Travel

The Best Mountain Towns to Visit in America

Time to embrace the high life.

When many of us consider an ideal vacation, the mind drifts immediately 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 mountain living -- where life similarly 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, New Mexico

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.
MORE:  Taos is just one of the many reasons we love New Mexico

lake placid
Lake Placid, New York | DenisTangneyJr/E+/Getty

Lake Placid, New York

Upstate New York is gorgeous for some autumnal hiking. 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.
MORE:  Live your Olympic dreams in Lake Placid

Telluride, Colorado

The beauty of Telluride stops you dead in your tracks, and that beauty peaks when the aspen trees turn golden beginning in mid-September. 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 -- which we named Colorado's best small town -- is also famous for hosting a ridiculous number of top-tier music festivals and film fest. Don't worry about hiring a designated driver, either: the public transit here is by gondola.
MORE:  Explore the unreal beauty awaiting in Colorado

Bend, Oregon

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 not just above its own weight, but 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 the outdoors between Bachelor and Smith Rock, it's also the entry point to nearby towns like Sisters, another western-influenced charmer in the shadows of three snowy peaks. 
MORE:  Here's everything you absolutely need to do in Bend

Truckee, California

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.
MORE:  Ok, so those Tahoe resorts are pretty great too

couer d'alene
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, just don't want to share in its beauty. The deep blue waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene combined with vibrant pine forests, colorful sunsets, lazy beaches, and a charming small-town 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.
MORE: Don't skip out on one of the greatest grilled-cheese sandwiches known to man

asheville
Asheville, North Carolina | Nori Webb/Unsplash

Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville has graduated from the place everyone said was about to be cool to the place that is, indeed, very cool. 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, but stay tuned). You know how many breweries Asheville now has within its city limits? 26. In the area? More than 60. Check out a favorite like Asheville Brewing Company or Wicked Weed. Or spend a Tuesday afternoon wandering through a farmers market before heading across the street for live music at the Mothlight. 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 in your car.
MORE:  Hit up the very best breweries in Asheville

Park City, Utah
Park City during Sundance | Visit Park City

Park City, Utah

So, so much more than its annual explosion of Pendleton-draped celebrities and indie films, 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 little slice of small-town heaven, one 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. 
MORE:  For real, though, you can absolutely bobsled here

Lewisburg, Virginia
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). Lewisburg has not one but two food festivals -- one of which is chocolate-specific -- and a Saturday farmers market during the summer, which is more than you could ask of most towns whose population doesn’t break 4,000. 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).
MORE: You're really missing out if you're sleeping on West Virginia

Homer, Alaska

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.
MORE:  Homer's not just great. It's also woefully underrated.

Woodstock, Vermont

For the best view of Woodstock itself, make the short hike to the summit of Mount Tom. The town is great for both skiing and snowshoeing, but you can also enjoy some fall-friendly, quintessential small-town-New-England features like a very photogenic covered bridge and the must-see Billings Farm & Museum, once owned by Rockefellers. It hosts all manner of events year-round, but in October you can catch the traditional Harvest Weekend, whose advertised activities include: a husking bee, a barn dance, cider pressing, root-vegetable harvesting, plus, of course, cider and donuts. Mountain Creamery serves way more than just ice cream, but it is a very solid bet indeed for ice cream. For a lake you can swim in, confident that you’ll be safe from snapping turtles or leeches, hit up the nearby Silver Lake.
MORE:  Be sure to stock up on some of America's best beer too while you're here

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

With historic Victorian architecture and winding streets, you'd be hard-pressed to find a town as distinct as this little Ozark gem, which we named the best small town in the state. 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.
MORE:  Arkansas is also home to the town that Walmart built

Livingston, Montana
Livingston, Montana | MONTANA OFFICE OF TOURISM

Livingston, Montana

In the shadows of snowy mountain peaks and an hour’s drive from Yellowstone, this rowdy, rugged town of 8,000 exists at the intersection or rustic western mystique and artistic freedom, making it the epicenter of Montana cool. This place is a magnet for free spirits and outdoorsmen alike, with everybody from Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah to Bourdain, Jeff Bridges, and Robert Redford 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. Maybe you’re out for outdoor country bands and horseshoes at The Old Saloon, or to brave the waters and evoke 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. 
MORE: Dive deep into what makes Livingston such a perfect place

Leavenworth, Washington in the winter | Icicle TV

Leavenworth, Washington

All around America, Bavarian-style villages have sprung up, drawing tourists in with the promise of big beer steins, schnitzel, and lederhosen. Leavenworth is one of those towns. The only difference is, unlike its brethren in the south and Midwest, you could legitimately wake up after a night drinking German beers at the iconic Munchen Haus and, at least until somebody starts speaking English, think you’ve been kidnapped and shipped off 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 cliffs 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, one that beckons with the promise of steaming pork hock and a much-needed feeling of being abroad without leaving the US.
MORE:  Even more mountain towns await on the North Cascades Highway

Jackson, Wyoming
Jackson, Wyoming | F11PHOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK

Jackson, Wyoming

Located at the gateway of the truly magnificent Grand Tetons and not far from the western gate of Yellowstone, people often ding Jackson as a playground for the rich and indulgent (they also always call it Jackson Hole, though that’s just the name of the valley where it resides). But here’s the thing: The folks who flock here seem to have pretty good taste, and you can reap their benefits while falling in love with one of the most beautiful places in the country. After all, who doesn’t want a nice cold beer after exploring endless trails, or cavorting with buffalo around a mountain lake? Jackson’ home to the superlative Melvin -- 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 --the perfect stop on a rowdy night out -- is what would happen if somebody reimagined the Old West saloon as a multi-tiered theme park. Here, Old West and modern comfort combine. And if you don’t like the latter, at least you can grab a great beer and a meal in a cute town before going full Grizzly Adams in the wilderness nearby. 
MORE: Everything you need to know before heading to Jackson

Kastalia Medrano is a New York based journalist and avid traveler. Follow her @kastaliamedrano.
Jay Gentile is a Thrillist contributor and he prefers hiking in his car whenever possible. Follow him: @innerviewmag.