weeks of vacation a year and a jones for outdoor living that persists for the other 50.
So what's keeping you from enjoying the al fresco life year round? Well, there's the oft-mountainous prices of homes in those outdoor meccas, for one. And then there's the pesky fact that they're mostly located in the Western half of the United States, quite possibly far from your life and your chosen career.
But we're here to tell you: You can have it all—an affordable home in a centrally located metro where adventure-filled days, nights, and weekends aren't far from your back door. So we hit the trails to find America's hidden outdoor meccas.
To start, realtor.com®'s intrepid, sunburned data team limited its search to metros where the median home prices are under $300,000. That's why many of those world-famous destination stops out West and in the Rocky Mountain states didn't make the cut. What we're left with is some unexpected metros with enough top-notch outdoor access to help you almost forget those soul-crushing days you spend each week in cubicles. So get off your butts, already!
"It's sometimes hard to find the time and access to get outside when you live in a city," says Lauren Skonieczny, operations manager and a guide at Discover Outdoors, a New York-based provider of guided adventure trips. "[But] time outside really helps to improve mental health and physical health. A short hike is enough to get your heart pumping."
Many folks don't even realize how close they are to nature's glory.
"Go online and Google things like 'stand-up paddle boarding' or 'kayaking' and then put your city in," suggests Stacy Tornio, author of more than a dozen children’s books that encourage the young to get outside. "So many cities are catering to outdoor activities now. They probably exist, and you might not even know it."
To come up with our list of the most affordable outdoor-friendly cities, we looked at:
- Number of national parks within a four-hour drive (perfect for a weekend camping trip), using Google Maps data
- Number of state parks or beaches within a one-hour drive (envision afternoon getaways), using Google Maps data
- Restaurants with outdoor seating, using Yelp data
- Annual months of mild weather, with daily highs between 60 and 80 degrees, using National Weather Service data
- Bicycle-friendliness rating from the League of American Bicyclists
- Median home prices under $300,000, using realtor.com data
Ready? Let's get outside. The weather's fine.
Median home price: $265,500
This city in the northern part of South Carolina is growing by leaps and bounds but still, manages to maintain its otherworldly natural beauty.
One of Greenville's biggest treasures is Falls Park, a 32-acre outdoor oasis on the Reedy River in downtown. Created in 2004, the park features art galleries on the water, a suspension bridge, outdoor theater performances in the summer, and, of course, waterfalls. Another is the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a 19.9-mile greenway that spans several nearby cities and travels through the city.
Those looking for something a bit larger can check out the Nantahala National Forest and its gorgeous waterfall hikes just over an hour away. The oft-overlooked Congaree National Park, which offers canoeing, hiking, fishing, and camping, is just two hours to the east.
"Outdoor spaces have become very important to buyers here," says local real estate agent Cory Wickline of the Haro Group at Keller Williams Historic District.
He has clients coming in from all over the country to escape the high taxes and cost of living, seeking everything from downtown condos to single-family houses out in the suburbs.
Median home price: $175,000
Wait—how did Pittsburgh wind up on this list? True, the moniker "Steel City" doesn’t exactly evoke a bucolic retreat, but this Rust Belt metro has 18 state parks within a one-hour drive. Not bad for a one-time manufacturing hub.
Residents who make the drive to Ohiopyle State Park can enjoy the 20,500-acre park's rock climbing, whitewater boating, sailing, and mountain biking trails. And don't forget the annual June “Beer and Gear” festival, which typically features a couple of dozen craft breweries and lots of swag from the biggest names in the outdoor gear industry.
Median home price: $226,500
In the South, West Virginia is well-known for its natural surroundings. Have you ever wondered why West Virginia University's mascot is called the Mountaineer? The university's Morgantown arboretum offers visitors 91 acres of trees, flowers, and quiet relaxation in nature. There are also plenty of ski resorts a little more than an hour away.
"This is a rural state. Buyers come to Morgantown because of the employment opportunities," says local agent Debra Sullivan of J.S. Walker Associates, who sells mostly single-family houses and townhouses to folks working at places like the Mylan pharmaceutical plant or the NASA facility. "And you have some people who want [to go] a little farther out so they can get 1 or 2 acres."
Hikers, bikers, and those looking for a good place to fish and go swimming will enjoy the 4.5-mile Cheat Lake Trail in Morgantown. Those seeking something a little more remote can drive about half an hour out to Coopers Rock for some longer hikes. Meanwhile, Shenandoah National Park and Cuyahoga Valley National Park are both close enough for easy weekend trips.
Median home price: $193,500
Greensboro’s subtropical climate makes spring and fall particularly great times of year for residents to spend as much spare time as humanely possible outdoors. For cyclists, that includes dedicated mountain-biking trails in nearby Country Park. Those who prefer wheel-free transport can head to the Bog Garden at Benjamin Park, where an elevated boardwalk takes visitors through 7 acres of wetlands.
"Greensboro is known for its park systems," says Tony Jarrett, a regional vice president at Allen Tate Realtors. "There are a lot of trails, and they’re adding more all the time."
After their excursions, folks can unwind in the open air at Darryl's Wood Fired Grill. The local restaurant and bar have a year-round outdoor area featuring two fire pits—and additional heating, so it's still nice and toasty come January.
5. Dayton, OH
Median home price: $132,500
Dayton has been nationally recognized as a Bicycle-Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists, largely for its 30 miles of central city trails that connect to more than 300 miles of paths. There are practically unlimited possibilities for day trips on a bike here. There's also no shortage of hiking near Dayton's city center, much of it on the 75 miles of trails in the Five Rivers Metroparks System.
Where Dayton really shines, though, is its low cost of living. There are plenty of homes selling for less than $10,000 in the city. The catch is that most of them need quite a bit of tender loving care—plus at least a few coats of paint. However, prices that low may leave more than a little left over for repairs and that fancy camping gear!
6. Tampa, FL
Median home price: $268,200
While the rest of the country is huddled indoors each winter, Tampa residents can enjoy endless sunshine and temperatures that typically remain above 70 degrees year round. And although Florida isn’t known for spectacular mountain hikes, the area's sandy white beaches and kayak trips through the mangroves more than make up for it. Plus, you might even snap a photo of a manatee or dolphin, if you're quick enough.
Sun worshippers may want to check out the beach at Fort DeSoto, a barrier island, and park about 30 miles outside Tampa. Often cited as one of the nation's best beaches, Fort DeSoto offers two fishing piers, bayside campsites, and, yes, a historic fort.
Back in town, more than 2,000 restaurants offer outdoor seating. This works out to about 1 for every 180 residents. Sounds about right.
7. Chico, CA
Median home price: $291,200
Chico is the only city on our list that lies west of the Mississippi, and it certainly earns its spot. Within a 90-minute drive, locals can be at dramatic Lassen Volcanic National Park. In addition to the active volcanoes (yes, you read that right) and nearby spots where hot sulfurous gases are naturally released, the park contains the Bumpass Hell Trail, which accesses hydrothermal wonders that are even more memorable than its name.
Back in Chico, residents can enjoy cycling through a city that earned a Gold Bicycle-Friendly Award. Families can visit the Two by Two Ranch and Petting Zoo, where the kiddies can enjoy pony rides. There's even a Meetup group for motorcycle riders and tourers.
Despite all these perks, median home prices are less than a third of what they are in the San Francisco area, which lies three hours to the south. Not bad.
8. Atlanta, GA
Median home price: $299,900
Sprawling Atlanta may not seem like a nature lover's dream, but those looking to get outdoors have plenty of options nearby—such as the 2,500-acre Sweetwater Creek State Park, just 15 miles from downtown. Visitors can reserve picnic shelters, campsites, and even yurts within the park. The park also has kayaking classes, group dog hiking trips, and twilight lake paddling tours for birdwatchers.
But perhaps the best way to take advantage of the outdoors in Atlanta is to enjoy some al fresco dining. The city has more than 3,000 restaurants with outdoor seating, one of the highest per-capita ratios in the nation.
"We have jazz fest, crab fest, beer fest. Anything you can fest, we have in our parks," says Tiffany Richardson, owner of local Nicole James Real Estate. "If you need to walk all that off afterward, check out the Silver Comet Trail, which extends all the way to central Alabama."
Median home price: $247,500
Knoxville, known as "the Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains," is just a 45-minute drive from Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Those seeking an excursion a bit closer to home can check out Ijams Nature Center, a 300-acre preserve filled with trails, rock formations, and a lake just 10 minutes from downtown.
Those who would rather be doing just about anything that doesn't involve climbing up some majestic overlook can soak up some Vitamin D while catching a University of Tennessee football game or sipping a microbrew at one of the restaurants along the Tennessee River waterfront.
10. Buffalo, NY
Median home price: $172,500
This onetime manufacturing hub of upstate New York is yet another area that doesn't exactly spring to mind when thinking of the great outdoors. But the city, which has been undergoing a water-front revitalization, is less than half an hour away from the world-famous Niagara Falls. It's also about an hour away from Letchworth State Park (known as the Grand Canyon of the East).
"We’re seeing more festivals and concerts taking place on the water," says local real estate agent Ryan Connolly of Re/Max North. "There’s a large sailing community in Buffalo and a lot of people on kayaks and paddle boards.
"More and more people here want green space in their neighborhood and in their backyards," he adds. "They really want biking access and farmers markets and shopping and restaurants."