Open any travel guide and you’ll likely read some piece of advice akin to “Get off the beaten path!” There’s good reason for this!
While big city destinations like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Salt Lake City tend to get all of the attention when it comes to traveling through the American West, we’re here to advocate for America’s smaller historic towns. The 30 towns on this list certainly aren’t all of the interesting historic small towns the American West has to offer, but they are all worth a visit. These towns pride themselves on their historic pasts, and visitors to these special towns will be sure to feel that pride as they wander past preserved buildings or take part in special festivals to honor an historic event or culture.
Lewis and Clark wintered here at Fort Clatsop, and only five years later the town of Astoria was founded by a group of fur traders. The town is actually the oldest “American Settlement West of the Rockies.” Despite a unique local arts scene and a healthy tourism industry, Astoria has retained its small town, hard-working feel. Much of the surrounding woods and wilds are part of Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, while trendy restaurants and Victorian mansions-turned-B&Bs are interspersed with historic factory-like buildings and even an historically accurate replica of Fort Clatsop.
Most people head to charming Bellingham, Washington for the fresh seafood and stunning natural beauty, but it turns out this quintessential Pacific Northwest town has a history that is not quite so….well, quintessential Pacific Northwest. Between whale watching trips and dinners of lobster rolls and crab cakes, visitors can take in a number of locally run and operated historic walking tours. One of the most interesting of these walking tours is the Sin & Gin Tour, which takes visitors on a journey to Bellingham’s past brothels and speakeasies.
Bisbee was founded back in 1877, when an Apache-chasing scout accidentally came across rich copper ore in the Mule Mountains. The discovery initiated a mining boom, which led to the establishment of the town and 100 more years of mining operations. Today, visitors find their way to Bisbee to enjoy the town’s laid-back and artsy vibe, and the pretty surrounding scenery. Lovers of the American West will enjoy the Smithsonian Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, while the town’s impressive collection of Victorian architecture is sure to impress anyone.
Known also as St. Helena, Castolon, Texas is a border town with quite an interesting history of Mexican-American relations. Castolon’s population began to boom towards the end of the 19th century, when Mexicans began emigrating north to escape the violent Mexican Revolution. They founded Castolon and turned it into a burgeoning industrial town. The population dwindled when cotton sales began to drop in 1927, leaving Castolon little more than a ghost town. Today, the town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and visitors can wander through to see unique old residences and the oldest known adobe structure in the region.
This historic town has made California’s Gold Rush history its main game, and the result is delightful. The downtown main street looks like something right out of 1849, with an inn, a saloon (try the locally made sarsaparilla soda), a working blacksmith’s forge, and even a Wells Fargo. Horse-drawn wagons driven by costumed locals meander through where cars aren’t allowed, and are always willing to answer questions about the town or give a tour. Every second Saturday of the month, the town hosts a fun Gold Rush Days event, where hands-on crafts, special tours, and even real gold panning can be experienced.
Located in the southeastern region of Washington, tiny Dayton has been a locale of charm and history since it was first settled in the 1850s. History buffs will love Dayton’s many historic buildings — a whopping 117 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To see some of the most impressive, simply pick up a map from the local Chamber of Commerce and do a self-guided walking tour. Along the way, you’ll pass several museums, including the Palus Artifact Museum with its collection of artifacts from the local Palus Indian Tribe, the historic Boldman House Museum, and the Dayton Historic Depot.
Deadwood, South Dakota
Nestled into the Black Hills of South Dakota is Deadwood, a former Gold Rush town that still feels a little “Wild West.” The town’s original main street and many of its buildings have been lovingly preserved to reflect its unique history, making it a fun place to simply wander. Check out the local cemetery, where such classic characters as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried. Even restaurants, local shops, and tour companies get in on the fun and offer visitors an endless list of unique experiences.
Nevada is chock-full of fun historic towns that are only reachable by car. In the case of Ely (pronounced ee-lee — they’ll also correct you if you don’t pronounce the state’s name as Nev-ADD-uh), the nearest airport is a three-hour drive away! Still, this quirky little town is worth the effort. Hiking trails, riverboats, fishing holes, golf courses, zip lining, evening rodeos, casinos, and the nation’s oldest running steam engine train— you’ll find it all here! Though the town will be busy, come during the summer when the locals host their famous annual bathtub races at nearby Cave Lake State Park. Stay at Hotel Nevada, once the tallest building in the state, and a former hotspot for bootleggers and gamblers during the prohibition years.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
The entire town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Settled among the beautiful Ozarks, Eureka Springs is still most famous for its curative local hot springs — once a major draw of people rich and famous. The hot springs still exist, but today’s crowds come for Eureka Springs’s charming downtown area, which is lined with impressive Victorian architecture housing art galleries, B&Bs, and quaint shops.
Located just north of San Antonio and nestled in Texas hill country is Fredericksburg. This historic small town was founded by Germans way back when, and fortunately for us visitors, has retained much of its European charm. For example, the special dialect of German that is spoken here is probably not spoken anywhere else in the world, while Volkssporting, a group walking sport, is one of the population’s most popular pastimes. Visit Fredericksburg during one of its many annual festivals, or come at any time to enjoy the country’s largest wildflower farm, the area’s 15 working vineyards, and the former residence of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Gig Harbor, Washington
When a town is nicknamed “The Maritime City,” you know it’s going to have a pretty interesting history. Indeed, beautiful Gig Harbor, Washington has been a center for boat building and commercial fishing for more than a hundred years. The Harbor History Museum, which also includes some ships and an historical schoolhouse, is a must-visit for history buffs. Besides the history, the town’s love of water is still something that is very apparent. The waterfront is a perfect place for a leisurely stroll, while sailing and kayaking remain some of the most popular local pastimes.
Visit modern-day Guthrie, Oklahoma and you’ll find a charming small town with an awe-inspiring collection of old Victorian architecture. Guthrie is mighty proud of its unique history, and rightly so. Long designated as Indian Territory, Guthrie’s population exploded around 1889, when the Great Land Rush encouraged people to cross the Mississippi and claim land. Though nearby Oklahoma City eventually overshadowed Guthrie, this tiny town remained relevant as a popular railway junction and administrative center for the soon-to-be state of Oklahoma.
Hanapepe, Kauai, Hawaii
If Hanapepe, located on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, looks familiar, that’s because it is said to have been used as inspiration for the Disney film “Lilo & Stitch.” This small town has tons of historic charm and a number of local places listed on the state and national historic registers. Much of Hanapepe’s history is most apparent through its local culture and festivals, which is part of the reason it’s such a popular hangout for Kauai locals. While you’re visiting, be sure to check out the town’s swinging bridge, one of those spots that’s listed on the aforementioned registers.
Heber City, Utah
Heber City is a fun little town with a vibrant mix of Wild West history and Native American culture. Most of Heber City’s history can be spotted downtown, where festivals and other special events, such as Native American celebrations, occur almost on a weekly basis. Visitors can even take a ride on an authentic 1907 steam train at the Heber Valley Railroad. Just outside of town, boating, golfing, horseback riding, skiing, hiking, and biking round out what is bound to be an unforgettable trip to Heber City.
Joseph, Oregon is an underrated historic town with a long Native American history. Indeed, even the town’s name comes from the Nez Perce Chief Joseph. The nearby Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap Wilderness add to Joseph’s reputation as the “Little Switzerland of America,” and offers locals and visitors miles of hiking and cycling trails, plus a complete 360 degrees of stunning views. Downtown, take a wander through the town’s main streets and enjoy a varied collection of shops, galleries, restaurants, and public art installations.
Like so many small towns in the Willamette Valley, tiny McMinnville, Oregon is a wonderful and inviting historic town. Take a wander through the downtown and admire the town’s charming collection of turn-of-the-century buildings. Most of these have been lovingly restored into the wine bars and tasting rooms that have made this area so famous, plus some art galleries and chic boutiques. Even the town’s favorite events are historical. Their annual summertime Turkey Rama festival is a tradition going back 50 years.
Located a 2.5-hour drive from San Francisco in the heart of California’s former Gold Rush country, Murphys is a small town with a rich and varied past. Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant both stayed in Murphys at the (haunted?) Murphy’s Hotel. Nearby, the Moaning Caverns make for a great place to rappel or spelunk your way to adventure. As an added bonus, Murphys has refused every chain restaurant and big box store, and the result is a town full of excellent and innovative restaurants and a surprisingly awesome local wine scene. To find the best places, ditch the guidebook and ask a local where to grab a bite to eat. You’ll likely be pointed in the right direction for a tasty dish with a fun atmosphere of live music.
Nebraska City, Nebraska
The tiny town of Nebraska City is home to some of the oldest buildings in the state — and the West for that matter. Lewis and Clark stopped here in 1804 on their travels down the Missouri River, and the town honors its famous guests with a Lewis & Clark Missouri River Visitors Center. Nebraska City is also home to an Underground Railroad station, the only officially recognized station in Nebraska.
Nevada City, California
Despite its name, Nevada City is a charming Gold Rush-era town located in California. Locals here are rightfully proud of their underrated gem of a city, and have gone to great lengths over the years to preserve some of their most beautiful and historically significant buildings. The result is an impressive collection of delightfully narrow streets lined with 100-year old Victorian buildings. Wander through the town’s main streets and pop into unique boutiques selling everything from locally made artwork and jewelry, to books and vintage clothing.
Most people treat Placerville as an ideal bathroom stop on the way to Lake Tahoe, but those who spend some time here will see that this former Gold Rush town is totally one of the best underrated historic towns west of the Mississippi. Since its founding during the California Gold Rush in 1849, Placerville’s main downtown area has been lovingly restored to evoke the Wild West. Must-dos include a visit to the iconic bell tower that stands right in the middle of town, and a step inside the 160-year old Placerville Hardware Store.
Point Roberts, Washington
Way back in the 1800s, when Canada and the United States mutually agreed to separate at the 49th parallel, they forgot a little five-mile strip at the tip of a Canadian peninsula. This strip, called Point Roberts, is now part of Washington state, and has remained an isolated bit of historic charm. It has a fun and walkable downtown, a golf course, a busy harbor, and stunning views of Mount Baker and, if you’re really lucky, pods of orcas traveling down the western coast.
Siloam Springs, Arkansas
Arkansas and the Ozarks are chock-full of fun historic towns, but one of those towns, Siloam Springs, is especially noteworthy, and so makes our list of the best underrated historic towns west of the Mississippi. Siloam Springs was founded by homesteaders after the Cherokee Nation was pushed into Oklahoma. As an important frontier town, Siloam Springs experienced everything from Civil War skirmishes (check out the Battle of Prairie Grove) to an economic boom after the discovery of its 23 therapeutic hot springs. Today, Siloam Springs is a pleasant community with a stroll-worthy Main Street and a full calendar of popular festivals.
Historic town aficionados won’t want to miss a visit to Silverton, Oregon. This underrated historic town, located in the heart of the Willamette Valley, is home to The Oregon Garden, a wonderfully colorful must-do featuring a variety of specialty landscapes and a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In Downtown Silverton, strolling visitors will find a number of vibrant art murals depicting the most important events in Silverton history.
People have been living in Sitka, Alaska for more than 500 years, giving this beautiful small town quite the history. Dozens of totem polls provide a glimpse into the culture of the Tlingit people, while Russian influences are most apparent in Sitka’s architecture, like the onion-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral, which has been an active Russian Orthodox Church for more than two centuries.
This charming small town located in California’s Santa Ynez Valley was founded by a group of Danish-Americans back in 1911. Solvang, which means “sunny fields,” is full of fun, Scandinavian-inspired shops, events, and architecture. It’s a great place to spend some time wandering, especially if you like unique boutiques and shops selling homemade fudge and other treats.
Sutter Creek, California
Like so many other historic towns west of the Mississippi River, Sutter Creek was founded during the California Gold Rush. Unlike so many other Gold Rush towns, however, this one stayed active throughout the 19th and 20th centuries thanks to its deep rock gold mines. Sutter Creek is now an inviting mix of old and new, and many of the preserved historic buildings now house things like shops, restaurants, and even charming B&Bs. Today, Sutter Creek is experiencing a different kind of boom today: a wine boom. The town makes a great base to use for local wine tours, while more and more top-notch restaurants and wine bars make Sutter Creek their home with each passing year.
Taos, New Mexico
While most people visiting New Mexico head to Santa Fe, nearby Taos is a much more underrated place with just as much historic charm. In fact, Taos’s famous Taos Pueblo are the oldest continuously inhabited community in the entire country, and have been home to a population since somewhere around 1,000 A.D. Visitors can head to the pueblo to learn first-hand what life was like in Taos a millennium ago, plus shop for handcrafted moccasins, drums, pottery, jewelry, and more.
The small town of Victoria, Texas is widely believed to be the place in which Texas history first began. Whether or not that’s true, the fact remains that Victoria is bursting at the proverbial seams with charm and historic significance. Massive preservation efforts have, in the last few decades, done wonders to protect and restore more than a hundred properties now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This long list of buildings includes the Victoria County Courthouse, the Museum of the Coastal Bend, and the historic McNamara House, the latter of which is now a social history museum.
Virginia City, Nevada
Isolated in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Virginia City is a 150-year old mining town that remains one of the best historic towns in the country. The town was founded during the gold rush boom, and is now a fully restored Wild West town complete with historical reenactments, costumed docents, 19th century theaters and opera houses, and dozens of well-preserved buildings and facades. For the true historical experience, stop into such famous hotspots as Bucket of Blood Saloon, the Old Washoe Clue, or the Comstock Fireman’s Museum. Fun fact: Virginia City is the place where a writer known as Mark Twain began his career.
Located 50 minutes from Coeur d’Alene, little Wallace, Idaho is a historic mining town that you might be surprised to find is home to 800 people. Wallace, with its many abandoned buildings and well-preserved facades, sometimes feels like a ghost town, though those who take the time will see that this town of juxtapositions is quite the underrated historic gem. The town once produced more silver than any other place in the nation, and remains one of the best places to buy silver and garnet. As you’re exploring, don’t forget to pop into the Oasis Bordello, which was one of the last functioning brothels in America when it finally closed in 1988. For a bit of a cheeky laugh, be sure to take a peek at the “menu of services.”