What exactly is a mountain town? Does it have to be located above a certain altitude to qualify? Do a certain percentage of the buildings have to be built in log cabin style? Or maybe it has to be draped in snow for half the year? I don’t think it’s such an easy thing to define with just a few words. Sure, there are similarities between all great mountain towns, but for the most part, I think you just know one when you see one.
We skiers and riders are lucky. We spend a lot of time in some of the most beautiful mountain hamlets in the world, just by virtue of needing somewhere to stay and eat while we’re not on the slopes. But in the summer, our list of potential vacation spots grows considerably because we can pick a mountain town to visit independent of how how we feel about the nearby ski resort. So while you pretty much can’t go wrong picking a place like Aspen, Park City, Sun Valley, or Whistler, if you head for the hills this summer, consider the following list of amazing, and maybe a little surprising, mountain destinations.
Flagstaff, AZ – Southern Slopes of the San Francisco Peaks
Most people don’t picture snow-capped peaks, towering pine forests, and cool temperatures when they think of Arizona. That’s because they haven’t been to Flagstaff. Flagstaff sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet on the southern slopes of the San Francisco peaks. Its location means there is a laundry list of things to do nearby – Grand Canyon National Park is just an hour north and the red rock majesty of Sedona is less than an hour south. Arizona’s highest mountain, Humphrey’s Peak is visible from town and you’ll find miles of beautiful trails up to and around its nearly 13,000 foot summit. There’s no doubt you’ll enjoy the breathtaking scenery of the surrounding area, but you’ll also find plenty to do in Flagstaff proper.
Check out the burgeoning micro-brewery scene (a staple of many great mountain towns) headlined by Dark Sky Brewing and Historic Brewing. Every summer there are a number of road races, triathlons, and bike races. Sign up for one of them and sweat to earn your visit to the breweries. There is also a parade through downtown every 4th of July, highlighting the history of Arizona and the history of the west. Beautiful scenery, outdoor activities, the Grand Canyon, and family activities… What more could you need?
But can you ski/ride here in the winter? Yes! Arizona Snow Bowl, Arizona’s only big mountain ski destination is just 20 minutes outside of town.
*Bonus: Go for a jog – Chances are you’ll see an olympian! Thanks to the relatively comfortable climate and the ideal elevation, Flagstaff has become an incredibly popular training destination for olympic-caliber distance runners from all over the world.
Stanley, ID – Near the Headwaters of the Salmon River
Ever wonder what Sun Valley was like in the 1940’s? Well, stop wondering, and just visit Stanley to get an idea. There’s not much there, but that’s kind of the point! Nestled between the craggy points of the Sawtooth mountains near the headwaters of the Salmon River, Stanley is paradise for the outdoors-person that appreciates solitude. You’ll find unrivaled rafting and fly fishing, rustic guest ranches, and easy access to the criminally under-appreciated Sawtooth mountain range. Stanley is a very small town, so don’t expect too many options when it comes to restaurants, breweries, lodging and events. But something tells me you won’t be thinking about urban amenities when you’re knee deep in the Salmon River, surrounded by thrashing Rainbow Trout.
But can you ski/ride here in the winter? Of course! Sun Valley, the classic Idaho powder magnet is just about an hour south while the Sawtooths, home to the gnarliest backcountry lines in Idaho surround the town on all sides.
Asheville, NC – One of the Blue Ridge Mountain Towns
The city of Asheville lies in a deep, wooded river valley between the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains. Like Flagstaff, Asheville may not be one of the first names that comes to mind when people think of mountain towns, but that is quickly changing. The southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a world-famous scenic byway that connects Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south with Shenandoah National Park in the north, passes right through town, and offers incredible scenic driving in both directions. In fact, Mt. Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, is just a short and beautiful drive up the parkway. From golf, to river rafting, to hiking, to cycling, your recreation options in and around Asheville are as good as any town out west, but the options in town really set it apart.
Asheville is a relatively large city (as mountain towns go), meaning there is a lot to do. First and foremost, there are plenty of excellent micro-breweries. Visit during the first week of June each year to catch Asheville Beer Week and sample the best beers from Highland Brewing, Green Man, Wicked Weed, and many others. Shop some of the best antiques stores in the country, which are spread throughout town, all filled with the hand-crafted wooden furniture that North Carolina is famous for. You can even catch a professional baseball game at McCormick Field, home of the ‘Tourists,’ the Class A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. As mountain towns go, that’s quite the lineup.
Like I said, it’s hard to go wrong when you plan a trip to one of those well-known, glitzy mountain towns. After all, they are well-known and glitzy for a reason. But if you’re looking to expand your horizons and be a pioneer, then get off the beaten path in any of these awesome mountain destinations this summer.