There’s something special about mountain towns. Fresh air and scenic eye-appeal are givens — but life in these alpine communities is largely driven by outdoor activities. All year, there’s something happening. Summer hikes, water sports, picnics and barbeques give way in the winter to skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice skating and sledding.
Mountain towns also have a magnetic attraction for artists and crafters, innovative merchants and big city restaurateurs seeking a new start — all of which bode well for those who prefer indoor pleasures such as shopping, dining and nightlife.
We’ve scoured the country in search of mountain towns with the most to offer visitors, and here’s our list of the top eight.
Named for a trio of towering Cascade Mountain peaks to its west, Sisters is a bustling, artsy community with charming 1880s facades and a friendly small-town ambience. It is a year-round fun spot, with camping and fishing nearby at Suttle Lake, mountain biking on the 25-mile-long Peterson Ridge Trail and 800 acres of family-friendly ski terrain at Hoodoo Ski Area.
Major events meriting a visit include the annual Sisters Rodeo in June, the Sisters Folk Festival in September and the world’s largest outdoor quilt show on the second weekend of July.
This San Diego-area mountain town was once the scene of Southern California’s biggest gold rush. Today folks are rushing here primarily to try some of Julian’s world-famous apple pie. The pie is an obvious byproduct of the area’s many apple orchards (yes, there’s a tour).
Gold is no longer extracted from local mines, but one — the Eagle Mining Co. — has been reopened for tours. Round out a day of old-timey fun with a ride along Main Street in a horse-drawn carriage.
Telluride is synonymous with skiing and high mountain peaks.
Tucked away in a box canyon and surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks, this Victorian-era mining town boasts a picture-postcard setting and a reputation that ranks it amongst America’s most famous mountain towns. It has been named “No. 1 Best Small Town to Visit in the USA” by U.S. News & World Report. Year after year, readers of Condé Nast Traveler rank Telluride as the “#1 Ski Resort in North America,” and The New York Times says, “Telluride isn’t just a ski area; it’s a way of life.”
The town is a favorite for some owing to its world-class alpine skiing, while others are swayed by summers full of cultural events, including the iconic Telluride Bluegrass Festival and an endless variety of outdoor activities. What rings true to everyone, however, is the town’s authentic mountain character and unpretentious attitude. Standing tall with an elevation of 8,750 feet, Telluride is the highest mountain town on our list.
Taos, New Mexico
New Mexico isn’t just about Santa Fe.Nearby Taos, with a population of just 6,000, punches way more than its weight when it comes to history, culture and outdoor activities. Situated on a rolling 7,000-foot-high mesa at the base of the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Taos is an outdoor haven with an enthralling history. Its unique blend of cultures — Spanish, Native American and Anglo — have historically drawn artists, writers and photographers, as evidenced by the presence of museums, festivals and more than 80 art galleries.
Native American culture is on full display at Taos Pueblo, where descendants of the Tiwa people live in the oldest continuously inhabited community in America. The pueblo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
Adventurists bent on outdoor activity can choose from skiing and snowboarding at three local ski areas, rafting and kayaking in the Rio Grande and Chama Rivers, mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, fishing and llama trekking.
Deadwood, South Dakota
A popular backdrop for television and the movies, this “Wild
West” town nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota certainly looks the part of the rollicking 1876 gold rush town that it actually was. Somewhat in the spirit of the lawless Old West, electronic gaming halls have taken the place of rowdy saloons, card rooms and brothels.
There are tourist shops aplenty and some reasonably good restaurants, including the Gem Steakhouse with a menu inspired by the real-life characters on the TV series “Deadwood.” A local cemetery contains the graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Nearby Spearfish Canyon is home to several outstanding waterfalls. Custer State Park, with its huge herd of 1,300 bison; Mount Rushmore; and Badlands National Park are all close by. Deadwood’s location in the middle of the Black Hills provides easy access to outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and fly fishing.
Asheville is surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains in Western North Carolina.
Asheville, North Carolina
With a population pushing 93,000, Asheville is the largest community on our list of marvelous mountain hangouts. But, it’s a small town at heart — a cool, progressive and rather classy one at that. Asheville itself, at 2,134 feet in elevation, isn’t actually in the mountains — but it is virtually ringed by the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Overlooking the city, in fact, is Mount Mitchell (aka “Grandfather Mountain”), the highest point east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet. Those seeking exercise (and a fabulous view) can hike the 1.5-mile trail to the summit. Surrounding Asheville as well is roughly a million acres of protected wilderness that provides plenty of space to hike, bike, paddle and fish.
If motoring is your thing, Asheville serves as a convenient springboard for a spin along the Blue Ridge Parkway — one the country’s blue-ribbon scenic byways. Back in the city, culture and creative consumption prevail, with the number of art galleries rivaled by a growing roster of craft breweries. The prime attraction here are tours of the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, featuring America’s largest home, built in 1895 for George Vanderbilt.
Some mountain towns are more touristy that others — and for those who like things a bit kitschy — Gatlinburg is bound to please. The list of carnival-like attractions includes the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, the Hollywood Stars Cars Museum, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, a moonshine distillery, a host of Branson-style music shows, and the area’s largest and perhaps most touristy attraction, Dollywood, in neighboring Pigeon Forge.
Situated at an elevation of just 1,289 feet, Gatlinburg is one of the least mountainous of our eight selected alpine outposts — but it is a quick ride from downtown on the 2.1-mile aerial tram to Ober Gatlinburg, Tennessee’s only ski area, where the air is a bit thinner at 3,300 feet.
Kitsch aside, there’s more than ample opportunity for recreation around the town billed as the Gateway to Smoky Mountains National Park, including skiing and other winter sports, white-water rafting, fishing, zip-lining, horseback riding, golf and hiking on more than 600 miles of trails.
North Conway, New Hampshire
It is often called the quintessential New England village — with a twist — because it is even more often cited as an adventure haven. Like the Moab of the Northeast. For example, USA Today named North Conway the “Top 10 Best Small Town for Year-Round Adventure” in 2018. The same year it was voted No. 2 on the “Best Ski Town” list by the newspaper’s readers. This ranking shouldn’t come as a surprise, because there are 13 ski areas within a half-hour drive of the town.
Set among rolling hills and sparkling lakes and streams, this idyllic town is surrounded by the 660,000-acre White Mountain National Forest and the town is the jumping off place for a visit to Mount Washington, the highest point in the Northeast at 6,289 feet.
Famous, or better, infamous, for its weather, Mount Washington recorded the strongest wind gust (231 mph) ever logged in the U.S. You can drive there or take the Cog Railway to the summit. Attractions especially geared to adventurists include the International Mountain Climbing School and Monkey Trunks Zipline Park, featuring 10 ziplines and 60 climbing challenges.
Golfers know to follow the Road to the Links where they’ll find 10 golf courses offering more than 170 holes. Sightseeing is best accomplished by joining a vintage train at Conway Scenic Railroad or by taking a spin along the Kancamagus Highway (NH 112) — an hour-long drive linking Conway and Lincoln that is considered one of New England’s most scenic byways.