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Choosing a College

For the Outdoorsy Student Looking for a Smaller School

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By Jeff Depew on August, 9 2022 | 5 minute read

What are the best colleges for outdoorsy students? Here is our list!

We’ve all heard of the brand name flagship state schools that have phenomenal outdoor opportunities around their campus: CU-Boulder, Cal Berkeley, Utah, Boise State, and dare I dip into the Yellowstone vibes and say Montana State and Wyoming? But what if a big school doesn’t fit your list? What if you’re an avid hiker or enjoy the outdoors and don’t want to drive 3-4 hours to escape the stresses of student life? What if you don’t have a car your first year on campus? Here are a few schools to put on your radar if you love the idea of outdoor adventures on top of an amazing education.


Bates College

Lewiston, Maine

For 40+ years, Bates students have participated in the “cool” annual tradition of jumping into an absolutely freezing Lake Andrews on campus each winter. But if you get the shivers just thinking about it, you can take on the challenge of hiking the tallest mountain in Maine, Mount Katahdin, with 100+ other Bates students instead. Their Outing Club hosts an ample number of outdoor activities centered on community and the great outdoors such as canoeing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and backpacking. If you’re looking for something a little more intense, they also offer specialized trips, so always be on the lookout for those opportunities! Bates College is dedicated to the nature and land surrounding campus, and they’ve even adopted part of the Appalachian Trail.


Middlebury College

Middlebury, Vermont

A small liberal arts college nestled between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Adirondacks of New York, it’s easy to get a breath of fresh air off campus when you attend Middlebury. There’s no shortage of connecting with nature, and the college even built the backcountry Burgin Lodge as a multi-use space for the Middlebury community. The lodge is located on the Rikert Nordic Trail, where students can snowshoe, ski, and ride fatbikes on the 30+ mile trail system.

A rather unique tradition is “Feb Orientation,'' where the graduating class dresses in their caps and gowns and takes a few runs at the Snow Bowl, the school-owned and operated mountain. You read that right. You can ski and snowboard within 20 minutes of campus, and the mountain is technically owned by the school—mega win for the “winter is my favorite season” individuals. After the winter thaw (mud season), you can enjoy the 5.3-mile Middlebury College Trail, which is just steps away from campus. If you’re looking for a longer challenge, there’s the moderate 18-mile Trail Around Middlebury: Full Loop. Middlebury offers the perfect combination between academics and the great outdoors.



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Western Washington University

Bellingham, Washington

A medium-sized school with a student population of about 15,000, Western Washington offers NCAA Division II sports, is near 22 rivers and streams (don’t ask me about the difference), and is just an hour away from both Seattle and Vancouver British Columbia (more on that later). Western Washington also has about six miles of trails located a stone’s throw away from campus (like literally across the street) where you can get a good vantage point of Bellingham Harbor.

Hop in the car and take a few of your friends to Mt. Baker for some skiing/snowboarding or connect with the 1,500 miles of trails in the Mt. Baker Wilderness. You have access to the mountain, and a discounted student lift ticket! Or, make a turn and head north. It’s just a 2-hour drive to some of the most pristine hikes and mountains in all of British Columbia. Better have your passport though.

As a student at Western Washington, you can connect with the Associated Student Outdoor Center and unleash a great outdoors adventure with gear rental, instructional clinics, and student-led excursions. The college also owns ViQueen Lodge, located on Sinclair Island. You can get there by ferry, boat, or paddle (but keep in mind that it’s 4 miles one way).

Bellingham Bay is a short walk from campus, so look into borrowing a paddleboard and take the marina! Or, swim across Lake Padden, which is roughly 5 miles south of campus. If you’re just looking to admire the sea life from afar, there are some beaches and a Marine Life Center where you can stay dry and admire the natural beauty around you.


Check out our other 6 college recommendations as part of this month's 9 on 9 series:


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