Where people are migrating in, and out of, the West

While the region continues to grow, migration patterns are in flux.

Ever since Euro-Americans first came to North America, the Western U.S. has been a top destination for migrants. In the late 1800s, colonizers were lured west, seeking what historian Frederick Jackson Turner called “the richest free gift that was ever spread out before civilized man.” Erasing the Indigenous peoples who had lived on the land for millennia, he described the West as “vacant” — an irresistible “opportunity for a new order of things.” Later, during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of people flocked from the lower Midwest to California, seeking refuge from drought and economic distress. The trend continued after World War II, transforming once-small cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas into booming metropolitan areas.


Americans are still geographically mobile, and the Western U.S. remains among the top destinations for migrants. Over time, however, the trajectory of the human flow has shifted from predominantly east to west, to something far more complex, with swirling and shifting patterns that sometimes double back unexpectedly. Over the last few years, more people have abandoned the West for other regions than have moved in, with the exception of people from abroad. California still draws migrants from all over, but many Californians are now leaving, often heading to Oregon, Arizona or Colorado.

COVID-19’s effect on migration has yet to appear in the data, but media reports indicate an uptick in interest in the rural West, as urbanites flee from the pandemic or social unrest. If this interest blossoms into a full-blown urban exodus, the migration patterns of the West may well shift once again. 

Sources: U.S. Department of Commerce; Census Bureau, Population Division; Colorado Department of Local Affairs, State Demography Office

Data compilation: Megan Lawson/Headwaters Economics

Infographic design: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.