High-Altitude Escapes: Mountain Towns Off the Beaten Track

August 26, 2020 Updated: August 26, 2020

Late summer is here, the perfect time to head for the hills. With cooling breezes and endless vistas, mountain towns offer the best sort of escape. But while some of the big-name places are jam-packed with tourists in the heart of high season, others are overlooked—and that’s a shame.

Whether it’s because of a long history, or deep fabric of arts and culture, or pure, overall quirkiness (a whole Bavarian village in Appalachia?), these are some of the best high-altitude destinations for those looking for something a little different this summer and fall.

Helen, Georgia

helen georgia
Tubing downriver in Helen, Ga.. (Geoff L Johnson)

Nestled into the Blue Ridge Mountains at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River, the tiny village of Helen (just two square miles, and about 500 residents) in the northeast corner of Georgia was once a logging town in decline. And then, in the early 1970s, they decided to reinvent the place—as a Bavarian village. Now known as Alpine Helen, every single structure here is built in a fairly fantastical version of that distinctive South German style (think: gingerbread houses and peaked roofs and clock towers).

Home to strange and wonderful attractions (such as a Cabbage Patch Kids hospital), they offer more authentic pleasures, too, including the largest Oktoberfest in the region, craft beer, and Bavarian cuisine—bratwurst, pretzels, schnitzel. And natural joys, too, including the fun of floating on a big, pink inner tube, right through the middle of town on the clear, cold Chattahoochee.

Lone Pine, California

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Lone Pine, Calif. (Courtesy of Visit California/Inyo County Photo Shootout Contest)

Set next to the soaring snow-caps of the Sierra Nevada near the flanks of Mount Whitney—California’s highest peak—Lone Pine may just look a little familiar. The town is small, with just 2,000 people living on the quiet side of the state. But it, and the surrounding Alabama Hills, have served as the shooting location for some 400 films, Westerns such as “The Lone Ranger” and “How the West Was Won” (John Wayne alone starred in a dozen), and has been a stand-in for arid and remote regions around the world—Afghanistan, for example, in “Ironman.”

Take a tour of the hills and see how they were transformed for the silver screen, then explore the (excellent) Museum of Western Film History, which includes 40 exhibits, some dedicated to actors (Wayne, well as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers), with others to rifles, stagecoaches, vintage camera cars, and other classic memorabilia.

Arosa, Switzerland

Arosa, Switzerland. (Courtesy of Switzerland Tourism)

While a handful of Swiss ski towns seem to get all the attention—St. Moritz or Zermatt—others, like Arosa, remain (mostly) local favorites. Climb up from Geneva by train, which feels like a trip into the clouds, winding through deep valleys and up steep ridges and across vertiginous viaducts. The town of 3,100 is definitely a winter wonderland, with open-air skating and curling rinks right in the center of town, plus the opportunity to cruise on a sled down a course that connects surrounding villages, and ski lifts that empty into downtown streets.

But summer and fall are busy with activity as well, with more than 100 miles of hiking and biking trails (including one that will take you past 10 lakes in just over nine miles), a scenic cable car, and, when you’re ready to slow down and relax, swimming and spa treatments at the landmark Tschuggen Grand Hotel.

Bisbee, Arizona

Bisbee, Ariz. (Courtesy of Arizona Office of Tourism)

In some ways, driving down to Bisbee can feel like a ride to the edge of the world. Rolling through the rugged Mule Mountains and the vast red vistas of the Sonoran Desert, you’ll proceed past Tombstone (“the town too tough to die”), to arrive in Bisbee, a former boomtown, just before you reach the Arizona-Mexico border.

Peaking in the early 20th century, wealth flowed from the mines and built a handsome town that includes the classic Copper Queen Hotel and an Art Deco courthouse. And while bust followed boom for decades, this town of a little more than 5,000 slowly evolved into a haven for artists and other creative types, who renovated the Copper Queen and set up art studios, coffee shops, and good restaurants.

Take a Jeep tour around town and to the surrounding mines, or just enjoy the desert sun, strolling around Old Bisbee, a compact set of streets lined with renovated, historic buildings, right in the middle of town.

Kimberley, British Columbia

Kimberley, British Columbia. (Matt Mosteller)

While just a small handful of ski towns get most of the attention in the Canadian Rockies—Banff and Whistler, to name two—sometimes, the slopes are even better when you venture a little beyond the expected.

A good example is the “Powder Highway,” a series of funky mountain destinations deep in the Kootenay Rockies. Drive past Banff to Golden, British Columbia, where Kicking Horse Resort has one of the steepest vertical drops in North America, a dramatic setting for ridgeline hikes (aided by a cable car) at 7,700 feet. Then proceed past two hot springs (taking a warm dip along the way), to the south, and Kimberley, a former mining town that packs all sorts of adventure into a charming village sandwiched between the Purcell Mountains and the Rockies.

Go a bit wild—rafting the wild white water on the St. Mary’s River, flying above it all on a helicopter tour, or going deep into the wilderness for some fly fishing with an outfitter. Then, return to the charming, pedestrian main street to choose a local pub for dinner.

San Sebastián del Oeste, Mexico

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San Sebastian del Oeste, Jalisco, Mexico. (Carlos Ivan Palacios/Shutterstock)

Close to the mega-popular coastal resort town of Puerto Vallarta, San Sebastián is a place apart. Climbing almost 5,000 feet in about 90 minutes, you arrive at a town in the clouds, frozen in time. Pulling gold and silver out of the surrounding Sierra Madre Mountains since the 17th century, it remains a handsome place, with colonial, cobblestone streets and graceful haciendas and a Spanish Baroque church whose foundation dates to 1608.

Stroll the central plaza, explore the quaint historical museum and silversmith shop, then indulge—San Sebastián is home to sidewalk cafes, tequila makers that offer tastings, and coffee shops, where they dry, roast and grind the beans themselves, all right on site.

Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood, S.D. (Cheri Alguire/Shutterstock)

Made famous by the HBO series of the same name, Deadwood—a town of about 1,200, nestled at 4,500 feet in the Black Hills—became notorious in the 1870s for its lawlessness, a true Wild West town whose bars and gambling halls hosted duels and gunfights. It was home to some of the biggest names of the era, including Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok. (The latter, famously, was shot in the back of the head while playing poker here.) And while there’s a string of casinos lining the main street (which retains its vintage feel), it’s also a great place to take a deep dive into that chequered past, at the Days of ’76 Museum, as well as tours of once-lavish homes and even an opera house, plus experiential trips where you can actually pan for gold.

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.