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The Best U.S. Colleges and Universities for Outdoor Lovers

If you love the outdoors, you may want to choose a college or university that’ll give you quick access to nature before, between, and after class. Fortunately, there are plenty of options in the U.S. Here are some of the best college and university choices for outdoor and nature lovers.

Best Colleges to Get Outdoors and/or Pursue an Outdoors Career

CU Boulder

best colleges for the outdoors.
(Source: CU Boulder)

It should be no surprise that a school in Boulder, Colorado, makes this list. Just Boulder County alone has endless outdoor adventures. There are more than 150 miles of trails within city limits. Plus, the Flat Irons make up the skyline and are perfect for climbing and other activities. That doesn’t even include the rest of the surrounding Rocky Mountains. CU Boulder also has multiple majors focusing on the outdoors, such as outdoor recreation and natural sciences. The school has a rock climbing gym, gear rentals, and even an adventure resource center. 

SUNY Cortland

new york college outdoors
(Source: SUNY Cortland)

This New York university is well known for its outdoor recreation major. Centrally located, Cortland is about three-and-a-half hours from New York City, which makes it far enough away to find plenty of wilderness and hiking trails. The school is also close to the Finger Lakes, which have plenty of recreation year-round, including ski resorts, state parks, and other great ways to get outdoors. 

Appalachian State University

If you’ve ever seen an image of Appalachian State University’s football stadium, you’ll know why it made this list. The school sits among dense forests that are so familiar in the Appalachian Mountains. The college in western North Carolina has quick access to some of the prettiest hikes in the state, but sometimes, you don’t even need to leave the campus to enjoy nature. App State has a 67-acre nature preserve right on the campus. Like the surrounding mountains, the preserve is full of local wildlife that students can visit daily. Unsurprisingly, popular majors at the school include environmental sciences and other similar fields of study.

Northern Michigan University

midwest outdoor school
(Source: Northern Michigan University)

If you’re in the Midwest, the Michigan Upper Peninsula has endless outdoor opportunities. Much of the area is made of state forest and sits between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. You’ll find Northern Michigan University in the town of Marquette on the northern side of the peninsula, a short walk from Lake Superior. Besides having an outdoor recreation major, there are also great ways to get outdoors in the surrounding forest. For a longer weekend, you can drive about two-and-a-half hours to catch a ferry to Isle Royale National Park

Sul Ross State University

texas outdoors college
(Source: Sul Ross State University)

Texas is loaded with colleges, but like much of the state, access to the outdoors can be tricky. The majority of the land in the state is privately owned. The best way to get outdoors is to head to far west Texas to places like Big Bend National Park. That’s where you’ll find Sol State Ross University in Alpine, TX. The city is the largest metro area for miles in Brewster County, which is also home to Big Bend, but with a population of fewer than 6,000 people, don’t expect crowds. The college focuses heavily on natural sciences, including animal science and other majors like geology. 

Pomona College

california outdoor college
(Source: Pomona College)

Pomona College isn’t far from Los Angeles, but it’s also close to many California national parks and forests. The college in Claremont boasts about its Outdoor Education Center, which allows students to plan, prepare, and get outdoors for new adventures. The school is just a quick drive from the San Gabriel Mountains and less than two hours away from Joshua Tree National Park.

Cal Poly Humboldt

california outdoor school
(Source: Cal Poly Humboldt)

It’s hard to pick just one college in a state as big as California, so we went with two. Cal Poly Humboldt is part one of the California Polytechnic Universities. The school in Arcata sits on the northern California coast and is a short drive from Redwoods National Park. The area is surrounded by thick pines and a rocky shore with a bay just off the Pacific Ocean. First-year students can sign up for several outdoor adventure recreational activities, including hiking and kayaking.

University of Miami

florida outdoor college
(Source: University of Miami)

If the ocean is your thing, the University of Miami is known for having one of the best marine biology programs in the country. Being in Miami provides year-round warm weather with easy ocean access for diving and snorkeling. Plus, you’re not far from other outdoor adventures in places like the Florida Everglades.

University of Vermont

Most people associate Vermont with the heavily wooded Appalachian Mountains that cover most of the state. At the University of Vermont, getting outside to explore the area is easy. The school is in the state’s largest city, Burlington. However, getting outdoors is still easy. In fact, the University of Vermont has multiple clubs with an outdoor focus. The school also provides courses to help students get outdoors and even land jobs in the industry, like Wilderness First Responder, AIARE Avalanche Safety, and American Mountain Guide Association Climbing instruction courses.

OSU Cascades

There are a handful of big-name schools in Oregon, and in the Beaver State, outdoor access comes easy, but only OSU Cascades hosts students right in Bend. Like Boulder, the city is synonymous with the outdoors. OSU Cascades is a smaller branch of the Oregon State University system. The school has multiple majors focused on the outdoor industry and natural resources.

New Mexico State University

nmsu outdoor access
(Source: New Mexico State University)

Many schools that fall within the Mountain Time Zone have decent access to the outdoors, and New Mexico is no exception. Known as the land of enchantment, New Mexico is covered in public land and endless trails. New Mexico State University will get you close to it all. The school is in Las Cruces, which is just north of El Paso, TX. NMSU is near multiple national forests and parks, including a 40-minute drive to White Sands. The school focuses on agriculture, and many majors focus on the outdoors—from animal science to fisheries and beyond. 

Evergreen State College

Like Oregon, Washington State is packed with outdoor opportunities, but one school gets the most reviews for being outdoorsy. That’s Evergreen State College. Based in the state’s capital city of Olympia, Evergreen State College has The Outdoor Program, which focuses on getting students outside. The school also makes environmental sustainability a focus of its programs.

There are thousands of colleges and universities across the country, many with incredible outdoor opportunities, programs of study, and more. As the saying goes, “hike your own hike,” and choose the place and the program that fits you and your interests best. 

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