By CATEY HILL
Freed from the routines of work life, many retirees enjoy newfound room to grow, try new things, or learn new skills. Others simply want more room.
Retire Here, Not There: State-by-State
Forget your parents' retirement destinations. These less-known gems offer lower prices and peppy economies.
In terms of sheer breathing space, Wyoming is in a class of its own, say advisers: The least populous state in the nation, it's home to fewer than six people per square mile. But this is no barren desert. The Rocky and Big Horn mountains offer everything from world-class skiing and hiking to exceptional hunting and bird watching. Furthermore, the state is bisected by a number of rivers known for their fly fishing. "You can't beat Wyoming in terms of outdoor activities," says Philip Treick, a fund manager at Thermopolis Partners, in Jackson. Plus, much of the state's land is owned by the government (rather than privately owned, like in most states) and accessible to the public, he adds.
Wyoming residents say they adhere to a cowboy ethos: Frontier folk with an independent spirit. The state's rugged individualism also permeates the local culture. Rodeos and other Old West traditions are rampant in cities such as Cheyenne, Sheridan and Casper. Entire museums and historical spots are devoted to celebrating the spirit of notable Old West characters, such as Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. And an entire town, Cody, was named after Buffalo Bill.
These ideals are clear from the state's anti-big-government politics, say advisers: 53% of residents of Wyoming identify themselves as conservatives rather than moderates or liberals, according to a 2010 Gallup poll. (Wyoming ties with Mississippi for the most residents who call themselves conservative.) It's also one of only a handful of states that doesn't levy an income tax; the cost of living is below the national average and the median home cost is just $177,000. The sales tax is low, too. Furthermore, it's easy to get involved in the communities here, says Jeffrey Vincent, the founder of Vincent Financial Services in Jackson. The reason: "Even our big cities are pretty small so people know each other and help each other out."
But to retire here one probably needs to be both a little bit rugged and a bit of a free spirit, say experts. Many towns and cities are remote, with limited restaurant and cultural offerings. Driving to a major airport can take hours. And winters here tend to be long and cold.
What's more, Wyoming has at least one pricey spot cost-conscious retirees should avoid, say planners. Jackson Hole, a famed ski resort dotted with posh galleries and shops, is wildly more expensive than the rest of the state. The median home costs more than $600,000 -- far more for ski-in-ski-out -- and the cost of living is more than 65% above the U.S. average.
But that's the exception, not the norm. A price-conscious, outdoor-loving retiree has plenty of options to choose from in the Cowboy State, whether or not one leaves the hat and spurs behind.
Here are three of the best bargains.
Sheridan: For the cross-country skier (and golfer)
This affordable little town on the northern border of the state is nestled in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, which boast 300 miles of groomed ski trails and 50 miles of ungroomed ones. Cross country skiing is right near town and great downhill skiing is just two hours away in the heart of the Bighorns. While Sheridan has plenty of nearby skiing, it doesn't have the astronomical prices of Jackson Hole. The cost of living is 3.6% below the national average and the median home costs just $174,900.
By the numbers
- Population: 17,399
- Median home cost: $174,900
- Cost of living: 3.6% lower than average
- Unemployment: 8.3%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
The off season in Sheridan is every bit as beautiful and busy, says Peggy Becker, the executive director of Sheridan Travel and Tourism, who moved here 13 years ago from a small town in Minnesota. Often called the golf capital of Wyoming, Sheridan has four well-regarded public courses within 35 miles of town. (Remember, this is the west, 35 miles is considered a stone's throw out here.) Each course is open to the public and boasts breathtaking views of the area's lush, rolling landscape.
The area is also a hiker's paradise: There are dozens of wild flower-filled trails in the Bighorn Mountains and their foothills. Scenic paths line Sibley Lake, a quiet (no motor boats allowed) spot filled with walleye, crappie and smallmouth bass. And 12 miles of breathtaking scenery can be found along the Bucking Mule Falls Trail. Named a best hike by Backpacker magazine, the trail abuts a 600-foot waterfall.
In town, the Old West-style Main Street is lined with locally owned shops and restaurants housed in historic buildings. During the "Third Thursday" street festivals, artists and food vendors set up booths along Main Street and local musicians entertain passersby. Meanwhile, the two-week-long rodeo each July attracts 20,000 people.
For retirees like Janet Shepard, 65, it's the warm people and the laid-back vibe that helps set this town apart. "People say hi to people on the street they've never even met ... and dressing up means wearing your nice pair of blue jeans," she explains. That may be partly why Sheridan was named the number one small town for cowboy charm by Western Horseman magazine as well as a top place to live in the west by American Cowboy magazine.
Cody: For the fly-fishing history buff
The spirit of William Frederick Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, and his famed Old West shows live on in the town the cowboy helped found in 1896. Retirees regularly visit and volunteer with the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, five separate museums that display artifacts from Cody's adventures and celebrate western life and culture. "The past is always present in Cody Country" says the Chamber of Commerce, and indeed the wide Main Street (designed by Buffalo Bill so that a wagon with its team of horses could turn around without having to back up) is lined with historic two-story "block" buildings sporting elaborate facades, says Claudia Wade, marketing director of the Park County Travel Council.
By the Numbers
- Population: 9,426
- Median home cost: $171,400
- Cost of living: 3.3% lower than average
- Unemployment: 7.5%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
Meanwhile, "Old Trail Town," a collection of historic buildings showcasing how an old Wyoming frontier town would have looked in the late 1800s includes the Hole in the Wall Cabin used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the River Saloon, a bar frequented by cowboys, outlaws and gold miners. The Wild West shows, which Buffalo Bill pioneered to celebrate frontier life with shooting exhibitions and theatrical performances, are still popular in Cody today.
Then there's the fishing. Cody is the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park and Clarks Fork, a tributary of the Yellowstone River that is extremely popular with fly-fishing enthusiasts. Even closer to town is the Shoshone River, famous for their many trout species. "People fly fish year-round here," says Wade. Furthermore, the town -- though tiny, and thus offering limited shopping and restaurant options -- offers access to a number of scenic drives as well as hiking and kayaking.
Casper: For the artsy outdoorsman
Like Sheridan and Cody, Casper is an active retiree's dream with skiing, fishing and hiking just outside one's door. But what sets Casper apart from other Wyoming towns is its culture, says Peter Meyers, the assistant to the city manager. The second largest city in the state, Casper offers a symphony orchestra, three performing arts theatres and a 10,000-seat events center that attracts national musicians of all kinds. For local fare, City Band Concerts are held in the summer on Thursday nights while the Beartrap Summer Festival in July headlines dozens of bluegrass musicians. Even in the chillier months, residents can soak up the culture: There's contemporary art at the Nicolaysen Art Museum, an impressive collection of prehistoric fossils at the Tate Geological Museum and astronomy lessons and star-gazing at the Casper Planetarium. "Casper's retirees enjoy the Wyoming outdoors but at the same time have plenty of urban amenities," says Meyers.
By the numbers
- Population: 54,986
- Median home cost: $171,900
- Cost of living: 3.9% lower than average
- Unemployment: 6%
When they've had their fill of the arts, Casper retirees head outdoors, say residents. They may choose from trout-fishing in the swift 500-mile North Platte River; hiking , skiing, biking and archery at Casper Mountain (part of the Laramie range) or golfing at one of the four high quality courses nearby. Those who prefer adventure from the sidelines can take in one of Casper's many spectator sports, including the Wyoming Cavalry, an indoor football team and the annual College National Finals Rodeo, the "Rose Bowl" of college rodeos.
Casper draws people from a hundred miles in each direction to shop and attend events. (The city boasts one of only three shopping malls in all of Wyoming.) The flipside of this somewhat urban atmosphere is a higher than average property crime rate, although residents say the problems are concentrated in certain areas and not widespread. "It's just big enough here," says Meyers. "You feel a sense of community but Casper isn't overly small." Plus, there are plentiful volunteer opportunities including helping out with the cultural events and an active Meals on Wheels, he adds. Caspter has three hospitals, a major airport and that shopping mall -- putting it a leg above many other Wyoming towns for retirees when it comes to convenience.