America's Best Ski Towns
“There’s nothing like a hot tub and ski-in, ski-out lodging, but a great ski town needs more than that,” says Steve Kopitz, founder of specialty gear shop Skis.com.
We certainly won’t argue with a man who has traveled to more than 40 ski towns across America. As Kopitz suggests, our favorites not only deliver the bars, restaurants, and adventures that winter vacationers want, but also have a certain small-town appeal, a sense of history, and the carefree vibe that brought downhillers there in the first place.
“The single thing that makes a ski town is authenticity,” adds Dan Sherman, managing director of marketing for Ski.com, which customizes ski trips. “People go on a cruise or beach vacation because they want to get away. Skiers are different. They’re going on a ski vacation because it’s part of who they are. It’s a very special club.”
But you don’t need to be a part of that black-diamond club to appreciate all that these ski towns have to offer. Visitors to Bend, OR, for example, can sample more than 12 microbreweries in between runs or go rock-climbing in Smith Rock State Park. In Taos, NM, take shelter from the cold in galleries and museums that display masterpieces by the likes of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe—artists who found inspiration in the surrounding desert and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Or simply lounge by the kiva fireplace in your adobe inn.
Kids have their pick among several ice-skating rinks in Truckee, CA, while parents can experience the country’s only ski-in distillery, High West Distillery and Saloon, not far from historic Main Street in Park City, UT. These towns did not just have histories before the first lifts ever got there. They honored them.
Sure, there are other great places where you can base a ski trip, such as Salt Lake City, which provides easy access to the renowned Brighton, Solitude, Alta, and Snowbird resorts, or Aspen, CO, which went from modest silver-mining roots to a swanky favorite among the rich and famous.
We’ve set our sights, however, on the towns that prove ski vacations aren’t just about the slopes or mega-resorts or chic chalets. They are about embracing a lifestyle—and they are just plain fun.
Park City, UT
Nearly a million annual visitors descend on Park City, whose Main Street still has the rugged good looks of a 19th-century western mining town. It puts skiers in easy reach of mountain resorts, hosts the Sundance Film Festival, and has become a culinary hotbed. The ski-in distillery High West Distillery & Saloon offers customized flights of craft creations paired with dishes like Kentucky whiskey beer cheese and bourbon three-onion soup. The seasonal tasting menu at Talisker on Main incorporates vegetables and herbs grown on its rooftop, while the Canyons’ Bistro restaurant is the first and only certified kosher restaurant at a U.S. ski resort. With the restoration of the 1889 Washington School House into a 12-room hotel, you’ve got a new home base—plus complimentary transportation to your preferred slopes.
At the turn of the 20th century, artists Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein stopped to have a broken wagon wheel replaced in Taos and decided to stay. Then socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan brought well-known artists like Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, and Georgia O’Keeffe, who fell for the drama of this desert town surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The art-colony spirit lives on in Taos, where $25 gets you access to five local museums, and the walkable downtown is rife with art galleries and adobe inns with kiva fireplaces. After a day out skiing, retreat to El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa, where the treatments include Life-Reading Massage and Reiki.
Beer and snow go hand-in-hand in this town, which counts 12 breweries and two more opening in Spring 2013 along what’s been dubbed the Bend Ale Trail. Is it any wonder the population’s rising? The compact historic downtown fits in an impressive number of Craftsman-style bungalows, galleries, and innovative restaurants (look out for Boken and Zydeco Kitchen & Cocktails). And while Bend receives less than 12 inches of rain annually, Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort gets an average of 400 inches of snow. Do the math, and you’ve got a prime destination for all kinds of adventure; Smith Rock State Park is a premier rock-climbing destination with 14,000 climbing routes, while many golf courses and fly-fishing outfitters are open all four seasons.
This former mining town lies in a box canyon, surrounded on three sides by 14,000-foot peaks, so few places can rival the natural beauty, or the solitude (population: 2,500; stoplights: 0). A free, scenic gondola links Telluride to the neighboring Mountain Village, and Telluride Ski Resort itself counts 127 trails, three terrain parks, and an average snowfall of 309 inches. The local dining scene is equally impressive: 221 South Oak serves Rocky Mountain elk chop and Colorado lamb shank, and Rustico Ristorante stocks 1,000-plus Italian wines. If you’re game to brush up on more than skiing skills, consider remote photo tours from Telluride Outside, ice climbing with the San Juan Outdoor School, or classes at the Ah Haa School for the Arts.
There are 12 downhill and eight cross-country resorts within about 10 miles of Truckee in North Tahoe, which averages 275 days of annual sunshine and 400 inches of snowfall (that includes Squaw Valley ski resort, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and debuted the world’s first ski-through Starbucks). As if that weren’t appeal enough, you can alternate skiing with activities like guided astronomy snowshoe hikes, paddleboarding (in wetsuits) on Lake Tahoe, and winter lake cruises. Be sure to pay your respects to the old-time Truckee Hotel, a local institution with hearty dishes served at on-site Moody’s Bistro. Finer dining restaurant Cottonwood looks over downtown Truckee from one of the nation’s oldest ski lodges.
The artsy town of Ketchum is 1.5 miles from Sun Valley Resort, built in 1936 with a lift that serves the entire elevation (3,400 vertical feet) on a high-speed quad. The resort also claims the world’s largest automated snowmaking system and a year-round skating rink where Olympians are known to perform. With Ketchum as your home base, dine out at B. Restaurant and Bar, overlooking the mountains from its second-floor deck; at Vintage, with its cozy log cabin ambience; and at Cristina’s Restaurant, where the menu reflects owner Cristina Ceccatelli Cook’s Tuscan childhood. Stop in for a wine tasting at Frenchman’s Gulch Winery, which uses Washington grapes, and take advantage of Sun Valley Gallery Association’s free tours.
A church steeple rises over this quaint colonial town chartered in 1763 amid the Green Mountains. Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield, is here, as are both double-black-diamond trails and plenty of beginner runs. Aside from skiing six distinctive areas at Stowe Mountain Resort, there are simple pleasures like the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant, old-fashioned Shaw’s General Store, and Solstice, whose dreamy views of Spruce Peak and seasonal, locavore dishes conspire to make it one of America’s most romantic restaurants. If you’re in the mood, splurge on a stay at Topnotch, where a hot-stone massage caps off a day on the slopes.
Mount Alyeska gets inundated by about 650 inches of snow annually, so it was surely only a matter of time (1960, to be precise) before the first ski lift came up in this historic town at its base. Wind-chapped skiers now indulge in winter warmers like the Hot Oatmeal Cookie (cinnamon schnapps, Buttershots, and hot chocolate) at Sitzmark Bar & Grill, while the Jack Sprat and the Double Musky Inn restaurants do their part with dishes like Alaskan cioppino and prime rib, respectively. Just the kind of meal to help you brace for another adventure-filled day, whether dogsled riding, driving snowmobiles at the base of 7,000-foot glacial peaks in nearby Glacier City, or viewing bear, moose, and lynx at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
Colorado’s largest historic district is in Breckenridge, which was settled during the 1859 Gold Rush. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that western-movie-set-like “Breck” got its first ski runs. Some properties have two entrances (one faces the lift and the other faces Main Street), and the free Summit Stage bus service to Copper Mountain and Keystone makes it easy to mountain-hop. To get going on snowshoe and cross-country ski trails, turn to the Breckenridge Nordic Center. Breck, like many great ski towns, has a namesake brewery and distillery, plus the Gold Pan Saloon (the oldest liquor license west of the Mississippi) and escargot and buffalo short ribs served at Briar Rose Chophouse and Saloon. When tired legs get the best of them, visitors can take a pottery, creative writing, or ceramics workshop in the Breckenridge Arts District.
The Jackson Hole Valley’s namesake ski resort in Teton Village features the largest vertical rise served by one lift system in the U.S., plus convenient, upscale digs like Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole. But Jackson, a half hour from the village and Jackson Hole Airport, is marvelous in its own right—and still the kind of western town where dressed-up generally means jeans. Those in-the-know gather for après-ski drinks at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar and the historic Wort Hotel’s Silver Dollar Bar, then spill over to The Kitchen for grilled calamari steak or pan-seared red deer. Find your way back to the 31-room Rusty Parrot, near Jackson’s town square, where returning skiers are treated to house-made cookies.
North Conway, NH
Located amid the 660,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, North Conway makes a striking statement with its pastel-colored Victorian architecture. It’s within a half hour of 13 ski resorts and cross-country centers that offer a total of 250 trails—and much-appreciated affordability. With the Black Mountain Family Passport, for instance, a family of four can ski at Black Mountain for $99 midweek and $119 weekends and holidays throughout the winter season. When it’s time for a break, geek out at the Mount Washington Observatory Weather Discovery Center (at the northeast’s tallest peak), or stock up on local specialties and old-fashioned candy at Zeb’s General Store.