It’s the ultimate winter vacation. Surrounded by white, big flakes of snow fluttering through the crisp air, you descend down the mountain, a charming village spread out below, at the end of the slope. And as you slalom to the bottom, you hear no sounds around you but the swoosh and squeak of the powder beneath your skis.
For many, it’s a dream come true.
But skiing? It ain’t for everyone. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the rest of the experience, from other winter adventures to culinary pleasures and, of course, all the après-ski. Here are America’s five best ski towns … for those who may not love to ski.
Perhaps the most famous place to ski in the United States, this small town is nestled high in the Colorado Rockies, near the Continental Divide. Founded as a silver boomtown in the 19th century, the town’s population here dwindled and Aspen struggled into the first half of the 20th. But things picked up with the creation of Aspen Mountain, which now hosts runs as long as three miles, and celebrities flooded in, writing and singing about their exploits here. Today, you can go wild, getting outside with a 3.6-mile hike to the Maroon Bells, some of the most photographed peaks in the state.
Or, opt for some luxury—you’ll find plenty in this town. Head to Remède Spa at The St. Regis Aspen Resort to relax, warming up by a roaring fireplace before your treatment, soaking in the hot tubs and plunge pools (which feature cascades), and getting a little air in the oxygen lounge (a nice feature, at an altitude of 8,000 feet). Then, it’s time for champagne. Head to Cloud Nine, a former ski patrol shack that’s been transformed into an ultra-indulgent restaurant, where Veuve Cliquot flows freely, often in the form of Champagne showers.
Set on the flanks of Mount Mansfield—Vermont’s highest peak—the skiing in this town of about 4,000 is excellent, with a total of 116 trails, 485 skiable acres, and a vertical drop of more than 2,300 feet. But the mountain and resort here offer much more. Rock climb, shop in the village, and take some time to go ice skating, under the stars. Then take the Gondola SkyRide to the top to access a series of hiking trails and reward yourself afterward with a bite at the Cliff House. Here, the menu of rustic regional favorites is good, but the panoramic views, through floor-to-ceiling windows, are even better.
And Stowe also happens to be the current home of the real-life Von Trapp family, who moved to this idyllic town in 1942 because it reminded them of their native Austria. After famously fleeing Salzburg (the events of their life were made famous in the classic film, “The Sound of Music”), the family bought what was, at the time, little more than a broken-down farm. Generations have since built the Von Trapp Family Lodge into an attraction in itself, with a microbrewery and beer hall, maple sugar house, and outdoors center with mountain bike rentals. And, hey, you may actually meet an actual Von Trapp—the current generations still run things, and often come out to mingle with guests and visitors.
Lake Placid, New York
The crown jewel of New York’s Adirondack Mountains, this village of about 2,500 is a place defined by the Olympics. Along with Switzerland’s St. Moritz and Austria’s Innsbruck, it’s one of only three places to have hosted the Winter Games not once, but twice, both in 1932 and 1980. Although the area was settled as a center for iron ore mining, this has long been a place renowned for winter sports, drawing affluent visitors to enjoy these pleasures in the late 19th century. By the early 1920s, Lake Placid was already home to a ski jump and a speed skating rink.
And while skiers still make their way down the slopes of Whiteface Mountain, you can also visit so many more of the famous sites. Strap on a pair of skates and glide around the Olympic Oval, take the elevator to the top of the 26-story Olympic Jumping Complex, then visit the Olympic Center, where both figure skating and ice hockey was held—and the site where the United States famously knocked off the top-dog Russian team in the “miracle on ice.” Then get a thrill, and an unbeatable firsthand perspective by riding an actual bobsled down the track to the bottom of Mt. Van Hoevenberg—you won’t get a medal, but the memories will last a lifetime.
Lake Tahoe, California/Nevada
Straddling the state line between California and Nevada, the areas around the largest alpine lake in North America are renowned for both summer and winter adventures. You’ll find a number of ski resorts on the neighboring slopes, enough to keep you occupied for weeks, including Squaw Valley, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. You can pull on a wetsuit and actually paddle-board onto the cold, clear lake, or enjoy the serene pleasures of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, also popular here. (Chickadee Ridge, near Tahoe Meadows, affords scenic views of the mountains and water.)
And few places have perfected the art of the après-ski better than Tahoe. Find a place by the fire at the Ritz-Carlton base camp in Truckee, where Dom Perignon, oysters from the raw bar, and king crab are served, finished up later with gourmet s’mores, complete with house-made marshmallows. Or, for some simpler pleasures, just enjoy the live music and craft brews at the Basecamp Hotel, a favorite gathering place, with its fire pits, beer garden, ping-pong tables, and big deck lined with picnic tables, with mountain views.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.