Choosing what college you want to attend is one of the most important decisions you will make in your early adulthood. It’s crucial to consider things like cost and distance, but there are other factors too.
One important factor to consider is the kind of adventures you want to go on. College is all about memories, and where you go will determine the quantity and quality of those experiences. This is especially true if you’re an outdoorsy person because every place has its own natural wonders.
To help you with your choice, we’ve compiled a list of the 25 best college campuses for an outdoor lifestyle and all the fun adventures available near them.
A Note About Our List
These colleges are listed in no particular order. We believe they are each fantastic universities with outdoor opportunities that come well recommended. We chose these campuses based on their location, potential adventures, campus emphasis, and overall reviews.
Now, onto the list!
The University of Montana is perfectly situated as the closest college campus to Glacier National Park. Glacier National Park is one of the prettiest areas in the United States and is great for wildlife. The University of Montana is also within easy driving distance to Yellowstone.
You don’t even have to drive to a national park to see the great outdoors. Just choose any of the 60,000 acres of recreation areas and protected wilderness around Missoula to bike, hike, ski, fish, kayak, rock climb, or even go horseback riding. UM’s outdoor program specializes in hiking with backpacking trips to Glacier each year and even a mountaineering expedition in Peru! This extreme emphasis on the outdoors, combined with its ideal location, gives the University of Montana a spot on this list.
The coldest college campus in the U.S. also happens to be one of the best for outdoor adventures. There are a few unique outdoor things near the University of Alaska Fairbanks that you can’t get anywhere else, including the northern lights, six natural hot springs, and dog sledding.
Their Outdoor Adventures club works with students on cold weather wilderness survival and even offers ski lessons as soon as the snow is deep enough. If you’re looking for an extreme and exciting outdoor-oriented college campus, UAF is perfect for you.
In an entirely new part of the country, we have the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. If you’re there for school during the fall, you’ll notice one of nature’s brightest wonders in the form of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The fall leaves are especially breathtaking, but the park is amazing any time of year. The University of Tennessee has all the hiking/biking trails you could dream of, and it’s the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts on a budget (a.k.a. poor college students).
The University of Hawaii is near the beach and has great surfing, swimming, and snorkeling opportunities. Hilo is also part of one of the only rainforests in the United States. You can hike, explore volcanic areas, visit waterfalls, and more when you join their outdoor activities club. Outdoor EdVenture trips introduce students to the natural and cultural diversity all over the Big Island. Hawaii stays warm all year, which means fun in the sun for the whole school year!
Southern Utah University is within five hours of seven national parks: Canyonlands, Arches, Zion, Great Basin, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and the Grand Canyon. Southern Utah also has many national monuments, state parks, and recreational areas. Because of this, SUU was designated the “University of the Parks.” SUU is dedicated to exploring and preserving all these amazing places.
One of the coolest things they offer is their trips program. Each semester students can participate in our large selection of rad trips to all of the beautiful places anywhere within a few hours of Cedar City. Some of the trips are only one day and are free to students, with transportation included. Others range from a couple to many days long and the students pay a small fee (compared to usual guiding prices) which covers food, transportation, and permit fees. These are our Bigger, Badder, Radder Trips. Some of which include, Grand Canyon Rafting, Red Rocks Climbing, as well as backpacking, camping, kayaking in any number of awesome locations.
UCLA, another coastal campus, offers a host of beach-related activities like surfing and fishing. The main reason this college hit this list is its Outdoor Adventure Club, which has almost 1,000 members! They participate in outdoor activities all over Southern California. Some examples include yoga in Joshua Tree and rock climbing workshops. If you want to be part of a community that loves adventuring in nature, UCLA is a great option.
Berry College, a small private college in Georgia, has 27,000 acres of recreational wilderness in the Appalachian mountains. This school prioritizes learning about nature and even provides campgrounds that students can reserve to stay in if they want to. It’s perfect for anybody who wants to be surrounded by nature all the time.
The University of Arizona is in a typical desert environment with about 300 days of sunshine each year. That means 300 opportunities to check out their outdoor programs and all the beautiful scenery around Tucson, Arizona. U of A’s program for outdoor adventure is ranked as one of the best in the country.
One of the coolest things about Appalachian State University is its proximity to the best caves North Carolina has to offer. The school’s outdoor adventure club takes tons of spelunking expeditions during the school year. If you’re looking for a gorgeous learning environment, this school is right for you because it’s nestled right in the Appalachian Mountains.
Settled in the foothills of Idaho, the University of Idaho in Moscow is close to some beautiful places. Coeur d’Alene and Hell’s Canyon (the deepest canyon in the U.S.) are both within easy driving distance and provide great hiking, fishing, biking, and backpacking opportunities. The university itself is good about providing opportunities for cheaper outdoor gear and experiences.
Let’s now visit Washington to talk about Evergreen State College’s beach. You read that right! Geoduck beach is within walking distance from campus and provides many opportunities for wildlife spotting, including birds, seals, and even bioluminescent ocean creatures. This unique opportunity for students landed this college a spot on our list of best outdoor colleges.
Set in the picturesque land of western New York, Cornell University is a beautiful campus for any outdoor lover to attend. There are beautiful walks around campus and hikes to waterfalls and gorges in the surrounding area. If you’re feeling like having a fun day at the beach, you don’t have to drive across the state to the ocean. Cayuga Lake’s southern beach is just five minutes from Cornell University by car. Whether you’re looking for something more adventurous or just a relaxing day outside, Cornell has something for you.
Northland College is one of the most outdoors-friendly universities in the United States. When you think of outdoor adventure, Wisconsin isn’t normally the first state you think of. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. Northland College is right on the edge of Lake Superior. There are plenty of activities to do in the area. Northland College is also an environmental college, so anybody going there will focus on the outdoors in the classroom and in their free time.
The University of Miami is great for the sophisticated adventure lover. There are outdoor experiences near campus, and many are affiliated with the school itself! You can go to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to see some of the rarest and most beautiful plant species on this Earth. If you’re not interested in that, just head next door to the beachside Matheson Hammock Park. The campus has beaches to the east and Everglades National Park to the southwest. It’s also worth mentioning that Florida stays warm most of the year. What an opportunity to express your inner explorer.
The University of Arkansas is an adventure investment. The city of Fayetteville is a continuously growing web of hiking and biking trails, so there will always be something new to explore while you’re at school. But it doesn’t have to end there. This university has a program for alumni to go on outdoor adventures, so you can be invested in the outdoors for many years after you get your degree.
Although Nevada is stereotypically not the prettiest, we’ll make an exception for the University of Nevada. Because it’s only an hour away from Lake Tahoe, there are many opportunities to go boating, tubing, sunbathing, and camping. There are also 16 golf courses in and around Reno, so it’s incredible for golf fans.
Honestly, how can your mascot be a tree and not end up on this list? If you are an outdoor enthusiast at Stanford, you have many options. You can hit up the beach for some surfing, go on bike rides around the city, or go to one of the campus's many outdoor learning centers to become better at your hobby. Being in the middle of a city doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the outdoors. Stanford’s Adventure Program proves that each year with rock climbing and camping trips.
Outdoor enthusiasts at Utah State University love all the adventures they can go on. You can camp and rock climb in Logan Canyon in the summer and ski in the winter. The Bonneville Salt Flats, Bear Lake, the Great Salt Lake, and Antelope Island are all close enough for day trips. Outdoor adventure club members can go star gazing, swimming, and much more.
You know a university has a solid outdoor college campus when they have a kayaking club. The University of Washington is located between Lake Washington and Elliot Bay. Sailing is a popular pastime for students. If you’re more of a mountain person, you can go hiking and biking at Mount Ranier. Everything is super beautiful and green because of how often it rains.
Have you ever heard of the Redwoods? Humbolt State University is incredibly close to the giant trees and a lesser-known animal sanctuary: Ichkeul National Park. Ichkeul National Park is home to numerous species of birds, including many endangered species. There are also tons of parks to visit in Arcata (the city HSU is in) if you want to play a sport or just spend some time in the sunshine.
Let’s start with the huge arboretum on campus (160 acres to be exact). If that’s not natural enough for you, there are five forest preserves in the surrounding area. Each is amazing in its own way. All offer opportunities for hiking and wildlife, and you can find places to stargaze and swim too. Although this option may seem milder than the others, the beauty of the landscape still gives the University of Illinois a place on the list.
Northwest Missouri State University may have a long name, but it’s not as long as the list of activities you can do at the campus’s outdoor education recreation area. This college has 320 acres of activities and adventures for the typical outdoor lover. You can do a ropes course, shoot guns and arrows, canoe, star gaze, and so much more. NW Missouri wants all its students to get the chance to love the outdoors and learn there too.
Black Hills State University is in Spearfish, South Dakota. Students can visit many big monuments, like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. This school is ideal for people who like recreationally driving ATVs, four-wheelers, motorcycles, etc. At the very least, you have to go hiking and find out why exactly they’re called the “black hills of Dakota.”
If you love to bike, you will love all the river trails around the University of Oregon. This college campus is also almost surrounded by national forests for hiking and camping. The beach is only about an hour away. Because of the variety of the landscape and outdoor activities, we’ve put the University of Oregon on our list of best outdoor college campuses.
Last on our list, but certainly not least, we have the University of Iowa. We didn’t put many midwest colleges on our list, but this one deserves a spot. You can take a trip to the past with the Devonian Fossil Gorge, go kayaking and paddle boarding at Sand Lake, or drive a little bit farther to the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. You’ll find activities no matter what distance you’re willing to drive.