What's a good base for exploring the American West?
August 29, 2017 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I've lived in the Northest/Mid-Atlantic US my whole life; lately I've been toying with the idea of temporarily moving somewhere out west so as to facilitate exploring more of it. What city/town/region would be a good base for such an adventure? In my fantasy we spend about six months based in a cool city out west and take lots of weekend trips and several one-to-two week roadtrips, but I'd also like to be someplace with cool stuff to see/do every day, and walkability/bikeability would be a big plus.

Additional criteria:

- Doesn't have to be super-cheap but should be no more expensive than the Boston area (where we live now)
- Rental costs are more important than homebuying costs since we wouldn't be staying long
- Within a day or two drive of lots of cool stuff
- Weather is not super-important since it's temporary and we could work around unpleasant times of year
- Job market is not particularly important (would probably be working remote)
- Access to an airport with direct flights to Boston would be a plus
- Not really interested in a pure mountain/beach vacation town - some amount of "culture" and civic life is strongly preferred
- Would prefer someplace where people don't routinely ask "Where do you go to church?"
- We can't live in Canada (I think?) but the dream road trips could include the Canadian Rockies & Pacific coast.

Just looking at the map, Salt Lake City seems like it would be a good choice (and I've heard good things about it), but what else do you suggest? Boise? Albuquerque? Someplace actually on the coast? Anywhere from Denver west is probably an option - we're still 100% in pie-in-the-sky country here.
posted by mskyle to Travel & Transportation around United States (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Why not Denver? We just moved from there and there were tons of easy day trips. You can easily get over the mountains, to Taos or Albuquerque, or north to thr Dakotas. Then it has your urban, bikeable, walkable, deal.
posted by stormygrey at 2:50 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Denver is a possibility for sure!
posted by mskyle at 2:53 PM on August 29, 2017

It depends a lot on which six months it would be and what types of activities you want to do. If you'll be there in the winter and want to ski, the answers are a lot different than they would be if you'll be there in the winter but don't enjoy being out in the snow, or if it will be spring and summer.

Seattle or Portland (or smaller nearby cities) seem like good choices. Not cheap, but cheaper than Boston. Close to both beach and mountains, and not a long drive to the drier eastern parts of Washington and Oregon, which have their own charms. Convenient if you want to visit Canada. Culture and airport access no problem.

I personally would probably pick Bozeman, Montana. Not as much going on culture-wise, but great for getting outdoors into some really wild and beautiful places. And no horrible traffic to deal with.

If you're going to be there in the summer, I wouldn't pick Albuquerque or anyplace too far south. On the other hand, if you're going to be there in the winter and prefer your outdoor activities to be snowless, Arizona or New Mexico might be good choices. (I still don't think I'd pick Albuquerque, though.)
posted by Redstart at 3:05 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Portland is great. Walkable, bikeable, good public transit, great restaurants, plenty to do, easy access to great hiking (waterfalls along the Columbia Gorge, the coast, etc), easy access to the airport, and definitely not the type of place where anyone is likely to ever ask you where you go to church.
posted by pinochiette at 3:52 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

SLC was the first option I thought of as well. It is Mormon country, though--but Salt Lake City proper is generally far less of an LDS concentration than other parts of the state. It's within easy striking distance of basically everything in southern Utah, northern Montana, Colorado, Nevada, western CA.

Other options--Las Vegas (particularly if you're planning your 6 months for non-summer months--again the easy access to various interesting sites, good flight connections, and definitely no particular religious bent), Grand Junction (no direct flights, though), and and interesting possibility if you like to try a bit smaller town is Missoula, Montana (perhaps no direct flights again, however).
posted by flug at 3:59 PM on August 29, 2017

I know you have a plan but I've been planning a trip out there ... it's BIG. In my travel fantasy I would live a couple months in 3 different places or one month in 6 different places. It's just a lot of awesome ground to cover.
posted by beccaj at 4:02 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Definitely Boise as a home base. It's not extremely cheap but it's more reasonable than Portland or Seattle. It's very outdoorsy. It has a university and some culture. Being the largest city for miles around, that's where you'll find the concerts and lectures and theater.

But perhaps the largest draw is all of the places you can drive to in less than a day. Boise is central. The west coast is not (though I live there and love it). Coming from Boston, you're probably used to shorter drives, but out west, a day's drive to get somewhere new is pretty good. Where can you go from Boise in one day?

Las Vegas
The Oregon Coast
The natural wonders of Utah
Sun Valley
Missoula (a fun college town!)
The Palouse
posted by Knowyournuts at 4:04 PM on August 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

Yes, I was coming in to suggest Boise, too. Very bikeable, affordable, great hiking, good food, home to BSU and a good amount of culture, fairly diverse, cheap flights to Vegas and Mexico (not sure about the East Coast), easy drives to other awesome places, and decent weather. We'd move there in a heartbeat if my job were more mobile.
posted by stellaluna at 4:20 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

ABQ: I've only passed through a few times, spent a few nights at a time there, but that city seems rather under-rated to me, and it would be very high on my list for seeking a southwest city to live in for a few years. Great climate, great food, good city layout, seems to be a great bus system, a very good university, etc. Very nice hiking and natural western beauty, very close by.

NM is also maybe on the more progressive side of politics in recent decades, and I suspect is a bit more affordable than many of the suggestions above. It's already on your list, but I vote you check it out more and maybe visit more if you can.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:39 PM on August 29, 2017

I don't know how much of the west you want to explore, but I think San Francisco > Portland > Seattle > Vancouver or the reverse would be a nice itinerary of the Pacific Northwest. If you need a base to travel from, Seattle being in between Portland and Vancouver would make it a good option. Also, Seattle is a major city with plenty of trains and planes to other cities. San Francisco is further from them (about 8 hours from Portland by car, I believe), but not to be missed if you've never been.

I think you should make a map of places you want to visit and then determine what makes the most sense. But without knowing what you are expecting out of this trip, it's hard to say where you should focus. I would suggest maybe doing two or three legs and having different bases for the parts of the west you want to explore. The west coast is much more spread out than the east coast, so this is not as easy.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:48 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Logically, SLC is probably the best choice. It's centrally located, and it's a Delta hub, so there are flights everywhere. Seems pretty cool, too.

I really liked Albuquerque, and I'd like to spend more time there. Travel would be slightly more difficult, though.

You should probably check out Fort Collins, Colorado too. It's a university town near Rocky Mountain National Park, and it's the town that Main Street USA in Disney World is based on.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:58 PM on August 29, 2017

Why pick a single home base? If you're working remotely, you could do monthly/weekly rentals and explore several different regions. Otherwise you're just throwing away rent on an empty place while you travel.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:04 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Grand Junction CO or Flagstaff AZ are also good suggestions. I live in GJ, and moved here for the reasons you stated (except for the direct flights).

Within 6 hours drive :
East - Denver, Vail, Breckinridge, Great Sand Dunes, RMNP, Leadville, Buena Vista, Crested Butte, etc.
North - SLC, DinosaurNP, Yellowstone and Tetons.
West - Vegas, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Zion, GSENM, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands
South - ABQ, Durango, Ouray/Telluride, Weniminuche Wilderness, San Juans, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon

I love that I don't have to fight traffic to get out of town or get back in. I can be at 11,000 feet grilling brats and having beers in ~45 minutes (try that from Denver or SLC). I can be soaking in hot springs in Ouray or Glenwood in an hour and change. I love that if I get up early, I can have lunch while sitting on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Everything in the SW is within easy reach. The weather here is splendid - 300+ days of sunshine, but with the mountains close by, you can find rain/snow if you want it. It's truly a multi-sport area*.

* I have several friends that particpated in the making of that video. It was shot entirely in one day.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:21 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've been living in Salt Lake for 20 years. I moved here to go to college and to ski and I never left, precisely because it's a great base for exploring the west. I'm heading out on a week long rafting trip in Idaho in a couple days. There are 11 ski resorts within an hour of my house in downtown SLC. You will have to get used to dominant mormon culture that surrounds Salt Lake, but, here in town things are pretty progressive. Great food, biking, drinking, and events in the city. And you can get the heck out of the city whenever you want. Within two hours you can be in the desert or camping in the mountains. And it's relatively affordable to live here too. Denver is a real nice town, but, it takes like 3 hours to get to the ski hill. That's a deal breaker for me.
posted by trbrts at 5:45 AM on August 30, 2017

Denver's a good idea becuase it's an airport hub with cheap flights to every part of the country, as well as central locations for driving both Southwest and Northwest, and great scenery just for daytrips.
posted by Miko at 7:23 AM on August 30, 2017

Let me sell you on New Mexico ;)

Albuquerque is a big-little city, in that the metro area has around 900,000 people, but traffic isn't an issue beyond peak AM and PM commute times, and even then, it's no Denver (sorry, Denver). You'll find alternate routes pretty quickly to avoid the temporarily congested interstates, or just be patient and get to your destination later than you would if you traveled early morning or in the middle of the day. In fact, if congestion is a concern of yours anywhere, you can always try some random route planning with Google Maps and put in different departure or arrival times and see how your travel time changes.

As a big-little city, it has good museums, a nice bio-park (associated aquarium, botanic gardens with bug-arium, and a zoo, connected by a cute little train), a historic downtown where you can find the American International Rattlesnake Museum, which feels more like a glorified roadside zoo than an international museum. There are plenty of seasonal festivals, including the annual mega-event that is Balloon Fiesta. If you're anywhere in or even near Albuquerque, you can see the balloons, which is fun.

Head up the road about an hour and you hit Santa Fe, where you can attend the annual burning of Old Man Gloom, Zozobra, the Santa Fe Indian Market, and visit a ton of museums.

As for road trips, there are a ton of state and national parks and monuments, historic sites and ruins, as well as Pueblo feast days around the year, when the public is invited to see traditional celebrations and ceremonies. And if you want to find good food, Gil Garduño has you covered for the entire state.

The weather in Albuquerque is pretty idea (IMHO), too. Winters are mild, with dustings of snow generally lasting less than a day, but you may want to invest in a snow shovel, just in case. Summers are hot, but not Phoenix hot -- 90s are more common than 100s. But if you want more winter (or cooler summers), they're just a short drive away. The Enchanted Circle in northern NM is ideal, but you can even ski and snowboard on Sandia Peak, though its season is much shorter than mountains to the north.

Home and rental prices are low, especially compared to other major metro areas. And if New Mexico doesn't have enough for you, it's pretty central:
- 4 hours to the Four Corners
- Less than 5 hours to Flagstaff, AZ
- 6 hours drive to the Grand Canyon
- 6.5 hours to Denver
- Under 7 hours to Phoenix
- 8.5 hours to Las Vegas, NV*
- Under 11 hours to drive to Austin

The one downside: not as many direct flights from the ABQ Sunport as other big Western cities.

* The other Las Vegas is in New Mexico, and it's charming.

I could go on, but instead I'll just link to the NewMexico tag on MetaFilter.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:46 AM on August 30, 2017

I live in Denver, but I would only recommend it if the "city" vibe is important to you. Flights are easy, as mentioned above, but if you're staying for six months that shouldn't be a major concern. The biggest problem with Denver is that it's not in the mountains; it's in front of them. So you're not going out your back door to go hiking or mountain biking or whatever else, you're driving there. And you have to deal with city rush hour traffic during the week, and on the weekends the entire city feels like it packs up and heads up I-70 to the mountains. The drive from Summit County (skiing) to Denver is about an hour and 20 minutes with no traffic; that same drive can take 4-6 hours during a midwinter storm.

I like the Grand Junction recommendation above; there's still some small town life to be had there.

Since you're in the pie-in-the-sky phase, I would also consider 3-4 short term rentals, or picking up an RV and going that route. Especially if you're setup for "dry" camping (no hookups), the mountain west has a ton of forest service and BLM land that can be both beautiful and uncrowded.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:08 AM on August 30, 2017

Take lots of weekend trips and several one-to-two week roadtrips

This is your limiting factor, so I would pick location based on what I really want to see.

Just looking at the map, Salt Lake City seems like it would be a good choice (and I've heard good things about it), but what else do you suggest?

SLC is fine by all accounts, and inexpensive. But your weekend trips from here are likely to be in the desert Southwest. It's a beautiful, amazing area and I would highly recommend it. You could fill dozens and dozens of weekends in the area and never hike the same trail twice. But you're not going to get to the coast on a weekend without getting on a plane.

I'd look at it this way (and this is more or less off the top of my head, so definitely incomplete):
City | Weekend Trips | Road Trips
* Portland | Rainier NP, Olympic NP, Oregon Coast, Seattle, Vancouver, Columbia River Gorge, Crater Lake NP and Lassen NP, Northern California Coast | Banff NP and Canadian Rockies, Glacier NP, Northern California (Bay Area, Napa, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe)
* Denver | Rocky Mountain NP, Pikes Peak, lots of camping, skiing/snowboarding, Vail, | Desert Southwest NPs (Moab, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase Escalanate, etc.), Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly, Grand Canyon, New Mexico, Yellowstone NP
* San Francisco (or Sacramento) | Monterey and Big Sur, Yosemite, Napa, Seqouia/Kings Canyon, LA, Mendocino Coast, Lake Tahoe | Grand Canyon, Desert Southwest, Pacific Northwest, LA, Death Valley

And so on. I'm from Northern California, so I'm most familiar with that area. There are a huge number of weekend trips available from Northern California, and lots of longer road trips as well. But the Canadian Rockies are really too far for a road trip. I might focus on Portland/Seattle/Vancouver if that's your primary goal.

One more tip - if you're going to live in the Bay Area, live in or very near SF, Oakland or Berkeley. These are likely to violate your cost criteria pretty seriously. However, I would recommend against living in a far out Bay Area suburb, unless you really see yourself driving into the three cities above a lot. You're better off culturally in Sacramento's central city than say, Concord or Cupertino, and you'll pay a lot less.
posted by cnc at 9:17 AM on August 30, 2017

I live in Albuquerque and no one here has EVER asked me where I go to church. It's so far out of my experience I'm not sure if you are literally saying you'd prefer not to be somewhere people ask that or if it's alluding to something else.

My impression of Albuquerque is that there are enough different cultures and beliefs that anything different is more of "ah, yet another thing that's different than how I do it, this is normal" than "panic!"

filthy light theif has covered Albuquerque pretty well, but I'd add that if you are looking to use public transit in the Central Avenue Corridor (and that's probably where you'd want to live if you want to use the transit system frequently), you might want to visit after the ART transit project is finished. I think it's supposed to be done pretty soon.

Albuquerque has a wide variety of neighborhoods to explore, and it's also easy to get out of the city entirely for hiking, or hit the trails in town by the river or mountains for a quick nature walk or to watch the sunset. There are really nice sunsets.

There's a huge bike trail system following the storm drainages throughout town, and along the river and foothills. You can ride across town almost entirely away from streets if you wanted to. Lots of bicyclists on city streets as well, depending on the neighborhood. Heaps of mountain biking nearby, some accessible by bus, or you can be in the mountains from downtown in less than half an hour.

I've had some relatives who are pretty familiar with east coast and west coast cities and have done a lot of international travel ask me a number of questions when they came to visit about things they found to be pretty unusual and surprising about Albuquerque, so you'll find things here that are different than other places.

Expect to take some time to adjust to the elevation and don't plan a huge bike ride your first few days.
posted by yohko at 11:26 PM on August 30, 2017

Thanks for all the suggestions! Still very much a "someday" kind of idea for us buy you've given me lots to think about.
posted by mskyle at 10:07 AM on October 2, 2017

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