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Best Mountain Towns for Winter

Four mountain towns deliver the best of winter.

Via Contributors
  • Peak 2 Peak gondola sailing over snow-covered forests at Whistler, British Columbia, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: SurangaSL/Shutterstock
    Photo caption
    The Peak 2 Peak gondola runs between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.
  • Mirror Pond, Bend, Oregon, in winter, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Erik Swanson/Wikipedia
    Photo caption
    Mirror Pond in Bend, Ore., reflects the stark beauty of a snowy winter's day.

The world-class resort: WHISTLER, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Taking the 2.7-mile ride on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, the highest lift of its kind in the world, is a good way to understand why skiers from across the globe make the pilgrimage to Whistler Blackcomb, 80 miles north of Vancouver, B.C. Through picture windows a tableau of coastal rain forest, volcanic peaks, and the white ribbons of 200 ski runs unfurls below. Welcome to the continent’s largest ski area.

The superlative resort is part of an even deeper draw: the town of Whistler, a pedestrian-only village with a festive vibe that attracts a diverse international clientele. And, thanks to the 2010 Olympic Games, a long menu of unusual off-slope activities entices visitors as well. The Whistler Sliding Centre offers bobsled rides—driver included—that whip passengers around 10 turns at over 70 miles per hour. Whistler Olympic Park maintains 68 miles of tree-lined cross-country ski trails and gives biathlon lessons. For mellower escapes, guests at West Coast Float relax into oblivion, suspended weightless in dark, silent pods filled with water the exact temperature of skin. Those with more traditional tastes enjoy the hot baths, waterfalls, and steam rooms of the Scandinave Spa.

Come evening, people congregate in Whistler’s packed center. Bars such as the Longhorn Saloon and Garibaldi Lift Company (“GLC” to locals) teem with tuckered vacationers. La Cantina serves fancy tacos with fillings such as shrimp-pork chorizo with jalapeño aioli. Even a simple stroll through town, maple shave ice in hand, makes a fun diversion. “It feels like you’re walking through a snow globe,” says Olympic snow- boarder and Whistler resident Mercedes Nicoll. Happily, these tidy homes and picture-perfect mountains aren’t make-believe. (800) 944-7853, —Kate Siber

The riverside respite: BEND, OREGON

Known for its exceptional access to the outdoors, this microbrew capital is very much a destination in its own right. Home to taverns with crackling fireplaces and plenty of good restaurants, Bend offers enough to do that visitors can take their snow in doses large or small. Just 22 miles away, Mount Bachelor boasts one of the country's longest ski seasons, and its many trails get an average 462 inches of powder annually. To reach Elk Lake Resort, a forest lodge facing a string of cabins, guests travel 12 miles of unplowed scenic byway in burly trucks fitted with caterpillar treads, then warm up with hot chocolate.

But walks in downtown Bend by the banks of Mirror Pond and the Deschutes River are just as rewarding, as is the view of the Cascades through the windows of the Row, where salty kimchi burgers and black ale pair well. "Beer drinking is probably the town's No. 1 activity these days," jokes John Furgurson of the High Desert Museum, seven miles south of town. Starting January 17, the museum hosts a special exhibition on the roots of the region's craft-brewing scene.

Meanwhile, craft cocktails have taken root at Stihl Whiskey Bar, which boasts 150 brands of whiskey, and at the new Dogwood Cocktail Cabin, where the delicious sidecar comes dressed with a sumac rim. The Hideaway Tavern serves a rich, warming duck-gravy poutine that tastes like a reward well earned, no matter how you spent the day. (877) 245-8484, —Tim Neville

The rustic retreat: MOUNT CHARLESTON, NEVADA

Looming 11,918 feet above the Mojave Desert, Charleston Peak seems as surreal as the Vegas Strip an hour to the east. This centerpiece of the 316,000-acre Spring Mountains National Recreation Area is an alpine beauty primed for winter sports—Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort recently added a tubing area and a speedy new lift—and ideal for outdoor exploration.

The range's slopes support five ecosystems, with Joshua trees in proximity to bristlecone pines. "In the span of 25 minutes you go from the desert all the way to an environment you might find thousands of miles to the north," says Dion Nicolas, a U.S. Forest Service volunteer. "Species thrive there that would not survive in the lower elevations."

At the Spring Mountains Visitor Center, kids can learn to identify the tracks of mountain lions, elk, coyotes, and other wildlife with the help of discovery packs that are free to borrow. Snowshoers can get directions for walks such as the three-mile trail to frozen Mary Jane Falls. When the new butterfly-roofed visitor center opens in early spring, hikers will be able to park their cars and walk right onto freshly built trails surrounding it. Whatever the day holds, it's tempting to finish up at Mt. Charleston Lodge, whose windows offer snowy views of Kyle Canyon that glitter as enchantingly as the state's entertainment capital. (702) 872-5486, —Laura Read

The red rock hideaway: BRIAN HEAD, UTAH

This mountain may sit far from the mega resorts near Salt Lake City, but don't let its southern Utah location fool you. Perched on the same sandstone upland that's home to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Brian Head tops out at around 11,000 feet and wrings plenty of snow from storms that arrive after speeding across the desert below.

Thanks to its remove, this ski area maintains a laid-back atmosphere. Its parking lot is calm enough that mothers pause there to rub sunscreen on their children. At the base of the slopes, the lift operators don't bother with rope mazes. "Why would they?" says local photographer Mike Saemisch. "I've never seen a line here." Because of its quiet runs and uncomplicated terrain, Brian Head is approachable for beginners. "Kids ski without adult supervision and it's a safe place for them to do that," says instructor Maggie Lamb. Families also enjoy the 11 tubing lanes that zoom squealing riders through a series of undulations, contrails of snowflake pixie dust hanging in their wake.

Beyond the slopes, the Restaurant at Cedar Breaks Lodge and Spa serves plates of fettuccine alfredo with creamy clam sauce. And hundreds of miles of scenic trails crisscross the surrounding Dixie National Forest. From nearby Thunder Mountain Motorsports, guides lead snowmobile tours through forests of aspen and past ancient bristlecone pines to Cedar Breaks National Monument, where the blanket of white snow throws yellow, orange, and red rock formations into stark relief. It's beautiful country that visitors often have all to themselves. (866) 930-1010, —Jim Harris


This article was first published in January 2015. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.