It’s likely you noticed a spike in your friends and family flocking to remote, outdoorsy, and elevated destinations in the past year. Even if you didn’t, though, the data confirms that these types of vacations are on the rise. In a 2021 travel report, Airbnb shared that this summer, large groups flocked to remote locales, and trips centered around the great outdoors trended “way up.” Given that, there’s a good chance you’re one of the many searching for a new, fun spot to escape to that gets you away from the crowds and provides a breath of fresh air. If so, there’s hardly a better place to start than with the many cool mountain towns in America.
That said, the sheer volume of choices is overwhelming. And while you could just settle for the most popular and be done with it, there’s worth in finding options that aren’t just tried-and-true, but also truly interesting — and maybe even a little off the beaten path.
Rest assured that no matter where you end up, a mountain town is a solid vacation pick, especially during these unusual times. As Addie Bell, founder of Jetset & Travel, notes, they offer lots of activities outdoors, they’re great for all seasons, and it’s often easier to stay physically distanced from others. No, that doesn’t mean the usual rules don’t apply — you should still stay up-to-date on local and state regulations regarding public health protocols while traveling anywhere, and Bell advises booking refundable trips — but a remote destination can offer some respite from the crowds of more city-oriented locations.
To help you find the best spot for you and your crew, TZR reached out to travel pros to share the coolest mountain towns they know. Some are under-the-radar, others not so much — but all are expert-approved picks guaranteed to get you into the great outdoors and give you a trip you won’t forget.
Park City, Utah
Why visit: According to Bell, Park City, Utah is super convenient to travel to thanks to the easy access the Salt Lake City airport provides. In addition, the Main Street of the town is “is filled with shops and fun restaurants,” she tells TZR.
What to do: Aside from the typical activities — i.e. skiing, ice skating, hiking, and more — Bell recommends adventuring to the Olympic Park. It was built for the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and now offers a museum, adventure activities, shows, and more.
Where to stay: Bell offers several recommendations for lodging in Park City. Her favorites include Montage Deer Valley, Washington School House Hotel, St.Regis Deer Valley, Stein Eriksen Lodge, and the Waldorf Astoria. And if you’ll be staying later in the year, she suggests Pendry Park City, which is said to be opening in winter 2021.
Why visit: Love to ski? Bell says Telluride is “one of the best ski experiences in North America” and known for its challenging slopes.
What to do: Ski, sled, and all the outdoorsy activities, of course. But don’t miss out on a ride on the gondola, which shuttles users up over the 10,500-foot Coonskin Ridge for transport from Telluride to Mountain Village (and, naturally, provides incredible views).
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Why visit: Yes, Jackson Hole may be more well-known — but Bell says it’s still worth a visit. “[It] feels like you stepped back in history; the town is quaint, charming, and beautiful.”
What to do: Get your hiking and skiing in, as usual. But visitors should also be sure to take a Grand Teton National Park wildlife tour, says Bell.
Where to stay: Jackson Hole has a reputation for being ritzy, so expect to find plenty of luxury accommodations. Out of those, Bell suggests the Four Seasons Jackson Hole, a five-star resort that’s great for families, and Hotel Jackson, another luxury hotel in the heart of Jackson Hole that’s known for its authentic-but-modern Western design. (Architectural Digest actually named the latter one of the most beautiful hotels in America in 2017.)
Dunton Hot Springs, Colorado
Why visit: “My personal favorite is the former gold mining town Dunton Hot Springs in Colorado,” Martin N. Kunz, author of interactive book Mountain Escapes: The Finest Hotels & Retreats from the Alps to the Andes, tells TZR. “This unique resort offers an outstanding experience in the wilderness with all [the] comfort. Although it's close to Telluride, visitors can dive into a completely different world.”
What to do: If you visit in the winter, Kunz suggests trying your hand (or feet, rather) at snowshoeing. Summer visitors should take time for a scenic horseback ride.
Where to stay: According to Kunz, Dunton Hot Springs is actually a resort and a lodge, complete with very private accommodations including cabins and luxury tents. “Thirteen cottages have been converted into cozy abodes for up to 44 guests,” each with gas stoves, furs, artwork from around the world, and more. “The winter season is especially enchanting when a blanket of snow covers the landscapes. The saloon serves as the dining room, and it’s no coincidence that the trout is freshly caught in the neighboring Dolores River,” the author shares.
Lake Placid, New York
Why visit: Kunz also suggests Lake Placid, New York, which he notes hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1932 and 1980. “The spectacular nature of the Adirondacks offers almost unlimited activities. All year round, nature experiences at its best. The perfect destination for families.”
What to do: For both kids and adults, Kunz suggests visiting the Wild Center for “great entertainment and learning in a wildlife environment.” For a more physical adventure, he continues, winter sport enthusiasts have their choice of Olympic disciplines, and summer visitors should take time to discover the lakes.
Where to stay: When it comes to lodging, Kunz is a fan of Mirror Lake Inn, which he says is family-owned since 1924 and next to the “beautiful” Mirror Lake. “The entire inn is full of rustic charm from stuffed animals to memorabilia, books to games; diversions fill every shelf and table.”
Brevard, North Carolina
Why visit: Polly Clover, an avid traveler and travel content writer, says that out of the many mountain towns she’s seen while traveling the U.S. in her camper van, Brevard, North Carolina is her favorite. Clover cites it as being “incredibly awesome,” with a charming downtown, popular brewery, and amazing views. “While in Brevard, one may even catch a glimpse of a few unique white squirrels!”
What to do: Clover notes that mountain biking is a popular activity in Brevard, so it’s a great place to visit if you’re craving adventure. However, she says, there are also “around 250 waterfalls to be explored, hence its nickname of ‘Land of Waterfalls.’”
Where to stay: For accommodations, Clover recommends Red House Inn and Pilot Cove. The former is located in downtown Brevard, features simple lodgings, and is within walking distance of shopping and dining options; the latter offers modern, luxurious cabins that border the stunning Pisgah National Forest.
Crested Butte, Colorado
Why visit: Located in the Rocky Mountains, Crested Butte is a former coal-mining town that’s now a ski resort. But it’s not just there for skiing — it’s frequently visited for its hiking and mountain biking opportunities, as well as its scenic meadows. (In fact, it’s actually known as the “Wildflower Capital of Colorado.”)
What to do: Michelle Halpern, founder and owner of travel blog Live Like it's the Weekend, says, “For those of you looking for a hard-core biking experience, try Psycho Rocks at Evolution Bike Park.” After you’ve worn yourself out? “Head over to the Montanya Rum distillery for incredible spring-fed rum distilled at high altitude, which apparently makes it taste even better.” And of course, don’t forget to take a wildlife walk around the West Elk Loop to view “some of the most magnificent Aspen trees you’ll ever see.”
Where to stay: “As far as accommodation goes, I can't recommend Pioneer Guest Cabins enough,” continues Halpern, who notes that along with being dog-friendly, the place offers a creekside hot tub that’s great for dipping into on cold days. “My favorite feature was the open fireplace in our cabin that made it feel like a romantic getaway tucked away in the Swiss Alps!”
Waitsfield, Vermont & The Mad River Valley
Why visit: Will Hatton, CEO and founder of The Broke Backpacker, suggests venturing over to the Northeast for a smaller mountain town, but one that’s no less fun or charming. Located in the Mad River Valley (a popular tourist region with two ski areas, Mad River Glen and Sugarbush Resort), it “features the most picturesque red barns, white farmhouses, and Holstein cows in fast green pastures as if straight out of a children's fairytale book,” he says.
What to do: “The food available in Waitsfield is second to none,” says Hatton, “with all restaurants boasting sustainable, organic, local produce.” He suggests trying the famous pizzas from American Flatbread — though you can “expect large queues,” he warns. And if you venture there for the beautiful fall weather, he says, make sure to complete your getaway with a visit to the Fresh Hops festival in October.
Where to stay: “After a day of skiing and snowboarding along the Mad River Glen, you’ll be desperate to cozy up in the Austrian-inspired cabin accommodation available at Grunberg Haus Inn and Cabins,” shares Hatton of the Waterbury, VT-located stay. Looking for more luxurious digs? The Pitcher Inn (a Relais & Chateaux property) in Warren, VT, is a popular option.
Big Bear Lake, California
Why visit: Big Bear Lake is known as a “four-season destination,” in Southern California. As Kim DeLauro, the owner of Ready Aim Travel, notes, the quaint mountain town features two major ski resorts, but also has a “whole host of warm-weather activities” as well.
What to do: After hours of skiing or a day on the lake, refuel with some of the food options Big Bear has to offer. “There is a local favorite burger joint, Get The Burger, that rivals In-N-Out,” she says. “There’s also a Hawaiian restaurant with amazing poke [called Tropicali] that is an experience in and of itself.”
Where to stay: According to DeLauro, where you stay should depend on what activities you’re planning on doing. “If you’re looking to ski, mountain bike, or hike, you'll want to stay closer to the base of the mountain to limit the amount of driving you need to do,” she explains. “For this, it doesn't get any more convenient than the Snow Summit Townhouses. If you plan on diving into water activities, staying right on Big Bear Lake at the Marina Riviera would be an excellent option.”