Americas Best Small Ski Towns


TRAVEL + LEISURE Magazine - From December 2008
By Jeff Wise and Stacey Brugeman

The main draw of ski towns is, of course, the skiing. But let’s not kid ourselves: the slopes aren’t all that matter. Part of what makes a ski vacation wonderful—especially for city dwellers—is the experience of staying in a mountain community, away from the hustle and glitz of urban life.

Some of the best-known ski towns in America have come to resemble mountain metropolises in recent years—with towering luxury hotels, glittering boutiques, and celebrity-chef restaurants. And while plenty of visitors love this, others may wish for something a little more low-key.

Happily, for them, there are still a handful of small, lesser-known slope-side havens.

Scattered across the country’s most breathtaking mountain ranges—like the Sierra Nevada, the Tetons, the Green Mountains, and the Cascades—a few small, laid-back ski towns still exist. Some are just a stone’s throw from big, ritzy resorts, like the former logging town of Truckee, California (15 minutes from Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe); and the tiny hamlets of Victor, Driggs, and Tetonia, Idaho (25 miles across the Wyoming border from Jackson Hole). Others—like Bend, Oregon, and Crested Butte, Colorado—are off in the relative hinterlands, far from the Bogner-clad crowds.

What just about all these communities share is a sense of small-town rugged individualism. The twin Vermont villages of Waitsfield and Warren—adjacent to one of the East Coast’s greatest, hairiest old-school ski mountains, Mad River Glen—are filled with organic bakeries and artisans’ studios, and the countercultural locals who frequent them; in rough-hewn Truckee, diners and restaurants feed lumberjack appetites with dishes like the 'Big Assed Pork Platter.' In Crested Butte (known for its steep, challenging Elk Mountains terrain), a designation as a national Historic District along with a proud tradition of locally owned businesses means there’s not a single McDonald’s or Starbucks to be found.

What there is, instead, is character. In the words of Craig Maestro, who owns Crested Butte’s most popular breakfast spot, Izzy’s, 'Uniqueness counts here.'


Waitsfield and Warren, Vermont

The isolation and rugged beauty of Vermont’s Mad River Valley breeds a particular kind of character: practical, communitarian, apt to value substance over flash, and always very resourceful. They’re values shared by both the native valley folk and the countercultural-minded outsiders who have flocked to the area since the 1960’s. Many of these transplants have found self-expression in crafts, turning the twin towns of Waitsfield and Warren into hubs for artisans.

In Town: At Waitsfield Pottery, Ulrike Tessmer is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her Main Street shop, where visitors can watch as she throws and fires her sturdy, traditional stoneware, a trade she learned in Hamburg. Nearby, at the Mad River Glass Gallery, proprietors David and Melanie Leppla twirl hot glass into fantastical shapes in their basement workshop, visible from the ground-floor showroom where their finished bowls, vases, and objets d’art are sold. Around these parts, even the dining is artisanal: American Flatbread (dinner for two $30) dishes out wood-fired pizzas made exclusively from regional, organic ingredients, and the new Green Cup Café (lunch for two $30), known for its house-made pastries, is similarly locavore in its approach.

Down the road in Warren, a posse of area artists and architects joined together to create the Pitcher Inn (doubles from $425), whose rather austere modern colonial exterior hides a collection of 11 rooms, each playfully riffing on a pastoral theme. The Mountain Room, for instance, is a mock fire-lookout cabin, complete with a trompe l’oeil vista of the Green Mountains. Back in Waitsfield, the Inn at the Round Barn Farm (doubles from $165) offers a more traditional take on the New England inn: 12 simple rooms on a 19th-century dairy farm.

On the Slopes: Waitsfield and Warren’s down-to-earth ethos extends to the local ski mountains. Mad River Glen (lift ticket $60) is one of the last of the old-school resorts, a place where runs go ungroomed and innovations like snowboarding and high-speed chairlifts remain unwelcome. Last year the mountain finally retired its 59-year-old single-passenger lift—only to replace it with a new one.

If you want more polish, you can always head 15 minutes down the road to Sugarbush (lift ticket $75), which just finished a $60 million upgrade.

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