The eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is a classic mountain town. Located about 90 minutes northwest of Denver, it sits at an elevation of 7,522 feet (for perspective, Denver is a mile or 5,280 feet above sea level). If you enjoy dramatic mountain views, outdoor recreation, free-range wildlife, and sun-filled days, then Estes Park is a must-see destination.
On the more objective side, Estes Park is considered a small town with a population of about 6,400 permanent residents; but be warned: tourists flood the area from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Over 4 million people visit Rocky Mountain National Park yearly, and many use Estes Park as their base camp.
Additionally, curving, narrow roadways, and lower speed limits restrict access in and out of the town; and those same lofty peaks that take your breath away can also funnel gale force winds of 40 mph. Many people find that the altitude and dryness make breathing uncomfortable.
If you’d like a virtual taste of this scenic town, check out The Shining (the TV mini-series, not the movie) or the cult comedy, Dumb & Dumber. The mini-series was shot at the iconic Stanley Hotel, and Lloyd and Harry stayed at the ‘Danbury Hotel’, which is the actual Stanley Hotel in Estes Park.
Estes Park may be a great place to visit, but living there year-round can be impractical and expensive. The cost-of-living index is about 101 as compared to the national average of 100. Outside of tourism, there is a significant lack of employment possibilities.
So, let’s consider how it compares to 15 similar towns where people live in harmony with their natural surroundings, and ‘home’ is experienced outdoors as much as indoors – in other words, places and spaces that elevate mind and body.
1. Alamosa, Colorado
If you’re committed to Colorado, an alternative to Estes Park is the town of Alamosa. Situated between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountain ranges, there are also panoramic vistas, spotlighted by 300 days of sunshine.
Like Estes Park, it’s a popular film location for movies – including Indiana Jones and the Lone Ranger. With its distinctive Mexican influence, Alamosa offers dozens of restaurants featuring authentic southwestern fare.
Located in south-central Colorado, the city is the commercial center of the San Luis Valley but is also known for its historic landmarks and tourist destinations. The area can be leisurely explored via the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad; or you can engage in a large variety of outdoor attractions, including the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve and the Colorado Gators Reptile Park.
Unlike Estes Park, the cost of living in Alamosa is about 16% lower than the national average while the population is about 35 % larger (9,800 residents). Tourism is certainly important to the local economy, but other industries employ healthcare and education (it’s home to Adams State University and Trinidad State College).
At an elevation of 7,544 feet (higher than Estes Park), Alamosa has a dry climate of cold winters and hot summers with a wide daily temperature variation. Regardless of the season, you’ll need warm clothing at night.
2. Laramie, Wyoming
Wyoming shares Colorado’s northern border and Laramie is situated in the southeast corner of the state. A town with a population of 30,000, it’s both affordable and inviting. Rich in scenery, culture, and history, Laramie’s small-town charm attracts families and retirees – not just tourists. If Estes Park is the quintessential mountain town, then Laramie epitomizes the west.
Every season highlights outdoor activities. Skiing and snowmobiling along the Snowy Range are popular winter activities. Rock-climbing, hiking, and biking through Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest are other seasonal favorites, as well as fishing and rafting on the local rivers (the Laramie and North Platte Rivers).
Like Alamosa, it sits on a high plain (7,220 feet above sea level) between two mountain ranges: the Snowy and Laramie Ranges. The climate is cold and arid. The cost-of-living index is also similar at 87.3% and residents pay the lowest prices in the country for food and utilities. Unlike Estes Park, education (it’s home to the University of Wyoming), healthcare, and retail trade are the top three industries.
Similar to Estes Park and Alamosa, Hollywood is in love with Laramie. Many movies and TV shows are based on the town’s western heritage. Productions such as Lawman (1958-62), Laramie (1959-63), The Man from Laramie (1955), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and Hell on Wheels (2016) are hugely successful examples.
3. Midway, Utah
Colorado shares its western border with Utah. Midway is about 50 miles southeast of Salt Lake City but on the opposite side of the Wasatch Mountains. This Swiss-themed town is famous for hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics. Nestled in the Heber Valley, it’s about 5,584 feet above sea level.
Like Estes Park, the views are a breathtaking panorama of craggy peaks. But the scenery is more idyllic with its rivers, lakes, and farmlands (you may recognize the brand Heber Valley Artisan Cheese). There are also many options for outdoor activities, from trekking through forested hillsides or lounging lakeside. Midway is the site of a geothermal caldera or ‘hot-pot’ where scuba diving is available year-round.
The population of this picturesque town is about 5,280 and the major industry of accommodation and food services is understandably linked to tourism. Similar to Estes Park, the cost-of-living index is above average at 101.7 Considering Midway’s beauty, serenity, and healthy lifestyle, it may be worth your time commuting to nearby Park City (30 miles due north) for employment.
4. Ely, Nevada
Between Utah and California is the state of Nevada. The town of Ely is 240 miles due north of Las Vegas. Nevada is mostly desert although the name means ‘snow-covered’, which refers to the Great Basin Mountain Ranges where Ely is situated at an elevation of 6,437 feet.
At the edge of the ‘Loneliest Road in America,’ Ely is a remote mountain town with a population of almost 4,000 residents. Founded as a stagecoach stop and trading post, it eventually became a major center for copper mining, an industry that is still thriving.
Ely is a place where western history, art, and natural wonders converge. From the historic Nevada Northern Railway to the scenic mountains and national parks, the town offers a host of recreational options for every preference.
Compared to most tourist destinations like Estes Park, employment opportunities are more diverse, and the cost-of-living index is well below the national average at 84.4. Ely is a great place to work and play.
5. Red River, New Mexico
The tiny town of Red River has a year-round population of only 465 and is located near the northern border of New Mexico (which is the southern border of Colorado). Red River is 36 miles north and east of Taos and part of the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway. This picturesque route loops through 83 miles of mountains, valleys, and forests, unique to Northern New Mexico.
Similar to Estes Park, Red River swells with seasonal tourists who are attracted by the beauty of mountain towns and outdoor recreation. Like Alamosa, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are part of the landscape, and the elevation of the Red River is 8,571 feet above sea level (1,000 feet higher than Estes Park).
Since Red River averages over 200 inches of snow in winter, it is an extremely popular area for skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling.
The region is threaded with trails alongside streams and rivers where you can enjoy hiking, horseback riding, and biking. The same streams and rivers are great spots for fly-fishing; and many of the forest trails are also suitable for jeeps, motorcycles, and other off-road vehicles.
Red River was originally established as a mining camp for gold, silver, and copper. Eventually, it gained a reputation for trout fishing and cool weather. Mining as the principal industry ceased in 1931, completely replaced by tourism.
It may be a tiny town with limited services (the nearest hospital is in Taos), but your money will go a lot further, since the cost-of-living index is comparatively low at 89 and the quality of life is priceless.
6. Show Low, Arizona
The famous Four Corners Monument marks a nexus in the Southwest where four states meet: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Show Low is about 250 miles south and west of the monument in east-central Arizona. It’s been called a gateway to Arizona’s White Mountains and is known for an unparalleled lifestyle with world-class fishing and hunting.
The town of 11,442 residents is about 175 miles northeast of Phoenix at an elevation of 6,331 feet. Show Low is the business and marketing center of northeastern Arizona. Founded in 1870, it got its name from a game of high stakes poker between C.E. Cooley and Marion Clark.
Vying for the local 100,000-acre ranch, they agreed that the winner would take all and the loser would leave. According to the legend, Clark said, “If you can show low, you win.” Cooley (turning up the two clubs) shouted “show low it is!”
Similar to Estes Park, Show Low experiences spikes in population not only due to tourism but also related to the trading population: it’s the largest shopping hub in northeast Arizona. Show Low has the charm of a small town with the amenities of a larger city. You can find expansive dining and shopping options here, from large chains to small local merchants. This business model keeps the cost of living low at 87.3 and the quality of life high.
7. Libby, Montana
Moving further north and west of Colorado, Montana shares its southern border with Wyoming. The Town of Libby is tucked away in the northwestern corner about 220 miles to the north of Butte. This easygoing town (population of 2,780) lies in the Kootenai Valley through which the Kootenai River flows. The Cabinet Mountains on the south and the Purcell Mountains on the north, add to the impressive scenery.
Lying in the heart of a valley, Libby is much lower than Estes Park at 2096 feet, which results in a milder climate of fewer extremes. Once again, the great outdoors is an integral part of the Libby lifestyle, especially since the Kootenai National Forest is part of the local scene.
If you are an extreme sports enthusiast, you can backpack through 94,000 acres of the Cabinet Mountains. If you are not, then walking over the suspension bridge at Kootenai Falls is a much easier way to absorb the sights and sounds of nature.
Unlike Estes Park, the cost-of-living index in Libby is much lower at 84.6. In the past, logging and mining were the major industries. As mining and timber mills closed down, Libby’s economy has increasingly relied on tourism, thanks to natural wonders such as the Kootenai Falls, featured in The River Wild in 1994 and The Revenant in 2015.
8. Sun Valley, Idaho
Idaho shares its eastern border with Montana to the north, and Wyoming to the south. Sun Valley is to the south and center of a state that is renowned for its rugged terrain, raging rivers, and thick forests. Like Estes Park, it is surrounded by dramatic peaks highlighted by sunny skies for much of the year and is a national park (specifically, Sawtooth National Forest).
The resort town of 1,486 permanent residents is the place for skiing and snowboarding in winter and all the adventurous activities that one might expect from similar locations, such as hiking, biking, and fly fishing.
It’s also a hot destination for Hollywood types and assorted luminaries such as Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Ernest Hemingway. More recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mark Zuckerberg, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, and Bill Gates have owned property in Sun Valley.
Not surprisingly, the top industries in Sun Valley are arts and entertainment, tourism, and real estate, which drive the cost-of-living index to 107.
9. Sisters, Oregon
Continuing toward the Pacific coast, we arrive at the small town of Sisters (population 2,781) on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains in the high desert region of central Oregon. Named for a nearby trio of volcanic peaks, its elevation is low at 3,182 feet and the unique climate is similar to the Mediterranean.
Sisters has a nineteenth-century, western ambiance and sunny weather that attracts artistic types as well as outdoor enthusiasts.
For hikers and explorers, there is the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes through unspoiled wildlands, or Smith Rock State Park, which features rock climbing for beginners and pros.
For the more culture-minded, Sisters reflects its early history with 19th-century buildings and storefronts, including restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries.
The cost-of-living index is a reasonable 93.1 with service industries being the major employers. Although tourism has been the major industry, Sisters is hoping to attract more stable and consistent businesses to add jobs and increase local investment.
10. Gig Harbor, Washington
Gig Harbor in Washington State (directly above Oregon on the Pacific Coast) is on the shore of Puget Sound near Tacoma. It’s the first location on our list that combines the scenic beauty of mountain tops with coastlines.
Mount Rainier provides the backdrop of this historic maritime town. Like Estes Park, it is also the gateway to a national park (Olympic National Park, specifically) and a popular tourist destination.
Gig Harbor has a population of about 12,000 and has been named the best place to retire in Washington. Outdoor activities, culture, and healthcare are just three features that attract retirees; although everyone can enjoy the state parks and historic waterfront that includes fine dining and boutique shopping.
However, the cost-of-living index is even higher than Estes Park at 116.0 though there are many more employment sectors in addition to tourism; and the weather is typical of the west coast.
11. Wears Valley, Tennessee
Having arrived at the Pacific coast, it’s time to explore some eastern cousins of Estes Park. Since the Appalachians are to the east what the Rocky Mountains are to the west, the Wears Valley in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee is a great place to start.
A small town of under 7,000 people, it sits at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Considering the beauty of the region and the range of outdoor sports (e.g., hiking, hunting, and fishing), it is very affordable with a cost-of-living index of 85.0. As in Estes Park, employment relies on tourist-related services.
12. Black Mountain, North Carolina
Located 25 miles from Asheville, Black Mountain is a great alternative for those who prefer small-town charm to a large city. The population of 8,162 is larger than Estes Park but much smaller than Asheville’s 100,000 residents.
Named for the mountain range that provides the town’s backdrop, Black Mountain rises to an elevation of 2,405 (high for the Appalachians but low for the Rockies). Known for Appalachian arts and crafts, it’s both a picturesque mountain town and a gateway to outdoor adventure. Nearby Pisgah National Forest, Graybeard, and Lookout Trails offer hiking and exploration with panoramic mountain views.
The cost-of-living index is lower than average at 91.5 and the economy is driven by manufacturing and distribution, arts and culture, and tourism.
13. Stowe, Vermont
Moving to the northeast, we arrive at Stowe in north-central Vermont. Overlooked by Mount Mansfield where the ski slopes are world-renowned, the iconic town (population 4,300) also has access to Smugglers’ Notch State Park.
The quintessential Vermont town, Stowe is postcard-perfect with its spired churches, mountain trails, and pastoral landscape. Year-round outdoor recreation, a strong art community, and a dining scene are thriving industries. However, the cost-of-living index seems even higher than the actual 105.2 since the livable hourly wage in Stowe should be over $9.00 more than the state’s average wage.
Another must-see location in Stowe is the famous Trapp Family Lodge, featured in the Sound of Music. Today, the Trapp farm and inn is an outdoor center with scenic cross-country ski trails.
14. Lake Placid, New York
We can’t talk about winter sports and snowy peaks without mentioning Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York. The town has provided beautiful mountain and waterfront views as well as historic attractions to generations of visitors.
Along with Lake Placid, Saranac and Tupper Lakes form the Tri-Lakes region. The town of Lake Placid (population 2,357) hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980 as well as the Winter Universiade in 1972 and the Goodwill Games in 2000.
Wherever you are in Lake Placid, nature abounds and is conveniently explored, so it’s a great place to live if you are an outdoor enthusiast. The cost-of-living index is an affordable 93.5 but state tax is high, and employment tends to be seasonal.
15. York, Maine
We end our northeast tour in the town of York (population 12,500) near Maine’s southern tip, on the Atlantic coast. A well-known summer resort destination, it features beaches, golf courses, and Mount Agamenticus which is a small mountain, not part of a range.
The area surrounding Mount Agamenticus is a park reservation and wildlife habitat. Historically, it was a landmark for sailors and on a clear day, Boston skyscrapers are visible from the summit.
Once a trading center for agricultural produce and lumbar, it has become a fashionable resort town reminiscent of the Gilded Age. The cost of living is high at 127.6, likely due to the severe Maine winters and the high-end lifestyle.