The Most Affordable Mountain Town in the West

This article originally appeared on Outside

"Mountain town." The phrase sends people into a reverie, as they picture bustling main streets packed with bike shops and coffee houses. Young professionals skipping meetings for afternoon mountain-bike rides. The farmer's market, the yoga in the park....

Living in a mountain town is appealing, all right. We want quick access to outdoor adventures and breathtaking views from our kitchen windows. We want the brewery on the corner, the cafe where the barista has a good shot at making the Olympic team. We want the quality of life associated with living in a Boulder or a Park City or a Jackson, while most of us can't afford to live in the places that qualify. (Do you know the average price of a home in Jackson, Wyoming? It's $1.85 million, up 6 percent from 2022, according to Zillow.)

In recent years, everything from real estate to the cost of a latte has skyrocketed in America's mountain burgs. The pandemic didn't help matters, as every finance yupster realized they could make their commission as easily from Breckenridge as from Manhattan. Still, most of our favorite mountain towns have been expensive for three decades.

Laramie downtown
A friendly feel, access to outdoor activities … in this case a lot of them. (Photo: Nikki Smith/Pull Photography)

I lived in Boulder, Colorado, in the early 2000s and spent 88 percent of my adjunct-teacher's salary on rent. And I lived in somebody's basement, without even a window. But I could cross-country-ski and trail-run right out of my front door. Today I live in a different, slightly less expensive mountain town--Asheville, North Carolina. I still spend more of my salary than I should to live here, but my quality of life is worth more than the money in the bank.

Still, I wonder if there are any affordable mountain towns left to dream of living in. The answer is a solid yes, if you want to live in the southern Appalachians, or the Huron Mountains of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, or the Ouachitas of Arkansas. What about in the Western U.S.?

I've spent the past few weeks trying to answer that question, and I'm happy to report that if you are content with a home in a mountainous town with a gas station and post office, there are still plenty of cheap places to live in the West. But I was looking for a combination of adventure, culture, and affordability.

The first two are easy to find but their presence usually excludes affordability. I checked census data and sites like Zillow for towns in mountain ranges from Washington to New Mexico with low cost of living or home prices below the national average, and darned if I didn't find the perfect affordable mountain town: Laramie, Wyoming.

Laramie has a cost of living at or below the national average, fast access to rock climbing, a burgeoning mountain-bike scene, and home prices below what you'd pay in, say, Atlanta, Georgia. There's even a ski resort nearby! And a college giving off a youthful vibe!

Laramie, Wyoming, population 31,000, elevation 7,200, is gateway to Medicine Bow National Forest and home to the University of Wyoming (go Pokes!). Not only does Laramie have a super cool downtown with a view of the Snowy Mountains, but the cost of living is cheaper than in major suburbs situated nowhere near the mountains.

Laramie Is a Multi-Sport Heaven

Medicine Bow Peak Trail

If you live in Laramie, you can ride your mountain bike from town onto a 30-mile singletrack loop connecting three different trail systems beginning on the eastern edge of downtown. Or drive 19 miles to the southeast to climb some of the 1,000 routes of Vedauwoo Recreation Area. This area is also home to all kinds of classic hikes, from mellow to moderate to difficult, such as the 14.8-mile Green Ridge Trail in Roosevelt National Forest, which passes Laramie Lake and Twin Lakes and is called by Gaia "the best hike near Laramie." The region's lakes and streams are loaded with trout.

In the winter, there are 18 kilometers or 11 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails at the Happy Jack Recreation Area for free, along with a sister system of groomed fat-tire trails, also at no cost. The 250-acre Snowy Range Ski Area is just 36 miles west. It doesn't have the terrain of Vail's Back Bowls, but does boast nearly a thousand feet of vertical drop, is blessed with an average 245 inches of snow every winter, and you can snag a season's pass for just $369 this year.

Need a few days at a big resort? Steamboat Springs, Colorado is two hours to the south, Winter Park half an hour farther. If you're interested in big-time national-park adventures, check out the backcountry lakes and climb and hike the fourteeners of Rocky Mountain National Park, two hours south.

Laramie is a town on the rise, with quality food, an award-winning downtown revitalization program, and a locally grown population that's invested in outdoor adventure. More than 50 murals are scattered throughout town. The historic Gryphon Theater offers a live-music scene. The festival scene is growing, with an annual Pride Fest that celebrated its sixth year this summer and the new 307 Film Fest, showing local and international movies. The local middle school supports a mountain-bike curriculum complete with a skills-based singletrack bike trail that encircles the football field.

"We're blossoming. Laramie has changed from a railroad town to a place you want to come and ride bikes or climb or ski," says Dewey Gallegos, who was born and raised here. His great-grandfather, Faustino Mendoza, originally moved to the town in the early 1910s, before there was a railroad. Now Gallegos owns the Pedal House bike shop on First Street.

"The university keeps us young, too," Gallegos says, "and keeps our way of thinking diverse."

The university offers numerous outdoor degrees, including outdoor recreation and tourism management, environment and natural resources, and environmental systems science, and majors in resources management, plus outdoor-guide certification. It also hosts the annual Wild and Working Lands film festival. The Associated Students of the University of Wyoming (ASUW) hold an annual Indigenous People’s Day to honor the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Shoshone, and others whose homelands the campus occupies.

Laramie, Wyoming
This aerial image shows a plethora of murals in the foreground across from the railroad tracks. (Photo: Courtesy Visit Laramie)

What It Costs to Live in Laramie

The cost of living in Laramie is 8 percent less than the national average, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research, which powers a cost-of-living index that allows you to compare any two cities in the U.S. (a fun practice that I recommend to anyone). The average home price is $353,517, slightly below the national average of $359,000, according to the National Association of Realtors. Rent is pretty reasonable, too; locals pay $1,012 on average for a two-bedroom apartment. Compare those prices with the mountain college town of Boulder, where the average home costs $991,123, and a two-bedroom apartment will run you at least $2,450.

Wyoming has the second-lowest tax burden of any state in the nation, behind Alaska. And it's one of just nine states that don't levy individual income taxes; when tax season comes around, you only pay federal taxes.

Laramie, Wyoming, mural
Detail of one of the dozens of murals around the town. (Photo: Michaeltrails2hike/Unsplash)

Housing costs and tax burdens are important, but I've always considered the true marker of a town's affordability to be the cost of a pint. Gallegos assures me that most craft beers from five local breweries are priced in the $3-to-$5 range, and a pint of Pedal House Pilsner at Altitude Brewery is just $4. Altitude makes really good beer; it won a couple golds at the Great American Beer Festival in recent years. All of these things add up to a mountain town that's attractive and affordable. Last week I paid $9 for a beer at a brewery in the mountain town I call home.

"I think [costs are] pretty reasonable," says Chris Hamann, a local photographer who also coaches the middle school nordic team. "It's a college town, so that helps keep prices down, especially for rent. Our nordic trails are free. Lift tickets to the downhill area are cheap."

Of course, affordability is relative, and there are plenty of mountain towns throughout the western U.S. that are actually cheaper than Laramie, Wyoming. I found tiny towns tucked into the mountains of Colorado with home prices around $200,000, but they might lack good restaurants or mountain-bike trails within an hour or so. Laramie seems to offer the sweet spot on what I think of as the Venn Diagram of Awesomeness, that mythical overlapping of kick-ass adventure, vibrant culture, and good, cheap beer.

"Winters are cold," says Hamman (December has an average low of 15degF and high of 33degF), "but we can ski every day. You can cherry-pick what you want to do here ... and it's all so close that everyone is into the outdoors. I have 85 kids on the middle-school nordic team, and that's in a town of just 30,000 people."

For now, Laramie is a steal. "We're just on the verge of becoming a recreation destination," Gallegos says. "Who knows what's gonna happen eventually."

Six reasons to visit and dream of living in Laramie

Downtown Laramie, Wyoming
Historic downtown Laramie looking east (Photo: Visit Laramie)

You Can Bike All Over

If Laramie is becoming known for one outdoor sport, it's mountain biking. The Schoolyard Trails were built by a local nonprofit on the edge of the Indian Hills neighborhood within quick pedaling distance from any point in town. That 23-mile system connects to the 5,000-acre Pilot Hill Trail System, which attaches to the larger Happy Jack Recreation Area within Medicine Bow National Forest. Or head 30 miles east to ride the 25-mile International Mountain Bicycling Association's Epic loop combining various trail in Curt Gowdy State Park. Keep it local, though, and ride a 26-mile route that connects Schoolyard, Pilot Hill, and Happy Jack, taking you from singletrack with long-range views near town to the dense foliage of Medicine Bow National Forest.

mountain biking Gowdy State Park
The bike scene in and around Laramie is exploding. Here a mountain biker jumps off a rock in Curt Gowdy State Park, 24 miles southeast of Laramie. (Photo: Wyochick/Getty)

Nordic Skiing Is Very Accessible

The Snowy Mountains live up to their name, getting almost 250 inches of powder every winter. The Medicine Bow Nordic Association maintains a nordic center in the Happy Jack Recreation Area, grooming 18 kilometers (11 miles) of classic and skate-ski trails. Fat bikers have their own groomed trails to explore, too. Last winter skiers and fat bikers were able to enjoy 150 days of bliss between the end of November and the end of April because the snow was so consistent.

Climb Fat Cracks on Numerous Routes

Vedauwoo Recreation Area is located 20 miles east of Laramie and its granite towers offer more than 1,000 routes ranging in difficulty from 5.0 to 5.14, with lots of single and multi-pitch trad adventures. Vedauwoo, considered the "fat-crack mecca of North America," is one of the most historic and beloved crags in Wyoming. It has bouldering, too. The towers themselves are a beautiful site, set at 8,000 feet in elevation, surrounded by high plains and affording outstanding views all the way down to Longs Peak in Colorado. Check out the two-pitch Edward's Crack, a 5.7 that requires continual hand jamming and foot smearing.

Revel in the Breakfast Burrito at J's Prairie Rose

This meal is a staple at J's Prairie Rose diner. Stuffed with eggs, hash browns, colby and monterey jack cheese, and your choice of ham, bacon or sausage, then smothered with green chile sauce, it's just $9. Pair it with a 64-ounce mimosa. No, that wasn't a typo.

Find Art, Culture, and the University Influence

In addition to the 50-plus murals that punctuate downtown, the Laramie Public Art Commission has financed a series of art projects throughout the county. See the 14-foot-tall head constructed of bark from fallen trees and an iron sculpture of a firefighter welded in the image of Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.

The University of Wyoming is entwined with the culture of Laramie. At the tailgating scene during home football weekends, where hundreds of fans show up with RVs to spend a weekend reveling in the Cowboys' gridiron prowess. The stadium sits at an elevation of 7,220 feet and seats nearly 30,000 fans.

Laramie, Wyoming, football
The Cowboy Bar in downtown Laramie says, “Go Cowboys” and “Poke Pride.” (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty)

Easy Weekend Trips from Laramie

Pawnee National Grassland is 80 miles southeast. Its 193,000-acre prairie looks like an ocean of grass, with the 300-foot-tall stone Pawnee Buttes rising like islands on the horizon. Hike the two-mile Pawnee Buttes Trail, looking for eagles in the sky and fossils on the ground.

Lander is 223 miles northwest, with an arts center, great locally owned restaurants, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) hub, and the annual International Climbers' Festival. Nearby Sinks Canyon welcomes weekenders with camping, hiking, climbing, and fishing.

Rabbit Ears Pass, a hotbed of backcountry skiing in winter and hiking and biking come summer, are 103 miles south. Either mountain biking or hiking, you can pick up a piece of the Continental Divide Trail as it passes through stands of massive evergreens and fields of wildflowers in summer.

Drive 235 miles west to explore Utah's Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, a 42,000-acre reservoir famous for its trophy-size lake trout and favored for its lakeside trails and campsites. The 4.6-mile out-and-back Canyon Rim Trail delivers you to all-encompassing views of the 1,400-foot gorge walls rising from the lake's surface.

Graham Averill is Outside magazine's national parks columnist. He’s lived and traveled all over the West and currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina, a town with world-class mountain-bike trails and a top-notch food and beer scene. Plans are underway to install a wave park in the river a couple miles from his home, so he worries that he won't be able to afford to live there much longer.

graham averill
Graham Averill on a recent bike trip near Kootenay National Park, Canada. (Photo: Taylor Burk)


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