A growing body of research has repeatedly confirmed what many of us understand at a basic level: In addition to the obvious physical benefits of recreational space, exposure to nature has hugely positive effects on mental health and cognition. More recently, the economic benefits of outdoor recreation in the United States have been shown: A 2020 report by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) showed the industry has seen steady growth over the past few years, employing millions of people and generating billions of dollars.
Given the importance of high-quality, accessible outdoor spaces, we have developed a state ranking to help Americans find the best places for outdoor recreation. In addition to considering the availability of outdoor spaces and robustness of the recreational industry in each of the 50 states, we included data on waste and pollution management to better quantify the quality of the existing spaces. Explore our results to see which states have the most to offer to those who enjoy spending time outdoors.
- Utah and Nevada’s spots in the ranking are boosted by stellar outdoor recreation scores, but their governments and populations could do more to manage waste effectively.
- Texas has the highest EPA toxic waste risk-screening score in the nation, nearly triple that of the next highest state.
- More than 90% of Idaho’s land area is both protected and publicly accessible, while less than 1% of Kansas’s land is the same.
Prime Places for Outdoor Recreation
In our ranking, Western and Northeastern states tend to dominate the upper half of the list, due in large part to the recreational land available and responsible waste management policies.
With a high score of 91 out of 100, the most outdoor-friendly state is Oregon. Situated in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon offers plenty of outdoor recreation activities such as the following:
- Snow sports
- Wildlife viewing
- Windsurfing and kiteboarding
Working toward a greener and healthier Oregon is important to many residents, as is improving cities like Portland. The city’s green infrastructure projects seek to improve water quality, air quality, and wildlife habitats. Oregon state authorities also have a firm grip on limiting pollution, encouraging renewable energy, and dealing properly with waste. All of these efforts helped skyrocket the Beaver State to the top of our list.
With a meager score of 27 out of 100, Texas ranked the lowest in terms of outdoor-friendliness. According to the 2020 BEA report, Texas is one of the top five states where outdoor recreation accounts for the largest percentage of total U.S. GDP. However, this economic factor doesn’t make up for the state’s toxic chemical problems and relatively small proportion of protected land dedicated to outdoor recreation due to an extensive agricultural industry.
Western States Dominate Ranking in Outdoor Recreation Opportunities
Each ranking was determined by averaging the state’s outdoor recreation score and waste and pollution score. Outdoor recreation accounted for 60% of a state’s total score, while waste and pollution accounted for 40%. States with well-supported outdoor recreation industries, large swaths of protected and publicly accessible land, and responsible waste management policies tended to perform well under our scoring method.
The top states for outdoor recreational opportunities were as follows:
- New Mexico
Utah was the only state with a perfect score of 100, and it’s no surprise given that more than 40% of the state is dedicated to outdoor recreation. Utah boasts five national parks, 44 state parks, five national forests, and two national recreation areas spread across almost 23 million acres of public lands. Oregon took second place at 95, while Wyoming and California tied for third at 89 each. Montana came in close behind at 88.
Unfortunately, Connecticut came in last place with a score of 8. States with lower outdoor recreation scores tended to have less land that is protected by the government and open to the public. Other low-ranking states, like Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma, have robust agricultural industries which limit the amount of land set aside for protection. Their smaller number of recreational trails and lower outdoor employment opportunities affected their scores, as well.
The top 10 states with the best waste and pollution management scores were:
- New York
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
Vermont was the leader in this category, scoring a perfect 100. Maine was a close second at 99, while New York scored 98 and Alaska 97. Washington trailed the top pack at 91. Some may be surprised to see New York with a great waste and pollution management score; however, its ranking makes sense when you consider the state as a whole.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation aims to protect the state’s environment and natural resources, and although many identify the state of New York with its largest city (NYC), New York ranked well on environmental factors such as air quality and chemical release risk. Outsiders often forget that New York state has plenty of clean air and open spaces upstate, and that New York City has one of the most robust public transportation systems in the nation, which also helped the state’s ranking.
States that ranked at the bottom of waste and pollution management were Texas (36), Ohio (52), Indiana (54), and Louisiana (54).
Best and Worst States on Specific Metrics
For those interested in peeking further into our rankings, this section serves as a closer look at the high and low ends of several measures we took into account when narrowing down the most (and least) outdoor-friendly states.
Oregon has a legendary biking culture, so it’s fitting that it leads the category of proportion of the population who commute to work by foot or bike or who work from home. Support from local and state government helps to keep biking popular and well-supported in urban planning. Virginia was another top contender as it’s where you can enjoy the most national recreational trails and the best air quality in the country.
California was a mixed bag: It boasts the most national parks in the U.S., but also the poorest average air quality, inhibiting outdoor enjoyment in some places. If you’re looking for a job in the great outdoors, Hawaii is the best place to be. This state employs the highest proportion of its workforce in outdoor recreation roles.
Once again, Texas has ranked low because it poses the highest toxic chemical risks and has the fewest opportunities for outdoor recreation employment as a proportion of the total state workforce. The city of Houston alone has 10 of the most toxic industrial polluters in the U.S., and many believe that the state’s toxic chemical issues are likely to continue or worsen over the next several years. Texas also has to deal with extreme weather events like the February 2021 deep freeze that resulted in the release of millions of pounds of extra pollutants into the environment.
Every state in the nation contains great opportunities for outdoor recreation, but if you’re looking for clean and abundant outdoor spaces in high volume, your best bet is to look out West where large swaths of land are open to the public and where waste and pollution are well-managed by the government. According to our research, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and Colorado are the most outdoor-friendly states with the best environments and opportunities for outdoor recreational employment and fun.
Methodology and Data
To rank states according to their outdoor-friendliness, we compared all 50 states according to various metrics in 2 main categories: waste and pollution management and accessibility and availability of outdoor recreation.
We analyzed states’ performance on 11 key metrics under those two categories. Each metric was range-limited and normalized to give a score ranging from 0 to 100, then all metrics in a category were averaged to produce the category score. The category scores were then normalized to a max score of 100 for ease of cross-comparison.
Finally, we determined each state’s weighted average of the two categories to produce its total score, using these scores to rank the states.
Waste & Pollution Score – 40% of total
- Chemical releases into the environment per square mile – full weight
- Impact and risk assessment of chemical releases – double weight
- Air Quality Index (AQI) – full weight
- Commuters by walking, biking, and working from home – two-thirds weight
- Commuters by carpool and public transit – one-third weight
- Solid waste disposal rate – full weight
Outdoor Recreation Score – 60% of total
- Protected public-use land under GAP-1, GAP-2, or GAP-3 status – double weight
- Number of national parks – full weight
- State institutional support for outdoor recreation; established offices – full weight
- Proportion of state workforce employed in outdoor recreation – full weight
- Number of national recreational trails – full weight
Measures marked “double weight” received twice the weight of “full weight” measures in our averaging. The commuter measures used in the Waste & Pollution score were weighted to comprise a full weight in combination, with the walking/biking/working from home measure weighted twice that of the carpool/public transit measure.
Data used to create these rankings were collected from the following: the EPA Toxic Release Inventory and RSEI, EPA Air Quality Index, U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, Eunomia “The 50 States of Recycling,” USGS PAD-US Protected Land database, the National Park Service, Outdoor Industry Association, BEA Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account, and the National Recreation Trails Database.