Small Town Roundup

Our picks for the five best small towns in the US.


I’ve been reading along with the American Nomad Laura Martone’s recent posts on her favorite picks for best small towns in America. While I don’t agree with all of her choices, and I have a different opinion of small towns than most (think 3,000 or less vs. 30,000 or less), I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her posts and thought I’d do a little reply here myself.

Thusly, without further syllabic compilation, here are my picks for the top 5 small towns in the US.

5. Bandon, OR

The wind screams off of the Pacific so relentlessly that even a midsummer’s day often requires a hoodie here in Bandon, Oregon. Fishing boats line the liquid side of town, floating endlessly in the Coquille River just before it spills out into the ocean. Tourists walk the small few blocks of downtown, shuffling in and out of the local cafe where I’m sipping a coffee and watching a mother talk with a friend, ignoring the warnings that children will be given an espresso and a free puppy if left unattended as her child skips up and down the hallway that leads to the back entrance.

The redwoods are alive and well only a few miles south of town, the California border only two hours away. Stacks creep out of the ocean like sea monsters waiting their triumphant return to take back the land.

A fisherman, recreational, not commercial, transfers his pole, tackle box and a cooler from his small sedan into the bed of a friends pickup and they head off to laze away the morning in a canoe. Some young hitchhiker kids, dressed in tattered all blacks and browns, with mohawks and dreadlocks, roll cigarettes on a bench a few blocks down. A street performer begins to set up his tip jar and tune his guitar.

Later tonight, lovers will gather in the top floor of a local bar and restaurant and gaze out the window at the passersby. Time will pass slowly, particularly over the winter when the thousands who descend upon the place for vacations disappear and leave only the rain and the 3066 or so people who actually live here.

4. Lyons, CO

Oscar Blue’s, home of Dale’s Pale Ale, is stuffed with locals drinking pints of great beer brewed on the spot. The arcade downstairs is full of tweens playing old school video games while their parents listen to a lineup of several bands each playing one Rolling Stones cover.

Next door another arcade stands defiant of time, chock-full of strictly pinball machines. The sushi bar down the street is throwing a kids only karaoke night, and under 10s are singing off pitch but a helluva lot cuter than their drunken adult counterparts that might be frequenting various other bars around town.

Just west of town the Rockies explode from the earth to tower over the coffee shops and natural food grocers at the edge of this chain store free paradise that’s only a fifteen minute drive to the big college town of Boulder. This is as “best of both worlds” as small towns in America come, quaint, quiet and simple but only a stone’s throw from all the amenities of a much more heavily populated area.

When we think of settling down, someday, we nearly always think Lyons.

3. Fayetteville, WV

Young families and heavy drinkers alike are piling into a pizza shop and brewpub near the south end of downtown Fayetteville. After a long day of hiking the New River Gorge or rafting through the Gauly River, who doesn’t want to pile on a few carbs and let the intoxicating beverages work their magic?

A pack of motorcycles pull into one of the two blocks that comprise downtown. A too tall man has to duck while following his wife into the Hobbit Hole, a sort of thrift shop and roadside curiosity all in one. A former church has been converted into a coffee shop where the light pouring through the stained glass windows reflects in the conversations between sips of hot caffeine.

No one is renting a house here. Everyone is truly a local, or in from out of town for vacation. The diner on the corner of town is packing full of both types. Lazy slow days are not a concept here, they’re a way of life.

2. Terlingua, TX

Old men have been drunk since noon and sitting in the same spots as just about every other day on the front porch of the general store in Terlingua. They say the sun sets twice here, once over the western horizon and then again in brilliant reflection of all the violet hues mother nature can produce as they bounce back off of the Chisos Mountains before allowing night, and the infinite stars that can only be seen in a place 80 miles from the nearest city, which is actually small enough to be considered a small town by even the most strictest standards.

The Rio Grande is the only thing separating town from Mexico. Big Bend National Park is a fifteen minute drive east. Fiddlers begin to congregate as the sun weighs heavy in the sky and the jam will continue into the night while locals and packs of tourists alike gather at the Starlight restaurant.

At a population of 267, which includes the nearby town of Study Butte and all of the remote ranches in the area, this is by far the smallest town we’ve ever fallen in love with, probably one of the smallest in the country. Small does not mean lifeless though, as this little stretch of desert is as full of joy and mystery and intrigue as any place in the world.

A school bus surrounded by tents, an out of place volley ball course and a bar called the Boathouse make up the local hostel. Visitors and some locals cook their food in the outside kitchen. Stray dogs run free and the people here don’t seem to mind at all. Other dogs don’t seem to have owners, or even particular names, but instead move from one hand that feeds to the next, going by whatever name comes lately.

1. Old Bisbee, AZ

A Western Movie is being played out daily in the antique town of Old Bisbee, Arizona. A man in full cowboy regalia sits on a bench waiting for out-of-towners to approach him, and upon such a queue begins to relate his tales of the city, of his old friend Gram Parsons, of the gunfight mining history of this town tucked into the side of the Mule Mountains.

A thousand stairs, at least, weave up and down the banks of those mountains, between the houses, sometimes leading off into small trails that cut through people’s yards. A trail leads to the peak of one of the mountains where a former local, after his child had died, carried the makings of cement all the way up to create a shrine in their honor. Over the years locals and tourists alike have added to it. From the cliffside there you can look down on the town, which seems like a toy model below you, the voices of people below can still be heard even at this height.

Local bars will be packed with over the top partiers tonight. For today though, the antique shops and art galleries and cafes are abuzz with the smiling faces of people who were smart enough to keep traveling after they reached nearby Tombstone to find a truly authentic western village.