As temperatures rise and spring appears across the country, just about every place in America looks its best. Not much can top a stroll through bright-green Central Park on a warm April afternoon.
Then again, there are some American towns that stand out as exceptionally pretty just about any time of year, whether for architecture, aesthetics or small-town charm. To find these places, we sought the advice of several experts.
We left the definition of "pretty" up to the experts, who were Salt Lake City-based architectural photographer Alan Blakely; residential designer Erin Anderson; painter John Vander Stelt; Bob Krist, photographer and host of PBS' "Restoration Stories"; Sarah Tuff Dunn and Greg Melville, co-authors of "101 Best Outdoor Towns"; Danno Glanz, a designer at urban planning and architecture firm Calthorpe Associates; and Greg Ward, co-author of "The Rough Guide USA."
Natural vs. man-made beauty
The experts' picks covered a broad range of places, but tended to be either naturally pretty or have a unique, man-made touch. Blakely offered a combination of the two, saying he was drawn to places that were "fairly pure, architecturally — without a lot of commissioned residential architecture, but rather structures built by private builders or the occupants themselves."
Among his picks is the enclave of Dillon, Mont. He says its conventional main street, independently-owned businesses (and absence of big-box stores) contribute to its "nice flavor." He also appreciates Dillon's historical significance; it's where Lewis and Clark found the Shoshone natives and negotiated supplies for their crossing of the Rocky Mountains. Today Dillon offers close proximity to world-class fly-fishing.
In fact, historical richness added extra appeal for many of our experts. Two of our judges, Vander Stelt and Blakely, separately picked towns that are listed — in their entirety — on the National Historic Register.
Vander Stelt chose the rugged South Dakota outpost of Deadwood, an erstwhile hideout for Gold Rush fortune-seekers and outlaws, and Blakely listed the central Utah town of Spring City, originally a Mormon settlement that is now a magnet for artists.
Striking a balance
Greg Melville explains the criteria he used in making his choices: "Each of these places is among the most picturesque (in the country) — whether it's the natural surroundings, the architecture or more likely a combination of the two."
Melville's picks include the Chesapeake Bay town of Annapolis, Md., which he says "is somehow able to maintain ties to its historic colonial and maritime past without seeming hokey," adding, it is "perhaps the East's most romantic town."
Painter Vander Stelt brought an artistic frame to his selections, noting that in one of his picks, Guttenberg, Iowa, "The local city park hugs the shoreline and is reminiscent of Seurat's painting 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.'"
Yet it seems a town's natural beauty can be the true decider. One of the picks of residential designer Erin Anderson — who admits to a small bias toward towns with nice architecture — is about as picturesque as it gets: Union, Wash., located on the Puget Sound. "There is something breathtaking," she says, "about the way the Hood Canal winds its way through hills filled with thousands of evergreens."