The Rich History of 5 Top Ski Towns
The ingredients that make a great ski area are not terribly complicated: mountains (the bigger, the better), abundant and reliable snow, and well-maintained trails. But while ski meccas share a common set of topographical and climactic attributes, what makes their towns distinctive are the events that shaped them.
For example, years before Telluride, Colorado, became a magnet for skiers, a rush of miners seeking silver and gold started a boom that helped fuel the town’s creation. Similar tales of remote outposts quickly transformed into teeming frontier cities could also be told about Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Park City, Utah; and Aspen and Breckenridge in Colorado. In many cases, protected buildings and downtown districts make a destination’s past both obvious and an essential part of its current allure.
No list of historic ski towns can be completely comprehensive. But a socially distanced visit to any of the below destinations will deliver the adrenaline rush all skiers and snowboarders crave, along with an opportunity to get immersed in the legacies of the colorful characters who helped create these places.
There’s a conceit among many East Coast skiers (myself included) that while the Adirondacks and White and Green Mountains aren’t nearly as high as peaks in the West, we East Coasters have collectively been at this wintry fun much longer. The long history of skiing on Oregon’s Mt. Hood demolishes that comforting misconception.
Located about an hour southeast of Portland, the still potentially active volcano that is Mt. Hood serves as Oregon’s tallest mountain, with an elevation over 11,000 feet. The Timberline resort (a Historic Hotels of America member and one of five ski areas on the mountain) takes full advantage of its place on the south face. Forty-one trails cover more than 1,400 acres, and Timberline’s annual snowfall averages 600 inches—a steady enough supply that it stays open 12 months a year.
The popularity of skiing on and around Mt. Hood grew steadily from the first time two brothers skied the north side of the mountain in 1890. By the 1920s, spectators numbering in the thousands drove up its treacherous winter roads to watch competitive ski jumpers.
The competitions—and the exposure to Mt. Hood’s snowy magnificence—fueled a push to build a hotel, Timberline Lodge (shown at top), and its eponymous ski area. Built in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Timberline Lodge was designed by a team that included Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the architect of famous lodges in Yosemite, Bryce Canyon, and Zion national parks.
Located nearly 6,000 feet up Mt. Hood, the lodge makes access to skiing easy. And its rustic design, including plenty of exposed wood and an 800,000-pound stone chimney, gives the building the feeling that it has been there as long as the mountain itself. While it’s true that the lodge was used as the exterior of the Overlook Hotel in the movie The Shining, there’s nothing scary about it.
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A big reason Colorado can make such a persuasive argument that it has the best skiing in North America is its large number of options. With 26 ski areas across the Rocky Mountains, it can be difficult for any individual resort or town to make a claim about the number, length, or difficulty of its trails that can’t be matched or bested by an in-state rival. But Leadville, Colorado, boasts a distinction that seems particularly notable in a state that so values elevation: At 10,158 feet, Leadville is one of the highest incorporated towns in North America.
Like other Colorado ski towns, Leadville experienced booms and busts related to mining. A few months after gold was discovered in 1860, its population swelled to 10,000 and eventually hit 30,000, making it one of the largest cities in the state. A silver rush in the 1870s reshaped the town in ways that still show themselves today.
For example, a mining magnate took just 100 days to construct the opulent Tabor Opera House, which features brick walls 16 inches thick. The opera house attracted luminaries such as John Philip Sousa and Oscar Wilde, as well as more rambunctious entertainers like Buffalo Bill and Harry Houdini. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is one of several organizations supporting a current project to rehabilitate the opera house.
Leadville’s ski history is equally unique. In the early 1940s, the United States Army decided to assemble a unit adept at fighting in mountainous terrain and skilled at getting around on skis. That led to the formation of the 10th Mountain Division, which played a critical role in liberating northern Italy during World War II. But before it was deployed to Europe, the division trained at Leadville’s Cooper Hill. After the war, a group of veterans returned to Leadville to open the Ski Cooper resort.
Today Ski Cooper and Leadville are treasured by Coloradans for being laid-back and affordable, a sharp contrast to some of the state’s pricier and better-known destinations. And with 60 trails and an average snowfall over 250 inches, Leadville’s appeal to skiers is definitely not a thing of the past.
There is more than a little bit of irony to the emergence of Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, as a winter mecca. When the sprawling, Spanish Renaissance Revival–style Mount Washington Resort in northern New Hampshire first opened in 1902, it was an idyllic summer getaway for well-heeled Boston, New York, and Philadelphia families. Travelers would arrive by the trainload and take a short horse-and-carriage ride to a hotel made grand by the labors of hundreds of Italian artisans, an ample supply of crystal chandeliers, and more than 1,200 windows that ushered in views of the surrounding Presidential mountain range.
Despite its remote location, the resort was one of the most technically advanced of its era, complete with a steel substructure, a lighting system installed by Thomas Edison, and a stock ticker connected directly to Wall Street. The hotel later gained fame as host of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement that resulted in the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
But one thing it lacked was the capacity to host guests during the winter. After years of financial ups and downs, the Mount Washington Resort (now an Omni and a Historic Hotels of America member) was finally winterized in 1999. Today, that means the 350-room resort hosts skiers and snowboarders eager to explore the three mountains, 10 chairlifts, and 63 trails that make Bretton Woods New Hampshire’s largest ski area. Another way to explore the grounds around the grand hotel is by snowshoeing and cross-country skiing the trails that converge on the resort’s Nordic Center.
Just like Bretton Woods, Lake Placid, New York, first came to prominence as a summer vacation getaway. In the late 1800s Gilded Age families such as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Morgans constructed sprawling “Great Camps” amid the lakes and mountains of the Adirondack region.
Unlike Bretton Woods, though, the town embraced the opportunities of winter recreation early in the 20th century, when Melvil Dewey (who created the Dewey Decimal system) pushed to extend the operation of the health and recreation–devoted Lake Placid Club into the cold winter months. In the 1920s, speed skaters who trained on Mirror Lake and went on to compete successfully in international contests burnished Lake Placid’s reputation as a winter sports destination.
But it was the work of Dewey’s son, Godfrey, to lure the 1932 Olympic Winter Games that both put the small town on the radar of winter sports enthusiasts and brought in the long-term investment required to build the necessary ski infrastructure. While the skiing events in the 1932 Olympics were held on hills near downtown Lake Placid, skiers today can snake their way down Whiteface Mountain.
Opened in 1958, Whiteface is one of New York’s 46 “High Peaks,” with summits of 4,000-plus feet. Western skiers who sniff at skiing a mountain 4,865 feet high should keep two things in mind: The 3,430-foot vertical drop skiers can enjoy on Whiteface is greater than the drops in Aspen and Snowbird, Utah; and the mountain was a big reason Lake Placid was able to bring the Winter Olympics back in 1980.
When not enjoying the 90 trails on Whiteface, visitors can delve into the rich sporting history of the area at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum or visit the Herb Brooks Arena, where the U.S. hockey team pulled off its Miracle on Ice victory against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.
The beginnings of Vermont’s bustling ski industry have quintessentially New England roots. Long before Stowe, Vermont, became home to America’s first ski school and patrol in the 1930s, some of the area’s loggers traveled through the snowy woods atop boards with pointed tips.
The journey from those early ski trips to today’s 116-trail, three-peak Stowe Mountain Resort has had as many twists and turns as a run on Stowe’s famously serpentine Nosedive trail. The first descent of the town’s Mt. Mansfield took place in 1914, when a Dartmouth College librarian hiked up and then skied down a road that had been carved along the mountain. But the true origins of skiing at Stowe didn’t begin until the Great Depression brought a group of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers to Mt. Mansfield to build the state’s first designated ski trail.
Some of the original CCC structures remain in use. Near the top of Mt. Mansfield, for instance, is a beautifully crafted stone warming hut that CCC crews built for skiers in the 1930s. Today, thanks to a partnership between the resort and the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, visitors can stay in the stone hut, where a fireplace provides the only heat.
While still retaining nods to its history—including trails named after some of the people most responsible for its birth and growth—Stowe has balanced a reverence for the past with continuous innovations. The resort built the first double chairlift in America in the 1950s and the first four-person gondola in the East in the 1960s. Until Vail Resorts purchased it in 2017, Stowe was the only ski resort to be owned by the same family for more than 60 years.
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