10 Best Value Colleges for Hikers, Climbers, and Campers


Key Takeaways:

  • The #1 school on our list is Brigham Young University-Idaho, followed by California State University-San Bernardino.
  • Some schools offer outdoor education or recreation management degrees. These may interest you if you want to combine your passion for the outdoors with your academic and professional life.
  • Consider schools located near national parks, state parks, or natural reserves. Proximity to these areas will provide ample opportunities for hiking, climbing, and camping.

Where could someone who likes to hike, climb, or camp go to college? If you love having an active outdoor lifestyle, you may want to consider our list of 10 Best Value Colleges for hikers, climbers, and campers.

Proximity to the most visited national parks that offer tent camping and backcountry camping was one of the ranking criteria. We also considered each school’s net price on College Navigator (listed as in-state where applicable). Closer proximity to national parks and lower net price meant higher ranking. Ties were broken according to lower net price. We considered:

Featured Programs

  • schools found within 100 miles of a national park
  • schools offering multiple four-year accredited undergraduate programs under $25,000

We excluded satellite and virtual campuses.

Up to 20 points were awarded based on:

  • total recreational visitors to the nearby national park
  • the number of tent campers
  • number of backcountry campers

These are based on 2016 data from the website for the National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics.)

Less than $10,000: 30 points
$10-15,000: 20 points
$15-20,000: 10 points
$20-25,000: 0 points

Distance from National Park:
Less than 10 miles: 7 points
10-20 miles: point 6 points
20-30 miles: 5 points
30-40 miles: 4 points
40-50 miles: 3 points
50-75 miles: 2 points
75-100 miles: 1 point


10. Johnson University

Knoxville, Tennessee

Johnson University logo

Johnson University is a Christian university accredited by the SACSCC (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges). It also has several other accreditation programs and associations. It offers bachelor’s degrees in:

  • business administration
  • communication
  • English
  • global community health
  • history
  • human services, and more

But perfect for the hiking enthusiast is the sport & fitness leadership degree. Sport and fitness certifications are also available, including:

  • the American College of Sports Medicine Certified Health Fitness Specialist [ACSM-HFS]
  • Personal Trainer [ACSM-CPT] certification.

It ranks on our 10 Best Value Colleges for Hikers, Climbers, and Campers thanks to its reasonable price and a relatively short distance from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In only a 90-minute drive, you can reach the park boasting the title of “most visited National Park.” GSMNP had:

  • over 11 million recreational visits in 2016
  • almost 200,000 tent campers
  • over 100,000 backcountry campers

Plus, if you don’t have the time to drive, there is always the Ijams Nature Center Trails, with almost 10 miles of multi-use trails.
Average Net Price: $16,368
Points: 27

9. Montana State University

Bozeman, Montana

Montana State University logo

Montana State University is Montana’s largest public university. It has 16,000 students, half of whom are out-of-state. The university offers over 225 academic programs. Majors that may be particularly attractive to the nature-loving include a B.S. in Natural Resources & Rangeland Ecology, specifically a Wildlife Habitat Ecology and Management Option. There’s also an Ecology major with options in Conservation Biology & Ecology or Fish & Wildlife Management.

What better way for a hiker to pursue that passion than a degree that leads to a career working in nature? Plus, the campus is less than a two-hour drive to Yellowstone National Park. That’s close enough you could make hiking Yellowstone a monthly or maybe even bi-weekly event! But that’s not all. Gallatin National Forest has 2,200 miles of trails and is 90 minutes away. Then there are the Bridger Mountains located an hour north. Finally, Hyalite Canyon, only minutes away from campus, has something for everyone:

  • hiking
  • camping
  • climbing

At Hyalite Canyon, you can find both top-roping for beginners and difficult lead routes. It’s no surprise Montana State University made #9 on our list of Best Value Colleges for Hikers, Climbers, and Campers.
Average Net Price: $14,953
Points: 32

8. Southern Utah University

Cedar City, Utah

Southern Utah University

Southern Utah University has more than 140 majors. As a hiking enthusiast, it’s the Outdoor Recreation in Parks and Tourism bachelor’s program that shines through. You can get experience working in the nearby 3 National Forests and 6 National Parks thanks to SUU’s Intergovernmental Internship Cooperative (IIC). You could work with:

  • the U.S. Forest Service
  • the National Park Service
  • the Bureau of Land Management
  • the Paiute tribe

SUU’s high rank comes from its reasonable cost and the fact that it is only an hour’s drive to Zion National Park. In addition, it is surrounded by many other National Parks and National Forests located within a few hours’ travel. When you’re not volunteering in a park, you can get a climbing permit and spend your time tackling Zion National Park’s 2,000-foot sandstone cliffs. But be careful: there are only a few areas for beginner and sport climbers.

There is also ample opportunity to do some bouldering and canyoneering. Did we mention that it’s only a 3-hour drive to Grand Canyon National Park?
Average Net Price: $14,024
Points: 32

7. University of Northern Colorado

Greeley, Colorado

The University of Northern Colorado offers 160 undergraduate programs and 120 graduate programs. For a hiker and camper, the highlight would most likely be the B.S. in Recreation, Tourism, and Hospitality. With a concentration in Parks and Recreation, you can focus on fitness and open space. Or get prepared to work at tourism destinations like national parks with a concentration in Tourism and Hospitality.

You can expect to be out doing what you love because you’ll complete a 90-hour practicum as a junior and a 480-hour internship during your senior year. When you’re not completing an internship, you can be hiking to Long’s Peak or even bivouacking to perform some technical climbs. In under an hour and a half’s drive, you can access 355 miles of hiking trails and its five campgrounds.

You can be sure that camping in the wilderness of Rocky Mountain National Park will be an experience that’s sure to please. After all, RMNP had over 45,000 backcountry campers in 2016! UNC is one of Colorado’s most affordable colleges. Its in close proximity to hiking, camping, and climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s no wonder that it ranks on our 10 Best Value Colleges for hikers, climbers, and campers.
Average Net Price: $13,065
Points: 32

6. Evergreen State College

Olympia, Washington

Evergreen State College offers a bachelor of arts, bachelor of science, and bachelor of arts & science degrees in an alternative format: there are no majors! You choose an area of emphasis. If you intend to get a bachelor of arts degree, there aren’t any specific prerequisite classes or general education requirements.

The BS and BAS degrees, however, do have minimum science credit requirements. Either way, you’ll take a full course load in a single academic program, which may last two or three quarters. In this program, a team of faculty members from different subject areas will teach you. At a reasonable price, you can choose to study outdoor leadership and education or environmental studies. And you can do it while exploring the city of Olympia’s 900 acres of parkland. The campus itself is only a walk away from 3,000 feet of beach on Puget Sound. You can drive to Olympic National Park in an hour and a half and relax or study in the Hoh, Queets, or Quinault Rainforests!

Olympic National Park had 100,000 backcountry campers and over 130,000 tent campers in 2016. For a diverse mix of breathtaking views It also has trails:

  • along the coast
  • in the valleys
  • through the mountains

Average Net Price: $13,367
Points: 34

5. Northern Arizona University

Flagstaff, Arizona

Northern Arizona University is a reasonably priced public university near the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is one of the greatest sites in America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2016, Grand Canyon National Park had:

  • almost 6 million visitors
  • 200,000 tent campers
  • over 300,000 backcountry campers

Plus, Coconino National Forest surrounds Northern Arizona University. In Coconino, there are a dozen campgrounds and an array of hikes in the Flagstaff Ranger district alone. Coconino has an area for bouldering and a sport climbing area. During your time on campus, you can take advantage of the 38-foot climbing wall. It has 10 ropes and a bouldering cave. Climbing programs for beginner to advanced are offered, with free Top Rope Belay clinics.

Plus, incoming freshmen can participate in the Wilderness Welcome in August before school starts. It’s a 2-credit course with other new students where you go:

  • backpacking
  • rock climbing
  • hiking

If you’re interested in pursuing a career with state departments of forestry or state land departments, NAU offers a bachelor of science in forestry. It’s accredited by the Society of American Foresters.
Average Net Price: $14,678
Points: 37

4. University of California-Merced

Merced, California

University of California-Merced

At the University of California-Merced, you can access the quality education offered by the University of California. Plus, you’re only a 90-minute drive from Yosemite National Park. Out of the 23 majors offered at this campus, the B.S. in Earth Systems Science may be the fit for science-oriented hikers.

Between your studies, you can join the 5 million visitors to Yosemite National Park in enjoying a spectacular corner of the country. In 2016 it had over 200,000 backcountry campers and almost half a million tent campers. There is something for every outdoor adventurer. Yosemite has:

  • over 750 miles for hikers
  • 13 campgrounds
  • various climbs, including Merced River Canyon

Put your degree to use with a summer job, research experience, or internship in the Yosemite Leadership Program or other partnerships that UC-Merced has with Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. Plus, some of your classes might take place at the nearby Merced Vernal Pools and Grasslands Reserve.

Finally, as a new student, don’t miss taking advantage of the Week of Wilderness, when new students (both freshmen and transfers!) are given a chance to explore the wilderness and build a community of friends. Take part in other programs led by the Outdoor Experience Program, like custom trip planning and Outdoor Adventure trips.
Average Net Price: $12,805
Points: 38

3. Western Carolina University

Cullowhee, North Carolina

Western Carolina University logo

Western Carolina University is only a 40-minute drive from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It sits in the rural mountains by Nantahala National Forest. WCU is also less than a 2-hour drive from Pisgah National Forest. It offers over 115 undergraduate majors and concentrations, including a B.S. in Parks and Recreation Management. The Parks and Recreation Management program prepares students for a variety of careers. These include:

  • recreation coordinators at resorts
  • facility managers for military or college campus recreation
  • program leaders for city parks and recreation

You’ll also learn the skills necessary to work in the National Parks and U.S. Forest Service. Internships are available to you at places like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. When you’re not busy studying or working in an internship, you can join the programs offered by Base Camp Cullowhee, WCU’s outdoor program. It offers:

  • the tallest collegiate climbing wall in North Carolina
  • roll clinics
  • reduced-price trips

Plus, with over 6 miles of single-track trail right on campus, you won’t be bored or out of shape during your college years. Plus, as a new student, you won’t want to miss participating in First Ascent, WCU’s Wilderness Orientation program. There you can:

  • get to know your classmates
  • make new friends
  • explore the wilderness around campus.
  • Average Net Price: $13,646
  • Points: 39

2. California State University-San Bernardino

San Bernardino, California

CSU-San Bernardino logo

The combination of California State University-San Bernardino’s extremely low average net price and its close proximity to Joshua Tree National Park secure second place in our ranking of 10 Best Value Colleges for Hikers, Climbers, and Campers. There are over 70 traditional baccalaureate and master’s degree programs. The BA in Environmental Studies has two track options:

  • a multi-disciplinary track
  • a science-intensive track

The Department of Geography and Environmental Studies even runs field trips to places like Death Valley. It’s only an hour and a half drive to Joshua Tree National Park, which attracts boulderers, highliners, and climbers worldwide. There are more than 8,000 climbing routes and 2,000 boulder problems for beginners to advanced climbers. If you can’t make it out to the park daily, visit the Student Fitness and Recreation Center. There’s:

  • a 34′ high, 1,000 square foot climbing wall
  • climbing programs
  • classes

If you don’t have a car, you can also participate in the CSUSB Outdoors program. This is open to all CSUSB students and provides transportation, food, and gear for planned excursions, including:

  • hikes
  • backpacking
  • overnight camping

Not to mention, California State University-San Bernardino sits in the shadow of the San Bernadino National Forest. You’ll find trails for day hiking and overnight trips on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Average Net Price: $6,444
Points: 41

1. Brigham Young University-Idaho

Rexburg, Idaho

Brigham Young University

It’s no surprise that Brigham Young University-Idaho places first on our list. It combines outstanding value and over 100 bachelor’s degree options in a locale where hikers, campers, and climbers will thrive. Plus, Brigham Young University’s bachelor’s in recreational management will prepare you to continue doing what you love as a career. You’ll never have to “work” a day in your life. Classes in the recreational management major include:

  • Traditional Camping
  • Rock Climbing
  • Canyoneering

Put your new skills to use by driving an hour and a half to Yellowstone National Park. There you’ll explore 900 miles of hiking trails or Grand Teton National Park’s 230 miles of trails. As a major in Recreation Management, you can participate in the “Semester@Badger” during your winter semester. This is a “program designed to create deeply significant leadership, learning, and recreational experiences.”

If you’re passionate about using the outdoors to help others, you can choose a concentration in recreation therapy. Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists serve those with special needs, at-risk youth, or senior citizens in various programs and settings.
Average Net Price: $8,344
Points: 42

CVO Staff

Additional Resources:

This concludes our ranking of the 10 Best Value Colleges for Hikers, Climbers, and Campers.