When the question “Where’s the best ski town to live in year round?” was posed to a bunch of North American snow sport diehards, consensuses gathered around a few choice areas. These places cater to “graduated” ski bums who want to keep playing hard but might be realizing it’s time to earn their turns — by working, too. Starting our tour in western U.S.A., we’ll make our way, in alphabetical order, into Canada and then back down to the east coast. (Stay tuned.)
So, without further hesitation: Introducing the top three ski towns for Western living, as chosen by ski bums who are already doing it.
1. Alta, Utah
Perfect for: Becoming one of the locals (Queue “Cheers” theme song)
Skier: Joe J.
After moving to Utah from his Washington home state, Joe made his way through a couple of Wasatch resorts before settling on Alta and falling in love with the town of the same name.
Wait—you didn’t know there was a town at the base of this mountain? Many don’t and, according to Joe, that’s a large part of what makes this area so fantastic.
Located along one of Utah’s Scenic Byways, the town’s high elevation gives it a unique setting. “In the winter, Alta’s terrain is covered with more snow (averaging 500”), less people and has an unbeatable vibe,” says Joe. He uses the words “classic, comfortable, historical, and friendly” to describe the town and ski area, adding “challenging and deep” to round out his feelings for the mountain.
But what about summer? “The great thing about Alta is that in the summer everyone is going somewhere else,” Joe explains. That leaves the residents of this town, which is surrounded by the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, to their own quiet doings. “There are rad mountain biking and hiking trails where chances are the only other living thing you’ll come across is a moose.”
That doesn’t mean you’ll never get to socialize or meet new folks. “In town, the locals get together on Sundays to play volleyball by the Alta lodge. And every year, world-famous photographers gather to photograph the area during the Wasatch Wildflower festival.” With over 170 species of flowers showing off their finery in Alta’s Albion Basin, it’s no surprise it is the highlight of the three-day gathering.
What about jobs? Consider Alta as a bedroom community of Salt Lake City, which is buzzing with commerce. Picked as one of Forbes Magazine’s hotspots for top tech cities in 2012, Salt Lake City earned an appropriate title of “Silicon Slopes.” With hot tech companies such as Adobe moving into the area, the commute from your mountain home to a high-end job is easier than that of many of the folks in larger metro areas (and you get the bonus of deep winter pow).
A community nonprofit organization, ACE, also makes sure that the arts are incorporated into Alta living. Through their work, film festivals, local art shows, workshops, and dance instruction round out the list of calendar events for the town’s residents.
“Oh,” Joe interjects, returning to his winter thoughts with one important addition to why Alta is the perfect ski town. “It has multiple true ski bars.”
What makes a true ski bar? Besides wood-paneled interiors and local live music, true ski bars also know how to cater to their clientele. Alta exemplifies this by giving out free appetizers at 4:30 p.m. daily during the ski season. Talk about knowing your niche.
It’s a quieter scene, and if that’s your thing, Alta’s your place.
When you get here: Head to the Peruvian Bar (aka “P Dog” as the core group of locals know it), order “Wyld,” a pale ale from Utah’s own Uinta Brewing Company, and chat it up with your friendly new neighbors.
Perfect for: The adventure family
Teleskier: Adam B.
You hear plenty about Colorado’s I-70 corridor resort towns, but a true gem lies to the south, not far from the New Mexico border. Located in the quieter-but-just-as-rugged San Juan mountains, Durango captured Adam’s heart since moving to Colorado from Portland (by way of Utah, by way of Idaho, by way of New Mexico…) for a sparkling new position with a top outdoor retailer.
“Durango, Colorado,” says Adam, dreamily. “A perfect-sized town with a fun night life. It’s got it all: great food, good atmosphere, and not insanely expensive.” Which is important for Adam, since he’s an outdoor man with an outdoor family that stays active year round — another reason why Durango tops his list of the most livable ski towns.
Beside the obvious winter sports (skiing and riding), Adam can hardly contain his excitement over the town’s summer activities. “Oh, my gosh,” he gushes. “Summer is banner [in Durango]. Rafting, mountain biking, and rock climbing are just minutes outside of town, and there are solid peaks to hike.” Take Engineer Mountain, for example, which he shows off with a couple of photos he snapped during his hikes. Nearly a 13,000-foot mountain, it dominates the region’s skyline and provides a challenge worthy of even the most seasoned hikers.
And if you’re an archaeology buff, Durango is a hop away from Mesa Verde National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage site, which is located smack-dab in the center of the “archaeological center of America,” was once home to the native Pueblo people whose ancestors inhabited the area for nearly 700 years, up until late in the 13th century. It is here that you can view their incredible cliff-side dwellings or one of the other 4,700 archaeological sites located within the park’s boundaries.
Feeling more culturally inclined? Durango offers live theater, concerts, and an arts center, all which fill up the town’s events calendar and keep things lively in the off-season. Plenty of restaurants, as well as four breweries, mean you can play hard all day and wrap it up with an evening out on the town.
When you get here: Adam was asked to name the one thing any newcomer must do when getting into town. “Go rafting through town,” he says, which you can do on the Class II-III Animas River. That’s right: Whitewater raft right through the heart of Durango which, by itself, makes this a great ski town for year-round living. “Oh, and go to the Trimble hot springs,” he quickly follows up.
“Sorry, that’s two.”
It’s okay Adam… Gold star for excitement.
Home of: Whitefish Mountain Resort
Perfect for: Living where the West still means “wild”
Snowboarder: Kellie B.
There’s a storybook town squeezed up against the 49th parallel. If you look east from within its borders, you’ll spot the soaring ruggedness of Glacier National Park. Look above and you’ll be dwarfed by Montana’s “Big Sky.” And a simple look in front of you will make you feel at home.
Welcome to Whitefish, a genuine Western town with an undertone that’s unassumingly hip. All that you imagine of Montana is preserved in this idyllic town, complete with buildings with Old Western-style false facades, cowboy hat-tippin’ men, and ski joring competitions every winter.
This is a Montana ski town, after all. Expect a little quirkiness.
“Whitefish is kind of an enigma in a way,” says Kellie. “It has the allure of big powder but the quaint sensibility of the small town you expect to find in the nether regions of Montana.” This means that you’ll likely find some of the same folks you see on the hill saddling up beside you at The Great Northern Bar for a brew and bite to eat post-epic turns.
And while skiing is the staple sport of the area (its presence dates back to the early 1930’s), a great year-round ski town sports an abundance of diversions to appease the active. Whitefish gets that. In any season, the town is ready for outdoor lovers: Ramp up adrenaline on Spencer Mountain’s man-made mountain bike features, practice your roll (whether fly fish casting or whitewater kayaking) on Montana’s famed Flathead river, take your hiking year-round via snowshoes on the Whitefish Trail, and paddle the calm waters of Whitefish Lake.”
Or heck, pick your share in the bear’s bounty of wild huckleberries; they’re so plentiful, the town celebrates them annually with their own festival.
Though this town of 7,000 might not be for urban-lovers, there are lots of visitors to keep things bustling. “What was once a well kept secret in the backwoods of Montana isn’t so unknown anymore,” says Kellie. That means there are plenty of businesses and services to cater to residents, which gives normalcy to local living. There’s even an international airport just 12 miles from the heart of town.
But don’t pack your bags just yet.
“Our town is not for everyone,” warns Kellie. “If you can’t stand hometown charm, hate great coffee, despise happy people and simply don’t enjoy amazing scenery, then Whitefish isn’t for you.”
Can you deal with that? Thought so. Giddy up, pardner.
When you get here: Kellie advises the following: Stop in to Amazing Crepes and grab a “Farm to Market” (to go) with jalapeño and bacon. Crepe in hand, head over to the city beach on the shores of Whitefish Lake. Unwrap your meal, take a bite, and enjoy one of the most gorgeous scenes in Montana.