Colorado mountain counties rank among country’s best for natural amenities |

Colorado mountain counties rank among country’s best for natural amenities

A lone road biker descends toward Aspen from Maroon Bells in the springtime. Counties in the Colorado mountains score high for natural amenities like winter sunshine, cool summers and aesthetically pleasing topography.
Aspen Times file photo |

As much as things have changed in Western Colorado over the past 15 years, the region’s climate and scenery remain as attractive as ever.

Counties in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains score among the country’s best for physical characteristics that make for attractive places to live, according to the natural-amenities scale produced in 1999 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The USDA hasn’t updated the scale since 1999 because the criteria isn’t expected to change much, if at all, over time.

A Washington Post reporter recently brought the rankings back into the spotlight after reading another study that links natural amenities to religiosity — turns out that counties with nicer weather and surroundings tend to have fewer religious residents, Christopher Ingraham wrote.

The amenities scale combines six measures — warm winter, winter sun, temperate summer, low summer humidity, topographic variation and water area — that reflect climate and scenery qualities that many people prefer.

Lake County ranks the highest in Colorado at 11th out of more than 3,000 counties nationwide.

Summit County also broke the country’s top 20, and neighboring Clear Creek, Grand and Park counties don’t score far behind.

Those five counties — plus Gilpin, Hinsdale and San Juan — were the only Colorado counties that earn the highest possible score of 7 on the scale. Pitkin County scores a 6 on the scale, while Eagle and Garfield counties both earn a 5.

Only three Colorado counties, all on the Eastern Plains, score low in natural amenities.

Researchers have studied the relationship between natural amenities and human migration and other behaviors and found that the higher a county’s score, the more likely that county experienced above-average population growth over the past few decades.

That trend that has held true in Colorado, where marketers have long used natural amenities to bring people to recreation-focused communities in parts of the state.


Which counties rank higher than Colorado’s gems? Most lie along the California coast, and Ventura County, California, just up the coast from Los Angeles, tops the list.

Across the country, much of the West and Florida score high in natural amenities, while the Midwest and Great Lakes states generally rank low. The scale excludes Hawaii and Alaska, which surely would’ve altered the rankings, for lack of data.

Most of the worst counties for natural amenities lie along the Minnesota-North Dakota border, and the lowest-ranked county was Red Lake County, Minnesota.

Critics of the natural amenities scale say its rankings are problematic because the scale’s formula ignores the fact that some people like snowy winters and don’t mind or even prefer flat terrain or high humidity.

However, the USDA found that the scale’s natural amenities could be a driving factor behind population change, as rural counties that score the highest in natural amenities saw the greatest population change between 1970 and 1996.

Counties with extremely low scores on the scale tended to lose population over those years, while counties with extremely high scores were more likely to double their populations.

The recession threw the pattern into a tizzy, said David McGranahan, an economist who created the natural-amenities scale and then studied its relationship to rural populations.

Migration in the U.S. slowed down after the housing bubble burst and is only now returning, he said, and lately it seems people prefer places high in natural amenities that aren’t too far from familiar markers of human civilization.

“Only the places with the highest amenities, and also some recreation facilities and hotels or some built-up thing, are attracting people,” McGranahan said. “People aren’t just moving to rural areas on the chance of getting a job.”

His later research also has shown how tree coverage influences people’s preferences.

“People tend to migrate most to places that have between 40 and 70 percent trees,” he said. “They don’t migrate to places with more trees, and they migrate out of places with no trees.”


The highly ranked Colorado High Country, compared with other parts of the U.S., doesn’t score well in two obvious categories: warm winter and water area.

Even so, promoters use both factors — the region’s snowy winters and rivers, streams and lakes — to attract visitors along with the mountains’ cool summers, dry air and dramatic variation in terrain.

Glenwood Springs capitalizes on the water in its geography, said Lisa Langer, vice president of tourism marketing for the Glenwood Springs Resort Chamber Association.

“Our unique selling point or distinction is the water in our community,” she said, describing the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers, hot springs and natural steam baths in caves.

The area draws whitewater paddlers and other river enthusiasts and is home to the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool.

In Aspen, the unchanging Maroon Bells have long been the most photographed peaks in North America, said Julia Theisen, vice president of sales and marketing for Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

“We certainly promote that,” she said. “That’s probably the most asked-for information is how to get to the Maroon Bells and enjoy a day out there.”

Breckenridge also takes advantage of its physical characteristics, said Rachel Zerowin, Breckenridge Tourism Office public relations director.

“The natural amenities of Breckenridge are woven through most, if not all, elements of our marketing,” Zerowin said, especially in visual promotional material and social-media initiatives.

In a community where outdoor pursuits are the most popular activities, Breckenridge’s climate and topography form a magnet, she added, and “it attracts not just the visitors, but also locals.”

Besides promoting tourism and outdoor recreation-based local economies, McGranahan recommended Coloradans use the prevalence of natural amenities as another tool to advance conservation efforts.

“They’re very valuable,” he said. “They’ve got to be protected some way.”

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