10 Colleges That Are a Great Fit for Outdoor Enthusiasts

Choosing a college by location is probably not the best idea. But that said, seeking out a higher-ed experience that matches your interests and preferred lifestyle makes sense. If you’re someone who loves spending time outdoors, including that as part of your college search is definitely a good idea. And good news: you’ll find lots of schools with campuses, activities, and a curriculum appealing to outdoor enthusiasts.

Here are 10 U.S. colleges and universities (from smallest to largest) worth a look for anyone who wants to balance learning with outdoor adventure.

1. Colorado Mountain College

The Yampa River on one of the many trails through Steamboat Springs. Photo by Matthew Hernandez

Location: Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Number of undergraduate students: 1,446

For those drawn to the Rockies, the Colorado Mountain College offers a unique experience in some of Colorado’s most iconic mountain towns. The public community college offers 10 campuses in western Colorado, with full-service residential campuses in Leadville, Glenwood Springs, and Steamboat Springs, which also offer four-year degrees. You will not be surprised to learn that the Steamboat campus is known for its ski team, and can you think of a better way to combine a love of skiing with a college education? Apart from winter sports, you’ll also find that Steamboat Springs is one of the most beautiful mountain settings in the country, with plenty of warm-weather outdoor activities within walking distance from campus, including paddling, hiking, mountain biking, and camping.

2. Bowdoin College

Location: Brunswick, Maine

Number of undergraduate students: 1,777

Located in the small town of Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin isn’t far from Casco Bay and the state’s well-loved beaches, lighthouses, and forests. You’re about 30 minutes from Portland, but you can also find outdoor activities in every direction. The famous Bowdoin Outing Club — with more than 400 members — organizes 150 excursions a year to help students get the most out of the outdoors. From camping to paddling, you’ll find four-season adventures in this picturesque coastal community.

3. Cal Poly Humboldt

Location: Arcata, Calif.

Number of undergraduate students: 5,869

Until January 2022, this college was known as Humboldt State University before becoming the third polytechnic state university in California — the full name is now a bit of a mouthful, California Polytechnic State University, Humboldt. But the vibe of the college hasn’t changed a bit. Located just a few minutes from the Pacific coastline amid redwood forests, the town of Arcata is the perfect basecamp for northern California adventure. You’re minutes away from camping, hiking, kayaking, surfing, and mountain biking. Redwood National Park is just a short drive away, and this part of northern California is sparsely populated, giving you plenty of room to roam. Given the campus’s location, it’s no surprise the college is known for its oceanography research institute, which includes a marine lab and a ship used specifically for teaching undergrads.

4. University of Montana

Climbing the 13 switchbacks to the “M” is a rite of passage jaunt. Photo by Jitze Couperus

Location: Missoula, Mont.

Number of undergraduate students: 6,975

Living in Big Sky Country is filled with outdoor opportunities, and Missoula — home of the University of Montana — offers small-town charm and easy outdoor access for students who want to take full advantage of the perfect setting. The campus sits on the Clark Fork River and just below Mount Sentinel. It’s a mecca for cyclists, runners, and hikers in the warm-weather months, and winter sports are a big draw once the white stuff starts falling (Snowbowl ski resort is just 20 minutes from campus). Those looking to make a career in the outdoors may want to consider the school’s Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS), which includes a 10-acre farm to teach undergraduate students.

5. Cornell University

Location: Ithaca, N.Y.

Number of undergraduate students: 14,743

With an acceptance rate of just 11 percent, Cornell University may not be easy to get into, but those who meet the high academic standards are treated to an inviting campus in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. The Ivy League school is surrounded by lakes, gorges, and hiking trails just waiting to be explored. It’s within driving distance of the Catskills and Adirondacks for more serious alpine adventure, especially in the winter when there’s plenty of snow. The Cornell Outdoor Education program is also considered one of the best in the country, providing students with the opportunity to learn everything from climbing (rock, ice, and tree!) to cross-country skiing.

6. University of Oregon

Location: Eugene, Ore.

Number of undergraduate students: 18,045

Eugene may be nicknamed “Tracktown USA,” but running is only one of the popular outdoor activities found at the University of Oregon. Located about two hours south of Portland in the

Willamette Valley, the University of Oregon offers students easy access to the Cascade Mountains to the east and plenty of recreational opportunities close to campus. It’s considered one of the most bike-friendly campuses in the country, and the Outdoor Program Cooperative can provide students with the gear and training they need to start exploring. Paddling the Willamette River or hiking in nearby Smith Rock State Park are popular ways of relieving academic stress.

7. Appalachian State University

King Street in downtown Boone is loaded with spots for a post-adventure brew (for of-age juniors and seniors, of course!). Photo by Scott Anderson

Location: Boone, N.C.

Number of undergraduate students: 18,061

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian State is located in the college town of Boone, which could just as easily be dubbed a mountain town. At an elevation of 3,333 feet, it’s one of the highest college campuses east of the Mississippi. While that’s not much to brag about by western standards, it does give students a unique access point to some of the best outdoor recreation in the eastern U.S. You’ll find more than 100 miles of hiking and biking trails in nearby western North Carolina, in addition to opportunities for backpacking, caving, whitewater rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, and skiing. Plus Appalachian State has an excellent outdoor program to get students involved in the outdoors, no matter their major.

8. University of California Santa Barbara

Location: Santa Barbara, Calif.

Number of undergraduate students: 23,196

There aren’t many campuses where surfing during a lunch break isn’t only possible but encouraged. The University of California Santa Barbara has beach access on campus literally steps from the dorms. A combination of incredible weather year-round and a flat, bike-friendly campus means that bicycles nearly outnumber students. You can also learn to sail or take yoga classes on the beach. Those who want to venture into the hills of Santa Barbara will also find incredible hiking trails and rock climbing just a short drive from campus.

9. University of Tennessee

Location: Knoxville, Tenn.

Number of undergraduate students: 24,254

The University of Tennessee was founded in 1794 — two years before Tennessee became a state — making it one of the oldest public universities in the country. But for outdoor lovers, the location in Knoxville is a big draw. The campus itself is relatively urban, as you’d expect from a big college in a city. But Knoxville isn’t your ordinary city. It’s known for its Urban Wilderness, an outdoor oasis within the city that features more than 50 miles of trails and greenways. Hiking, paddling, and rock climbing are all easily accessible from campus, and you’ll find some of the best mountain biking in the southeast. Knoxville is also known as the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, which means you’re less than 45 minutes from America’s most visited national park. You’ll find plenty of like-minded adventure seekers looking to take advantage of the irresistible surroundings.

10. University of Colorado, Boulder

Not a bad backyard for your dorm. Photo by Misael Moreno

Location: Boulder, Colo.

Number of undergraduate students: 30,300

Boulder is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts year-round — so who wouldn’t want to spend four years here? The University of Colorado campus is within walking distance of countless trails spider-webbing through the Flatirons, from the golden grasses of Chautauqua Park to the windswept summit of Green Mountain. It’s a playground for anyone who enjoys rock climbing, hiking, kayaking, or mountain biking in the summer — or even just lounging by Boulder Creek. Rocky Mountain National Park is less than an hour's drive away. Nearby I-70 offers unparalleled access to some of the best ski resorts in the country. Eldora Mountain is only about 20 miles from campus, and students can access it via public transportation. Flagstaff Mountain and Lefthand Canyon (and countless other iconic routes) offer road cyclists a dream backdrop for lung-busting training rides. In short, Boulder has it all — and then some.

Written by Jeff Banowetz for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

Featured image provided by Will Barkoff(Opens in a new window)