Top 10 Mountain Towns in North America

Top 5/10 Lists — By Josh Steinitz on March 10, 2009 at 4:34 pm

Many of us cling to the dream of ditching the urban rat race and moving to a funky town in the mountains where we can hike, bike, climb, paddle, and ski to our heart’s content. In fact, for every person with the “check out” mentality, there are ten more who simply want to get away, and are looking for a good home away from home, where familiarity and escapism merge in equal proportions to create the perfect experience. Ultimately it’s a continuous spectrum, ranging from selling your house in San Francisco or New York and moving whole-hog, to buying a vacation home where you return year after year, to simple scheming for a regular trip to the mountains. And while not every mountain town can be optimal for each spot along that spectrum, there are clearly some that stand out above the rest, for their combination of local flavor and culture, incredible natural surroundings, and enough of an economy to make semi-regular escapism a viable alternative. I hereby present my top 10:

riding the 401 trail outside Crested Butte

  1. Crested Butte, Colorado – You just can’t beat CB…it literally defines the genre. Incredible mountain biking, hiking, and paddling in the summer, and world-class skiing in the winter. Fortunartely, the town isn’t a faux/Disney-style creation like Vail, and is chock full of hard core locals. Plus, it’s got the requisite super-cool pizza joint. And finally, if you’re really desperate for overpriced designer clothing, Aspen is only a (world and a) 42 mile fire road bike ride away.
  2. Moab, Utah – this little town sits smack in the middle of some of the most amazing terrain in the Southwest, with truly epic mountain biking right out the door on classics like Porcupine Rim and the Slickrock Trail. Not to mention two national parks and the La Sal Mountains for escaping the desert heat.
  3. Bozeman, Montana – Bozeman is an easy drive from Yellowstone, and Big Sky sits just up the Madison Gallatin River (thanks for the correction Brett). As a university town, it offers decent local food and culture, where you can bone up on your literature in between jaunts to hit the hikable backcountry at Bridger Bowl.
  4. Bishop, California – Highway 395 down the dramatic east side of the Sierras may be one of the most scenic roads in America, and Bishop is the region’s beating heart. Easy access to the high passes leading into stunning wilderness areas and Kings Canyon National Park make Bishop an idea base from which to explore the most beautiful areas of the Range of Light. And, if you tire of the Sierras, there’s always the White Mountains just to the east. If it was good enough for Galen Rowell, it’s good enough for me.
  5. Jackson, Wyoming – With the iconic Tetons rising just to the west, and Yellowstone and the Wind River Mountains only a drive away, Jackson will be on anyone’s short list. Yes it’s expensive, but there’s a reason every movie star and his brother wants a place in the area. It’s the only place within a hundred miles where you can find the cultural counterpart to the incredible scenery that surrounds it.
  6. Telluride, Colorado – Sure it’s a bit shi-shi, and many have lamented the “Aspen-ification” of the place. But Telluride is the unofficial capital of the San Juans, the most spectacular and remote range in the Colorado Rockies. Where else can you enjoy 5 star food and lodging in a narrow box canyon surrounded by terrain that supports some of the best skiing and hiking this side of Crested Butte (see above).
  7. Taos, New Mexico – In northern New Mexico, desert southwest meets alpine, and the result is spectacular. From Sante Fe north to Taos, you’ll find evergreen-clad mountains surrounded by an eclectic mix of Native American, Hispanic, and New Age influences. You can charge the chutes at the ski resort in the morning, and indulge in a luxurious spa treatment in the afternoon, all while feeling appropriately humbled by the Land of Enchantment.
  8. Tie: Hood River/Bend, Oregon – The playground of the Northwest, Bend offers a compelling mix of desert-meets-Cascades variety, with climbing, mountain biking, and paddling in abundance. Hood River provides a similar mix, if you swap paddling for kiteboarding or windsurfing, and add a bigger dose of weekend escape artists. Since it’s impossible to choose, you’ll just have to visit both.
  9. Creel, Mexico – South of the border, Creel sits perched at 7,000 in the forest. While there’s great mountain biking close to town, the real action lies just to the south, where the Copper Canyon contains eleven different canyon systems, each with their own unique environment and topography. It has just enough gringos to keep the place humming, but not so many that the place is overrun.
  10. Nelson, British Columbia – B.C. could be a country in its own right, judging by the variety of environments it contains. And Nelson sits within striking distance of an unbelievable number of mountain ranges and adventure opportunities, ranging from the Canadian Rockies to the Bugaboos to Glacier National Park. Plus, it’s got the funkiness factor that all truly great mountain towns must have to qualify for this list.

What would you add?

Tags: Bend, Bishop, Bozeman, British Columbia, California, Colorado, Cree, Crested Butte, Hood River, Jackson, Mexico, Moab, Montana, mountain towns, Nelson, New Mexico, Oregon, Taos, Telluride, Utah, Wyoming

    30 Comments

  • Vince says:

    I think that Jackson is the most beautiful setting, although moab is great, especially for biking enthusiast. This is a really great top ten list, you can post this to our site http://www.toptentopten.com/ and then link back to your site. We are looking for top ten lists and our users can track back to your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

  • Kraig says:

    What? No Boulder, Colorado? The town that practically defines “mountain town”? I’ll admit that the culture of the place turns many off though.

  • Laura says:

    Great list but I was surprised to see Bishop, CA and not Lake Tahoe. I’ve been through Bishop several times and I always considered it just another place to stop and get gas on the way to L.A. Guess I’ll pay more attention next time.

  • Beth says:

    Durango, CO

  • Brett says:

    Thanks. I moved from Boulder to Bozeman…a great place…

  • Brett says:

    Some Corrections:

    Bozeman, Montana – Bozeman is an easy drive from Yellowstone [Park], and Big Sky sits just up the (not “Madison” but) Gallatin River. As a university town, it offers (not “decent” but) great local food and culture, where you can bone up on your literature in between jaunts to hit the hikable [and "skiable"] backcountry at Bridger Bowl.

  • sandy says:

    pretty good list!!!creel is a great pace for mountain biking.

  • Shawn says:

    Bishop #4???? Come on. If you did your research you would know that bishop has virtually zero mountain bike trails.

  • Josh says:

    Good point Shawn. However, Bishop does have so much else, including world class rock climbing, hiking/backpacking, backcountry skiing, road biking, etc. Tahoe definitely wins on the mountain biking score, and of course on resort skiing and water sports.

  • John Stanley says:

    As usual most Americans think North America ends at the 49 th – Ever heard of Fernie BC or Rossland BC, or Banff Alberta, Canmore Alberta – just checking

  • Josh says:

    Canada certainly has some of the best mountain country in the world. Beyond already-listed Nelson, the towns you mention are certainly surrounded by some stunning wilderness. Fernie, Banff and Canmore all merit consideration for sure.

  • Monica Ray says:

    What about Missoula Montana? Missoula is another amazing mountain town.

  • robert mann says:

    boone, north carolina

  • Scott says:

    Hmm. +1 for Fernie, BC & Canmore, AB. Banff is kinda touristy for me (so are several others listed).
    Some I’ve enjoyed= Revelstoke BC, Mt. Shasta, CA, Whitefish, MT, Lake Placid, NY, Loreto, Mexico (Baha peninsula so no skiing:)
    Never been to Asheville, N.C, but heard good things…

    Missoula & Boulder maybe too urban?

  • Allison says:

    I agree with Robet Mann. Boone is the epitome of a mountain town. Why aren’t there any East Coast towns on this list?

  • Nathalie says:

    Asheville, NC and Black Mountain, NC definitely need to be placed on this list.

  • good call Nathalie!

  • someone says:

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  • Lauren says:

    Boulder isn’t a mountain town by any means. The flatirons are more foothills than anything, and nothing about Boulder gives off a mountain town feel. As a 3rd generation Colorado native I’d say that the #1 mountain town is Telluride hands down. I find it way more beautiful and natural than Crested Butte, even if there has been some high class “invasion.” I would recommend Telluride over any other town in the world any day.

  • James says:

    Why has nobody mentioned Truckee CA? The place has it all.

  • Melissa says:

    Are there any mountain towns in West Virginia? (my grandmother was born there & I’ve always wanted to visit). No one mentioned Idyllwild, Julian, Big Bear or Lake Arrowhead, which are certainly favorite amoung many Southern Californians, but I will definately have to visit Telluride & Cree now also! – Thanks for your posts.

  • RachelBeeWV says:

    Davis WV!!!! My hometown….small and unheard of but completely amazing( :

  • Malia says:

    Crested Butte IS the best mountain town! I totally disagree with Lauren above – as Telluride has gone far too much up its own Asspen. Love to see this list as a CB local ~ the only thing not mentioned is during the summer CB is just an hours drive from the largest body of water in Colorado – Blue Mesa Reservoir so there are diversions in the ways of water sports (sailing, water skiing, wake boarding, cliff jumping) as well as hiking, biking, rafting, kayaking, climbing, horseback riding… the list goes on! Definitely THE place to live!

  • Udun says:

    Golden (BC) & Corner Brook/Steady Brook (NL) are way fun!! Part of the reason why we stay so long though is because they aren’t packed with tourists, so they are not overpriced either!
    :)

  • Mike Riley says:

    You forgot Kelowna BC and Cape Breton NS!

  • Tim says:

    Nice list. I would ask for you to develop it a bit further. Top Ten Mountain Towns for year-round living… can you offer something forth that takes in work force, private schools and hospitals? I need to get out of KC and am looking for a few places to visit in the New Year that the family and I will consider.

  • Andrew says:

    Whistler!?!?

  • ben says:

    wellsboro, pa

  • Morgan says:

    Come On! Durango, CO should be on here before CB, Telluride, or Moab. If you like sharing jeep trails with 4×4 nuts then Moab is for you. Telluride! Give me a break, they have about 4 rides out of a box canyon. Or a bunch of ski lift DH if you are into that. CB is epic, but their season is about 4 months max. Durango has the best in town riding, as well as unlimited riding if you drive in any direction.

  • Morgan says:

    I apologize, I thought this was a “Best Mountain Bike Town” list, my bad!

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