School Spotlight

College Tour: Best Colleges for Outdoor Enthusiasts

May 20, 2019

Choosing your school requires much more than just figuring out which university has the best degree program or class sizes. You’re also choosing the place you are going to live for the next four years, and while some students can’t wait to race to the city, you’re looking for a four-year escape to great outdoors. […]

Choosing your school requires much more than just figuring out which university has the best degree program or class sizes. You’re also choosing the place you are going to live for the next four years, and while some students can’t wait to race to the city, you’re looking for a four-year escape to great outdoors.

This Hive Five list of schools is for the girl who loves to hike, climb, and explore everything Mother Nature has to offer. Maybe you’re looking for a campus where you can get lots of fieldwork studying natural science or maybe you just want to spend your weekends around a campfire in the forest. Whatever your adventurous desires, these 5 universities are all close to National Parks and make a point of integrating the #getoutstayout lifestyle into their campus culture.


Santa Cruz, CA

Located just between Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Monterey Bay, UCSC is an ideal university for adventurists. While psychology is their most popular major, students interested in learning outdoors can study marine biology, Earth sciences, ecology and evolution, environmental studies, plant sciences, and even astrophysics.

The campus is surrounded by coast redwoods and, of course, giant yellow banana slugs but UC Santa Cruz was also mindful of creating green spaces on campus, like the arboretum and botanical garden, where students can stroll between plants and art, or take outdoor yoga classes. The university also converted an old limestone quarry into an amphitheater to create an outdoor entertainment space for concerts and keynote speakers.

Students at UCSC have a unique housing option: a colorful community trailer park.  (City on a Hill Press)

Perhaps our favorite part of UCSC’s campus is the opportunity to live in an on-campus trailer park for year-round camping vibes. This official student housing option gives students an affordable alternative to regular dorms and a strong sense of community. The park residents have their own community center, including an outdoor grilling area where they hold regular potlucks.  

And speaking of food, UCSC is considered the most vegan-friendly campus in the country. Their on-campus dining accommodates a range of dietary preferences and experiments with creative #meatlessmonday options. The banana slugs also have their own 30-acre farm where students can study agroecology and sustainable food systems. Even if you don’t plan on studying here, you can still enjoy their produce by shopping at their market on-campus or by attending their annual Harvest Festival in the fall. With fresh-pressed apple cider, tractor rides, music, and pumpkins to carve, this is an event you wouldn’t want to miss.

Before you start your first semester, you can make some friends through a Wilderness Orientation with USCS Recreation, choose between 10-days of backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas or 8-days of sea kayaking in Tomales Bay. Students can also sign up for once-in-a-lifetime Spring Break trips to locations like Big Sur, the Grand Canyon, and even Hawaii.

In between the big trips, you can rent gear from the recreation center for your own surfing, camping, or rock climbing adventures. Santa Cruz is central to a variety of options. Go south to soak in the beauty of Big Sur, go east to Yosemite National Park, Death Valley, or Bishop for a bouldering adventure, or drive northeast to ski in Lake Tahoe or Mt. Shasta.  

Busy Bee quick facts:
Enrollment: 16,231 Undergraduates
Tuition: In-state: $13,461 Out-of-state $38,169


Moscow, ID

The University of Idaho Admin building at sunset. (University of Idaho)

National forest Coeur d’Alene wraps around this flagship location in the small town of Moscow, Idaho, on the Washington state border.

The town has 46 miles of trails that are perfect for bikers and hikers and before you even venture out to explore the nature surrounding the campus, you can enjoy the arboretum and botanical garden on the grounds. (TBH, sounds like a perfect spot to find some zen during finals).

When you’re ready to venture into the forest, there are over 700,000 acres of land to discover that are part of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. There are winding rivers and big lakes to cool off by in the summer that are blanketed in snow during the winter.

If sustainability is your passion, U of I also has a top-notch student-led and student-funded Sustainability Center that works to create “sustainable practices” at the university. You can do your part to protect the environment and help encourage other students to do the same.

UI students go sledding in the winter. (University of Idaho)

When you’re just looking for some fun, there’s also an outdoor program that rents out gear for adventures including stand up paddle boards, kayaks, rafts, and camping gear in the summer, plus skis, snowboards, and shoe shoes in the winter. Drive up the mountain and confidently explore the backcountry with your friends after you take an avalanche safety course.

Then it’s back to the classroom to study natural sciences with programs in Ecology and Conservation biology, Movement & Leisure Science, Wildlife Resources, and Natural Resources.

Overall, this rural, public college offers a medium-sized campus with the same outdoor opportunities as larger universities.  

Busy Bee quick facts:
Enrollment: approx. 11,841
Tuition: In-state $7,020 Out-of-state $21,024


Bar Harbor, ME


The College of the Atlantic Campus is right on the water in Maine.

If you’re looking for a small college with the cozy charm of a summer camp, check out the College of the Atlantic in Maine. Spending time outdoors is part of the curriculum at this liberal arts college, which is located in the middle of Acadia National Park, right near the Atlantic Ocean.


COA is big on alternative learning and includes their 350 students into every aspect of the university from hiring professors to letting students design their own program based in the single major they offer: human ecology.

While this school may not be for everyone (they definitely wouldn’t have room), it could be the perfect spot to emerge yourself in nature for four years with a community of like-minded individuals.

The university is surrounded by “pink granite mountains, spruce forests, island-studded bays, and miles of rugged coastline: the landscape of Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island has inspired awe in artists, vacationers, and local residents for centuries. But COA’s location surrounded by Acadia National Park and the Atlantic Ocean isn’t just a spectacular place to live and visit; it’s a rich and multi-faceted laboratory for learning in the field.”

Bees and Society is a hands-on class where students learn all about these little pollinators.

Learning in the field includes two organic farms and two offshore research stations. With Acadia National Park in your backyard, students are encouraged to explore. The college actually gives every incoming student a trail map which can lead you on hikes and runs, or out to pick berries and make art. Since degree programs are designed by the students, you can find an aspect of the park that inspires you to study whether that’s ecology, conservation policy, or poetry.

When you’re not studying, there are activities organized through campus including concerts, film screenings, yoga classes, kayak or sailing lessons, trail runs, and other sports and fitness activities, and outing club expeditions around Acadia and other parts of Maine.

Busy Bee quick facts:
Enrollment: 350
Tuition: $42,993


Boulder, CO

If you want to explore in your own backyard, Boulder is the campus for you. It’s quick and easy to get out of the classroom and onto the trails from this university.

An aerial view of the CU Boulder campus. An outdoor lover’s paradise!

With Rocky Mountain National Park, and Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests nearby, there are countless adventures awaiting students. In fact, there are more than 40+ state parks, national parks, recreation areas, national forests and wildlife areas to choose from in Colorado. That sounds like an epic four-year bucket list waiting to happen!

Students can explore on their own or check out the university’s outdoor recreation center where you can rent equipment, learn new skills, join trips, and even plan your trip in the adventure planning center. Whether it’s hiking, skiing, climbing, or camping, you can explore right outside of school and even take your love a step further to study the nature around you.

Degree programs in the sciences range from a certificate in Arctic Studies to Ecology and Evolutionary biology, with everything in between. Want to explore other planets? Check out their space studies and get ready for some out-of-this-world adventures.  

For it’s proximity to the great outdoors, it’s also worth noting that Denver is less than an hour away if you start to crave the concrete jungle. Boulder itself is definitely a college town, but it’s nice to be close to a big city for job and internship opportunities as well.  

Busy Bee quick facts:
Enrollment: approx. 33,246
Tuition: In-state $11,091 Out-of-state $34,125


Ithaca, NY

While most prestigious universities have found homes in busy city-centers, this Ivy League school sits on Beebe Lake and is home to waterfalls, botanic gardens, a wildflower garden, and an arboretum.

Students climb 80ft into trees in the nearby Finger Lakes National Park. (Outdoor Odyssey)

If you follow Beebe Lake to the west, it leads you Cayuga Lake and the Finger Lakes National Forest, New York’s only public National Forest. Short drives in practically any direction will take you to nature and wildlife reserves where you can explore and study.

From day one, you can get involved with the school and enjoy the nature around you. The university has an organization, Outdoor Odyssey, that provides students with pre-orientation trips including backpacking in the Finger Lakes, Catskills (Marvelous Mrs. Maisel anyone?), Adirondacks, and canoeing and rock climbing.

And if you’re looking for a campus with all four seasons, then you’ve definitely found it at Cornell. You just want to make sure you’re comfortable with long, cold winters. This campus gets an average of 64 inches of snowfall annually, which of course contributes to the lush and green spring and summer in Ithaca.

If your love for the outdoors is more than just a hobby or an escape, you can make it your field of study too. Check out Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Science, which includes degree programs in Agricultural Sciences, Entomology, Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, Food Science, Viticulture and Enology, and much much more.

Busy Bee quick facts:
Enrollment: 23,600
Tuition: $56,550


Which college on this list makes you want to pack your backpack and hit the road? Which outdoor adventure would you choose? Let us know in the comments below!





Our college tour lists are not objective and they’re usually constructed around a single data point (location, programs, or even criteria as arbitrary as the “campus vibe”). These lists are designed to be informative and encourage you to explore colleges you may have never considered, but you should always choose to apply to schools that serve you holistically.

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