Top 8 Ski Resorts for Mountain Town Culture
Written by Alexa Owen • Oct 03, 2016
When it comes to vacationing at a ski resort, you might as well choose one with soul -- and a really cool town.
If you’re jonesing for the ultimate ski getaway that’s filled with big mountain history and local flair, there’s a chance you’ll be gravely disappointed when showing up at certain resorts. Ski resorts, we’ve found, develop in one of two ways: they (a) grow in a “purpose built” manner, where the town and village develop as a result of the ski resort or (b) develop after the town has already grown its roots. The latter resorts are where you’ll find authentic mountain town culture steeped in tight communities and a consistent hum of love for the mountains. They’re the resorts with eco-conscious entrepreneurs, craft beer loving hipsters, unpretentious art enthusiasts and local kids who can ski circles around any tourist that loads the lift. And be warned: a ski vacation to any one of these places may very well cause you to pack up your bags and make a swift exit from the rat race to a permanent home in the mountains. Here are our top 8 ski resorts for mountain town culture:
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was founded in the mid 1960s by Paul McCollister and friends. In 1966 the aerial tram began taking skiers to the peak of Rendezvous Mountain, and extreme skiers started taking note of the vastness and challenging terrain of the resort. The resort itself lies in Teton Village, which is 12 miles from downtown Jackson. You won’t find a “hole” in the valley: this is the term that trappers who passed through the place in the late 1800s had for a flat area surrounded by mountains. What you will find are hardcore big mountain skiers, gorgeous mansions owned by wealthy vacationers from across the globe, a quaint downtown with old fashioned town square and plenty of wellness buffs sporting yoga leggings and locally woven beanies. Jackson is a beautiful place full of beautiful people; drop into one of the local bars at après to get a glimpse of the “my life is your vacation” vibe.
Best For: The slightly casual, very refined ski vacation to (sort of) Wild West.
We’re not surprised if you’ve never heard of Whitewater: all the more reason to go ski it. Average annual snowfall of this small Canadian resort regularly tops out at 40 feet, and because it doesn’t maintain the high profile flair of more popular Rocky Mountain range resorts, you’re guaranteed faceshots every single run. And then, of course: there’s Nelson, Whitewater’s hometown. Nelson is home to climbers, bikers, skiers, dancers, artists, and holistic health enthusiasts. It’s an old mining and lumber town dotted with historic and colorful Victorian buildings that look almost too picturesque to be real. But real they are: as much so as the good old Canadian friendliness. Just 30 miles north of the U.S. border, it’s an easy (and beautiful) drive from mountain west cities.
Best For: An under-the-radar phenomenal ski getaway.
Steamboat Springs, CO
I first passed through Steamboat on my original migration out West. I was on my way to Jackson Hole and dropped off a friend who would be spending his first winter there. It took serious willpower after a weekend in the hot springs and indulging in delicious craft beer to keep driving. Steamboat is unique to Colorado resorts in that it is set in a valley of its own, and therefore maintains its own character away from the rush of the I-70 corridor. The resort is known for its mellow tree skiing and overall relaxed vibes. Steamboat Springs is an old cowboy town that maintains a regular working schedule: most downtown shops and restaurants have been operating for many years under local families. For the best glimpse into the spirit of the community, attend one of the winter festival events – like the mid-winter ski joring competition through the main street.
Best For: Classic Colorado mountain town stay, minus the major resort vibes.
North Conway, NH
Attitash is largely a local’s mountain, but with all the amenities of a major resort. The Grand Summit Hotel, located slopeside and boasting a variety of ultra-modern rooms, draws ski vacationers from across New England. The snowmaking system is consistently ranked in the top 5 in the region, ensuring skiable terrain regardless of temperamental New England winter weather. Before western resorts were developed, North Conway was a mecca for recreational skiing, and continues to be a top destination for New Englanders looking for a quick getaway. An easy 7 mile drive from Attitash, North Conway boasts an historic (and very cutesy) downtown, with pubs boasting live music, fine art galleries, craft stores with New Hampshire made goods, and an award-winning cupcake shop. Stroll the streets with gourmet coffee, then take a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the countryside. Oh, how New England.
Best For: the local New Englander ski weekend – especially with families.
Bridger Bowl is truly a locals’ hill: The Bridger Bowl Association was granted 501(c)(4) nonprofit status in 1971, and the ski area runs on direction from current members. The mountain is small but fierce, with delightfully slow lifts servicing beginner terrain on the lower half of the hill and more modern infrastructure serving the advanced, off-piste slopes towards the top. 16 miles down the pass is Bozeman, home to Montana State University, an historic downtown, and suburban sprawl that adds a touch of eye soreness as well as a sense of reality. Bozeman is a city first, and a ski town second: major live music acts swoop through beautiful performance venues, you can now find a craft brewery around every major street corner. You can also find a solid core of die-hard local skiers: drop into the Saturday morning stoke by picking one of them up at the corner of Rouse and Main on the way to Bridger.
Best For: the non-resort ski vacation.
We love Mt. Bachelor for its 3,700 acres of terrain, 360° views from the summit, and low-density powder very non-traditional for the Pacific Northwest. Bachelor was established in 1958 by founder Bill Healy with a rope tow and single lift; today it serves as a modern destination resort skiers and riders across the West. It’s a local gem for those from Bend, and Bend is a gem for those who travel to ski Mt. Bachelor. At a population of 76,000 and growing, Bend is hardly a small, traditional mountain town – but it’s a beautiful small city for the hip at heart. Stay in Bend for easy day trips to Mt. Bachelor, and nights filled with fine craft beers from homegrown microbreweries. Farm-to-table restaurants are popular, and accommodation for every budget is available.
Best For: budget-conscious lodging, small city culture, craft beer on every block.
Taos Ski Valley
Taos Ski Valley popped up half a century after the town of Taos became popular with bohemian artists and writers. Founder Ernie Blake recognized the potential of the peaks 18 miles outside of downtown Taos in 1955. Still family owned and run, Taos Ski Valley boasts expert terrain that attracts professional big mountain skiers as well as a ski school that caters to skiers just embarking on the sport. You can stay at the resort itself or in downtown Taos, which offers visitors an eclectic mix of restaurants, art galleries, and museums in Native America, Hispanic, and Anglo traditions. The food is known for its spice: beware the (in)famous green chilis.
Best For: the best ski getaway in the Southwest, delightful bohemian flair.
Squaw Valley helped launch the movement of recreational skiing in North America after hosting the 1960 Winter Olympics. The resort became an icon for recreational skiing and the mountain town lifestyle. Today, Squaw and co-owned resort Alpine Meadows boast 6,000 acres terrain with Lake Tahoe views, 300+ days of sunshine per year, and average annual snowfall of 450 inches. The local town is Truckee, where much of downtown is still dotted with original buildings and an historic clapboard train station actively runs 2 Amtrak trains per day. Truckee boasts a sense of laid-back California style and a mix of ski bums, young families, and old time locals.
Best For: a central spot for the skiing, hiking, yoga, and other adventures of Lake Tahoe.