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20 Game-Changing Places to Live

What’s defined the West more than anything else is the sense of opportunity. Better ways to live. New technology. Visions of the future. So where is the innovation happening right now? Whether you’re looking to boost your career, get back to the land, or start over again with pioneer determination, these are the communities that exemplify Western can-do

Robin Rinaldi and Sarah Max
1 / 20

Sacramento, CA: The Heartland Embraces Its Roots

It used to be that come Friday night, this cow town practically emptied out—its county and state capital employees fleeing for the suburbs or surrounding farmlands. But in the years that followed the 2008 recession, real-estate development and a steady crop of new restaurants and boutiques took advantage of the low rents and property costs and slowly filled the streets of Sacramento.

Today, its core of old Victorians are flanked by modern lofts, and weekends see once-sparsely populated neighborhoods bumping with sidewalk cafes and hip brewpubs. The area’s traditional farmer-rancher mind-set has also made its way into the city itself. In 2017, the County Board of Supervisors passed a law allowing residents to sell homegrown food on their own properties and raise animals for educational programs such as 4-H. Nonprofit farms began tilling unused urban lots, while the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition is working to expand the local urban-farm movement beyond the city limits and into the entire county. Farmers’ markets are open all week during peak season, and farm-to-table restaurants abound. No reason to flee to the suburbs; Sac is giving city dwellers a taste of both town and country.

By the Numbers

  • Population: 495,234
  • Median home price: $278,600
  • Unemployment rate: 4.8%
  • Tree coverage: 23.6%
  • Farmers’ markets: 40
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2 / 20

Eureka, CA

This small seaport spent a decade restoring its waterfront with a newly completed 6-mile pedestrian trail. Adding to the charm are grand 19th-century homes, proximity to redwoods, and more artists per capita than anywhere else in the state.

  • Population: 27,226
  • Median home price: $252,500
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3 / 20

Truckee, CA

As gateway to Tahoe’s north shore, Truckee needs no introduction to skiers, hikers, bikers, or paddlers. But with maker spaces offering workshops in textiles, weaving, and painting, it’s also gaining some cultural cred.

  • Population: 16,391
  • Median home price: $510,800
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4 / 20

Fresno, CA

California’s most affordable big city has spent millions refurbishing one of its iconic thoroughfares, Fulton Street, and once the nation’s first bullet train links it to Silicon Valley via high-speed rail, watch out.

  • Population: 522,000
  • Median home price: $197,100
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5 / 20

Carlsbad, CA: A Seaside Silicon Village

If towns were people, Carlsbad would be that friend you want to hate but can’t help admiring: smart, sporty, really good-looking, and ambitious. It’s why Google called this small city, stretching along nearly 7 miles of sandy coastline between Los Angeles and San Diego, a “digital capital of California.” When personal technology blew up in the early ’80s, the idyllic beach location and perfect weather attracted high-tech start-ups that one by one planted themselves here: for instance Viasat, whose satellite provides Wi-Fi on Jet Blue and Air Force One; and, more recently, biotech companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific and Genoptix.

In the past few years, this technology hub has upped its game to embrace both its inner geek and its outdoor enthusiast. An office complex near the water, called Make, houses tenants like GoPro and Verve and has incorporated shipping containers into an indoor-outdoor working space that includes a fitness center, food trucks on Tuesdays, firepits, surfboard racks, and outdoor showers (for, you know, your lunchtime surf break). This spring, Bloc will debut a big, bright coworking space with custom desks, coffee on tap, and local art in the heart of Carlsbad Village, the six-by-ten-block commercial center. No wonder more than 650 patents were issued here in 2016. Call it the Golden Tan Rush circa 2018.

By the Numbers

  • Population: 113,952
  • Median home price: $745,800
  • Unemployment rate: 4.3%
  • IT companies: 261
  • Parks: 31
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6 / 20

Culver City, CA

The 2012 arrival of Metro’s Expo Rail line connecting to DTLA, and later to Santa Monica, elevated this suburb to an accessible art and dining destination. Projects popping up along the rail line include Ivy Station: a complex of apartments, shops, and restaurants.

  • Population: 39,364
  • Median home price: $881,200
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7 / 20

Oxnard, CA

This coastal community south of Ventura has easy access to the Santa Monica Mountains and Channel Islands. Its Latino majority infuses the bustling downtown with authentic eateries and annual festivals around strawberries, tamales, and salsa.

  • Population: 207,906
  • Median home price: $437,500
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8 / 20

Palm Springs, CA

Palm-lined streets, James Beard Award–winning restaurants, and mid-century architecture are drawing more than weekenders and snowbirds to Palm Springs. Downtown revitalization is under way, as are modern housing communities for the next generation.

  • Population: 47,689
  • Median home price: $320,800
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9 / 20

Salida, CO: Big City Ideas in a Rural Playground

Picture a hamlet tucked high in the Rocky Mountains on the banks of the Arkansas River, about three hours southwest of Denver. Art galleries line the streets. The mayor uses local juniper berries for his distillery’s gin. And every year, athletes from all over gather for the nation’s oldest whitewater river festival (FIBArk). Think Northern Exposure, but farther south. That’s Salida, a one zip-code town that was nearly abandoned back when molybdenum mining dried up—that is, until people realized they could buy a Victorian for a steal, and artists could spend their time creating instead of working an office job.

In 2012, Salida was one of the first towns to become a designated Colorado Certified Creative District, a grant that helped lure even more residents and investment. The reopening of a mine about an hour away further helped the economy in 2012, though by then Salida was already on many an art- and nature-lover’s map for its kayaking, hiking, and mountain biking. When Mumford & Sons came through in 2015 on their localist Gentlemen of the Road Stopover Festivals tour, even more Coloradans (and YouTube watchers) were introduced to Salida’s charms. And in 2017, Salida chucked a bit of its down-home funkiness for a more futuristic project—a new tiny-home development called River View at Cleora, which is slated for 200 tiny homes on or near the river. Are you there yet? Why not?

By the Numbers

  • Population: 5,581
  • Median home price: $322,800
  • Unemployment rate: 3%
  • Galleries: 25
  • Robberies since 2001: 5
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10 / 20

Missoula, MT

The cargo-clad wax poetic about the single-track trails and paddling waters, but Missoula’s also got a geeky side: The new Big Sky Code Academy offers soft­ware development boot camps, and the city ranked ninth in the nation for start-up activity in 2017.

  • Population: 72,364
  • Median home price: $232,700
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11 / 20

Cochrane, AB, Canada

Twenty-five miles northwest of Calgary—on the way to outdoor meccas Canmore and Banff—Cochrane is home to about half a dozen sizeable tech companies (including Garmin) and is ambitiously re­cruiting more. A fitting welcome sign declares, HOW THE WEST IS NOW.

  • Population: 26,320
  • Median home price: $372,566 U.S.
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12 / 20

Reno, NV

The Biggest Little City in the World’s main attraction? The Truckee River—backdrop to the booming Riverwalk District, a world-class kayak park, and free art festivals.

  • Population: 245,255
  • Median home price: $300,500
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13 / 20

Tacoma, WA: From Major Port to Maker Central

How many times have you flown into Sea-Tac and given serious thought to the Tac part of the equation? Like most cities outside a trendy metropolis, Tacoma was long overshadowed by its larger, and yes, pricier, sister 34 miles to the north. But recently, the former shipping and manufacturing powerhouse has seen an influx of creative Left Coasters making new use of once-defunct warehouses—and enjoying the port’s down-to-earth allure. It doesn’t hurt, either, that you can see Mt. Rainier from basically anywhere here.

The revitalization is years in the making: Since the early 2000s, the city government has repurposed historic buildings, built a University of Washington campus, erected the state’s first modern electric light rail, and renovated the waterfront and added six major museums in and around the downtown core. The new wave of makers who have arrived helped land the designation of an Etsy Maker City in 2016. And in 2017, the city launched a Made in Tacoma initiative to support artisans. Meanwhile, incubators offer classes and equipment for metal-smithing, woodworking, and 3-D printing. Though roasteries and vegan restaurants are popping up to serve the fresh blood, housing ­remains startlingly affordable, and the city’s marinas, houses, and storefronts still feel more blue-collar than precious. All this, plus the Northwest’s trails, beaches, and parks, equals a city on the verge of something great.

By the Numbers

  • Population: 211,277
  • Median home price: $270,000
  • Unemployment rate: 4.8%
  • Rainy days per year: 96
  • Miles of shoreline: 46
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14 / 20

Corvallis, OR

The influence of Oregon State University spills over into this college town, where bike-friendly streets, farm-to-table restaurants, and LEED-certified buildings abound. Coming soon: OSU’s new $60 million arts and education complex.

  • Population: 58,240
  • Median home price: $399,000
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15 / 20

Spokane, WA

Washington’s second largest city is rebounding, with a new medical school, the planned mixed-use community of Kendall Yards, and a city program looking to incorporate air-quality sensors, solar panels, and smart metering into urban planning.

  • Population: 215,973
  • Median home price: $205,700
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16 / 20

Sisters, OR

This outpost in view of the 10,000-foot Three Sisters peaks has a rough and rowdy western vibe, as evidenced by its high school, where kids study aviation, guitar-making, and firefighting. Population: 2,573 Median home price: $426,000

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17 / 20

Albuquerque, NM: An Enchanting Downtown Revival

ABQ, as it’s often called, doesn’t like to brag, so you might only know it as the high-desert setting of Breaking Bad. But get it talking, and soon it’ll come out that Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft here in 1975, and that the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories calls it home. And later in 2018, in Los Lunas, Facebook is set to open a huge data center that will bring with it more jobs.

With all that tech comes some tasty accoutrements that are helping reinvigorate Central Avenue’s downtown core, once a shabby stretch of boarded-up warehouses and tagged railroad cars. Add to that the city’s investment in new public transportation lines and jeuging up of Civic Plaza, and the 12-block corridor of today has become a place where locals gather all days of the week. Coffee roasters, restaurants, and food trucks are launching to keep up, many of them focused on local, organic produce, especially New Mexico’s beloved green chile. Yet beneath these changes lies Albuquerque’s south-of-the-border roots: the historic Old Town, the Rio Grande, the majority Hispanic population’s rich culture, and the fact that 23 percent of residents are bilingual. Considering the strong public-art program, miles of hiking trails, and 310 annual days of sunshine, it’s no wonder the locals don’t boast. They’re too busy living.

By the Numbers

  • Population: 562,572
  • Median home price: $185,300
  • Unemployment rate: 5.6%
  • Breweries: more than 40
  • Hiking trails in Sandia Mountains: 60
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18 / 20

Flagstaff, AZ

This 7,000-foot-high suburb 80 miles south of the Grand Canyon is a designated Dark Sky City that restricts outdoor lighting to preserve stargazing. Situated on historic Route 66, it also features a walkable downtown and a forest escape from the heat.

  • Population: 71,459
  • Median home price: $350,000
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19 / 20

Taos, NM

This artists’ colony has galleries, live music, and film fests, plus a new environmental ­focus. A biosphere community offers completely sustainable homes (little to no utility bills), while the local ski resort was the first in the world to qualify as a B-Corp.

  • Population: 5,763
  • Median home price: $347,000
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20 / 20

Tempe, AZ

Downtown is a hub of restaurants, shops, and events, and the city is also home to Arizona State University. Transportation to Phoenix is a breeze with a light rail, and the city recently ranked among the nation’s healthiest.

  • Population: 182,498
  • Median home price: $203,000
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