Rivers and lakes are America’s circulatory system – whether it’s the Mighty Mississippi and the Great Lakes, or the streams and creeks and ponds that give the map its patches of blue. Throughout history, cities have grown up around lakes and rivers, for transportation, drinking water, and fun, so it should come as no surprise that some of America’s best colleges and universities are also on the banks of our rivers and lakes. For students who love the freshwater life, College Consensus has used the Consensus method to compile the top Consensus-ranked schools near lakes and rivers.
What Makes River and Lake Colleges Great?
Looking at the best river and lake colleges shows that being close to a body of water has an impact on a college. The colleges and universities that are the closest to a river or lake seem to have a strong connection to the region, and to the community; they can’t be insular when there’s water flowing all around. Many of the lake and river colleges College Consensus has ranked have a deep relationship with the bodies of water, from researching and studying the wildlife, plants, and geography, to actively working to preserve, protect, and restore rivers and lakes that have been damaged from human activity and neglect. That often means a powerful sense of civic responsibility, and a lot of community service from students and faculty. They’re also some of the best places to study areas like biology and environmental science, or even more unusual degrees like nautical archeology.
But lakes and rivers aren’t just a source of clean water and biodiversity; they’re a place for fun and recreation. If hiking and biking are fun, they’re all the better by a lake or river; if camping is fun, nothing makes a campout like the sound of a rolling river, or frogs singing on the lakeshore. After all, not much is better for college stress relief than the outdoors. Most of the colleges and universities on the Best River and Lake Colleges ranking have their own, often extensive, recreational facilities, from boat houses and beaches to trails and arboretums. Even if they’re not directly on the water, students have easy access to attractions nearby – perhaps a short ride into town, or to a national or state park.
Ranking the Best River and Lake Colleges
The Best River and Lake Colleges span the entire continental US, from the coasts to the Heartland, and encompass a whole range of geographical features: man-made lakes built by dams for electricity, natural lakes formed by glaciers thousands of years ago, rivers that run through major cities and remote, rural rivers barely touched by civilization. Whether in the Rockies or the Appalachians, East Coast or West, subtropical or frozen north, rivers and lakes touch people’s lives everywhere.
In the interest of clarity, it’s important to note that no ranking like this can be entirely objective. To be considered for the Best River and Lake Colleges, colleges and universities have to have enough publisher rankings and student reviews to generate a Consensus score; therefore, schools that may have a fantastic lake or river, but not a Consensus score, were not in the running. From the initial pool – Consensus-ranked schools that are near a lake or river – our editors selected institutions that incorporate the water into their life, through recreation, research, and conservation. The institutions are put in order according to their Consensus score, creating a list that accounts for both quality of education, and quality of life.
One of the Seven Sisters – the seven women’s colleges that served as the counterparts to the Ivy League before coeducation – Wellesley College is regularly ranked as one of the greatest women’s colleges, and one of the greatest liberal arts colleges, in the US. Frequently called the most powerful women’s school in the world, Wellesley is known for its influential alumni and its wide network of opportunity for students and graduates. In the heart of New England, just outside Boston, MA, Wellesley is also known as one of the best small college towns, and one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation – one of the original goals of the founders, who wanted the natural beauty of the area to stimulate the minds of Wellesley’s students.
From forests and meadows to classic architecture, Wellesley’s campus is rightly famous, but one of the best amenities at Wellesley is the private Lake Waban. Lake Waban is part of Wellesley’s extensive network of hiking and running trails, which thread all around the campus; the full loop around Lake Waban is around 3 miles. Lake Waban is also available for watercraft; Wellesley students and employees can borrow canoes, kayaks, and sailboats from the Butler Boathouse, a historic building renovated in 2015. As private property, Lake Waban is technically open only to Wellesley students and employees, but it is a popular destination both for locals, and visitors from Boston and other nearby cities.
The youngest of the Ivy League universities – and the only one not founded before the American Revolution – Cornell University also came on the scene as the most innovative and practical of the Ivies. From its beginning in 1865, Cornell was focused on science, technology, and community engagement, and that tradition continues. From its home in Ithaca, NY, on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, Cornell is continually involved in the life of the city and the lake. Cornell is also a crucial part of preserving and protecting Cayuga Lake, with initiatives like the Cayuga Lake Modeling Project (which is investigating the impact of pollutants on the lake), while the Lake Source Cooling Project uses cold water from the bottom of the lake to cool the campus in a sustainable way.
Cayuga Lake, the longest and 2nd-largest of the Finger Lakes, isn’t all work and no play for Cornell. Cornell students and employees enjoy boating, fishing, and outdoor activities at Cayuga, one of the region’s most popular recreational lakes. In addition, Cornell’s campus is situated along Fall Creek (one of Cayuga’s tributaries) and the smaller Beebe Lake. The massive Cornell Botanical Garden – more than 4000 acres altogether – gives students and locals access to the river and lake, making Cornell’s campus a popular recreational area for many communities in the region, with miles of hiking trails. Swimming is discouraged, but that doesn’t stop Cornell students from leaping into Fall Creek Gorge and Cascadilla Gorge in the summer.
Frequently named among the Southern Ivies – the elite institutions considered the South’s equivalent to the Ivy League – Davidson College is a small liberal arts college in Davidson, NC. Davidson’s hometown, Davidson, NC, (in the exurbs of Charlotte) is frequently named one of the best small college towns in America, as well as one of the best college towns to retire. A growing town of more than 13,000, Davidson is also in close proximity to Lake Norman, the massive reservoir created by Duke Power to electrify the Piedmont region of North Carolina. As the largest freshwater body in the state, Lake Norman has more than 500 miles of shoreline and more than 50 square miles of surface, making it one of the most popular recreational lakes in the South.
Davidson College’s Lake Campus is one of the most distinguishing features of a highly distinguished college. The Lake Campus has been part of student and local life at Davidson for more than 40 years. Located around 7 miles from the main, in-town campus, the Davidson College Lake Campus provides facilities for the school’s sailing and crew teams, but the campus is more loved for the recreational opportunities it provides: more than 100 acres, with swimming beach, boat slips, volleyball, and green space. Events like the July Experience, campouts, and cookouts keep students coming to the Lake Campus, and alumni frequently visit for reunions. The Lake Campus helps make Davidson College one of the best colleges for nature lovers.
University of Notre Dame
Regularly ranked as one of the top private research universities in the world, the University of Notre Dame is known for its exceptional undergraduate academics, its influential research, and one of the most legendary football programs in American history. Since its founding in 1942, Notre Dame was a powerful influence in the Midwest, setting the standard for education in the same way the Ivy League set the standard for New England. Today, Notre Dame is highly selective, and the majority of Notre Dame students come from the top of their class. Notre Dame is known for its diversity and has long been ranked as a “dream college” for students, including its famously tight-knit campus life.
Two of the most beloved features of the Notre Dame campus are the natural, spring-fed lakes that give the university its original, full name: the University of Notre Dame du Lac (“Our Lady of the Lake”). St. Joseph’s Lake and St. Mary’s Lake each have their amenities and their fans; the sandy St. Joseph Beach provides a place for students, faculty, and alumni to sunbathe and enjoy the water, while St. Mary’s Lake hosts the annual Fisher Regatta, in which residents of the Fisher residence hall race across the lake in homemade boats – with hilarious results that have earned the event national recognition. Notre Dame is not particularly known as one of the best outdoor colleges, but the lovely twin lakes certainly add to UND’s unique character.
One of the most respected liberal arts colleges in the US, Wesleyan University was originally founded by the Methodist Church in 1831 (and was, in fact, the first school named for Methodist founder John Wesley). Today, Wesleyan is independent and secular, and is known for its exceptional undergraduate education, which has made it one of the most selective liberal arts universities in the US. Wesleyan is the center of Middletown, CT, one of the best small college towns in America, and is located near the banks of the Connecticut River, which dominated life in Middletown as a key sailing port in the 1800s.
While much has changed since Wesleyan’s early days, life in Middletown and at Wesleyan is still quite oriented toward the Connecticut River. In fact, the Wesleyan Institute for Lifelong Learning (WILL), Wesleyan’s continuing education wing, offers numerous courses on the Connecticut River, including river tours on a cruiser. Middletown’s Harbor Park is also home to the Macomber Boat House, home for Wesleyan’s crew teams, and the launching point for classes and activities on the river. Students and faculty alike take part in events to honor and learn about the Connecticut River, from the Wesleyan Outing Club to unofficial weekend excursions.
One of the top-ranked liberal arts colleges in the US, Macalester College is recognized among the top 20 schools for undergraduate education by U.S. News & World Report, as well as a best value. Founded in 1874 as a Presbyterian-affiliated school, Macalester helped bring education to the young city of Saint Paul, developing a strong regional reputation for educational quality, and building a deep connection to the city and its people. Today, Macalester has been named a Hidden Ivy and one of the top “feeder” schools in the nation, with a high proportion of graduates going on to prestigious graduate programs all over the US.
The Big River isn’t quite so big as it winds through a bend between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, but it’s just as central to life as in many cities and states downstream. The Mississippi impacts Macalester in many ways, and Macalester impacts the river as well. Civic and community engagement is important at Macalester, and projects like the Ordway Field Station, which protects more than 270 acres of land along the river, contribute to the well-being of the Twin Cities. Just a mile from campus, students hike and bike along the trails and bluffs for recreation, while others conduct fieldwork and hands-on study. It makes Macalester one of the best colleges for outdoors, even in the urban Twin Cities.
Connecticut College’s history is actually tied to that of Wesleyan University – CC formed in 1911, when Wesleyan stopped admitting women. Though both institutions eventually became coed, Connecticut College established its place in the region as one of the finest liberal arts college in New England – an area known for elite liberal arts colleges. Today, Connecticut College is ranked one of the top 50 liberal arts colleges in the US, and is especially respected for their impact on social mobility – helping students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds enter professional careers. For good reason, Connecticut College is called a “college with a conscience.”
Connecticut College is also deeply tied to the region around New London, a small port city along the Thames River and the Long Island Sound. The CC campus is one of the most picturesque anywhere, with wide, open views of the river and the sound from the campus green, while the entire campus – more than 700 acres – is a carefully cultivated arboretum hugging the shore of the Thames. Connecticut College is known for its engagement, not only enjoying the river and sound for the recreation opportunities they provide, but working to preserve the environment and community of New London. One of the best small college towns, and one of the best colleges for outdoors, come together at Connecticut College.
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Wisconsin’s flagship public research institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is the state’s oldest university, founded in 1848, and a center for learning and culture in the Midwest. Named a Public Ivy, UW-Madison attracts students from across the Midwest, the US, and the world, not only for its top-ranked undergraduate and graduate programs, but to one of the most beautiful campuses, in one of the most beloved college towns, in the nation. While Madison is Wisconsin’s capital and second-largest city, UW is the force that makes Madison – a city of lakes and rivers – a home for thousands of students every year.
Madison is situated between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, two large freshwater lakes, as well as two smaller lakes nearby, and the lakes are at the heart of UW life. The university owns more than 4 miles of shoreline along Lake Mendota, known as the Lakeshore Nature Preserve; it’s a vitally important place for outdoor research, hiking, and communing with nature. The UW Arboretum encompasses the smaller Lake Wingra, preserving nature and providing more than 20 miles of hiking trails, as well as the Henry Vilas Zoo. For a capital city, Madison puts a lot of effort into preserving nature, and UW-Madison has made its name as one of the best outdoor colleges.
University of Washington-Seattle Campus
When the University of Washington was founded in 1861, the city of Seattle was just a new village, not even incorporated as a city, in the Washington Territory. While the ports of Puget Sound made Seattle an important trade city, UW gave Seattle its heart, and the city and university grew together into one of the finest collaborations on the West Coast. While Seattle has become a global leader in tech and entrepreneurship, UW has fed Seattle’s professional class, and its culture. Situated between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound, UW’s student life and academic world are shaped by water; much of UW’s campus runs along Lake Washington, the Montlake Cut, and Portage Bay, making UW a prime location for water-loving students.
The University of Washington has made the waterways around Seattle its own, with recreational activities for students and faculty, nature preserves and research, and picturesque beauty all around. Students and faculty can access Lake Washington from the Waterfront Activities Center, on Union Bay; the WAC is also the home of the university’s canoe team, yacht club, kayaking club, and rowing club. At the edge of East Campus, the Union Bay Natural Areas preserves wetlands and grasslands, creating safe haven for ducks, turtles, and other wildlife. The preserve is partially open, but the state and the university are continually working to restore it to its natural state. It’s a piece of real nature in the heart of Seattle’s tech hub.
Michigan State University
Founded in 1855, Michigan State University is one of the most influential, but unsung, public research universities in the US. As the first university to study and teach scientific agriculture, MSU became the model for the land-grant research university system – the prototype of virtually every public university with “State” or “A&M” in the name. MSU remains one of the most important public research universities in the Midwest, with pioneering programs in engineering and business, as well as agriculture. It’s also deeply involved in the life of East Lansing, one of the best small college towns in America, and in the natural life or Michigan – especially its lakes and rivers.
Minnesota may be the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but Michigan has more than 11,000 of its own, and they are central to Michigan’s identity and culture. In fact, MSU offers several courses (such as Introduction to Lakes Online) through the MSU Extension division, helping Michigan’s residents learn about these all-important features of the landscape. MSU is also a leader in research on the Great Lakes, from algal blooms to invasive lampreys. Meanwhile, the Red Cedar River runs straight through MSU’s campus, making river activities one of the most popular aspects of campus life. From feeding the ducks and fishing, to kayaking and swimming – and sometimes ice skating, in winter – MSU is one of the best outdoor colleges in the US.
Clemson University is South Carolina’s land-grant public research university, one of the South’s foremost institutions for research and professional education. Founded in 1889, Clemson is ranked one of the top 25 national public universities by U.S. News & World Report, and is classified in the top tier of research institutions by the Carnegie Foundation. As a land-grant institution, Clemson is known for its agriculture and engineering programs, but it is also a leader in forestry and life sciences – much of which is due to its location on Lake Hartwell, one of the South’s largest man-made lakes, and a perfect outdoor laboratory for studying natural resources.
With the western section of its campus bordering Lake Hartwell, Clemson University is not only one of the best institutions in the South for research in nature – it’s also ideal for boating, fishing, and outdoor recreation. Clemson’s expansive Experimental Forest, which spreads for miles up and down Lake Hartwell and its tributaries, offers students more than 100 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Students and faculty can canoe, kayak, and fish in Lake Hartwell (but not in the experimental research ponds); while camping is banned in the Experimental Forest, many students enjoy camping in Lake Hartwell’s public areas. Clemson has made a commitment to becoming a top 20 national university, but it’s also committed to being one of the best outdoor colleges as well.
College of the Ozarks
Proudly nicknamed “Hard Work U,” the College of the Ozarks is one of the most unique Christian liberal arts colleges in the nation. Founded in 1906 by a Presbyterian minister, College of the Ozarks was inspired as a place where local youth who could not afford to attend college could get a free education, working in exchange for tuition. While free work colleges were not uncommon at the time, what is uncommon is that C of O has maintained that policy long after other colleges have gone to a conventional tuition model. No student pays tuition or needs to take on student loan debt; all needs are covered by scholarships, grants, and on-campus work.
As a Christian university, College of the Ozarks’ mission and curriculum revolve around leadership, community, and service, and that extends not only to work within Hard Work U, but outreach to the region and care for the land. C of O’s campus in Lookout Point overlooks Lake Taneycomo, the long, river-like man-made lake that is one of the most popular destinations for hiking and fishing in Missouri. Just a few miles away, Table Rock Lake State Park offers the public access to the larger Table Rock Lake, with everything from camping and picnicking to swimming and boating. College of the Ozarks students taking a break from Hard Work U have no shortage of opportunity at one of the best colleges for outdoors.
Saint Johns University
Saint John’s University is a Catholic, all-men’s college in Collegeville, MN, a small college town outside St. Cloud. In an unusual arrangement, Saint John’s (founded in 1857 by Benedictine monks) is linked to the College of Saint Benedict, the all-women’s college founded in 1913. Together, the two colleges share a curriculum, resources, and leadership, steadily growing out of coordinated night classes offered in the 1950s. However, the two campuses are more than three miles apart, and each has its own distinct culture. The two colleges are regularly ranked among the top 100 liberal arts colleges in the US, and have frequently been named best values for the Midwest; Saint John’s is also one of the best colleges for nature lovers.
In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Saint John’s, located between Stump Lake and Lake Sagatagan, is the more rural of the two campuses, with more than 2700 acres of woodland and wetlands. As a Catholic college, Saint John’s puts serious emphasis on leadership and community engagement, and Saint John’s Outdoor University, along with the Outdoor Leadership Center (a student-run group) uses the campus’ massive wilderness to teach ethical, responsible leadership. Besides recreation, including hiking and wilderness excursions, Saint John’s is known for its commitment to sustainability, including preserving and protecting the forests and wetlands, and the beautiful lakes on its campus borders. Care for community and care for environment go hand in hand at one of the best outdoor colleges in the Midwest.
Founded in 1870, Syracuse University has a long, deep history – much like the bodies of water that give the Finger Lakes region its name. Syracuse University dates back to a schism in Genesee College (founded 1831), and was established independently after a conflict over relocating the college. Syracuse won out in the long run, building a century and a half reputation for excellence in academics, leadership, and culture. Regularly ranked as one of the top universities in the nation for undergraduate education, Syracuse is also known for its commitment to the community, and for the nation’s top public affairs school, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
Of course, located at the northeastern corner of the Finger Lakes region – near both Lake Ontario and Oneida Lake – Syracuse is also deeply committed to the lakes, rivers, and streams that make the region special. SU Outdoor Education, for instance, takes students on trips throughout the region, such as Green Lakes State Park and whitewater rafting trips on the Black River. Syracuse has also earned a reputation for sustainability, including recognition as the top user of green power in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Syracuse students are fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful regions of the US, and Syracuse University makes sure there are many ways to make the most of it.
Grace College and Theological Seminary
A small, evangelical Christian college, Grace College & Seminary has been part of life in Warsaw-Winona Lake, IN, since 1948. Originally the Grace Theological Seminary (which is now incorporated into the School of Ministry), Grace College is historically affiliated with the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (headquartered in Winona Lake), but happily welcomes students from all denominations. Grace’s campus life is close-knit and often revolves around faith; the college is also deeply engaged in the community of Warsaw-Winona Lake, which was once two towns that grew together as their borders spread.
Winona Lake – the town named for the lake – has been recognized as one of the safest towns in Indiana, and is known to students as one of the best college towns in the Midwest. It’s also one of the most active, with tons of outdoor activities for students, faculty, and local residents. Just half a mile from Winona Lake, Grace students hike, kayak, and bike throughout the area, as well as swim and sunbathe on the beach of Winona Lake Park. Grace College’s Lilly Center for Lakes & Streams is also instrumental in protecting and caring for the waterways of Kosciusko County. One of the best colleges for nature lovers, Grace College always reminds students of the beauty of creation.
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
One of America’s Public Ivies, and a top-tier Carnegie Classification research institution, the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is one of the most respected public universities in the nation. Founded in 1851, even before the Minnesota Territory was admitted as a state, UMN was part of shaping the Twin Cities into a modern, productive metropolis. While the St. Paul campus is located 3 miles away in the suburb of Falcon Heights, the main Minneapolis campus is uniquely split across the East and West banks of the Mississippi River. The arrangement has created an unusual campus experience, and students move between campuses by car, foot, or bike across the Washington Avenue Bridge.
Located on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, UMN is dedicated to river life. In fact, the Institute of Advanced Study is the home of the River Life program, which focuses on studying the relationship between the city and its waterways, and educating the public about the role of the river in Minneapolis life. The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a national park, is also at the heart of the St. Paul campus, giving students easy access to hiking, fishing, kayaking, and other river recreation in the center of a modern urban setting. Located in Minnesota’s largest city, it might be surprising to find that UMN is one of the best colleges for outdoors lovers.
Ohio University-Main Campus
Founded in 1804, Ohio University was the first college chartered by an act of the new US Congress (in 1787) and was the first college to begin in the former Northwest Territory, once Ohio had become a state. Overlooking the Hocking River – in fact, OU was nicknamed “Harvard on the Hocking” in its past – Ohio University established Athens, OH, as one of the best small college towns in America and developed a reputation for community and character that has remained even with more than 36,000 students. Regularly cited as one of the Midwest’s best public research institutions, Ohio University is a top-tier national university.
Ohio University and the Hocking River are intimately connected, and have been throughout the history of the university. The river’s flooding patterns caused extensive damage to the campus throughout the first century and a half, as the campus expanded closer to the floodplain; after a devastating flood in 1968, the university funded a project by the Army Corps of Engineers to reroute the river. Today, OU and the Hocking live in harmony, from extensive scientific study of the river to the recreational Hockhocking Adena Bikeway. The river is a popular destination for kayaking, fishing, and other activities, and the peaceful forests maintained along the university’s shoreline give students a place to get away into nature.
University of Vermont
One of the original Public Ivies, the University of Vermont is also one of the oldest public research universities in America, founded in 1791 – the same year the Republic of Vermont became a state. Just like Vermont, the University of Vermont has always been known for doing things its own way; the university was a pioneer in breaking down religious, gender, and racial barriers to college admissions. Today, UVM is ranked as one of the nation’s top 50 public universities, and its place in the life of Burlington, VT, as well as all of New England, is significant. UVM is also a leader in sustainability and environmental responsibility.
Just a mile away from the UVM campus, Lake Champlain has helped earn Burlington, VT, a reputation as one of the best adventure recreation towns in America from publications like National Geographic, Outdoor magazine, and Men’s Journal. The proximity to Champlain gives UVM students no end of opportunities, from a 12-mile shoreline bike path, three sand beaches, and miles and miles of hiking and biking through the city. UVM also supports research and sustainability efforts through initiatives like the Lake Champlain Sea Grant, which funds research and education throughout the Lake Champlain Basin. The University of Vermont has long been seen as one of the best outdoor colleges, and its ties to Lake Champlain are just the start.
West Virginia University
West Virginia University was founded in 1867 as West Virginia’s public land-grant research university, bringing modern scientific education in agriculture to the newly-created state. The only state entirely located in the Appalachian Mountains, West Virginia made use of the university, and WVU’s programs in agriculture, engineering, and other applied sciences fueled development in the region. Today, WVU is a top-tier, R1 research university and a center of learning and research for the Appalachians. The university’s ties to the people and land are extensive and productive.
Morgantown, WV, was built on the Monongahela River – one of the few rivers in the US that runs north – and the river has defined much of life at WVU as well. The WVU campus is bound by the river to the west, as the Monongahela cradles the campus in a bend. Students have recreational opportunities all along the river, including the 6 paved miles of the Caperton Trail (part of the Mon River Rail Trail, which follows the former CSX rail lines). The Caperton Trail also runs through the Core Arboretum, WVU’s 91-acre natural arboretum; many miles of hiking trails meander through the Core. Few areas in the US are as beautiful as the Appalachians, and WVU is as Appalachian as a college comes.
The Evergreen State College
Ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the most innovative college in the west, the Evergreen State College was founded to be different, and has made its reputation on showing what higher education can be. From its founding in 1967, Evergreen was designed to be an experimental showcase, ending conventional grading in favor of narrative evaluations and substituting interdisciplinary concentrations for traditional classes. While other colleges boast about their exclusiveness, Evergreen accepts nearly everyone who applies, and has been named one of the nation’s Colleges that Change Lives. Evergreen is also known for sustainability and environmental consciousness.
Much of Evergreen’s 1000 acre campus is forested wilderness, and that’s precisely how Evergreen wants it. The hundreds of acres of second-growth forest provide an immense outdoor laboratory for research, while students also use the land for recreation. Evergreen’s campus includes more than 3000 feet of undeveloped beach on the Puget Sound, where students can rent kayaks from the campus recreation center or wade and sunbathe. Extensive hiking and biking trails throughout campus make Evergreen one of the best outdoor campuses in America, while low tuition and low debt rates make it a value.
Utah State University
Founded in 1888 under the Morrill Land Grant Act, Utah State University began with a mission to provide practical, applied science education in agriculture and engineering to the people of the Utah Territory. That emphasis on meeting students’ needs where they are has remained at the heart of USU’s mission ever since – more than half of Utah State’s students attend at regional campuses or online. Utah State has also developed a strong reputation throughout the west as a leader in areas like engineering, health, and natural resources – an obvious development, considering its location in one of the most picturesque and rugged regions in the world.
Located in Logan, UT, Utah State looks out over Logan Canyon from the foot of Mount Logan and the Bear River Range. With the Bear River and the Logan River surrounding the town of Logan, USU students spend plenty of time exploring the many trails and parks that run alongside the rivers. The Logan Canyon is also a popular location for camping and hiking, while a short drive up Highway 89, through the Canyon, takes students to Bear Lake, an ancient, legendarily beautiful natural, freshwater lake – it’s not for nothing that Bear Lake has been called the “Caribbean of the Rockies.” There, students hike, camp, and climb hundreds of trails and climbing routes, adding to Utah State’s reputation as one of the best schools for outdoor activities in the US.
University of Minnesota-Duluth
With a campus overlooking the magnificent Lake Superior, the University of Minnesota Duluth formed in 1947, when the University of Minnesota’s main campus in the Twin Cities was experiencing overcrowding from the return of WWII veterans going to college on the GI Bill. Formerly the Duluth Normal School – a teacher training school for women – UMD became a crucial part of life in the Great Lakes. In addition to educating teachers and doctors (with one of the finest rural medicine programs in the US), UMD is Minnesota’s sea grant university, conducting critical research on the Great Lakes and other freshwater bodies.
Lake Superior dominates life in Duluth, which grew up as a key port city on the nation’s largest inland body of water. UMD is practically on the shores of the lake; in fact, Lake Superior Hall, one of the college’s dorms, is named for its wide and unobstructed view of Superior. Besides UMD’s lake research (centered around the Large Lakes Observatory), Superior gives UMD students no end of outdoor adventures. The Outdoor Activities and Trips division leads students on workshops and excursions, with an emphasis on leadership and environmental consciousness.
The University of Montana
Montana’s flagship public research university, the University of Montana was established in 1893, just a few years after the Montana Territory became a state. At the time, Missoula – which was conveniently situated at the convergence of five valleys – was a center of the lumber industry, which largely built Montana. While the lumber industry slowed down, the university thrived, and Missoula became known as Montana’s cultural hub, where all of the eccentrics and explorers drawn to Montana – the blue-collar, the hippies, the students, the cowboys, and the adventurers – converged. Today, UM is the city’s largest employer, and is deeply engaged in Missoula life.
With its location on the banks of the Clark Fork River, in the center of one of the most rugged and unspoiled states in the union, the University of Montana is well known as one of the best colleges for outdoors lovers and nature lovers. UM’s Outdoor Program takes students all around Montana, the Rockies, and beyond, but for those who like their adventure closer to home, there are acres of parks and miles of trails along the river to explore. UM is also a crucial keeper of the river, with the interdisciplinary Center for Riverine Science and Stream Renaturalization (simply known as the River Center) spearheading research and conservation.
Virginia Commonwealth University
The youngest of Virginia’s top-tier public research universities, Virginia Commonwealth University was formed in 1968, though its roots in Richmond go much deeper. VCU grew out of Hampden-Sydney College’s medical school, which opened in Richmond in 1838, and the Virginia Professional Institute, founded in 1917. Located in Virginia’s capital city, VCU has exerted an important influence over numerous areas of Virginia life since reaching its final form, from medicine and healthcare to politics and civil service, and ranked in the top tier of national universities by U.S. News & World Report.
Richmond was founded on the James River, which helped it become an industrial center because of its transportation potential, and the river likewise shaped VCU. Richmond has a number of urban parks along the river, which gives VCU students (and residents, of course) access to fishing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting; in fact, Richmond is the only city with whitewater rafting in sight of skyscrapers. Beyond recreation, though, VCU operates the Rice Rivers Center, a field station of nearly 500 acres. This interdisciplinary center is a focus for research, teaching, and outreach programs to local schools.
Fort Lewis College
Fort Lewis College has one of the longest and most unique histories of Colorado’s many colleges and universities. Originally a US army outpost for the newly-admitted state – Fort Lewis – in 1891 the fort was decommissioned and turned into a school for Native American youth. The Indian school became an agricultural high school in 1911, and then grew into a two-year, then a four-year college. Today, Fort Lewis College is a public liberal arts college. Per its 1911 charter, the college still provides free education for American Indian students, making it one of the most important colleges in the nation for Native Americans – more than 15% of bachelor’s degrees awarded to American Indian students come from Fort Lewis College.
Of all the states in the union, perhaps none is more associated with outdoor adventure than Colorado, and that is just as true of student life at Fort Lewis College. Durango, CO, runs along the Animas River – the River of Souls, translated from the Spanish – and the Animas is one of the most popular destinations in the region. As one of the state’s biggest whitewater-rafting rivers, the Animas is attractive to FLC’s Outdoor Pursuits division, while other students are drawn by the fishing, hiking, and other adventure opportunities afforded by the river. It’s one of the best colleges for outdoors, in one of the best states for outdoors.