America’s Favorite Mountain Towns 2016
“I’m in love with Montana,” wrote John Steinbeck in his road-trip memoir Travels with Charlie. “For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love.”
Travel + Leisure readers showed similar devotion to Big Sky Country in this year’s America's Favorite Places survey. Three of the mountain town winners are in Montana, where the northern Rockies meet the Great Plains. The rapid change in elevation near towns like Missoula makes for some of the country’s steepest skiing, bringing winter visitors year after year.
“The mountains are our backdrop, playground, and really the center of our community. As my grandmother always said, we live in God's cathedral,” says Cameron Combs, a Montana native whose family has run a ranch near Bozeman since 1959.
In the annual America's Favorite Places survey, readers of all stripes evaluate hundreds of cities and towns across a range of categories, from the friendliness of the locals to the quality of the pizza. Unlike Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards, which encourages readers to weigh in on travel experiences across the globe, the America's Favorite Places survey is a way for locals to share what their hometowns do best.
When it comes to mountain escapes, it’s clear they’re looking for more than just access to a ski lift or a pretty view. Some readers want history: a Rocky Mountain mining town reborn as a luxe resort, or a storybook New England village. Others are looking for arts and culture, such as at a Southwest artist community or a restaurant mecca in the Southeast.
Read on for the full list.
Travel + Leisure’s America’s Favorite Places survey opened on 10/8/2015 and closed on 04/15/2016. It was open to everyone, and ran alongside a sweepstakes. The open-response survey asked respondents to submit their favorite place and rate it in over 65 categories, including affordability, notable restaurants, and public parks. Cities are defined as governed bodies with a population over 100,000.
No. 15: Ouray, Colorado
No. 14: North Conway, New Hampshire
North Conway is just east of White Mountain National Forest, placing it within a half hour of 13 ski resorts and more than a thousand miles of wooded hiking trails. Travel + Leisure readers appreciate the storybook town center, with a white-steepled church, a turreted train station from the 1870s, and a New England general store, Zeb’s (don’t leave without stocking up on fudge). For those who have a car, an hour-long drive can get you to Mount Washington’s observatory, set atop the northeast’s highest peak.
No. 13: West Glacier, Montana
The gateway to Montana’s Glacier National Park is a miniscule hamlet with big appeal. It’s from here that guided treks, fly-fishing programs, rafting expeditions, and heli-tours depart for the park—and where, in the winter, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing reign supreme. Nicknamed “Crown of the Continent,” Glacier preserves a million acres of mountain wilderness, including 25 active glaciers, and is home to endangered animals such as the grizzly bear and lynx. The arts-and-crafts Belton Chalet, built a century ago when the park opened, is still the chicest place to stay, with Montana-minded books to read by the lobby fireplace.
No. 12: Bozeman, Montana
It used to be that visitors to Yellowstone or the Big Sky Ski Resort would fly into Bozeman and immediately drive out. But Travel + Leisure readers have finally caught on to the Montana town’s charms. Behind the red-brick façades of downtown’s Main Street, laid-back restaurants, adventure outfitters, and cafés teem with both out-of-towners and locals—many of them students at Montana State University. Everyone converges at newcomer boutique hotel The Lark, which transformed a drab 1960s motel into the town’s hippest hangout.
No. 11: Estes Park, Colorado
That Estes Park’s main street is named Elkhorn Avenue is no coincidence. Elk—along with bighorn sheep, mule deer, and bears—are a common sight in this woodsy town, tucked in a steep valley at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. Summer visitors can drive above the tree line on the scenic Trail Ridge Road, which crosses the Continental Divide after a series of overlooks. More than 350 miles of hiking trails afford even grander views, such as from the top of Flattop Mountain in the middle of the park.
No. 10: Missoula, Montana
This Montana college town has all the trappings for a Rocky Mountain getaway. Among the ski areas nearby, compact and rugged Snowbowl is the closest to town, and has some of the steepest slopes in America. At the rustic-luxe Resort at Paws Up, guests awaken to huckleberry pancakes before setting off to explore some of the working cattle ranch’s 37,000 acres of woodland trails and rivers. Back in Missoula-proper, University of Montana students support the city’s plethora of breweries, cafés and restaurants.
No. 9: Jackson, Wyoming
Part cowboy town, part millionaire’s row (complete with a heavenly Aman resort), Jackson, Wyoming is a nature-obsessed village. Grand Teton National Park, whose photogenic peaks loom five miles north, is a major draw for visitors. As are Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s black diamond runs, which take daredevils down a whopping 4,100-foot vertical drop.
No. 8: Vail, Colorado
Vail attracts the jet-setting crew to its hotels, condos and lodges in the foothills of Gore Valley. More than 5,00 acres of skiable terrain make it the largest resort in the Colorado Rockies, and a natural home for Olympians Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn. Warmer months bring summer activities up and down the valley, bisected by babbling Gore Creek. For a suitably swanky room, stay at Sonnenalp Hotel, one of the 100 World’s Best hotels.
No. 7: Aspen, Colorado
Aspen is a remote Rocky Mountain town with more than its fair share of elegance. In winter, visitors may see the likes of Kevin Costner and Jessica Alba swishing down one of Aspen’s four mountains, while summer brings hiking, biking and horseback riding, as well as Food & Wine’s Classic. In the fall, the town’s namesake trees blanket the mountains in yellow.
No. 6: Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Natural springs thought to have healing powers put this Ozark town on the map in the 1800s, attracting wealthy residents and vacationers. Their grand Victorian mansions, hotels and storefronts climb both sides of a narrow valley. Today, Eureka Springs attracts nature enthusiasts for hiking and mountain biking at Buffalo River National Park and a slew of state parks, as well as for animal viewing at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. The town is also popular with LGBT travelers, and hosts several Pride festivals throughout the year.
No. 5: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Travel + Leisure readers love this small town for its campiness, evident in its many amusement parks, arcades, Titanic Museum, shopping outlets and, most prominently, Dollywood. Last year, Dolly Parton—who grew up in the area—opened her DreamMore Resort, which caters to families with its own camp and bedtime story readings. The 300-room hotel boasts incredible views of the Great Smoky Mountains, which provide ample opportunity for whitewater rafting, ziplining, and hiking.
No. 4: Durango, Colorado
At the southern flank of the Rockies’ San Juan mountain range, Durango is a postcard-perfect Colorado town. It’s a popular stopover after visits to the cave dwellings in nearby Mesa Verde National Park and, come wintertime, is the main base for skiing at Purgatory Resort. Restaurants and saloons line charming Main Avenue, which ends at the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge railway station. The steam engine chugs through San Juan National Forest, carrying visitors up to tiny Silverton and back. Travel + Leisure readers also appreciate Durango’s five microbreweries, giving the town a perfect score for beer.
No. 3: Asheville, North Carolina
Each year, roughly ten million people head to this North Carolina town of 80,000, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. What’s the fuss? The Biltmore Estate helped put Asheville on the map and still draws gawking crowds to its palatial lawns. Downtown, bluegrass festivals and weekly drum circles make the city a music hub as well. Microbreweries and hip coffeehouses bring the hipsters, and a locavore-obsessed restaurant scene attracts the foodies—who make a beeline to Curate, a tapas bar run by El Bulli alums. Asheville’s main appeal, however, is the locals’ welcoming attitude. Travel + Leisure readers give the town top marks for friendliness.
No. 2: Taos, New Mexico
People have been calling Taos home for a millennium, and with good reason. The ancient pueblo and neighboring colonial town sit at the foothills of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and bask in the desert sun all year round. Artists flocked here in the late 1800s, and hippies joined them a century later, cultivating a bohemian vibe that’s still thriving today. Taos is a playground for outdoors enthusiasts as well, who can choose from more than fifty hiking trails and four separate ski resorts.
No. 1: Park City, Utah
When the local mines closed, Park City, Utah, turned its ambitions above ground—to its 7,000 acres of Olympic-level ski terrain—helping it transition into one of the country’s premier resort destinations, and this year’s favorite mountain town. Off the slopes, everyone converges on historic Main Street, flanked by a mix of adventure outfitters, galleries, and restaurants—including Tupelo, chef Matt Harris’s ode to elevated Rocky Mountain cuisine. Sundance Film Festival brings in the A-Listers, who feel at home in the town’s luxe hotels, like Stein Eriksen Lodge, a Norwegian-style chalet.