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Trees frame the LDS Temple in Logan, Utah, home of Utah State University, and a college town beloved for its access to abundant outdoor recreation. (© Phil Schermeister)

There's a chill to the air these days, which means that millions of lucky kids are returning to campuses across the continent, disappearing like Harry, Hermione and Ron into a world far removed from economic woes, annoying younger siblings or the fading hometown romance. For the next nine months, sleepy towns like Athens (of Ohio and Georgia), Boone, N.C. and Bozeman, Mont., will double in population, shops will double their stocks of pennants and sweatshirts, and bars will roar like the football stadium from Thursday until (at least) Sunday.

Creating this annual college list is never as easy as say, Geology 101, i.e. "Rocks for Jocks," because, let's be honest, there is no "top college town." The best college town is simply the one where we attended college. Still, the institutions on this list each deserve special mention for taking a quiet town and turning it into college central. Or is it Central College?

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Ohio University, the nation's ninth-oldest public university, has a campus whose Norman Rockwell aspect plays down the raucous undergraduate life of its students. (Courtesy Athens County Visitors Bureau)

Athens, Ohio
The 1,800-acre brick campus of Ohio University rises above the oak trees of Athens like a Norman Rockwell painting, though the town certainly buzzes when the 25,000 students arrive, more than doubling the population of 22,000 citizens. Like so many of Ohio's college towns, the academic influence of campus has engendered progressive civic initiatives including alternative energy and, since 1972, a thriving farmers' market. October can prove especially chilling in Athens: The Ridges, a former asylum, has elevated the leafy town to many national "Most Haunted" Top Ten lists; and the citywide Halloween party is one of the nation's best. Students at the nation's ninth-oldest public university (established in 1804) not only set up ad-hoc study sites inside the cafes of E Union, Court and other downtown streets, they invigorate the city's many festivals from the Athens International Film Festival to Palmerfest, a once-infamous statewide college bash that occurs every May.

Appalachian State University, Boone N.C.

The student body of Appalachian State University literally doubles the size of Boone, N.C. The college has the best of both worlds: a thriving academic location hard by wilderness areas unlike anywhere else in the American Southeast. (© Andre Jenny/Alamy)

Boone, N.C.
Step into Boone and you might think you've traveled 1,000 miles to the Wild West, not just because the town takes its name from wilderness icon Daniel Boone (rumored to have camped in the town several times), but because the building facades stand 3,332 feet above sea level and face the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Appalachian State University occupies a quarter of the town, spilling students into the town's center at the West King Street entrance to campus. The returning Mountaineers double the city of 17,000 almost exactly, supporting a formidable arts community with exhibits at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts and an impressive Visiting Writers Series, among other intellectual institutions. Outdoor adventurers practically walk into the wilderness here with access to rivers and mountains unlike anywhere else in the Southeast and few places on the continent.
Related links at MSN
> Beautiful U.S. college campuses
> Athens, Ohio news
> Bozeman news
> Boone news

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Bozeman, Mont., home to Montana State University, has a broad array of outdoor diversions including Yellowstone National Park, hiking and biking trails and some of the top fly fisheries. (© Danita Delimont/Alamy)

Bozeman, Mont.
It may be hard to concentrate while attending Montana State University, in Bozeman. This isn't because the city of almost 40,000 people sits just under a mile above sea level, but because of the dizzying array of outdoor distractions including Yellowstone National Park, exquisite hiking and biking trails and some of the best fly fisheries in the world. Of course, some of the 13,500 students you might spy milling about Yellowstone may actually be in class, as MSU's ongoing study of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem garners global recognition. It's impossible to travel anywhere in town and not experience the impact of MSU and Gallatin College students, especially along West College Street, site of cafes, saloons and shops. Bozeman's successful merger of western town and university gown has led to 35 percent population growth in just the last 10 years, as well as exceptional intellectual showcases like The Museum of the Rockies.