Living in: Towns near the world’s top national parks

What’s it like to reside close to some of the planet’s most amazing natural wonders? We asked residents of five nearby towns.

Since the 1872 establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the world’s many protected areas have saved vast swaths of land from urban development and welcomed visitors from across the globe.

But passing through a national park is very different from living on the fringes of one. We reached out to the people who live in the jumping off cities and towns for five of the world’s top national parks – as ranked by US News and World Report and CNN – to get a sense of what it’s really like to have an incredible natural landscape practically in their backyard.

Sedona, United States – Grand Canyon National Park
Residents in this small Arizona town, located about 100 miles south of the Grand Canyon, have been known to say: “God made the Grand Canyon, but He lives in Sedona.” The town is also close to six state parks and several national monuments, making it a “great hub for nature enthusiasts”, said Chamber of Commerce president Jennifer Wesselhoff, who moved to Sedona from Switzerland 15 years ago.

Sedona also draws residents interested in healing and spirituality. “The area is famous for its vortexes: powerful centres of kinetic energy that can have a deep effect on people,” Wesselhoff said. “Residents experience this red rock energy by hiking, biking, jeeping, or just soaking up the good vibes.” As a result, Wesselhoff said, locals tend to be pretty happy.

The neighbourhood of Uptown, stretching along the SR89A highway, attracts residents with its charming bungalows and varied restaurants. And locals flock to west Sedona for the plentiful city parks. But Sedona’s laidback vibe doesn’t come cheap. The cost of living here is about 40% higher than in the state capital of Phoenix and about 15% higher than in nearby Flagstaff.

Arusha, Tanzania – Serengeti National Park
Though it’s the Serengeti’s safaris that draw most visitors to Arusha, residents of this mid-sized Tanzanian city are equally proud to be so close to the distinct wildlife populations and unique topography found in Tarangire and Ngorongoro national parks.

“But Arusha is far more than just the tourism business,” explained British expat Jason Barry, who spent the last four years living in Arusha while working for the nearby Elewana lodges and camps. “Main streets and back streets are littered with workshops, craft houses, furniture makers, hand sign writers, tailors. Within 200 yards of a walk, it is possible to find someone to fix your truck, make you a suit and make you a coffin.”

Locals tend to be laid-back and relaxed. “Though friendly, the city has a rough-and-tumble Wild West vibe,” said Africa Adventure Consultants founder Kent Redding, who moved to Arusha from the United States three years ago. Violent crime is rare, but residents are wary of the occasional street crime.

Most expats live outside of the city centre, and nearly 40,000 new houses are expected to be built in the next five years. “This will mean new road construction, new shopping malls and all the services that will cater to this new-found middle class,” Barry said.

Cusco, Peru – Machu Picchu
While known as more of an architectural wonder than a natural one, Machu Picchu has been named a top national parks both for its designation as a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary and because of its rainforest setting on the eastern slope of the Andes Mountains. Cusco, located 75km southeast of Machu Picchu, is a natural home base for the site’s never-ending stream of travellers.

“Much like New York, Cusco never sleeps,” said American Anna Dorfman, who lived in Cusco for much of 2014 and writes about her travels on her blog, Adventures of Anna Abroad. “The constant influx of tourists makes for a consistently vibrant nightlife. I would spend my evenings either eating at a polleria (poultry shop) or a local menu restaurant, and getting cheap drinks at Mythology or practicing my salsa moves at Mama Africa until sunrise.”

While the streets and open-air markets can be bustling and fun, residents must adjust to “Peru time” – especially when it comes to dining at a restaurant or shopping in a pharmacy. “‘Peru time’ means that most people are on their own schedule,” Dorfman said. Compared to the US, service can be slow, but “once you let go of your expectations and get on board, it becomes fun to be so laid back.”

Barrio de San Blas has an artisan community but is more expensive than other neighbourhoods. And as with many cities, the closer you get to the city centre, the more pricey rent becomes. “Be prepared for a hike up many Incan stairs in high altitude if you want something exceptionally inexpensive,” Dorfman said.

Cusco’s blend of Incan architecture and modernisation is one of its most compelling qualities, and nowhere is that mix more prominent than in the churches surrounding Plaza de Armas. “The bottom half still flaunts the impressively sturdy Incan walls, and the top half of the building flaunts the Spanish influence during their colonization,” Dorfman said. “Even more unique is the modern food chains such as McDonalds and KFC that have been built right into the historic architecture to make a triple cultural blend.”

Banff, Canada – Banff National Park
Unlike other cities on this list, Banff sits within the boundaries of Banff National Park, and people can actually live within the park itself – though not without a good reason. “You can only own a home here if you work here,” explained Sarah Brooking, tour director for travel outfitter Tauck. “The need-to-reside clause prevents rampant development from weekenders and holiday homes.”

As a result, many locals, including Brooking, actually live in the town of Canmore, just outside the park boundaries and 26km from the town of Banff itself.

But whether in Banff or Canmore, the vast nearby wilderness makes wildlife a daily part of life. “We are as used to avoiding elk poop as we are dog poop,” joked Brooking. “Here we’re more concerned about avoiding cougars while cross-country skiing at night or bears while mountain biking than we are of crimes by people.”

Despite its location and small size (less than five square kilometres), Banff is surprisingly cosmopolitan. “On any given day I can hear over five languages being spoken in a two-block radius,” said long-term resident Julia LoVecchio, director of marketing for CHM Summer Adventures. “That may not be special in a larger city like London, but here in the protected mountains of the Canadian Rockies, that’s pretty amazing.”

“It’s a great food scene for a small town,” added Brooking. “Being a tourist and weekender attraction, there is enough business for a great variety of dining – especially cafes, pubs and high-end restaurants.”

Housing – usually condos, apartments and duplexes – is always in short supply, and is on the expensive side for Canada. An average one-bedroom might rent for $1,500 Canadian dollars if you can find one (compared to around $1,000 to $1,200 in Calgary and Edmonton). But every penny seems worth it for residents. “Every day, I wake up to incredible gorgeous scenery that is constantly changing with the seasons,” Brooking said. “We get to live where others come for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. We don’t forget that!”

Aberdeen, Scotland – Cairngorms National Park
Just 55kms from the UK’s largest national park, Aberdeen is not only the gateway to the Scottish Highlands, but is also Scotland’s third largest city. This distinction offers an enviable blend of access to natural escapes and urban amenities.

“You can pretty much drive 10 minutes in any direction and you're in the country with loads of trails, paths, forests, scenery,” said Lauren Babcock, an American who has lived in the city for just under a year and writes about her expat experience on her blog From Hot Dogs to Haggis. “It seems like everyone camps, cycles, climbs, rows and runs ultra-marathons. It's a change from Chicago, but we (especially our dog) really enjoy it.”

The city was also recently ranked one of the three happiest cities in the UK, with the happiest residents in all of Scotland. Many credit the thriving oil and gas industry, which keeps unemployment low, but being right on the North Sea and only 35 miles from the national park also helps.

Having a thriving oil business and two universities also means many expats call the city home, which makes meeting other transplants easy. Aberdeen locals have long had a reputation for being particularly standoffish to English visitors– but even English expats agree the reputation isn’t warranted, except among an extremely small swath of the population. “Aberdeen has an unnecessarily bad rap,” Babcock said. “But I think it is one of the friendliest cities I've ever lived in! And I've lived in Chicago, San Diego, Hoboken and London.”

While many people live in the suburbs and commute into the city centre, a growing population is choosing to live in the 19th-century granite buildings in the centre of town that give the city its nickname, “The Granite City”. The eastern end of town by the harbour attracts residents with its mix of both cottage and contemporary properties and its proximity to the beach.

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