Best of the West: Best Towns West of Denver

1. Red Lodge, Montana. Red Lodge is a little town at the foot of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. It’s about an hour outside of Billings. The town is small, with a population of 2,200, and so charming. It’s Main Street is a throwback, but at the same time has loads of little adorable stores and restaurants. Red Lodge also has one of my favorite restaurants of our travels- Mas Taco. I could literally eat it every lday. It’s so delicious and addicting. What I like most about Red Lodge is that it hasn’t gotten too commercialized and elitist. Many of the towns we visited are incredibly expensive and prohibitive for regular people to live there. You can still buy a house in Red Lodge for a reasonable amount, and the groceries, food, and gas are all fairly priced (for being out in the middle of nowhere like it is). We are always able to rent affordable houses (via vrbo) right off the Main Street, so we can walk everywhere, which is my favorite! The people in Red Lodge are also amazingly friendly. We loved walking up and down Main Street with our dogs and stopping and chatting to people or letting them pet the dogs. Of course, the wilderness surrounding the town is some of my favorite in the whole country. Much for the same reason I love the town, it’s still not widely known about and there are some of the most beautiful trails and scenery around- including the most scenic drive in America, the Beartooth Highway. The ski area for Red Lodge is not very big or nice, which is a reason it hasn’t grown overly much. I only hope Red Lodge stays like it is and doesn’t expand and become unaffordable like so many other tourist towns. For now, I’m glad I’ve gotten to go there multiple times and experience its charms.

2. Crested Butte, Colorado. Well, talk about elitist towns. Crested Butte is a actually smaller in population than Red Lodge, which surprised me (population 1600). It is a very expensive town, with houses starting at at 400,000 for a 1 bed, 1 bath. Because of all the big money in town, it is really nice. Main Street is beautiful. It’s painted bright colors and absolutely adorable. It also has a lot of amenities like a huge new recreation and arts center and fancy schools. We stayed in a very charming small cabin right off the main drag, and again the walkability is amazing. It even has multiple trailheads right in the town, which is a huge bonus that we took advantage of. Now, everything is very expensive here, and it does not have a nice grocery store (which I found surprising, they need to build one!). The wilderness around Crested Butte was hands down the most beautiful that we encountered anywhere. The mountains, valleys, wildflowers are all stunning. They are also easily accessible, within a half hour of town. It’s also very close to the famed Maroon Bells- we will be back to visit that area, as it was inaccessible due to an avalanche this year. The ski resort is right outside town, and there are a lot of condos there. There is currently a bit of a battle going on with the city council to build affordable housing so the people who work at the ski resort and restaurants and shops can have somewhere to live. Fave restaurant there so far: Bonez. This town should definitely be on your bucket list, check out my upcoming hiking lists for the best hikes!

3. Moab, Utah. Just a few short years ago, Moab would have been at the top of this list. It is such a funky, weird, cool little town in the desert. This year we’ve gone there twice, and what we’ve noticed is that it has changed enormously in the 2 years since we were last there. It’s a bigger town, population 5,200, but I cannot believe how much it has expanded. Everywhere you look there is a new hotel or condo development. I have never see anywhere in the country grow this quickly. To be honest, it kind of sucks. I loved when Moab was a sleepy little town with hippie vibes- now it’s just so crowded and getting more and more expensive. I think the way to have the best experience in Moab is to go in the winter when it won’t be crowded, that will give you the feel for how it used to be. Of course Moab has the national parks, and one of our utmost favorite parks- Deadhorse, but it also has the La Sal mountains. These mountains are just 30 minutes outside town and rarely frequented by tourists, so we found the solitude we wanted there. There’s also a lot of BLM land that’s less crowded than the parks, which is good for us and the dogs. Strangely, I don’t have a must have favorite restaurant here- there are a lot of good places but I haven’t found one I’m obsessed with. Do get the Quesadilla Mobilla, it’s a cool food truck. Moab also doesn’t have a lot of single family houses for rent in the downtown area, so we usually stay a few minutes outside of town. That is fine, and we have a beautiful house we stay in there, but I miss the walkability of being off Main Street. There’s just something about Moab though, every time I drive in and see the river, canyons, and red rocks, my heart feels immediately happy and full.

4. Sedona, Arizona. Somehow the first time I went to Sedona was this year. I had heard a lot of good things about it, but it was always further south than easily fit into our travel routes. Verdict: I freaking love it. Yes, it’s expensive and very touristy, and bigger- population 10,300. But my goodness, the red rocks. The red rocks are mesmerizingly beautiful. Just like Moab, they hypnotize you with their immense beauty. We stayed at a very funky little cabin off the canyon road, and were in a little secluded Narnia land which included free roaming peacocks. I mean, what’s not to love. Sedona is somewhere we are going to need to go back to in the off season and spend at least a week there. It has a plethora of amazing restaurants, shops, and hilarious hippy crystal and vortex establishments (fave restaurant so far: 89 Agave Cantina).

5. Bend, Oregon. Oh, Bend. I went to Bend to interview for a job at a family medicine clinic, and immediately fell in love. It was winter and it was freezing rain the entire time I was there- and it didn’t dampen the trip one bit. Bend’s downtown is super cute and, being in Oregon, very hipstery. Yes, again, it’s super expensive, population 97,000, but it does not feel that big! It has a very small town feel. Bend also has Mt. Bachelor which is a huge, huge ski area, and where we plan to do a good amount of skiing this winter. And it is right on the Deschutes River, by Three Sisters Wilderness, and an hour from the very cool Smith Rock state park. I just love the vibe of Bend, and look forward to spending more time there since it’s a pretty short drive for us now!

6. Mammoth Lakes, California. An isolated town in the Eastern Sierras- the most beautiful, rugged wilderness in the lower 48, population 5,200. How many books have been written about the Sierras, Yosemite, and the Muir Wilderness? The dream is to one day hike the John Muir trail, but for now Mammoth has countless trails for all levels of fitness just 5 minutes from town. Also a huge ski area, which was open till Mid-August (!!!) this year thanks to the huge snowpack. It doesn’t have a concentrated Main Street area, it’s more spread out, so it’s not as charming as other towns.

7. Winter Park, Colorado. My brother lives just up the road from here, in Fraser. Winter Park is another typical ski town, but it has its charm. It’s main strip is very hopping and has great restaurants and bars (Volario’s for the win). Population is 30,800, but it feels smaller. It has a cool outdoor venue for music, and they get some pretty good acts for being so small. Really I just consider Winter Park and Fraser to be one town, they just flow into one another. Winter Park’s skiing is awesome, with some incredible views from the top of the mountain. There’s also a lot of hiking, and it’s very close to RMNP, which is nice. It’s starting to get more and more crowded as Denver people come up, so that’s a bummer! Best bartender and margaritas at the Ditch!!

8. Tahoe City, California. I specifically like the north side of Tahoe, on the California side because it’s less crowded and it doesn’t have all the awful casinos. It’s a small town population 1,557, but it has a cute downtown that’s very walkable if you stay close to it. It’s also very close to some of the major ski resorts, which is a huge plus.

9. Ashland, Oregon. This one’s just 20 minutes from our new home! I had never heard of Ashland (or Medford) until I found a posting for a job at the regional hospital. Ashland is home to a huge Shakespeare festival, and so it is brimming with culture and arts. It’s Main Street is lovely, and Lithia Park, besides not allowing dogs, is incredible. There are also a bunch of trails starting from the city, and it has a ski resort as well. It’s small- and right now is probably above my current skills, but I’ll get to those black diamonds with time. It has a university as well, so it has that college town feel. I think I’m really going to love this town, and getting to know it more.

10. Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This one was tough. The downtown area is super cool, charming, and has lots of neat stuff. It is also extremely touristy and the most expensive place we visited. Like so expensive we couldn’t afford to stay there and had to stay over the pass in Idaho. It has two ski areas, loads to do, including a ton of art galleries. We saw a celebrity here (Scott Conant from Chopped) and it is known as a celeb hot spot. It is just too big and has too much traffic for me to feel totally at home there, but surely worth a good visit!

11. Kanab, Utah. This is a town that reminds me of how Moab used to be. Small, quiet, kinda funky. It had the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary right outside town, and they do amazing work. Close to Grand Canyon and Zion, so it’s a good jumping off point.

12. Ouray, Colorado. “The Switzerland of America” is a charming small town in a beautiful mountain valley. It has a ton of trails starting just from Main Street. That said- Main Street is lacking really good restaurants and just didn’t have that special something. And there are way too may RV parks all around, packed like tin cans! More beautiful from a distance than up close.

13. Florence, Oregon. We only stopped here for a night but it’s historic downtown on the waterfront was so charming. Reminded me of Wilmington, NC back east. Worth a stop if you are in the area.

4 Comments

  1. Stacey Goecke says:

    Thank you for posting this as I love to travel, hike, and explore! Loved seeing all your great pics along the way. Good luck in the next chapter of your career. Can’t wait to hear more adventures!

    Like

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