America's Favorite Mountain Towns
For Jackie Jones Heninger, a perfect day in Asheville, NC, unfolds with breakfast at Tupelo Honey Café and hiking in Pisgah National Forest, followed by a cold beer at the Highland Brewing Company.
And if it’s a Tuesday, live music caps off the evening. “Check out the bluegrass jam at the Isis Restaurant and Music Hall in West Asheville, and you will hear some great local musicians,” promises Heninger, who regularly makes the four-hour drive to Asheville from Clayton, NC—especially in summer.
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As the weather heats up, there’s no better time to head for the hills, where the air is a little fresher and the breezes a little cooler. Asheville ranks as one of the nation’s top mountain towns, according to Travel + Leisure readers, who voted in our annual America’s Favorite Towns survey. They evaluated hundreds of towns on everything from burgers to adventure-travel opportunities to friendly locals.
Some mountain towns were built from scratch as resorts, such as Lake Placid, NY, and Eureka Springs, AR. Others, like Leadville, CO, and Park City, UT, were mining towns that found new life as tourist destinations after silver prices tanked or the gold ran out. But visitors flock to all of them for similar reasons: outdoor activities, laid-back festivals, outstanding food, and plenty of local color.
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Andrea R. Vaucher, a journalist and travel author based in Santa Monica, CA, fills with anticipation whenever she makes the hair-raising descent into Telluride airport. “Once you’re ensconced in this Colorado paradise, digging into a pizza at Baked in Telluride in the historic town center, watching a foreign film at the Telluride Film Festival, or tapping your toe at the Bluegrass Festival—you just have to pat yourself on the back for being in precisely the right place.”
No. 1 Aspen, CO
With 14,000-foot peaks, Aspen is a marquee destination for skiing. But America’s No. 1 mountain town and overall favorite town keeps the party going year round with festivals celebrating art, food, wine, and music. There’s even the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is appropriately suited to a town voted No. 3 for both its festivals and its intelligent locals. (Aspenites also happened to rank No. 2 for attractiveness.) In this laid-back yet moneyed town, it’s not unusual to see billionaires and ski bums elbow-to-elbow, throwing back beers at watering holes like the Aspen Brewing Company and Hops Culture.
No. 2 Estes Park, CO
This popular gateway town for visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park got the top vote for coolest motels for good reason: many well-oiled operations like the Western-themed Saddle and Surrey have been in the same hospitable family for generations. Estes Park ranked No. 2 for both its active people and its charming town square, Bond Park, surrounded by boutiques and sweet shops. And it came in No. 4 for cool souvenirs, including the signature “chainsaw bear”—a totem-like bear carved using, you guessed it, a chainsaw.
No. 3 Stowe, VT
Stowe was a summer destination for city dwellers seeking respite from the heat long before it became a skiing destination. And to this day, summer is peak season for this tiny Vermont town beneath the Green Mountains. Readers gave Stowe high red-white-and-blue marks for both its patriotism and its old-fashioned July 4th parade and celebration. It also scored highly for its active and athletic locals—the kind of people who’d appreciate the 5.3-mile hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing trail that threads through town. It crosses the West Branch River 11 times over wooden bridges and past the restaurants and shops lining Mountain Road.
No. 4 Lewisburg, WV
Lewisburg, bordered by the Allegheny Mountains in southeast West Virginia (the Mountain State), beat out Colorado towns to take the No. 1 title in the adventure vacations category. Consider that just a short distance from Lewisburg’s historic downtown—site of one of only four Carnegie Halls worldwide—you can go hiking, skiing, whitewater rafting, caving, and rock climbing. Lewisburg picked up a few other first places as well: best for picnicking, cool souvenirs, and vacation homes. And it ranked No. 2 among American towns for historic sites, thanks to the number of well-preserved 18th- and 19th-century buildings, including log cabins that date back to 1755.
No. 5 Telluride, CO
Young Telluride started as a rough-and-tumble mining town; Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank here in 1889. It’s matured to become a chic resort town in the shadow of the San Juan Mountains that attracts outdoor-loving families. In fact, T+L readers ranked Telluride No.1 for family-friendly hotels like the Peaks Resort with its indoor/outdoor pool and waterslide. It also won the gold for music (the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is especially notable, and its lineup embraces many genres). Telluride proved especially irresistible during the holidays, coming in at No. 1 for Christmas lights. Downtown, a protected National Historic Landmark District, drapes lights across its main street and wraps its light poles in garlands and ribbons.
No. 6 Boulder, CO
In the town voted No. 3 for quirkiness, the most appropriate introduction may be from the comfort of a La-Z-Boy recliner onboard Banjo Billy’s tour bus, which has been retrofitted to look like a hillbilly shack. Welcome to Boulder, where dogs have “guardians” (not owners) and Halloween means it’s time for the annual Naked Pumpkin Run. And while Boulder has plenty to appeal to vegans, it was also voted No. 2 for burgers. So after catching street performers on the downtown Pearl Street Mall, head to The Sink (which is 100-percent wind-powered) for its grass-fed Texas Onion Straw burger—or sample a ham-and-fried-egg burger at the Dark Horse, another local institution.
No. 7 Park City, UT
Readers voted Park City as the best town in America during the Christmas holidays—when Santa and his reindeer descend on a gondola, and bicycles, motorcycles, golf carts, and cars light up for the annual Electric Parade. It’s a cultured mountain town that supports the Kimball Art Center and live-music venue Eccles Center, as well as hosting the Sundance Film Festival each January. Park City scored No. 2 for its family-friendly hotels and for wine. You’re sure to find a bottle that agrees with you at the Stein Eriksen Lodge, where the collection numbers more than 10,000, or sample several at July’s Food & Wine Classic.
No. 8 Whitefish, MT
In Whitefish, there are four distinct seasons, which is possibly the reason T+L readers ranked this town America’s No. 1 for weather—you get a lot of it. Winter’s snow brings skiers to the runs at Big Mountain while summer’s mild weather is perfect for stand-up paddleboarding on Whitefish Lake or exploring nearby Glacier National Park. In autumn, larch trees blaze yellow against Douglas firs and other evergreens to form a spectacular mountain backdrop. Whitefish also came in second for festivals—its winter carnival has been going for more than 50 years—and for bars. Several quintessential watering holes manage to fit into a few-block area: try the historic Bierstube (3659 Big Mountain Rd.), or the Great Northern Brewery.
No. 9 Charlottesville, VA
Try as he did, Charlottesville’s most famous oenophile had lousy luck with his vineyards. Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson’s hometown now counts 32 wineries in a 30-mile radius, known as the Monticello Wine Trail, and earned high scores among T+L readers for wine. Dave Matthews designs some of the labels for his wines, and neighbor Donald Trump’s winery is less than a mile away. Charlottesville, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, also ranked No. 5 for barbecue. So after an afternoon of strolling the lovingly restored, brick-paved Downtown Mall, make a point of walking the few blocks to Belmont Bar-B-Q, known for its “Slop Bucket”: layers of cheesy potatoes, BBQ beans, pulled pork, and coleslaw served in a large Styrofoam cup.
No. 10 Lake Placid, NY
Readers crowned Lake Placid the No. 1 town to visit in winter. Downhill and cross-country skiing are always popular activities at the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics, but two-time Olympic host Lake Placid in fact sees 70 percent of its visitors during the summer months. It’s a fine time to hike, bike, and paddle around Mirror Lake. After catching one of the weekly summer concerts at Mid’s Park, swing by Lake Placid Club Boat House for dinner overlooking the lake and towering Adirondacks.
No. 11 Jackson, WY
Tourism is the lifeblood of Jackson, at the doorstep of Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone, and the National Elk Refuge. With millions passing through annually and others inspired to build million-dollar “cabins,” the town walks a tightrope between supporting development and embracing its cowboy past. But thanks to a community-wide commitment to sustainability, Jackson was ranked No. 1 in the country for environmental friendliness. It also ranked No. 2 as a girlfriend getaway (locals claim there are 147 scruffy-bearded mountain men for every woman). BFFs can browse for Lucchese boots at Jackson Bootlegger, break for homemade pastries at Persephone Bakery, then pop over to handcrafted happy-hour libations at Café Genevieve.
No. 12 Snowmass Village, CO
Just 12 miles from No. 1 Aspen lies Snowmass, which snagged a trio of first-place wins—as a family destination, as being gay-friendly, and as a summer destination. For families who ski, Snowmass offers a wide variety of runs for every level, plus a top-notch ski school for the younger set. In summer, Snowmass hosts one of the longest-running rodeos in Colorado every Wednesday night, with “mutton bustin’ ” and a “calf scramble” for kids. On Thursday nights, catch one of the free evening concerts at the end of Snowmass Village Mall—one of the reasons Snowmass also was ranked No. 3 for music.
No. 13 Ouray, CO
Almost completely surrounded by the San Juan peaks, the town that calls itself the Switzerland of America has less of a resort feel than most other top-ranking mountain towns. It rated No. 3 for cool motels, like the retro-cool Antlers Motel and the Box Canyon Lodge with its natural hot springs. Ouray never experienced a devastating fire, so most of its mining-era Victorian buildings remain and have been beautifully restored; the entire Main Street is a National Historic District. Among those buildings, look for the grand Beaumont Hotel (built in 1886). It has hosted everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Oprah and surely helped put Ouray at No. 4 for romantic hotels.
No. 14 Leadville, CO
The highest incorporated city in the U.S., at 10,152 feet, is surrounded by more than a million acres of public forests and land that attract all manner of outdoor types. Yet one of the best reasons to visit Leadville is to immerse yourself in Colorado’s frontier past, including eight museums. During Leadville’s gold-and-silver mining days, it was one of the richest towns in America, and many a fortune was made here, including that of the husband of the “unsinkable” Molly Brown. Today its registered historic district includes many beautiful old buildings, as well as 67 mines.
No. 15 Ludlow, VT
Popular with skiers, this modest Vermont town got high marks for both its active people and for adventure vacations. Thrills aren’t limited to the slopes at Okemo Mountain Resort, which features an Adventure Zone with zipline tours and a “Timber Ripper” roller-coaster ride down the mountain. Those who prefer keeping a foot on the ground can join the nearby Vermont Inn-to-Inn tour: four days of 9- to 11-mile walks with stays at historic B&Bs. Treat yourself afterward with a hearty farm-to-table meal (homemade ricotta gnudi, perhaps?) at the Downtown Grocery.
No. 16 Asheville, NC
Asheville could well be the Portland, OR, of the South, with its abundance of microbreweries, art and live music venues, coffeehouses, and committed locavores. (There’s an edible park planted with fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs, and lettuces, all free for the plucking.) The Biltmore château is the biggest attraction, but plenty of tourists head straight for Asheville’s live-music bars, restaurants, even the Friday-night drum circle downtown, a weekly institution. Cradled by the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains, Asheville offers plenty of outdoor options; you might start with a canoe ride down the French Broad River.
No. 17 Breckenridge, CO
Breck, as locals fondly call it, is another former mining camp whose fortunes turned from gold to tourism. The town has become a major hub for outdoor activities like hiking, fly-fishing in the Blue River, mountain-biking, and, of course, skiing. T+L readers singled out its friendliness and the town square, a plaza between Main Street and the river that anchors one of the largest historic districts in Colorado. You’ll find dozens of preserved Victorians that house shops, restaurants, and bars.
No. 18 Staunton, VA
Staunton, once a stopover for pioneers headed West, now draws artists, musicians, and actors. The American Shakespeare Center performs at the Blackfriars Playhouse, a faithful re-creation of the Bard’s indoor theater; music festivals run throughout the year; and its historic downtown is packed with shops and museums, including the presidential museum of native son Woodrow Wilson. Thanks to its location in the fertile Shenandoah Valley, it’s becoming a regional destination for locavore menus, like the green butter lettuce soup and pork belly with pickled butternut squash served at The Shack.
No. 19 Eureka Springs, AR
Early visitors flocked to Eureka Springs for the putative healing powers of its local waters. Many of the hotels and charming B&Bs that they inspired still remain among the town’s steep winding streets. (T+L readers also appreciated the local motels, ranking the town No. 2 in that category.) With nearly 100 Victorian buildings, Eureka Spring’s entire downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places. Taking the trolley through South Main Street is a fun way to access its many shops and restaurants. If you prefer to embrace the outdoors, nearby lakes and rivers are popular for fishing and kayaking.
No. 20 Pigeon Forge, TN
More than 10 million annual visitors make it to Pigeon Forge, the mountain town that Dollywood put on the map. Its proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park means there’s no shortage of outdoor pursuits like hiking, whitewater rafting, and ziplining. Readers gave Pigeon Forge high marks for its patriotism, fairs, diners, and historic inns. Much like Branson, MO, it’s also a family destination chock-full of amusement parks, live musical theater performances, arcades, and souvenir shops—even the Titanic Museum. Shops and restaurants cluster around the Old Mill Square along the river.