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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?