We began our 2015 Best Towns competition with a bracket of 64 favorites, then let you vote until one dream burg emerged. Here, we present the 16 finalists—the places you say are the top spots in the country to work, run, eat, sail, paddle, drink, ride, and climb. The winner? A southern gem that surprised us once again.

Lookout Mountain Flight ParkWhen I was growing up an hour south of Chattanooga in the eighties and nineties, the city was best known for MoonPies, those sinfully delicious chocolate, graham cracker, and marshmallow hockey pucks. Fast-forward a couple of decades and I’m standing in a juice bar on the edge of downtown, wondering what happened to the corny place I once knew. Now it’s all nitro cold brew and tech startups, like the love child of Nashville and Silicon Valley, but with more singletrack.

The city of 173,000, built in the belly of the rocky Tennessee River Gorge, always had the potential to be a great adventure town. Climbers have been sending routes on the nearby sandstone cliffs for more than 30 years. A decade ago, the local mountain-bike club set out to build 100 miles of singletrack within ten miles of the city. They’re up to 120 miles, and there’s a midweek enduro series where you can rip dirt after work and be home in time for dinner. Competition is fierce, and the winner takes a growler of home brew.

Hunter Museum of American ArtSo Chattanooga’s outdoor cred isn’t really news. The quantity and quality of adventure playgrounds—including the Tennessee River, which wraps around the city, and a bevy of Class IV–V rapids on the nearby Ocoee—helped it win our Best Towns contest four years ago. But now the city itself has caught up with the surrounding action. Neighborhoods are filling up with record stores, coffeehouses, and restaurants, and breweries are opening that offer the perfect nightcaps to days spent on the trails, creeks, and crags.

Here's your 48-hour plan to get the perfect taste of Chattanooga.

Tennessee RiverLocals tell me that the transformation started in 2010, when Chattanooga got the Gig—one-gigabit-per-second fiber-optic Internet service that’s tax-payer owned and available to every home and business at affordable rates. That’s around 50 times faster than most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere. (A feature-length movie downloads in about 30 seconds.) But it’s not just for surfing. “The Gig showed that Chattanooga was committed to developing business,” says Joda Thongnopnua, communications director of Lamp Post, a venture fund that invests in local startups. He estimates that some $50 million has been pumped into new businesses over the past five years, funding companies like Roots Rated, which developed an app that recommends adventures.

Farmers DaughterIt might be too early to start calling it Silicon Gorge, but people are relocating to Chattanooga because it has something that many other recreation meccas don’t: opportunity. Take brothers Kelsey and Conner Scott, who moved down from Nashville two years ago to climb and to grow Granola, their small backpack company. “There’s a huge startup scene and a great outdoor community,” Kelsey says. Add to the mix reasonably priced homes—the median price is $138,000—and you get a uniquely diverse adventure hub where you can have a rising career and a comfortable, balanced life. “We were already driving down here every weekend to climb,” says Kelsey. “Moving to Chattanooga just made sense.” —G.A.

Published online on August 18, 2015

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