Travel Advice

10 Best Cities to Live for Outdoor Lovers – Vanlife Bases

November 20, 2020

There are a lot of articles out there about this subject. I’ve often felt the wanderlust and wanted to relocate somewhere new for a new adventure. The internet is full of articles detailing “the best” cities for outdoor focused people, all mostly based on statistics (obesity rate, job market, weather averages, etc.), but what I see most of these missing the mark on is the “boots on the ground approach.” It is clear most of these articles are written using internet research by a content writer tucked away in an office.

All 10 cities I list here, I’ve been to – multiple times, at different times of the year, and for different purposes each time.

This list is true OPINION. I will relay what I felt and experienced while in town.

#10

St. George, Utah

Views like this are common in nearby Zion

Set amongst brilliant red rocks that can nearly blind you in the brightness of the blue skies, St. George is a small city directly off I-15. Zion National Park is only a short drive away, as is the glitz of Las Vegas.

Climbers and mountain bikers as well as endurance trail runners will find the geography and climate ripe for adventuring. If you’ve ever driven I-15 and paid close attention to elevation, you’ll notice St. George sits much lower (2700 ft.) than neighboring Cedar City only 45 minutes away (5800 ft.). That is because at this point in the country the Colorado plateau drops off and the lower, hotter desert expands westward towards Las Vegas.

St. George can be hot in summer, well over 100 degrees every day for several months, but a quick escape can be had to higher elevations in Cedar City, Brian Head, Bryce Canyon, and the Cedar Breaks Monument–which has hikes in red rock country above 10,000 feet.

Cedar Breaks National Monument

In-town within St. George, parks like Pioneer Park offer miles of opportunity to explore the local red rocks. Camping and more remote hiking can be had north of I-15 out toward Leeds.

St. George offers a lot if you love desert and don’t mind the heat in summer.

#9

Missoula, Montana

Glacier National Park is short day trip from Missoula

Missoula is Montana’s largest town in the western part of the state–the Rocky Mountain splendor part of the state! Just a couple hours drive from Glacier National Park, you’ll find everything you need in this college town.

Missoula has REI, Natural Grocers, and Target – so you won’t be hurting for amenities to support your active life. There are numerous independent food places–from burgers to breweries in all corners of town.

Trails in town include everything from hikes that go for miles over rolling hills and valleys and local summits like Mt. Jumbo. Biking is also a breeze through the city–the fail foliage is gorgeous on the small town streets.

Missoula’s local trails extend for miles
Doing some yoga and stretching near a bike path in Missoula

#8

Salt Lake City, Utah

Fall foliage in the Timpanogos Wilderness

Big cities with skyscrapers don’t usually elicit the thought of an adventure town, but Salt Lake is really slow for a big city. It doesn’t have that extremely trafficked, congested, unending sprawl that so many major cities have. From the city center you can be up into the mountains in minutes.

Climb up Ensign Peak or do the “living room” hike up near U of U to see the city and how close the hiking really is to town.

The “Living Room” hike near University of Utah

The Wasatch range a is nearby favorite for hikers and trail runners. And if you are really up for a challenge, hike the 15 mile route up Mt. Timpanogos south of the city near Provo. Trail runners and skiers love being based here for the world class mountain experience in both summer and winter.

Just a short couple hour drive away is the outdoor haven of Moab. Not included on this list as a hotspot base because of the lack of amenities in Moab, but being based even within a couple hours of this mountain biking, hiking, and climbing mecca scores points for Salt Lake.

Moab sights

#7

San Luis Obispo, California

Mountains and ocean and desert all within a few hours of each other. That is southern California’s claim to fame in the outdoor world. Specifically cited as a reason to move to or stay in Los Angeles, but there are so many other wonderful places in SoCal that often get overlooked.

San Luis Obispo is a calm city, often called by its initials, SLO–and it is quite slow here in comparison with the rest of southern California’s bustle. The city is about 10 miles from the ocean community of Pismo Beach, a great local beach for surfing, shell gathering, and even for viewing an annual migration of Monarch butterflies.

Diversity of experiences is the variety of outdoor life here–and it is all much more subdued than other towns on this list. You can hike endless miles of rolling hills and snag summits like Cerro San Luis. Hike Bishop Peak and explore the Morros, nine summits that lead westward toward the coast at Morro Bay. You’ll rarely exceed 2,000 feet of elevation and can fill your lungs with fresh beach air daily!

Morro Bay offers that seaside town vibe, with many art galleries, independent food/dessert shops, and a great view of Morro Rock out at sea.

Los Angeles is about 3 hours away if you need anything from the big city. And don’t forget SLO is the home of Cal Poly, so there will be young college students out and about and the downtown is growing with more trendy restaurants and places to hang out after the sun goes down on a great day of adventuring.

#6

Flagstaff, Arizona

Buffalo Park in Flagstaff

Yet another college town! College towns seem to be the best compromise between nature and city life, a nice medium size and often tucked away in beautiful corners of the country that are amazing stomping grounds for young adventurers, entrepreneurs, and nomads as well.

Flagstaff is great for training–located at 6,900 feet above sea level. Running here will definitely get your lungs in shape. The air is crisp and clean, and winter temperatures can drop far below the rest of Arizona. Snow is common and Flagstaff is often rated in the top 5 snowiest cities in America. For winter enthusiasts the nearby AZ snowbowl will meet all your needs.

Aspen trees near the AZ Snowbowl

Summer recreation includes a lot of mountain biking. Even in town you will need a good bike in order to climb the steep hills that roll up and down through the spread of town, which if you look on the map is set up like a series of limbs. Near Northern Arizona University, you will find all your grocery needs a quick bike ride apart–Sprouts, Natural Grocers, and Target are all within one mile of each other.

Flagstaff is cool in that it is on the edge of the Colorado plateau, and you drop down severely in elevation with only a short 1-2 hour drive southward to places like Sedona and the Phoenix metro area. Escape winter easily by driving down to lower elevations to hike in winter. And relish the cooler summer temps at home while the rest of Arizona swelters.

#5

Mt. Shasta, California

Mt. Shasta in all its glory!

Mt. Shasta is small–like just over 3,000 population small. Another 3,000 live in neighboring Weed, CA. Yes, there is a town called Weed and the gas stations here sure take advantage and sell stickers that say “I heart Weed.”

The draw of Mt. Shasta is the view, the towering mystical mountain sits in view on every clear day, looming at 14,180 feet over the town at just 3,600 feet. The mountain is enormous compared to where one looks up at it from town. The road up to the Shasta access trails is a wonderful playground, excellent for road biking, sightseeing, and camping.

Snow play abounds at Bunny Flat, the terminus of the road up to Shasta in winter. In summer, camping is allowed all throughout the region, roadside and up past the flat and onward to the summit, all largely free. The mountain is home to meditators, yogis, mystical practitioners, and mountaineers and campers alike.

Camping at Bunny Flat in July – Spot the tent?

Mt. Shasta is a small town with few grocery options, and none of the standards except a giant Grocery Outlet location in Weed. But for California the home prices are very low, largely due to the local economy/job prospects. This would only be a good move for someone who is quite stable in working from home/making online income.

The Grocery Outlet in Weed, CA with views of Mt. Shasta

#4

Bellingham, Washington

Whatcom Falls, located in the city of Bellingham

Bellingham is the northernmost major town in Washington state before you hit the Canadian border. Driving along I-5 that is all it may seem. Often gloomy and covered in rain, but inhabited by quite a few millennials and outdoor lovers.

The secrets of why this is decent base are not far away. To the east lies highway 542, a dead end road that leads to the trails for magnificent Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan. Camping is abundant along the road and one quickly feels immersed in wild forest. It’s the trees that bring many to Washington.

Baker and Shuksan

Once you reach the higher peaks there is world class hiking on par with the Sierra Nevada. Taking a photo at Artist’s Point at the terminus of 542 truly looks like you are in a painting!

The Mt. Baker sojourn into the Cascades is only one such adventure a Bellingham local can take. Head south a bit and then take Highway 20 east for the classic Cascade experience including cerulean blue lakes, towering waterfalls by the dozens, craggy peaks, and the elusive yellow larch trees in autumn. This route is so long and has so many trails it could take decades to hike them all!

Highway 20 Sights

In town, Bellingham offers bay boardwalks over the water in Boulevard Park, coffee shops on the water like local chain Woods Coffee, and a rich bicycling culture. Since Bellingham is the northernmost U.S. Pacific coastal town, it is often the start of bicycle tours down the entre Pacific coast. I chose to begin my own first bicycling tour in Bellingham and the experience did not disappoint. Bike shops abound the local REI is usually chock-full of clearance items.

The start of my bicycle tour through Washington
Bellingham Sights

#3

Bend, Oregon

Bend, Oregon sits at the edge of a vast desert–not something that comes to mind when one thinks of Oregon. There is much less rain here than in the more populated I-5 corridor of Oregon (Portland, Salem, and Eugene). This is due to Bend being located east of the rainshadow of the Cascades to the west. The elevation is higher than I-5 Oregon cities as well at just over 3,600 feet, not as high as many towns on this list but high enough to get some training benefit.

There is a lot of BLM land around Bend, great for long mountain bike rides, dirt road drives, and free car camping. A VanLife mecca not just because of how much free land there is to spend the night, but largely because of nearby Smith Rock State Park–one of the most alluring climbing destinations in the U.S., and a large draw for nomadic people. VanLife and climbing seem to have a lot of crossover, and never is it more evident than in the parking lot of Smith Rock. If you want to see some amazing rigs, just sit in that lot all day and they will roll by one after another.

Smith Rock Views!

In town, Bend boasts some famous breweries like Deschutes and 10 Barrel. If beer and bikes and climbing is your thing, you’ll probably be beyond stoked in Bend.

A cool in-town adventure for fitness enthusiasts is to bike or climb to the top of Pilot Butte. You can get 360 views of the city from up here–and it is definitely a calf burner on the bike.

View of Bend from atop Pilot Butte

#2

Boulder, Colorado

Boulder Colorado’s Flatirons

I’m putting my home base choice as number 2? What?!!!

You’ll just have to stick around for number 1.

Boulder is an amazing all around place to live, work, and play. On all sides of town there are trails that stretch for miles into the mountains to the west and into the plains to the east. I’ve been here seven years and spent thousands of hours on the trails and still sometimes happen upon a stretch of trail I haven’t trodden.

The magnificent Flatirons, especially as viewed from Chautauqua Park is a must see for any visitor to Boulder. The network of trails leading up from here, though crowded and very steep, lead to some spectacular views from the 8,000 ft.+ peaks that overlook town such as Bear Peak and Green Mountain.

View of Boulder from Bear Peak

Biking, especially road biking, is huge in Boulder. If you are a fan of the spandex and Ironman competitions, this is the home base for you! And if you are a normal person like me who thinks they are fast on a bike in other cities, be prepared to be passed like you haven’t been in your life when biking around Boulder. The paths and bike lanes are one of the city’s top priorities and it’s possible to go on very long rides and largely be shielded from dangerous traffic conditions.

At just over a mile high in elevation, Boulder and all of Colorado’s Front Range provide a great training elevation. Olympians love to train here and in Colorado Springs.

What makes Boulder strong in the rankings of best places to live on most statistical lists is the job market. Heavy in tech and entrepreneurship, many wealthy people call the city home. And for your everyday workers, there are plenty of opportunities for entry level or blue collar work at a fair wage.

People are pretty chilled out in Boulder and the surrounding communities. Speed limits are obeyed more strictly on a whole than anywhere I’ve traveled, there is usually very polite behavior in all grocery stores, and people are generally considerate with little crime committed other than the occasional bike theft. That’s what keeps me here above all other factors.

Vans are to be found everywhere in Boulder. Whether it’s a 90s Vandura sleeping at the abandoned Walmart parking lot or a tricked out Sprinter in the driveway to an HOA home, there is a solid culture of travel that is largely respectful across all socio-economic statuses.

Vans of Boulder

#1

Sedona, Arizona

Devil’s Bridge in Sedona

Here it is! My number one place to live if you love the outdoors!!

Sedona is magical. There are few words to describe the kind of amazing outdoor experiences one can have here. Trails pop out of all corners of town and head into the surrounding red rock desert. The overall mood is passion for the natural world and a pursuit of creative practices.

Sedona is basically an artist colony surrounded by starkly beautiful red rock desert on all sides. Tourism is a major component to Sedona, but after just a few visits, it becomes simple to find the peace and solitude the area is known for.

Head toward Cottonwood on Highway 89A and begin to explore the network of awesome dirt roads that lead to so many impromptu hiking adventures. Out there is famous Robbers’ Roost, but the crowds don’t seem to find even that popular spot on Instagram. The network of roads is easily passable for most vehicles, and allows for that real “exploring” feeling even without high clearance 4×4.

Camp almost anywhere on the BLM land surrounding Sedona for free, 14 days at a time in a given area. Rigs of all shapes and sizes from RVs to vans to built out cars call these lands “home” for much of the year. It is a respectful crowd, not the drunk and disorderly kind that can often be found at large BLM grounds throughout the country.

Away from the crowds in Sedona

Sedona is a mystical place inhabited by artists, freethinkers, and retirees. Many people believe there are vortexes of power to be found within the canyons and red rocks. Meditating is easy here. Calmness pervades and there many temperate, windless days in shoulder seasons and winter where one can just lie on the rocks peacefully and absorb the warmth of the sun.

Summer is a bit hot (most days in the 90s), but that is about the only drawback I can see for Sedona as far as the outdoors. Jobs are mainly in tourism, and for the lucky few in the arts, but if you have a solid mobile/online income this could be an amazing base that would change your life!

Bell Rock in Sedona

So there it is! My top 10 cities to use as bases! Are you thinking of moving to one today? Let me know in the comments!

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply