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When you consider the ideal vacation, the mind usually drifts into a dreamy coastal village or a cottage by the lake. But if you're living life exclusively at sea level, you're missing out on the surreal magic of the mountains—where life slows down but the world opens up into majestic vistas, dense forests, and mirror-like lakes.
People tend to associate mountain towns with ski trips, and they're not wrong. But really, the best destinations are never not ideal. Whether they're exploding with wildflowers amid springtime snowmelt; crawling with summertime hikers, campers, climbers, and boaters; or flaring up with vibrant colors in the fall; these villages complement their seasonally transformational views with perpetually great vibes, cool bars, and fantastic food. These are 15 of our favorite towns in the shadows of giants.
Taos isn't exactly a summer hotspot, unless you're being hyper-literal. But once fall starts taming the inferno, Taos switches to must-visit status. What the Sangre de Cristo Mountains surrounding this New Mexico adventurer's paradise lack in size, they more than make up for in character. And whether fly fishing, mountain biking, horseback riding, hot-air ballooning, river rafting, hot springing, or llama (yes, llama) trekking, a stunning mountain view is almost always in sight. The town itself is an artists colony replete with the adobe-hut charisma of Santa Fe and more than 80 art galleries. But at any time of year, plan to people-watch while sipping margaritas at the lively Adobe Bar at Taos Inn, or drink Tecate and play shuffleboard at the oldest house in town, Alley Cantina.
As the site of the 1932 and 1980 Olympics, as well as the annual Lake Placid IRONMAN triathlon, you might think you need to hit the gym before being allowed entry to this peaceful Adirondack town best known for the "Miracle on Ice." And while you can use the town as a base for adrenaline-junkie activities like climbing the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks or bobsledding the Olympic Complex, no one's gonna give you trouble for filling up your growler at Lake Placid Pub & Brewery and walking the trail around Mirror Lake. There's also a gondola ride, scenic railway, and plenty of perches for lakeside drinking and dining like The Cottage at Mirror Lake Inn.
To stroll through this serene Old West town face-to-face with the massive, snow-capped San Juan peaks rising up from its box canyon location is to know the sheer awe-inspiring power of mountain living. And while there are few better ways to spend a day than exploring the soulful peaks, you don't want to be soulful all the time —and worthy distractions include the Last Dollar Saloon and New Sheridan Hotel rooftop. Telluride—for our money Colorado's best small town, period—is also famous for hosting a ridiculous number of top-tier music festivals and film fest. Don't worry about hiring a designated driver if your night gets a little rowdy, either: the public transit here is by gondola.
Not only are there gorgeous views of Mount Bachelor to be had from Todd Lake in Deschutes National Forest, but there are also volcanoes, waterfalls, buttes, caves... even rugged badlands ready to be explored. Bend is, simply, everything you expect out of Oregon, with a fraction of the hipsters. It's a legendary beer town that built on the foundation laid by Deschutes Brewery. Its food and drink scene punches above cities thrice its size. It's also a cannabis-friendly hub of outdoor music, all set up in a mountainous confluence of old mill town and a modern Pacific Northwest city. And if you somehow haven't gotten your fill of mountain town love, it's also the entry point to nearby towns like Sisters, another western-influenced charmer in the shadows of three snowy peaks.
There’s a reason that people in Burlington are perpetually in great moods: The biggest city in the Green Mountain state is like a greatest hit of Vermont’s finest qualities. Plunked on dreamy Lake Champlain, you’ll find impossibly delicious restaurants where pretty much every ingredient is sourced from nearby, some of the best and most coveted beer on the planet, a destination-worthy Farmers Market, and easy access to a whopping six ski resorts tucked into the near endless mountains. Drive a little outside of town and you’ll be knee deep in sugar shacks, red barns, general stores, and endless farmland. Or just hunker down and chat somebody up at the nearest brewery. Chances are, that same friendly somebody farmed one of the ingredients in your hazy IPA.
No self-respecting list-maker would omit Lake Tahoe from a compilation of top mountain towns. But instead of the crowded touristy lodges and casinos that steal a bit of South Lake Tahoe's soul, you can keep your chakras clean in the locals-friendly North Lake Tahoe town of Truckee. While it's one of the world's premier ski/snowboard destinations, what really makes Truckee a top mountain spot is the lively yet laid-back action in the historic Downtown—a chilled-out drink at Moody’s, dinner at Morgan’s Lobster Shack, or a bite at Jax at the Tracks diner all offer a bird's-eye view into the fine art of clean mountain living.
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho | Kirk Mastin/Getty Images
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
Some argue that CDA isn't close enough to the hills to be a true mountain town. Those people, we suspect, are just being selfish. The deep-blue waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene combined with vibrant pine forests, colorful sunsets, lazy beaches, and chill vibe conspire to make this a perfect mountain/lake getaway, especially in the quiet, relaxed bubble when summer crowds have already peaked but the weather’s still just lovely. You can also hike the Northern Idaho Centennial Trail, grab a burger (no fries) at the iconic Hudson’s Hamburgers, check out the Snake Pit Derby Dames roller girls, or golf one of the world's top courses with a floating green on the 14th hole.
Livingston, Montana | Photo courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism
An hour’s drive from Yellowstone, this rowdy town of 8,000 exists at the intersection of rustic western mystique and artistic freedom. Here, free spirits and nature lovers converge, drawn to the area’s unparalleled fly fishing, rafting, and more. Sidle up to the de facto town center—the perpetually humming Murray Bar—before exploring a densely packed collection of saloons and eateries on the highly walkable old-school Main Street. Or venture out under the big sky. Maybe you’re off for a soak at nearby Chico Hot Springs, or to brave the river and embrace your inner Jim Harrison. Regardless, chances are you’ll be back at the Murray come sundown, ready to hear stories about the city’s wild past while embracing its vibrant present.
Over the last few years, this offbeat, freaky arts-centric town has grown into one of America's best drinking cities and, simultaneously, one of its best live-music cities (that last bit's on hold for now... stay tuned). You know how many breweries Asheville now has an absolutely obscene number of breweries operating in the city and spread out all over the surrounding area, among them favorites like Asheville Brewing Company or Wicked Weed. Or spend a Tuesday afternoon wandering through a farmers market. On top of all that, you’ve got trendy farm-to-table restaurants and, of course, the Blue Ridge Mountains. They're right there. As is the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is basically like hiking for your car, and one of the best drives in the entire country.
Park City during Sundance | Photo courtesy of Visit Park City
Park City, Utah
Park City's status as a legendary mountain town was cemented well before the star of The Great Waldo Pepper stepped in. This is home to some of America's finest skiing, sure, but it's also a dreamy locale where trollies still cart you around in the event that your feet are too sore from hiking the nearby Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Experience an old-school western watering hole at No Name Saloon, or a new-school one at High West, one of the finest distilleries in the country. In addition to all the mountain-town staples like biking, hiking, river-rafting, and horseback riding, you get the extra-fun activities of Utah Olympic Park—including one of the longest bobsled rides in the world, and one of only two in the US you can ride.
Lewisburg, Virginia | Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG/Getty Images
Lewisburg, West Virginia
Lewisburg has a fantastic arts scene, but not the kind that is code for “there’s nothing to do here if you’re not into gallery-hopping and poetry readings.” There is everything to do here. History buffs love the General Lewis Inn, which is sort of part-hotel, part-museum. Tour the Lost World Caverns, or go for an early-morning hike and get lunch at the Stardust Cafe. Wind down with a hand-crafted cider at Hawk Knob. Go antiquing (it’s a thing), then, if it's summer, hit the Saturday farmers market, whose bustle belies the fact that the town houses under 4,000 residents. On the first Friday of every month, starting at 5pm you can find food and art vendors plus live music gathered downtown (the event is helpfully called First Fridays After Five).
Leavenworth, Washington in the winter | Photo courtesy of Icicle TV
Unlike Bavarian-style towns in the south and Midwest, you could legitimately wake from a bender at Leavenworth'sMunchen Haus and think you'd been kidnapped and shipped to Von Trapp country. Here, Bavarian buildings are encircled by the snowy peaks, giving it the feel of some sort of Germanic Brigadoon, one that serves as a hub for world-class skiing, hiking, and climbing that attract climbers from all over the globe. Is it a little corny? Well, yeah, especially during Christmas, when half the pacific northwest comes to pet reindeer. But its isolated position in the middle of the mountains gives it an almost aural quality that exists year round.
Whether you call it "The Halibut-Fishing Capital of the World" or "The Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea," there is no denying the strong pull of this delightful little town on the southern terminus of the Kenai Peninsula's Sterling Highway. Take in views of the massive Kenai Mountains by boat or plane, or drive out onto the Homer Spit (the world's longest road into ocean waters) to eagle-watch and drink at the iconic Salty Dawg Saloon. A boat ride to Alaska's only state wildlife park, Kachemak Bay State Park, will have you mingling with whales and sea otters or, if you prefer to stick closer to home, explore the funky town's hippie vibes (at places like Ptarmigan Arts) and knock back a few with local fishermen at Homer Brewing Co.
With historic Victorian architecture and winding streets, you'd be hard-pressed to find a town as distinct as this little Ozark gem. The entire city is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means you can consider your burger and Bloody Marys at the Balcony Bar or your green-screen karaoke disaster at Eureka Live Underground a lesson in history. And when you're done "learning" and are ready to explore, there's zip-lining, cave tours, boat excursions on the lake, and postcard-perfect foliage in the fall. Just don't pass up a trip to the nearby Thorncrown Chapel, a jaw-droppingly beautiful glass chapel in the woods.
At the gateway to the Grand Tetons and not far from Yellowstone, people often ding Jackson as a playground for the rich and indulgent. Fair. But that also means this tiny town has a stellar food and drink scene to cater to all tastes. Jackson’ home to the superlative Melvin Brewing—housed in a Thai restaurant and purveyors of world-famous 2x4 IPA—and the legendary Snake River. Here, restaurants like The Gun Barrel serve fantastic steaks for the white tablecloth-averse, while the iconic Million Dollar Cowboy Club is what would happen if somebody reimagined the Old West saloon as a multi-tiered theme park. And if you don't want to rub elbows with anyone, at least you can grab a great beer and a meal in a cute town before going full Grizzly Adams in the wilderness nearby.