World's Prettiest Mountain Towns
In July 2005, Sandra Rötzscher arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, a high desert town in the Andes Mountains of northern Chile, to find herself in a four-day sandstorm. The rare event was “annoying and painful,” she remembers, but once it cleared, an otherworldly landscape emerged: craggy rock formations striated by years of sedimentary buildup, fields of geysers letting off columns of steam from the nearby volcanoes, and salt flats populated by flocks of flamingos. It was scenery unlike any she’d ever seen.
The first image that the phrase “mountain town” brings to mind is usually a scene of the Swiss Alp variety, with quaint lodges tucked beneath snow-dusted peaks. And, though many of the world’s most beautiful mountain towns are indeed alpine (or at least similar), gorgeous high-altitude communities exist in places more typically associated with beaches and deserts as well, like Chile or Mexico.
Naturally, given their location, most of the towns that made our list are ski destinations. But while resorts like Whistler, home of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, draw plenty of snow-hounds, they also draw off-season crowds with their scenery. Summer hikers and mountain bikers traverse the mountains here to enjoy the sprawling panoramas of the expansive Coast Range.
Across North America, Stowe, Vermont also lures visitors year-round. Adrenaline junkies come to take on the challenging double-black diamond trails at Stowe Mountain Resort, while summer travelers hike and camp near its historic buildings. But Stowe perhaps saves its most beautiful face for fall, when the annual explosion of fall colors saturates the tree-covered Green Mountains.
The beauty in these towns isn’t always just natural, either. Because many of them are sequestered in remote locations, they’ve often retained ancient cultural and architectural traditions. The Japanese villages of Shirakawa-go, for example, have a distinctive beauty due to a unique architecture style that developed over centuries.
No matter if it’s ski season in the Alps or autumn in Vermont, each of these communities have a special sort of intoxicating beauty. San Pedro especially attracts people who seek out the magical and mystical energy believed to inhabit this strangely beautiful land. Though Sandra Rötzscher doesn’t really believe in mysticism, she was swayed by the ethereal landscape. “The energy truly was undeniable,” she said.
Taos’s breathtaking vistas of the craggy Sangre de Cristo Mountains, starkly beautiful high-desert terrain, and traditional adobe architecture have inspired numerous artists over the years—most famously Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. (In fact the rugged landscapes around Taos, which appeared frequently in O’Keeffe’s paintings, are still known to many locals as “O’Keeffe country.”)
Get some mountain air: To see the same views that O’Keeffe enjoyed, visit Ghost Ranch, in the outlying region of Abiquiu; it’s where she lived and painted for 20 years. To enjoy the area’s natural beauty along with a heavy dose of adrenaline, head to Taos Ski Valley, where the vertiginous slopes (including the notorious mogul field of Al’s Run) are tempered by gorgeous scenery.
Hood River, OR
Unsurpassed views of Mount Hood, a towering dormant volcano that, at 11,249 feet, is the highest peak in Oregon, are a major draw in this sport-lover’s town. But the beauty here isn’t just up in the air; the town also rests on the edge of the dramatic Columbia River Gorge, a steeply pitched, fjord-like river chasm where the high-velocity winds draw thousands of windsurfers.
Get some mountain air: Take a scenic drive along Lewis and Clark’s route along the Columbia River from Hood River through the surrounding apple and pear orchards, to Multnomah Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the States. Or head to Mount Hood's WPA-era Timberline Lodge—home to North America's only year-round lift-served ski area—to carve turns above panoramic views.
Situated among New England's Green Mountains, Stowe’s downtown area, first settled 200 years ago, is filled with delightfully quaint historic buildings and covered bridges; a soaring church spire, belonging to the Stowe Community Church, built in 1863, overlooks it all.
Get some mountain air: Stowe is home to Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak, and the extremely challenging double-black diamond “Front Four” trails. (There are plenty of intermediate and beginner runs, too.) From the top of Mount Mansfield, hikers and skiers are treated to seemingly endless panoramas of Lake Champlain and the surrounding peaks of the Green Mountains.
Beaver Creek, CO
Just a 10-minute drive from its better-known neighbor, Vail, the ersatz Alpine village of Beaver Creek offers the same gorgeous surrounds—specifically, the majestic, almost-always-snowcapped Colorado Rockies—but in a much lower-key, more intimate setting.
Get some mountain air: After a day of plowing powder at the Beaver Creek Ski Resort, splurge on an atmospheric dinner at Beano’s Cabin—a hillside lodge with where you can dine on elk, roast pork and duck next to a roaring fire. Half the magic of the place is getting there; the restaurant is only accessible by a moonlit sleigh-ride through the snow. Then turn in slopeside at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch.
Whistler, British Columbia
Home to the alpine, Nordic, and sliding events for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Whistler’s twin peaks (Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain) comprise the biggest ski resort in North America. It’s also arguably one of the most beautiful, with grand wooden lodges surrounded by majestic mountains.
Get some mountain air: The Peak 2 Peak gondola, which connects Whistler’s two mountaintops via a 2.73-mile long, 1,427-foot tall tram-ride, allows access for both winter skiers and summer hikers—plus phenomenal views over the valley below.
Traditional houses built in the Gassho-zukuri style—some of them hundreds of years old—have given this collection of villages at the foot of Mt. Haku-san a unique sort of beauty. Gassho-zukuri means “constructed like hands in prayer;” the steeply pitched roofs of the houses here, built to withstand heavy snows, resemble the hands of Buddhists monks pressed together in prayer.
Get some mountain air: If you’re lucky enough to visit in mid-October, partake in the area’s lively Doburoku Matsuri festival, which celebrates the potent, thick unrefined local sake called Doburoku. Otherwise, head north of the center of Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go's largest village, where the Shiroyama Viewpoint offers a spectacular vantage point over the surrounding rooftop and mountains.
Queenstown, New Zealand
Set on the shore of glittering Lake Wakatipu and ringed by the saw-toothed peaks of the Remarkables Range, this South Island community provides both stellar photo ops and—more famously—extreme bungee jumping (the world's first commercial jump took place here, on the vertiginous Kawarau Bridge, in 1988).
Get some mountain air: If you’re too busy screaming during your bungee jump to notice the pristine views, take the much more relaxing Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob's Peak. Here, multiple observation decks let you savor vistas over the lake, as well as Cecil and Walter Peaks and the ski mountain of Coronet.
The lush green hills of Mexico's Sierra Norte—punctuated by cascading waterfalls and steep cave-studded limestone cliffs—surround this remote indigenous community. The residents here are Nahuatl, direct descendants of the Aztecs that inhabited the region centuries ago.
Get some mountain air: Every Sunday locals flock to the market in Cuetzalan, where local farmers sell a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables, locally grown coffee, and home-spun fabrics. If you’d rather get out into the landscape, try exploring the area’s extensive network of underground caves, reportedly the largest in Central America.
Though the sleepy Alpine town of Wengen—set at the foot of the looming Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains—barely has 1,000 permanent residents, the town fills with ski enthusiasts each January. They come to watch skiers take on the World Cup’s longest downhill race on the 3,363-vertical-foot Lauberhorn.
Get some mountain air: Because it’s a car-free village, visitors to Wengen must take a train, just as they have been doing since the cog railway opened in 1910. Think of it as a blessing; as the train slowly climbs Lauterbrunnen toward your destination, you’ll be treated by views over the idyllic valley below and seemingly sky-scraping snowy mountains.
High in the Pyrenees, just 20 miles from the famous pilgrimage site of Lourdes, Cauterets has its own reputation for healing powers in the form of its thermal hot springs. For centuries, the town’s therapeutic waters and natural beauty have drawn visitors—including Victor Hugo, who described the valley and its streams as “more than mere scenery. They are a glimpse of nature at certain mysterious moments when everything seems to dream.”
Get some mountain air: Take a soothing dip at one of the town’s best-known spas, César Spa, after a day of hiking or skiing. Admire the views of the surrounding peaks from the terrace of the spa’s pale yellow neoclassical building. Then stroll along the narrow streets of Cauterets while admiring the Belle Epoch–era buildings and their colorful wrought-iron balconies.
Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
Long the winter playground of European film stars (in the '50s and '60s, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, and Sophia Loren frolicked here, earning the town the nickname “salotto dei famosi”—celebrities' living room), Cortina’s scenery is dazzling all on its own. The tiny town, where charming chalets are festooned with flowering geraniums, is surrounded on all sides by the spiky, rough-hewn Dolomite Mountains.
Get some mountain air: The skiing around Cortina d'Ampezzo (which hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics) is legendarily beautiful. The steep plunges and uninterrupted sight lines here have been used as backdrop for many films, including Cliffhanger, the original Pink Panther, and the James Bond flick For Your Eyes Only.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
The earth’s driest desert surrounds this small community, and lends it a haunting, barren sort of beauty. The region just outside town, the Valle de la Luna, got its name for its moon-like landscape; NASA has done tests of its Mars Rovers here. Adding to the unearthly scenery is the long-dormant volcano of Licancabur, which looms above.
Get some mountain air: In the daytime, try out sandboarding (the desert equivalent of snowboarding) on dunes outside town. When night falls, turn your head to the skies at the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Exploration (SPACE), the largest public observatory in Chile, with its near perfect star-gazing conditions.