Each U.S. national park has its own unique ecosystem of the country’s most cherished resources, designated for their natural beauty and wealth of recreational opportunities. And, studies show that households living near national parks, wilderness areas or nature reserves have higher levels of wealth, lower likelihoods of poverty, and can even reduce the likelihood of stunted growth in children compared to similar households far from protected areas. If the great outdoors are calling to you, then keep reading — we’re sharing snapshots of several towns that dot some of the country’s favorite national parks.
St. George, Utah
The Beehive State is home to five national parks, and offers several small town possibilities outside the larger Provo and Salt Lake City metro areas. In the southwest, the large town of St. George (pop: 89,600), is the gateway to Zion National Park.
Over the years, St. George has gained popularity for its year-round warm weather and variety of recreational activities. Sitting near the meeting point of the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin, the unique variety of flora and fauna make St. George and the surrounding area a hotbed for nature lovers everywhere. Also known for it’s relatively lower crime rates, area statistics include:
Cost of living: 3.6% above U.S average
Median home price: $465,000
Median household income: almost $48,200/year
The 200-mile long Shenandoah Valley stretches through the heart of western Virginia and contains a national park of the same name. Covering 197,500 acres across eight Virginia counties, Shenandoah National Park is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the picturesque Skyline Drive as its main artery.
The park isn’t far from Washington, D.C., and there are a number of quaint towns along its path, including the picturesque town of Luray, famous for its extensive caverns.
Surrounded by rolling farmlands, life in Luray is slower paced, but without sacrificing access to outdoor activities. Excursions along the Shenandoah River are popular among tourists and locals alike, as are hikes in the surrounding mountains — especially in the fall, when the leaves turn brilliant shades of reds and yellows. About an hour and a half from D.C., Luray’s local stats include:
The Grand Canyon State has several, but the one national park that usually pops to mind is…well… the Grand Canyon. This awe-inspiring gorge encompasses 277 miles along the Colorado River, and is up to a mile deep, 18 miles wide and reveals millions of years of geological history.
If living near the Grand Canyon is on your bucket list, don’t be put off by the recent sale of a property in Sedona (north of Phoenix) for a whopping $14.75 million. You can live even closer to the Grand Canyon — and at far less the cost — in the town of Flagstaff.
Just 50 miles to the south, Flagstaff is a prime gateway to the park. This old Route 66 railroad town is located in the high plateau of the San Francisco Mountains. Because of its altitude, it escapes the harsh desert heat associated with much of Arizona.
Known as Arizona’s “Destination for All Seasons,” the climate is the main draw for visitors and new residents alike. Only one hour from the Grand Canyon, and close to seven additional national parks and monuments, Flagstaff seamlessly balances small-town life with the adrenaline rush that can only be found in exploring the surrounding countryside. Here’s a brief overview of current local stats:
Cost of living: 15.2% above the U.S. average
Median home price: $599,000
Median household income: just over $48,700
Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between the southern states of Tennessee and North Carolina in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, it is America’s most visited national park.
The 523,000-acre park spans a wide range of elevations and is home to more than 400 species of vertebrates, 100 trees and 5,000 plants. It also boasts more than 800 miles of trails, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. Tennessee’s Gatlinburg (pop: 4,100) is known as a gateway to the park, and has no shortage of ways to enjoy the views.
Take a stroll along SkyBridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America, or try the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway for panoramic views of the Great Smokies. If the arts are more your speed, the north side of town has an 8-mile loop of artisan businesses that specialize in traditional mountain craftsmanship. Current Gatlinburg stats include:
Cost of living: 14% below national average
Median house price: $174,100
Median household income: $35,350
Of the Golden State’s nine national parks, Death Valley’s 3.4 million acres are the hottest, lowest and driest in the United States, with daytime temperatures that have exceeded 130 degrees. You might want to visit, but living in the immediate area is probably out of the question. Next best thing? Consider Bakersfield (pop: 389,000), 143 miles to the west.
A quiet agricultural and industrial town, Bakersfield is one of the driest inhabited areas of the Golden State. Oil and agriculture industries drive the close-knit area’s economy, and the local culture places heavy emphasis on locally-sourced foods and products.
Cost of living: 2.6% higher than U.S average
Median home price: $266,000
Median household income: $60,000
Thankfully for all you water aficionados, not all national parks are above ground. Biscayne National Park is mostly underwater at the north end of the Florida Keys, encompassing four interrelated marine ecosystems: mangrove forest, Biscayne Bay, the Keys and coral reef. The closest town to the park is Homestead (pop: 67,350), a mere 35 miles from Miami.
Because of its proximity to Miami, Homestead has the unique ability to offer both small-town living with access to urban amenities. And, if having one national park isn’t enough, travel 10 miles to the west and you’ll reach the Everglades National Park. Sunny days are the norm for this agricultural town, which also boasts a vibrant diversity of cultures and ethnicities. A snapshot of Homestead:
Cost of living: 8.7% higher than U.S. average
Median home price: $269,500
Median household income: $40,250
If the last year and a half has left you feeling the need for fresher air, a reprieve from stress and some soul-boosting adventure, these towns are only a few among many that have a convenient proximity to our national parks. Whenever you decide to move, they’re worth an extra look!
Syndicated newspaper columnist, Lew Sichelman has been covering the housing market and all it entails for more than 50 years. He is an award-winning journalist who worked at two major Washington, D.C. newspapers and is a past president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors.