Jaw-dropping US mountain towns

By Ben Groundwater

Ben is a columnist and globetrotting backpacker for Traveller.com

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October 2017

It’s more than just the mountains. Though the scenery surrounding the high-altitude towns of the USA is spectacular – snow-capped peaks, dizzying cliffs, burbling rivers and forests blanketed in white – these settlements aren’t just beautiful, they’re historic, and charm-filled says adventurer Ben Groundwater. 

Lake Tahoe, California

A favourite weekend spot for Californians – given it’s only a one-hour flight from San Francisco – this series of charming settlements hug the shores of the shimmering body of water that is Lake Tahoe. Though the easiest way to access Lake Tahoe’s most popular ski area, Heavenly, is by staying on the touristy south shore, it’s the settlements on the lake’s north that retain the most allure. For a road trip to remember, you can make the journey from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe in a breezy (and beautiful) three hours.

Plan your USA adventure

Those with Westworld-inspired dreams of stepping back into the Wild West need only visit Virginia City.

Lake Placid, New York

To most people, New York means skyscrapers and a brash attitude, but that’s just the city. The state itself has a surprising number of ski resorts and towns that service them, and perhaps one of the most beautiful is Lake Placid. Though a former host of the Winter Olympics, Lake Placid these days lives up to its name, and is the perfect destination for some relaxing time in the mountains away from city life.

West Glacier, Montana

There are few more scenically spectacular parts of the world than the “big sky country” of Montana, and few places capture that beauty quite like the town of West Glacier. What it lacks in size and infrastructure – this is really just a gateway into the famed Glacier National Park – it makes up for in easy-going charm, and a setting that would make any nature lover cry tears of joy.

  • Experience the beauty of Lake Tahoe’s transparent waters © Getty.

    The Pacific North Best

    The water in Lake Tahoe is 99.994% pure, making it one of the purest (not to mention deepest, and oldest) large lakes in the world.

    Book a fly-drive from Oakland

Aspen, Colorado

Though it’s known these days for the Hollywood big shots who arrive en masse around Christmas, Aspen is actually a former silver-mining town that also enjoyed a brief stretch as a hippie enclave populated by the likes of John Denver and Hunter S. Thompson. These days Aspen’s five-star resorts and chalets are the stuff of fantasy for most, but the town retains its beautiful historic charm.

North Conway, New Hampshire

This is New England at its finest, a quaint mountain town within easy striking distance of the city of Boston, and yet with an atmosphere that sets it a world apart. North Conway, founded in 1765, is all historic buildings and “mom and pop” stores, but is also within a half-hour drive of 13 ski resorts.

Telluride, Colorado

Another former Coloradan mining town, Telluride has done a better job than most of retaining its old-world charm, with a postcard-perfect main street that’s a throwback to simpler times. The town is surrounded on three sides by towering mountain ranges, a geographical quirk that has helped to protect Telluride from the onslaught of mass tourism.

Mammoth Lakes, California

It takes just an hour to fly from the concrete jungle of Los Angeles to the snow-capped peaks of Mammoth Lakes, a year-round hotspot for those who enjoy the great outdoors. The town itself doesn’t quite have the history of some of its Coloradan counterparts – however, when you’re surrounded by sparkling alpine lakes and dizzying mountain peaks, it really doesn’t matter.


  • An example of Abode architecture in Taos, Mexico © Getty.

    The Land of Enchantment

    A short drive from Taos, the Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO heritage site that’s built entirely of adobe – a composite material made from earth, water and straw.

    Book a fly-drive from Dallas
  • A county road in the White Mountains of New Hampshire © Getty.

    Suburbia gone wild

    Did you know: New Hampshire has been nicknamed the 'Switzerland of America' for its beautiful, alpine-esque mountain scenery.

    Book a fly-drive from Boston
  • Reaching new heights at Glacier National Park © Getty.

    There’s magic in Montana

    Montana’s stunning Glacier National Park is one of 59 US National Parks, and is home to 26 glaciers and 130 named lakes.

    Book a fly-drive from Seattle

Virginia City, Nevada

Those with Westworld-inspired dreams of stepping back into the Wild West need only visit Virginia City, Nevada, the place where the legendary Comstock Lode – a huge silver deposit – was once struck, and which has retained pretty much all of the old buildings that lined its streets back in the 19th century. That the town is surrounded by the Sierra ranges only adds to the appeal.

Jackson, Wyoming

This is cowboy country, no doubt – you only have to cast your eye around and take in the saloons on streets, the boots on wooden walkways and the Stetsons on heads. However, Jackson, Wyoming is also hugely popular with hikers, bikers, skiers and climbers, thanks to its position among some of the most imposing and beautiful mountain scenery you’re likely to witness.

Breckenridge, Colorado

Though the adjoining ski resort in Breckenridge is as modern as they come, most of the buildings in the town itself are throwbacks to a bygone era, colourfully painted places that date back to the late 1800s. With the Rocky Mountains filling all horizons, this is a place to take your time strolling around and soaking up the history and the scenery.

Taos, New Mexico

There’s something a little different about Taos, New Mexico. It’s in the architecture: these aren’t the wooden facades of the Wild West mining towns, but rather the mud-brick buildings of the southern deserts. It’s in the people, too: this isn’t cowboy country so much as a bohemian hub filled with hippies and artists, as well as adventurers and old-school Hispanic settlers. And off in the distance… towering mountain peaks that can’t fail to impress.

Park City, Utah

Park City’s history is a familiar one: a former silver-mining boomtown turned playground for the rich and famous, who are drawn here largely for the world-class skiing, not to mention the cosy village feel and the spectacular scenery that surrounds it. Park City is hugely popular in winter, but has something of a locals-only vibe in summer, when the hikers and bikers head out to play.

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