10 Most Beautiful Colleges in the Appalachians

The 10 colleges on this list have been chosen as some of the most beautiful campuses in the country, and the most beautiful in the Appalachian region, which stretches from southern New York State to northern Mississippi, and from Kentucky to Virginia. Though there are surely more than 10 beautiful Appalachian colleges, the following schools were chosen and ranked based on the following criteria:


Awards & Recognition (2 points for an international accolade; 1 point for an American accolade; 1 for appearing on the National Register of Historic Places): Whether a national award or an honor bestowed by a group or organization, any recognition a campus has received played a large part in the placement of a school on this list. Generally speaking, the larger and more recent the honor, the higher the college was placed.

Student Enjoyment (1 point per notable feature): While most of the features described in this article can be appreciated visually by both students and visitors, those campuses with features that can be physically enjoyed by the school's student body (such as botanical gardens or hiking trails) were given higher priority.

Number of Notable Features (1 point for each notable feature): Campuses with more than one significant or celebrated building or feature were ranked higher than those with a single notable feature.

Other (1 point each): Those campuses with other notable characteristics, such as historical significance or environmental friendliness, were also considered.

In the event of a tie, the higher-ranking campus was chosen by the author based on characteristics such as natural terrain and climate, historical significance, or academic reputation.

1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

(12 points)

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Those who love nature love University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  for good reason. The University boasts a gorgeous botanical garden that spans nearly 700 acres, meaning students and visitors of the 729-acre campus are always surrounded by thousands of varieties of plant and tree life. Not surprisingly, the University was named a National Landmark for Outstanding Landscape Architecture by the American Society of Landscape Architects. But UNC’s beauty is not limited to the natural kind. Of the campus’ many gorgeous buildings, the most iconic is  the Old Well, a neoclassical rotunda said to give good luck to anyone who sips from its water fountain.

2. Wake Forest University

(12 points)

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

According to one Wake Forest student, “There is nothing prettier than sitting on the steps of Wait Chapel looking towards Reynolda Hall on a crisp fall day.” In fact, Wake Forest University was designed to look especially impressive during the Appalachian autumn. The University’s 340 acres, which includes the massive Reynolda Garden, is alive with thousands of maples, magnolias, oaks, cedars, and other trees that glow in reds and yellows. Add to the natural beauty a series of neo-Georgian buildings such as Wait Chapel and ZSR Library, and you have one of the most beautiful college campuses in the Appalachians.

3. Vanderbilt University

(15 points)

Nashville, Tennessee

Though located just outside metropolitan Nashville,  Vanderbilt University’s campus has been described as being “like walking into the 1700s.” The peaceful 300-acre campus doubles as an arboretum on which about 170 species of trees can be found. Birds such as hawks, owls, and cardinals are spotted frequently, along with other forms of small wildlife. But it’s not just natural beauty for which Vanderbilt is known. The Italianate-style Kirkland Hall serves as the campus’ orientating landmark and the official welcome for Vanderbilt’s thousands of visitors each year.

4. Elon College

(17 points)

Elon, North Carolina

Named on numerous occasions as the “Prettiest College Campus” by organizations such as The Princeton Review and New York Times, Elon College’s entire campus has been designated a botanical garden. Located in the heart of North Carolina, its expanse of gardens are used for both aesthetic and educational purposes. Its 525 acres feel more like a well-kept park and include stunning plant life, flowers, trees, and the beautiful Fonville Fountain (in which swimming became forbidden in 1986). Johnston Hall, built in 1926 as an orphanage, now houses alumni offices and holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Movie buffs may recognize Elon College as one of the filming locations for Spike Lee’s hit, “He Got Game.”

5. Montreat College

(22 points)

Asheville, North Carolina

That “Montreat” is an amalgam of “mountain” and “retreat” is an indicator of the college's natural beauty.  Founded in 1897 by an evangelist and his associates to encourage spiritual and intellectual growth in the Blue Ridge Mountain area, Montreat has been a four-year college since 1945. The campus consists of numerous stone buildings, which, in autumn, are framed by red and yellow trees. Nearly 20 hiking trails covering roughly 30 miles weave through and around campus, some of which lead to Lake Susan, a popular gathering spot for students looking to boat, swim, and picnic. No wonder the 112-acre campus is so frequently referred to as the “little mountain paradise.”

6. Covenant College

(22 points)

Lookout Mountain, Georgia

Nestled high atop Lookout Mountain on the border of Tennessee and Georgia, tiny Covenant College consists of 300 acres of landscaping and architecture designed to showcase the area’s natural beauty. The buildings are a mix of current and traditional styles, though every building was designed with a wealth of windows to take advantage of the mountain-top view of seven different states. Flowers and trees are plentiful, and its no wonder Covenant students spend nearly 90% of their time outside of the classroom.

7. Sweet Briar College

(23 points)

Sweet Briar, Virginia

Of Sweet Briar’s approximately 30 campus buildings, a whopping 21 of them have a spot on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Most of those 21 buildings were designed by famed architect Ralph Adams Cram, who had a hand in a number of buildings mentioned on this list. The crown jewel of the College is the 130-acre equestrian center which houses the school’s seven riding teams and is often seen with horses grazing in paddocks and students riding around on horseback. The College was designed with visual coherence and symmetry in mind, and with the mountain backdrop, it is undoubtedly one of the prettiest in the South, if not the whole country.

8. Berry College

(26 points)

Mount Berry, Georgia

Berry College, in rural Mount Berry, Georgia, holds the world record for the largest contiguous college campus in the world. Most of its 27,000 acres is made up of fields, lakes, forests, and mountains through which walking, bike, foot, and horse trails weave. To promote its expanse of natural beauty, Berry frequently organizes group hikes, archery, and even deer hunts in autumn. Making up campus proper is a series of English Gothic-inspired buildings, including Ford Dining Hall and Ford Auditorium, both of which are named after the school’s largest benefactor, Henry Ford. To top off the beauty, reflecting pools and fountains are abundant, and are often seen in images of the college.

9. Sewanee: The University of the South

(26 points)

Sewanee, Tennessee

Sewanee: The University of the South is chock full of southern charm. Composed of classical, Gothic-style architecture, the campus boasts a number of notable buildings, the most postcard-perfect of which is  All Saints, a chapel  inspired by University Church at Oxford and Notre Dame in Paris. All Saints has been featured in hundreds of magazines over the years, and has repeatedly been named one of the most beautiful buildings in the United States. Sewanee itself, located on 13,000 acres in the Cumberland Plateau, overlooks the Tennessee Valley. Its natural surroundings consist of forest, lakefront bluffs, garden ravines, and a running stream lined with daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips.

10. University of Virginia

(33 points)

Charlottesville, Virginia

There is likely no American university better recognized than University of Virginia, which is the only university in the United States to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was designed by Thomas Jefferson, who chose its founding to be one of only three of his achievements to be listed on his tombstone. The University is a prime example of Jeffersonian architecture, complete with its famous neoclassical rotunda inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Colonnades, red-brick buildings, manicured gardens, and the innovative terraced lawn all contribute to the beauty of this iconic campus. Not surprisingly, thousands of visitors each year flock to what the American Institute of Architects calls “the proudest achievement of American architects in the past 200 years.”

Published November 2016