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News, know-how, and opinion for the adventure conscious reader.

Mountain Towns v. Towns in the Mountains

colorado ski towns

Mountains are incredible.  They’re beautiful yet are inhospitable to the point of preserving huge pieces of wilderness from human impact.  Nearly every outdoor activity—and all my favorites—can take place in the mountains, even surfing.  With no shortage of fun to be had there, it makes sense that outdoor types would want to live in the mountains or at the very least visit them from time to time.  And there lies a split: A mountain town or a town in the mountains?

Mountain towns and towns in the mountains used to be indistinguishable.  But after fifty years of tourism development, rural economic collapse and inequality in general, there are major differences between these strange siblings.

Recreation

Mountain Towns
A mountain town has highly developed lift access skiing, usually a resort you’ve heard of even if you don’t live in the state.  Everyone comes for the skiing whether they ski or not.  In the summer there is sure to be mountain biking and beer festivals for dogs.

Towns in the Mountains
If there’s skiing it’s at a T-bar subsidized with maple syrup sales.  There are often mazes of dirt roads leading to no quota trailheads of pristine backcountry.  To be found are undeveloped hot springs, trout that aren’t used to being tricked and OHV shredding if one desires.

Accommodations

Mountain Towns
Five-star ski in/ski out resorts and two-star condos with questionable hot tubs.

Towns in the Mountains
Camping, possibly on free BLM land.  Best Westerns and local lodges consistently book for under $100/night with breakfast.

Homes

Mountain Towns
You’ve heard stories of that one guy buying the primo lot in Telluride for $200 and a bunch of coke back in the eighties but today’s Zillow filters should be in the seven figures for mountain towns to even appear on the map.  1/24 share chalets are optional for the eligible and willing.  Affordable USFS cabins appear on the outskirts with the risk of leased land at variable rates.

Towns in the Mountains
An Instagram cabin in the woods is still gonna run you about $500,000.  The real back to earth options today are usually farmhouses, weathered suburban lookalikes, hunting camps and doublewide trailers.  If you can afford roughing in a driveway, start with raw land.  Some lucky homes boast insane views.  Some have ridiculous space.  Sometimes you get that A frame you always wanted to gut.  It’s not always pretty, but at least it’s possible.

Transportation

Mountain Towns
The morning after a blizzard, the roads are usually filled with black Uber XLs and resort shuttles taking guests to the slopes.  Regional folks roll in with Subarus, All-Road Audis, and a menagerie of 4x4 SUVs. 

Towns in the Mountains
The first vehicles you’ll see out, before many plows, are huge late model Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile sedans.  Lanky wheelbase, rear wheel drive, two-ton American made boats move through country roads like Antarctic icebreakers. 

Dining

Moutain Towns
Pizza that takes two hours for a table because it’s slamming.

Towns in the Mountains
Pizza that takes one hour to cook because it’s dead.

Entertainment

Mountain Towns
Rowdy après, swank cocktails and some place that’s got live band karaoke.  You can often count on a fuzzy gondola ride back to your hotel.

Towns in the Mountains
One of the two main drag saloons will appeal to you, if not both.  Come early to chat with the bartender and locals before the kids from the army base roll in.  Instead of tales of off piste glory, you’re likely to hear some scandalous open secrets and local lore.

Locals

Mountain Towns
The last one moved over the pass five years ago.  Town is generally filled by oil and finance executives, transplant ski bums and young internationals there on J-1 visas.  There are eighty residents who have lived in town for at least twenty years and can’t understand why tourists schlep to work in the city all week.

Towns in the Mountains
Folks have been carving their own route for decades as globalization and urbanization threaten their communities.  There’s in many cases a strong libertarian streak with “Some a Pack of Wolves” bumper stickers. Other times its hippies with Dead stickers and crystal shops. Locals tend to be generationally devoted to their land:  Farmers farm, hunters hunt, hikers hike, etc. Some families have lived there for thousands of years. The soul of towns in the mountains comes from the people, not the chamber of commerce.  Usually kind and inviting, one must also remember that locals aren’t on vacation like you are.

Analysis

Mountain towns are fancy.  It’s fun to ski amazing terrain, nosh and drink and be pampered for a memorable getaway.  It’s also admirable for dedicated skiers to suffer insane housing costs and low wage jobs to live their dreams.

Towns in the mountains have preserved a character that makes locals call a place home and leaves travelers charmed.  People make it work in an adversarial economy. Some carry on traditional trades while others are reimagining their communities and opening up breweries.  And the wildernesses that exists around them are pristine and underexplored. 

Here’s my advice.  There’s a town in the mountains right next to a mountain town.  Stay there.  You can ski during the day at the world class resorts but you can also enjoy non-resort side trips and genuine locals—while feeding their economy. And if it’s a choice of where to move?  Good luck doing either and let me know how it’s done.

Have a great week!

-Ted