10 Best Colleges for People Who Love the Great Outdoors (2022)

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By: Kaitlin Mulhere

Published: Feb 03, 2017 2 min read

10 Best Colleges for People Who Love the Great Outdoors (1)

Students at Western Washington University voted more than 10 years ago to pay an annual fee to support using only renewable energy.

Matthew Anderson

Let's be honest for a moment: No one expects you to spend all your spare time at college in the library.

Whether you're planning to study early Japanese literature or Python coding, you may still want to spend your weekends scaling rock walls, savoring the silence of snowy woods, or paddling down Class V rapids. If that's the case, you want a college that can claim bragging rights for both educational value and access to a variety of outdoor excursions -- a place where you can nurture your budding Albert Einstein and John Muir.

To come up with this list, we first narrowed our universe to colleges ranked in the top half of Money's annual Best Colleges ranking and removed colleges in cities with populations of more than 500,000. Then, to ensure we selected colleges where appreciation of the outdoors was an underlying fabric of campus life, we narrowed the group to colleges where one of the five most popular clubs was related to outdoor recreation or the environment. Finally, the colleges are ordered by the number of national parks (including recreation and scenic areas and other sites) and national forests within a roughly 100-mile radius, using the Money rankings to settle any tie.

Mother Nature has served as an inspiration to countless renowned thinkers. Now it's your turn.

10. Bowdoin College

Location: Brunswick, Maine

Money Best Colleges rank: 43

Nearby National Parks/Forests: White Mountain National Park, Acadia National Park

Bowdoin students may have to drive a couple of hours to get to the nearest national park, but the entire state of Maine is rife with opportunities for outdoor exploration, and the campus culture reflects that. In 1990, members of the college's Outing Club built a cabin just off the Appalachian Trail in remote Monson, Maine. The cabin is still used when students spend weekends in the woods. And last year, the club planned a hike that followed Henry David Thoreau's footsteps through northern Maine. Students climbed Mount Katahdin, canoed down the Chesuncook River, and camped on Gero Island.

9. Dartmouth College

Location: Hanover, N.H.

Money Best Colleges rank: 33

Nearby National Parks/Forests: White Mountain National Forest, Green Mountain National Forest

Founded in 1909, Dartmouth's Outing Club is the oldest and largest such club in the country. A couple of times each year, the club hosts an infamous event known as "The 50," in which teams of four students complete a 54-mike hike over four mountains, starting on campus and ending at the summit of Mount Moosilauke. The Appalachian Trail runs down Main Street in Hanover, right through Dartmouth's campus, so it's perhaps no surprise that college students are active in cleaning up the trail and welcoming thru-hikers.

8. Carroll College

Location: Helena, Mont.

Money Best Colleges rank: 328

Nearby National Parks/Forests: Lewis and Clark National Forest, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Helena National Forest

More so than probably any campus on this list, students at Carroll College are surrounded by world-class natural attractions. The campus is 4,000 feet above sea level in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Helena National Forest is minutes away from campus, and the famous Yellowstone and Glacier national parks are close enough for weekend trips. The Carroll Adventure and Mountaineering Program organizes a wide variety of excursions -- from skiing at Great Divide to rafting in the Alberton Gorge and cliff diving at Canyon Ferry Lake.

7. University of New Hampshire

Location: Durham, N.H.

Money Best Colleges rank: 109

Nearby National Parks/Forests: Cape Cod National Sea Shore, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, White Mountain National Forest

New Hampshire's flagship public university is a couple hours south of White Mountain National Park, home to the Presidential Range, the most famous of the state's 48 4,000-footers. There's also plenty to do right in UNH's backyard. The campus has 250 acres of woods, streams, and fields for students to use. The college's Outing Club says it's the oldest student group on campus, and it organizes two to five outings each weekend during the academic year. UNH also has an impressive 10 majors tied to national resources, environmental science, or wildlife.

6. California State Polytechnic University-Pomona

Location: Pomona, Calif.

Money Best Colleges rank: 149

Nearby National Parks/Forests: Angeles National Forest, San Bernardino National Forest, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Cleveland National Forest

The most common hike for Cal Poly Pomona students is right on campus, up a short, steep trail to the "CPP" letters on the hill above campus. Also on campus are the Rose Garden and Japanese Garden, as well as the Voorhis Ecological Reserve, an 80-acre wildlife preserve. Once you're ready to explore off campus, there are 700 miles of trails in the nearby Angeles National Forest, where you can hike up Mount Baldy. On a clear day, you can see past Los Angeles all the way to Catalina Island from Baldy's summit. If winter recreation is more your style, the school's Ridge Runners Ski Club is one of the most popular groups on campus.

5. Pomona College

Location: Claremont, Calif.

Money Best Colleges rank: 22

Nearby National Parks/Forests: Angeles National Forest, San Bernardino National Forest, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Cleveland National Forest

A city outside sprawling Los Angeles may not scream natural oasis. But there's a reason California is known for its easy access to both the beach and the mountains, and at Pomona, students honor that accessibility with the annual Ski-Beach Day. Students are bused to a nearby ski resort for a morning on the slopes, then head to the surf for an afternoon on the beach. The college's Outdoor Education Center also hosts wilderness workshops and rents gear for free. Plus, Pomona's On the Loose outdoor club plans more than 50 trips a year. One of the favorite locales is Joshua Tree National Park.

Bonus schools: Pomona is part of the Claremont University Consortium, which means it shares courses, libraries, and other resources with four other high-ranking colleges: Pitzer, Scripps, Claremont McKenna, and Harvey Mudd. Students at each school have access to On the Loose programming and the same variety of natural scenery.

4. Linfield College

Location: McMinnville, Ore.

Money Best Colleges rank: 221

Nearby National Parks/Forests: Mount Hood National Forest, Siuslaw National Forest, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Willamette National Forest

This small college in Oregon's Willamette Valley is surrounded by a range of ecoystems. To the west is Tillamook State Forest, and to the east are the Cascade Mountains. Thanks to Mount Hood, students have access to skiing and snowboarding for almost the whole academic year. Or they can hike through moss-draped trails to 100-foot waterfalls and mountaintop vistas in Siuslaw National Forest. The outdoor and rock-climbing clubs are popular student activities, and the college's Center for the Northwest connects undergraduate studies to regional issues, including many environmental topics.

3. Western Washington University

Location: Bellingham, Wash.

Money Best Colleges rank: 114

Nearby National Parks/Forests: North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Olympic National Park, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, Olympic National Forest

This public university in Washington's Puget Sound region lies between an arboretum and a bay, and sustainability is woven into the fabric of campus life. The university was one of the first to create a college devoted to environmental science, and there are at least eight different majors tied to the outdoors or environment. The college also has been using all renewable energy for over a decade. Students can explore the San Juan Islands or the North Cascades, and closer to campus are the waterfalls at Whatcom Falls Parks and hiking trails in Larrabee State Park. Excursions planned by the university's popular outdoor center include sea kayaking in the fall and snowshoeing to hot springs in the spring.

2. University of Colorado-Boulder

Location: Boulder, Colo.

Money Best Colleges rank: 325

Nearby National Parks/Forests: Rocky Mountain National Park, Arapaho National Forest, Roosevelt National Forest, Pike National Forest, Pawnee National Grassland, Routt National Forest, Medicine Bow National Forest

Look on a map, and Boulder essentially abuts a wall of green that stretches the entire state of Colorado. The university is in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and Boulder County has 38,000 acres of open space that the public can use. As a writer for the student newspaper described it, "choosing a hike in Boulder County is like sizing up your options in an ice cream shop—it's hard to go wrong with any flavor, but the sheer number of choices can be overwhelming." Boulder Freeride, CU's ski and snowboard club, has more than 4,000 members. There are also separate backcountry skiing and alpine skiing clubs.

1. Washington and Lee University

Location: Lexington, Va.

Money Best Colleges rank: 29

Nearby National Parks/Forests: Shenandoah National Park. Appalachian National Scenic Trail, New River Gorge National River, Monongahela National Forest, Bluestone National Scenic River, Gauley River National Recreation Area, George Washington and Jefferson National Forests

A passion for exploration is part of Washington and Lee's history: Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark expedition fame, was an early graduate of the college. Today, students explore with the help of the college's Outing Club, which organizes recreational trips ranging from fly fishing to rafting to mountain biking. The university is nestled between two major wild areas: Shenandoah National Park and George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. There are at least nine different hiking trails within a 45-minute drive of campus, not to mention the system of short trails behind campus and the city's Chessie Nature Trail. Even if you're one of those nature lovers who enjoys the view but not so much the dirt, W&L has something for you. The college is a short drive from the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the country's most scenic drives, and Natural Bridge, a 215-foot tall limestone bridge that's a popular Lexington attraction.

Bonus college: Virginia Military Institute (ranked 42 on Money's list) is also in Lexington.

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