Fort Collins, Colorado

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POPULATION: 126,000 // MEDIAN AGE: 28 // MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $220,500 // AVERAGE COMMUTE: 18.5 min.

This cottonwood-shaded college town in Colorado's Front Range gets short shrift compared with its strenuously progressive neighbor to the south, but don't call it Boulder Lite. Fort Collins has more than enough backyard wilderness and green bona fides to hold its own—with less traffic and cheaper real estate. Hometown cred starts with New Belgium Brewing—makers of Fat Tire Amber Ale—which runs its plant on wind power, uses only half the typical amount of water to brew a barrel of suds, and makes local deliveries in trucks fueled by a blend from Blue Sun Biodiesel, another homegrown company. Colorado State University delivers more paychecks than anyone else in town and helps set the eco-conscious tone, with its 212-acre Environmental Learning Center, situated on prime fox-and-heron habitat on the Cache la Poudre River, on the edge of town. CSU's nearly 25,000 students keep things young and happening, and the lively and walkable Old Town district—with its smoke-free restaurants and bars, Friday-night gallery openings, and summer music and beer festivals—sweetens the mix.

PROGRESSIVE CRED // By buying and leasing 19,000 acres of former ranchland north of town near the Wyoming state line last year, the city locked in a key piece of the Laramie Foothills project, a massive public-and-private plan to keep 55,400 acres of critical wildlife corridor—linking the mountains and the plains—undeveloped. The city itself boasts some 4,300 acres of green space, along with 25 miles of in-town trails and 143 miles of bike lanes. Fort Collins's Climate Wise program provides free consulting to 33 local businesses—from the Anheuser-Busch plant and CSU to natural grocer Wild Oats—on how to cut greenhouse-gas emissions; strategies include switching to biodiesel and increasing recycling. Three new sustainably designed schools feature solar panels and wind-generated electricity; a geo-exchange system will heat and cool a junior high slated to open next year.
LIVABILITY // Fort Collins's population jumped 35 percent in the 1990s, and for good reason: Within a couple hours' drive in every direction lies a ridiculous bounty of backcountry options, including crags and trails in Rocky Mountain National Park (just 40 miles southwest), singletrack in Lory State Park, Summit County powder runs, and whitewater on the Poudre. On the job front, Hewlett-Packard and Eastman Kodak anchor the tech-heavy base, which has suffered a flurry of recent layoffs. Health care, on the other hand, is thriving, and CSU has helped spawn a culture of innovation and dozens of startups: Optibrand's electronic gizmos allow GPS tracking of cattle, and Able Planet's devices enable the hearing-impaired to communicate by phone.
YOU'LL LOVE IT IF // You crave the mountains and can handle the fact that the Front Range boom has arrived—and shows no sign of stopping.

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