The West's best places to live

Entrepreneur? Artist? Raising a family? Behold: the West's best spots to suit your lifestyle

Best places to live

Photo by Gabriele Galimberti / Anzenberge / Redux; written by Mike Grudowski

Places to make you happy

Disneyland bills itself as the happiest place on Earth, and that may well be true for some people (particularly those under 12). For the rest of us, however, the happiest place is where we can find the things that matter to us most, where we can live the way we want to live. Is it your dream to start your own business? Here’s where you’ve got the best shot. Looking for a safe place to raise your kids? Look no further. Want to ditch your car, grow your own food, or get off the grid? Check, check, and check. Just crave a place where you can eat and drink and never gain weight? We’ve got the first two covered anyway. So depending on what makes you smile, here are the 10 best places to live (and find happiness) in the wondrous amusement park of the American West.

Salt Spring Island, B.C.

Photo by José Mandojana; written by Mike Grudowski

Salt Spring Island, B.C.: Grow your own everything

Population: Approx. 10,000. Median single-family home price: $569,300 U.S.

Different veggies grown: 47

Take a trial run: Michael Ableman’s Foxglove Farm has two cottages and a log house. From $149 U.S.; foxglovefarmbc.ca

A is for apples—more than 350 kinds grow within Salt Spring’s 74 square miles, including such rarities as Duchess of Oldenburg. B is for bananas—the tropical fruit grows here too. This rugged isle, off Vancouver Island’s eastern shore, also has the rest of the alphabet covered (like C for carrots), thanks to a Mediterranean climate that serves as the perfect greenhouse.

“We can eat out of the garden 12 months a year,” says Dan Jason, whose company, Salt Spring Seeds, markets some 600 varieties of seeds.

“In a way, the island is returning to its agrarian roots,” says Michael Ableman, a Californian who now works the soil at Foxglove Farm, where he grows dozens of kinds of fruits and vegetables. “I’ve been here for 10 years, and I’m continually discovering things I had no idea were here.”

Runners-up: Humboldt County, CA; San Luis Obispo, CA; Willamette Valley, OR

Salt Lake City

Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero; written by Mike Grudowski

Salt Lake City: Start a business

Population: 181,743. Median single-family home price: $213,000.

Job growth: 1.5%

Take a trial run: Hotel Monaco is in the middle of downtown’s buzz. From $109; monaco-saltlakecity.com

Tom Stockham knows you’re skeptical. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve recruited who think, ‘It seems nice, but I can’t quite imagine living here.’ Then they move to Salt Lake, and stay for a long time.

“There’s not a giant employer like Ford or Boeing. But we have a lot of people building businesses,” adds Stockham, a serial entrepreneur who was previously president of Ticketmaster.com and CEO of Ancestry.com. He now runs SwarmBuilder, which recruits and trains brand advocates to help juice sales for clients such as the North Face.

Larger companies like Goldman Sachs, Adobe, and Specialized Bicycles are drawn to the economy-stoking factors. First there’s the cost structure, including low corporate tax rates, utility prices, and rents. Then there’s the workforce, which ranks near the top in high-school graduation rates, per capita college degrees, and literacy. Unemployment is below the national average, and 80 miles of commuter rail should be completed soon.

“I don’t know any other place where you can have a real job, with good people focused on growing a company, and 20 minutes later you can be skiing or mountain biking or fly-fishing, or at the airport catching a direct flight to Paris,” Stockham says.

Runners-up: Boise; Denver; Albuquerque

Taos

Photo by Shelly Strazis; written by Mike Grudowski

Taos: Own a vacation home

Population: 5,525. Median single-family home price: $268,250.

Annual visitors: 700,000

Take a trial run: It’s an Alpine fairy tale at the Bavarian Lodge. From $335; thebavarian.net

Regardless of what brings a person to Taos—art, snow play, its ethereal spirit—those who fall for the town tend to fall hard. It’s this enduring appeal coupled with a limited housing supply that make for about as safe a second-home bet as you’ll find.

Not that Taos has entirely escaped the bust. Prices have slipped 20 to 25 percent since a peak in 2006, but “we never had the overbuilding, so we never had the kind of bubble that other places had,” says realtor Peter Lora. Plus, the vacation-rental market has held—powder-deprived Southern Californians and Texans and heat-weary Southwesterners turn up every winter and summer like clockwork—which gives second-home buyers the opportunity to offset a chunk of their costs.

Two-bedroom condos near Taos Plaza can be had for around $200,000. Thirty minutes from town and 10,200 feet above sea level, at the Kachina Lift base, the Bavarian Chalets offer a plush alternative priced from $410,000 to $1.2 million: ski-in, ski-out units done up in modernist style by Alexandra Champalimaud, the designer who renovated New York’s iconic Algonquin Hotel.

Runners-up: Laguna Beach, CA; Truckee, CA; Telluride, CO

Portland

Photo by Woods Wheatcroft; written by Mike Grudowski

Portland: Ditch your car

Population: 582,130. Median single-family home price: $233,500.

Bike commuters: About 17,600

Take a trial run: The Ace loans bikes to guests. Rooms from $140; acehotel.com/portland

About four months ago, the New Seasons natural-foods chain made a quintessentially Portland move: It dedicated more parking to bikes than cars at its newest store. “There’s this subculture of people in their 20s and 30s who don’t even think about owning cars,” says Michael Andersen, who last year parted with his ’99 Toyota and used the proceeds to fund a startup newsmagazine, Portland Afoot, that covers “low-car living” in the City of Roses.

Bikes aside, Portland excels at alternative options. The TriMet buses link seamlessly with 52 miles of light rail and the nation’s first new streetcar line in a half-century. But Portland’s commitment to cycling is mind boggling, with upward of 300 miles of bike lanes, bike paths, and specially marked “bike boulevards,” where car volume is kept low. There are countless bike shops, bike clubs, bike races, bike blogs, and bike nonprofits, not to mention bike-thru coffee shops and bike-polo matches. One local credit union even offers bicycle loans.

Runners-up: San Francisco; Pasadena

Bellingham

Photo by Aurora Open / Kennan Harvey / Getty Images; written by Mike Grudowski

Bellingham, WA: Play year-round

Population: 77,550. Median single-family home price: $305,000.

Miles of multiuse trails within city limits: 65

Take a trial run: Fairhaven Village Inn is close to the trails. From $159; fairhavenvillageinn.com

To get a sense of the adrenaline-pumping possibilities around Bellingham, a seaside haven 90 miles north of Seattle, you need look only at the annual Memorial Day weekend Ski to Sea Race. The seven-sport relay draws nearly 500 teams of competitors—some with Olympic pedigrees, some wearing tutus—for a mettle-tester bookended by cross-country skiing on Mt. Baker and sea kayaking on Bellingham Bay.

“Geographically, we’re in the right spot,” says Ted Wang, president of the Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts. He’s referring to the county’s 143 miles of Puget Sound shoreline and 3,000 miles of rivers and streams, the San Juan Islands just across the bay, and the North Cascades National Park to the east. “There’s more here than any of us will ever get to in our lifetime.”

Worst-kept secret: It rains. Local consensus: So what?

Runners-up: Bend, OR; Boulder, CO; Lake Tahoe, CA/NV

Eureka

Photo by Justin Bailie; written by Mike Grudowski

Eureka, CA: Be a not-so-struggling artist

Population: 25,245. Median single-family home price: $207,000.

Artist population: More than 1,000

Take a trial run: The Carter House Inns are hung with local art. From $185; carterhouse.com

“Some places, you say you’re an artist, and people smile and say, ‘Right—now what do you really do?’ ” says Matt Beard. “But in Eureka, it’s a respectable living.” Beard has shown his luminescent surf-inspired paintings up and down the California coast.

But his home is the often fog-bound Victorian seaport of Eureka, where there are said to be more artists per capita than anywhere else in the state. Many mingle with their patrons on the first Saturday of every month, when about 80 galleries, museums, theaters, and cafes in Eureka’s Old Town stay open late for Arts Alive, a popular en-masse art browse.

While walking around town, you’ll see murals, many of them the work of local Duane Flatmo, who also competes in spring’s Kinetic Grand Championship, a 3-day, 42-mile sculpture-on-wheels race. Or you might bump into Linda Wise, a garbage-company manager by day who turns others’ refuse into critically acclaimed junk-metal sculptures by night. She was the winner of last spring’s juried exhibition at the Morris Graves Museum of Art. “I don’t think you can walk a block,” says Graves curator Jemima Harr, “without encountering something related to the arts.”

Runners-up: Santa Fe; Victoria, B.C.; Pa‘ia, Maui, HI

San Diego

Photo by J. P. Greenwood; written by Mike Grudowski

San Diego: Hatch big ideas

Population: 1.37 million. Median single-family home price: $330,000.

Research labs: 75

Take a trial run: Hotel Indigo is S.D.’s 1st LEED-certified. From $189; hotelindigo.com

Tracking San Diego’s innovation economy is a bit like counting plants in the Amazon: Just when you think you’re getting somewhere, a thousand new wonders sprout up behind you. Carry a smartphone? It almost certainly contains technology pioneered by local wireless giant Qualcomm. Buy a new computer recently? That smaller, faster chip inside was likely made possible by a billion-dollar local company called Cymer. The decoding of the human genome? Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute played a major role in that and in producing the first synthetic bacterial cell last May. Like to surf? Matuse makes wetsuits not from petroleum-derived neoprene, but from a limestone-based material dubbed Geoprene.

Countless other future-is-now projects are in the works, like Sapphire Energy, which in 2012 plans to produce a million gallons of diesel and jet fuel derived from algae (pictured). As the local population of surfers might put it, “Duuuude!”

Runners-up: Palo Alto, CA; Seattle; Los Angeles

Sonoma County

Photo by Catherine Ledner; written by Mike Grudowski

Sonoma County: Dine 5-star

Population: 472,102. Median single-family home price: $484,000 (Healdsburg).

Wineries open to the public: 305

Take a trial run: Eco-happy H2Hotel is within walking distance of stellar food and tasting rooms. From $215; h2hotel.com

“Everyone’s thinking about food and wine all day long here,” says Sondra Bernstein, proprietor of The Girl & The Fig restaurant in Sonoma. “It’s like, ‘What’s happening in the news?’ ” Bernstein, who has many projects, recently added a 2-acre biodynamic farm in a sharecropping agreement with a winery.

Though Napa, one valley to the east, may draw more tourists and buzz, it was the Sonoma Valley that in 2009 became the nation’s first Cittaslow (“Slow City”), a hard-won designation that Cittaslow International awarded the valley for keeping it sustainable, local, and small-scale.

Live in Sonoma County and you may start to take things for granted. You might think rack of lamb is always grilled on an authentic Argentine parrilla, as it is at Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in Geyserville. That any class called “The Art of Wood-Fired Cooking” would naturally be taught by Andrea Mugnaini, an authority on Old World open-hearth ovens (her oven company has a Healdsburg cooking school). That every pizza joint offers house-cured lardo as a topping (Diavola Pizzeria in Geyserville). That your Sazerac should be poured by the guy who literally wrote the book on artisanal cocktails (Scott Beattie at Healdsburg’s Spoonbar). Which is to say, you just might get a little spoiled.

Runners-up: Napa County; Vancouver, B.C.

Scottsdale

Photo by Brandon Sullivan; written by Mike Grudowski

Scottsdale: Raise your kids

Population: 235,371. Median single-family home price: $270,000.

City acreage set aside for parks: 16%

Take a trial run: The Phoenician is a kid’s playground, with swimming pools and an ice cream bar. From $399; thephoenician.com

Sure, it’s better known for manicured fairways and sybaritic spas. But Scottsdale is also surprisingly welcoming of families. For one, it’s safe, with already-low crime rates dropping substantially in most categories last year. Scottsdale Unified has high graduation rates, and standardized test scores hover well above state and national averages. “We love the lifestyle, and we wanted to put down roots,” says Allison Small, founder of the online guide Mom Index, who moved here from Denver in 2003.

Come playtime, Scottsdale shines. Indian Bend Wash, a 71/2-mile greenbelt, links five community parks; McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a 16,000-acre sanctuary, is open for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art jump-starts minds with education programs. And those lush hotels with their massive aquatic playgrounds are great summer escapes—with a lower price tag.

Runners-up: Irvine, CA; Spokane; Missoula, MT

Crestone, CO

Photo by Rebecca Emery / The Image Bank / Getty Images; written by Mike Grudowski

Crestone, CO: Live off the grid

Population: 146. Median single-family home price: $250,000.

New solar companies: 5

Take a trial run: Willow Spring B&B. Open Apr–Oct; from $65; willow-spring.com 

Perched at the edge of the San Luis Valley, the onetime mining town of Crestone might seem like an unlikely cutting-edge capital of solar. But true believers in solar power, off-the-grid living, and alternative building methods have gravitated here for decades. “There is total open-ended support for solar here,” says Paul Shippee, a solar-architectural designer and proprietor of the Crestone Solar School. 

Why Crestone? Start with 330 sunny days a year. Then factor in a lack of strict building codes and an acceptance of alternative viewpoints. Federal tax credits and state-level rebates for solar installations also help in a place that, even with all that Colorado sunshine, rivals Minneapolis in the number of days when heat is needed in homes. “We incorporate active or passive solar power in almost every home we build,” says Paul Koppana, a local contractor who specializes in straw-bale houses. “We’ve built houses that, in the dead of winter, run about 50 bucks a month in utilities.”

Runners-up: Mendocino, CA; Tucson

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