skiiers on a mountain
Quality skiing in West Virginia? You bet. | Photo courtesy of Snowshoe Mountain
Quality skiing in West Virginia? You bet. | Photo courtesy of Snowshoe Mountain

These Laid-Back Ski Towns Have All the Powder and Half the Crowds

Ditch the pricy lift tickets and packed runs for underrated destinations that will have you switching up your winter vacation routine.

Let’s face it: The country is littered with gorgeous mountain towns where the skiing is downright underwhelming. And then there are legendary runs where the nearest city is more than a decent drive away. But America’s greatest ski towns are a combination of the best of both worlds. These are spots that cater to first-timers as well as pros speeding down black-diamond trails, destinations where award-winning cuisine, top-notch breweries, antler-adorned saloons, and some of the best wine bars in the country come together. In short, a skier’s dreamworld.

It’s not easy to pick favorites when it comes to ski towns, but here, we chose to skip the obvious (we still love you, Aspen) and instead champion back country that’s less traversed. Don’t think that means you won’t find the same level of pulsing après-ski spots and powder so fresh, you’re ready to get back to the top before you’ve even made it down your first set of slopes. These are the unexpected and underrated treasures tucked away everywhere from the desert to some of the most stunning southern mountain ranges.

Not only will you find quality skiing for all skill sets and a community ready to root you on as you hit the slopes, you’ll be engulfed by winter wonderlands so charming, you’ll be surprised these super-chill ski towns weren’t on your radar sooner. Here’s where you should be shredding it up this winter.

western style wooden cabin in the snow with fireworks
The best of the wild west, plus hot springs perfect for a post-ski soak. | Visit Steamboat Springs

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

A historic epicenter where the Old West meets winter sports, the aspen-strewn slopes of Steamboat lie at a lower elevation than most of Colorado’s resorts. But don’t be fooled—you’re still bottoming out at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. Plus, the town is rife with culinary fare that’s surprising for such a casual place. Start with breakfast and creative cocktails at Yampa Valley Kitchen and ramp up your appetite for an authentic, multi-course French meal at Sauvage before a brisk walk to the magically frozen Fish Creek Falls. One of the standout features of this funky ski town is, of course, the opportunity to soak in steamy mineral water at Old Town Hot Springs or Strawberry Park Hot Springs after hitting the slopes.

skiers entering lodge at ski santa fe
America’s second oldest city is also one of the most under-the-radar ski towns | New Mexico True

Santa Fe, New Mexico

You probably never thought of this summer tourist hub—also America’s second-oldest city, dating back to 1610—as a ski town. Clearly, you do not know Santa Fe. About 16 miles away is possibly the country’s best-kept alpine secret. Ski Santa Fe boasts more than 80 trails, a bounty of powder, and you will be hard-pressed to wait in a lift line. In town, indulge in the southwestern city’s unbeatable, upscale Mexican fare at Sazón; visit the psychedelic living museum that is Meow Wolf or the less cerebral New Mexico History Museum; or stroll the Palace of the Governors, where Native American artists display their original handmade jewelry, ornaments, and artwork.

sign that reads "upper snowfield" on top of mountain
Marquette is home to one of the Midwest’s most popular trails. | Marquette Mountain

Marquette, Michigan

A frigid but lively polestar on the shores of Lake Superior, Marquette abounds with great restaurants, craft beer, and one of the Midwest’s most popular ski hills. With only a 600-foot vertical rise and three chairlifts, Marquette Mountain may be small, but it’s got steeps and tallies more than 200 inches of snow per year. Outside the slopes and near-endless cross-country trails, the real thrill of this area comes on two wheels—more than 75 miles of trail groomed for fat tires surround Marquette. If pedaling in a blizzard doesn’t endear you to the hardcore but super friendly Yoopers, sipping local suds certainly will. Blackrocks Brewery, Ore Dock Brewing Company, Drifa Brewing, and Barrel & Beam are all beer snob-worthy stops in a college town also crawling with cozy dives.

snowboarder in the air at homewood mountain resort
Feel like you’re skiing right into Lake Tahoe on Homewood Mountain Resort’s slopes. | Homewood Mountain Resort

Tahoe City, California

Despite the numerous towns and ski resorts that surround Lake Tahoe, this hamlet of shops and restaurants is still considered pretty sleepy. Located directly on the lakeshore, in summer, it’s bustling with boaters, SUPers, and kayakers. In the colder months, the view of the twinkling town from the quiet pier or Fanny Bridge is magical. Find a family-friendly scene at the sledding hill and ice rink at the Winter Sports Park; comfort food amid antiques and vintage toys at Rosie’s Café; and Irish coffee, fresh fish tacos, rustic-chic rooms, and romantic lake views at Sunnyside Restaurant & Lodge. Head 10 minutes up the road and feel like you’re plummeting directly into the lake down the slopes of Homewood Mountain Resort.

aerial view of ski resort at sunset
Not far from Asheville, you’ll find some pretty great skiing in North Carolina. | See Sugar Mountain, NC

Sugar Mountain, North Carolina

For obvious reasons, the notoriously humid Southeastern US doesn’t get much hype when it comes to skiing. But in North Carolina, you can find some truly excellent powder come winter. For proof, look about an hour and a half northeast of brewery-lined Asheville to Sugar Mountain, which sits at an elevation of 4,432 feet in Pisgah National Forest. Up to 78 inches of snow falls here each year, blanketing the 125 acres of skiable terrain—which include 21 slopes and the largest vertical drop (1,200 feet) in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains—in a pristine white coat. Stop here between late November and early March for skiing, snowboarding, tubing, ice skating, and snowshoeing, or plan your trip in time for the annual SugarFest weekend in December.

snowboarders doing jumps near enormous boulders
Southern Utah’s slopes deserve more credit. | Brian Head Resort

Cedar City, Utah

Southern Utah falls off the radar for many powder hounds, which is a shame, because Brian Head Resort is actually the state’s highest ski area (base elevation: 9,600 feet), among its least crowded, and—adjacent to the vibrant red walls and towering hoodoos of neighboring Cedar Breaks National Monument—spectacularly scenic. Just over 30 miles away, historic, holiday light-illuminated Cedar City is an epicenter for festivals and cultural offerings, including a year-round farmers market and culinary delights like I/G Winery and Centro Woodfired Pizzeria. Off-slope adventures range from cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to snowmobiling and ice-skating. You might even find T-shirt weather and a rare dearth of crowds at nearby Zion National Park.

aerial view of lead deadwood ski town at night
Wild West vibes meet frosty winters in South Dakota. | South Dakota Tourism

Lead-Deadwood, South Dakota

At the 450-acre Terry Peak Ski Area, you’ll find beginner to black diamond slopes and everything in between—as well as five chairlifts, a freestyle terrain park, a half-pipe, 29 trails, and ski lessons. Best of all, since South Dakota is a relatively lesser-known ski destination, the mountains here are blissfully devoid of crowds. Along with one of the Midwest’s most underrated ski spots, Lead is also home to South Dakota’s most famous anomalies—a haunted opera house filled with 20th-century ghosts, one of two neutrino reactors in the world, and saloons frequented by as many hardy locals as nuclear scientists—while nearby Deadwood’s 120-year-old Wild West streets give way to even more winter fun in Spearfish Canyon and beyond.

overhead view of timberline ski lodge on snowy mountain landscape
Government Camp is a great base for shredding Mt. Hood’s nearby ski resorts. | Timberline Lodge

Government Camp, Oregon

An alpine timber village towering about 4,000 feet over nearby Portland, Government Camp punches well above the weight of its 200 or so residents. A stone’s throw from Mt. Hood’s best and most ripping resorts—Meadows, Timberline, Skibowl, and Summit—the village is a ski town in distillate. Grab a fresh Ice Axe IPA at Mt. Hood Brewing, some prime rib at Charlie’s Mountain View, or a legendary Ratskeller pizza before retiring to your digs, be them a cozy A-frame cabin or a chalet at Collins Lake Resort. Even better, Govy sits amid the unmatched splendor of the Mt. Hood National Forest just west of Bend.

person skiing down a mountain with forest in the background
The desert surprisingly has fantastic skiing—particularly in Snowbowl. | Arizona Snowbowl

Flagstaff, Arizona

A stark contrast to Arizona’s reputation as a scorched-earth cacti wilderness, Flagstaff thrives in the shadows of the San Francisco peaks and is home to the largest resort in Arizona: Snowbowl. The resort is more of a village, with a high-speed gondola and great lodges, but Flagstaff is a misunderstood marvel. Grab a pint at Mother Road Brewing Company or Historic, stroll the historic downtown’s boutiques, and inhale some of the best pizza in Arizona at Pizzicletta. For some non-vertical, strap on cross-country skis to explore the sprawling Arizona Nordic Village. And don’t forget to look up: You’re in the first designated International Dark Sky City, so whether you’re stargazing from the launch of a black-diamond run or the comfort of a yurt, it will be spectacular.

panoramic view of stowe mountain resort covered in snow at sunset
Get ready for some of the best skiing in the Northeast. | Stowe Mountain Resort

Stowe, Vermont

Practically every town in Vermont could be classified as a ski town, but this serene little hamlet on Mount Mansfield feels focus-grouped into a Northeastern paradise. At Stowe Mountain Resort, you’ll find some of the best skiing in the Northeast, with runs suited for rookies and double-diamond adrenaline junkies alike. But even if you’re not a fan of skiing, Stowe is pure Vermont, from its quintessential small-town New England vibes to its ridiculous wealth of beer: This is home to The Alchemist—purveyors of Heady Topper, perhaps America’s most coveted beer—and von Trapp Brewing, operated by the descendants of the Sound of Music family, who also run a gorgeous alpine lodge. Oh, and there are some hippies making ice cream down the road, too.

downtown whitefish
Indulge in Montana’s standout beer after a day on some of the best slopes in the West. | Explore Whitefish

Whitefish, Montana

With its remarkably preserved 1905 aesthetic, Whitefish’s Old West charm pairs wonderfully with a cold one. Don’t skip some characteristically great Montana beer (58 handles worth) at Montana Tap House. Throw in gorgeous Whitefish Lake and suddenly you’re looking at a great mountain town that’s also a sleeper food destination and fantastic lake getaway. Oh, right, and the skiing thing: Whitefish Mountain Resort is consistently ranked among the best in the west, with a 2,353-foot drop, 3,000 acres of terrain, and a stellar view of the jagged peaks of Glacier National Park's continental divide.

crowd of skiers at taos ski valley
If skiing’s not your thing, there’s always snowshoeing or the hot springs. | Taos Ski Valley

Taos, New Mexico

The largest ski area in New Mexico, Taos Ski Valley is known for its steeps (40% is expert-rated), but the real appeal of this area is the adobe-laden town 20 miles down the road. Sitting at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet, Taos is a hot spot for visitors in the summer and fall, but its beige-colored historic district and plaza take on an otherworldly charm in winter. Admire views of the Sangre de Cristo peaks or the sheer walls of the Rio Grande Gorge on a snowshoe adventure, explore the town’s art galleries, soak in nearby hot springs, or fuel up with some iteration of green chile at the authentic but unassuming La Cueva Café.

woman nordic skiing towards lodge
Ski some of the best slopes in the Pacific Northwest. | Visit Bend

Bend, Oregon

Central Oregon isn’t somewhere you’d immediately think of planning a ski holiday, but about 22 miles from Bend lies Mt. Bachelor, home to 4,300 acres of powder that’s perfect for both experts (steep runs, challenging terrain parks), as well as families and beginners (the free beginner’s lift makes it easy to get up the gentle slope while practicing or taking lessons). With the highest skiing elevation in both Oregon and Washington, you’re guaranteed an average of 462 inches of snow per year—plus one of the longest ski seasons in the Pacific Northwest, running from November through May. If you’re not so keen on downhill skiing, there’s plenty of groomed Nordic trails to keep you more than entertained.

snowmobiles in west virginia
Snowmobiling is just the start. | Photo by Chris McLennan Photography, courtesy of Snowshoe Mountain

Snowshoe, West Virginia

As far as southern states go, the Virginias have a surprisingly decent range of ski resorts, the best of the bunch being Snowshoe Mountain. Found amongst the many, many peaks of the Appalachian Range, the resort offers up 244 acres of skiable terrain, plus snowmobile rides, a tube park, off-road tours, sleigh rides, and skiing under the stars. If relaxation and après-ski are more your thing, watch the powder fall from the heated split rock pools or book a backcountry tour and dinner at one of the cozy mountain huts.

two skiers admiring mountaintop view at crested butte mountain resort
Skip Colorado’s packed ski towns—Crested Butte has runs for all levels, plus a lively main drag with a rum distillery. | Crested Butte Mountain Resort

Crested Butte, Colorado

Blooming with wildflowers and art festivals in the summer, the bigger crowds clear CB’s white-blanketed landscapes in winter, making it a fantastic alternative to Colorado’s better-known (and seriously packed) ski towns. Jagged and standing on its own like something straight out of a cartoon, Crested Butte Mountain is indisputably the area’s centerpiece. The resort has terrain for every level of skier or rider, including more double black-rated runs than any resort in Colorado. An old mining town, the main drag (Elk Avenue) is warm and rustic, sprinkled with a handful of saloons, as well as a couple of decent sushi bars and a dangerously delicious rum distillery.

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A Denver native, freelance writer Shauna Farnell loves a throwback ski lodge but has never donned one-piece outerwear. Follow her on Twitter @shaunafarnell or on Instagram @mountaingirlinthecity.
Andy Kryza is a contributor for Thrillist. 
Tiana Attride contributed to this story.