Travel

These Ultra-Chill Ski Towns Have All the Powder and Half the Crowds

Where mountain thrills meet small-town chill.

Whitefish, where you can practically touch the Big Sky. | Photo courtesy of Explore Whitefish
Whitefish, where you can practically touch the Big Sky. | Photo courtesy of Explore Whitefish
EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of the towns listed here are in states requiring quarantine upon arrival, and towns and resorts are implementing and enforcing strict safety policies. We strongly urge you to consult the CDC, state, local, and resort travel policies before you even think of visiting. Better still, use this list to plan for the future.

There are gorgeous mountain towns where the skiing is underwhelming. And there are legendary mountains where the nearest civilization is a speck on the horizon. America’s greatest ski towns combine the best of both. They’re places where people who have never touched a ski will find themselves as invigorated as somebody who just spent a day rocketing down black-diamond slopes, and where both will come together over a fantastic meal at a restaurant or a brewery almost guaranteed to be adorned with antlers. 

In choosing our favorite ski towns, we factored in both sides of the equation, skipping larger cities and most of the obvious choices (we still love you, Aspen) to focus on slopes less traversed. Among them you’ll find sky-high après-ski spots and unexpected treasures hidden deep in the northern reaches of the U.S. And in each, you’ll find an uncommonly great community that just so happens to host white-knuckle skiing. 

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 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.
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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. Lying 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 unique offerings: Find 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.
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Tahoe City, California

Of the numerous towns and ski resorts that surround Lake Tahoe, this hamlet of shops and restaurants can be considered sleepy. Situated 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 the family 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 IrishcCoffee, 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.
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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—uniquely 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 taste bud delights like I.G. Winery and Centro 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.
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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, Ski Bowl, 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 resort room. Even better, Govy sits amid the unmatched splendor of the Mt. Hood National Forest and west of Bend, more a ski city than a ski town, but nonetheless an essential destination. 
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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, home to the largest resort in Arizona: Snowbowl. The resort is a village unto itself, with a high-speed gondola and great lodges. But Flagstaff is a misunderstood marvel. Grab a pint at Mother Road Brewery or a beer cocktail at Historic, stroll the historic downtown’s boutiques, and inhale some of the best pizza in Arizona at Pizzicletta. For some non-vertical, strap on some 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. 
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Stowe, Vermont


Seemingly every town in Vermont could be classified as a ski town, but this serene little hamlet on Mount Mansfield feels practically 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 hate 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 Brewery, 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. 
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Explore Whitefish

Whitefish, Montana

With its remarkably preserved 1905 aesthetic, Whitefish’s vintage Old West charms pair wonderfully with a vibrant food scene—don’t skip Montana-inspired dishes at the James Beard-nominated Cafe Kandahar—and 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 a great lake getaway—and one that's taking the concept of recreating responsibility very seriously during the pandemic in order to sustain what makes it great and keep its residents safe. Oh, right, and the ski-town thing: The Big Mountain’s 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 Park's continental divide. As with the town, the mountain is not suffering any COVID flippancy: refuse to mask up in the ski line and they'll shut the whole thing down until you do. Nobody wants to be that guy. Especially that high above sea level. 
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Taos, New Mexico

The largest ski area in New Mexico, Taos Ski Valley is known for its steeps (40 percent 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 other-worldly charm in winter. Take in 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.
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Crested Butte, Colorado

Popping with wildflowers and art festivals in the summer, the bigger crowds clear CB’s white blanketed landscapes in winter making peace for visitors of the gliding (downhill and cross-country) variety, making it a fantastic alternative to Colorado’s better-known and more thronged ski towns (we still love you, Aspen). 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 Ave.) is warm and rustic, sprinkled with a handful of saloons but also a couple decent sushi bars and a dangerously delicious rum distillery.
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Marquette, Michigan

A frigid but lively polestar on the shores of Lake Superior, great restaurants and craft beer abound along with 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 surround Marquette, groomed for fat tires. 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.
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Park City, Utah

A hub of America’s last Winter Olympics in 2002, Park City is not only home to America’s most enormous ski resort (covering a whopping 7,300 acres, including 41 chairlifts and 341 trails), but also an alluring old mining town. Dating back to the silver rush 150 years ago, Park City’s historic buildings maintain their original facades. If you’re not tackling new terrain on skis or boards, you could spend equally as much time exploring the town’s multitude of shops, restaurants, museums, galleries, breweries, and spas. Grab a warming libation at High West Saloon, located in an old livery stable, or spike your adrenaline and heart rate via snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating, dog sledding, snow biking, ice skating, or tubing outside of town. 
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Thrillist senior editor Andy Kryza contributed to this list.
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.
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