What makes a great ski town? Everyone’s preferences are different. Obviously, proximity to skiing is important (otherwise, it’d just be a town). Great food and lodging help. But for me, the most important element is something that doesn’t lend itself to ready definition: Character. This isn’t something that can be mass produced or replicated like a fast food chain. It’s sort of in the ‘I’d know it if I see it’ category, and yes, it can be pretty subjective.
Nonetheless, a good ski town can add a lot to your skiing experience. So when you’re planning your next ski trip, don’t just consider the mountain. Consider the town, as well.
Here are eight ski towns you’ll want on your list:
Picture a quaint New England village: the white steepled church, the small village surrounded by beautiful rolling hills. That’s what you’ll find in Stowe, Vermont, home to the recent Vail acquisition Stowe Mountain Resort. With an elevation of 4,395 feet, Stowe’s Mount Mansfield is the highest peak in the state. There’s skiing for everyone, and plenty to do off the hill, too. Check out the Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum, where you can see over 10,000 ski-related artifacts of Vermont ski history. If you love the movie The Sound of Music, be sure to check out the Trappe Family Lodge, founded by the family on which the story is based. And don’t forget to take a tour of the Ben & Jerry’s factory to see how the famous ice cream is made.
Lake Placid, New York
Not much says Olympics more than Lake Placid, New York, home to not one, but two Winter Olympic Games (1932 and 1980). The town, located 21 miles from Whiteface Mountain, is permeated with the spirit of the Olympics. There are Olympic facilities everywhere. You can ski the Olympic Downhill, ride the Olympic bobsled, see the huge Olympic ski jumps, skate on the Olympic ring. It’s both incredible and humbling that mere mortals can play in the same venues as Olympians. Whiteface has the highest vertical drop in the East (3,430 feet), so there’s plenty of great skiing. But if you tire of downhill, slip on over to the world-class cross country center at Mount Van Hoevenberg and glide through 50 km of rolling terrain. Or take a toboggan run out onto beautiful Mirror Lake.
Don’t miss: The Lake Placid Olympic Museum.
Mad River Valley, Vermont
I’m kind of cheating here, since this isn’t exactly a single town; the Mad River Valley is more like a series of small villages strung like pearls along Vermont’s scenic Route 100. Still, I think I’d be remiss if I left it out. Not only is it absolutely gorgeous, but it’s quintessentially Vermont (hat’s off if you make it through without buying at least one pint of local maple syrup.) Visit the “almost world famous” Warren Store. See covered bridges. And more importantly, ski at two classic Vermont ski resorts: Mad River Glen, with its iconic single chair and famous motto (Ski It If You Can), and Sugarbush Mountain Resort. This is Vermont skiing at its best. Instead of huge groomers, you’ll enjoy winding trails that follow the mountain’s natural contours with surprising terrain around every bend. Sugarbush was the first Eastern resort to offer Cat skiing. Book it on a powder day to get freshies before the lifts open!
Until Union Pacific railroad tycoon Averell Harriman decided to build Sun Valley, North America’s first destination ski resort, Ketchum was a sleepy mining town that wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. That was back in 1936, and in the 80 years since, it’s become a world class ski town, attracting everyone from A-list celebrities (Ernest Hemmingway lived here) to legions of professional and recreational skiers. With 300 sunny days a year, the weather is great, the slopes uncrowded, and the town charming. Ski history abounds: The world’s first chairlifts were installed at Sun Valley’s Procter and Dollar Mountains. But that doesn’t mean the resort is stuck in the past. The recently renovated Sun Valley Lodge, built in 1936, is a solid hit. Ketchum features a lively arts scene, with more than 20 galleries to browse through.
Don’t miss: There are 13 named and natural hot springs in the area; a good way to warm up and relax those muscles after a day on the slopes.
There are few ski areas in North America as synonymous with glamor as Aspen. Hang around long enough, and you’re bound to see your favorite celebrity. After all, Aspen has been a destination for movie stars for decades. But you’d be wrong if you wrote it off just as a glam resort. Aspen is a terrific town; the scenery is stunning, there’s tons to do, and yes, you can stay here without breaking the bank. Sure, there are restaurants and accommodations geared for the one percent. But there’s plenty that’s affordable, too. With a terrific free transit system, you’re minutes away from the four ski areas of Aspen Snowmass, where there’s skiing for all abilities: Aspen, Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass. Want to ski at one resort today, another tomorrow? No need to schlep your skis; they’ll deliver them there for you.
Unusual thing to do: Visit the Hunter S. Thompson Shrine, a memorial to the famous journalist and author near the Gunner’s View Run at Snowmass.
Best non-skiing sport: People watching.
Butch Cassidy robbed his very first bank in Telluride, and if you didn’t know better, you might think this happened just last week. Telluride oozes western charm with good reason: incredibly strict zone and preservation regulations. Sure, the ski area has a pedestrian base village with the requisite shops and amenities, but the town is another story. Telluride Ski Resort is off the beaten track, so it’s a lot less crowded that the mega-sorts along the I-70 corridor. But it’s definitely worth the trip. The scenery is beautiful, there are lots of great restaurants, and the skiing is world class.
Don’t miss: Colorado’s largest waterfall (365 feet) sits at the end of the box canyon. Check it out when it freezes to see some extreme ice climbing.
If tiny Truckee, California has a problem, it’s over choice. Should I head to Squaw Alpine Meadows today? Boreal? Sugar Bowl? Mount Rose? Truckee is near them all. Located on the California-Nevada border near beautiful Lake Tahoe and 14 downhill ski areas, Truckee sits smack in the middle of some of the best skiing in the US. More authentic (translation: not glitzy) than the aforementioned Aspen, Truckee is a place where everyone can feel at home. Sure, if you like luxury, you can still find it. But the small downtown feels comfortable, with dining for all budgets and lots of funky little shops. Squaw was home to the 1960 Olympics, so like Lake Placid, there’s an Olympic Museum to visit.
Don’t miss: The Winter Wondergrass Festival, three days of world class bluegrass/acoustic/roots music on four stages.
The iconic elk antler arches in downtown Jackson says it all: This is a cowboy town, ma’am. And though this is clearly the image the town projects, Jackson is much more, too. Sure, there’s loads of cowboy atmosphere; you feel like you’re in a John Wayne movie. But this is a world-class ski town, too. Legendary for its gnarly terrain, Jackson Hole features Corbet’s Coulior, perhaps the most famous expert trail in the country. But the mountain has done a lot to make itself friendlier to non-experts, as well. And the town is easy to enjoy. There are loads of convenient slope side accommodations, gorgeous natural scenery, and terrific dining.
Don’t miss: Jackson is surrounded by both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, which offer a wide range of tours by snowmobile, snowcoach, or van. Another great non-skiing activity: Wyoming Stargazing, a non-profit organization that offers pubic and private stargazing programs.
You can read more from Wendy Clinch on her site, theskidiva.com.