The ski town as we know it is dead. The cause? A toxic combination of all-time national wealth inequalities, wage stagnation, the proliferation of short-term rentals, and too many damn tourists. Unless you got in early, have a family inheritance, or somehow snagged one of the few affordable rentals in town, living in a traditional ski town is a less viable option than it has ever been.
Places like Jackson, Telluride, and Mammoth—classic cute-as-a-button ski communities—are no longer realistic places to move to, but weekend stops where one might find a cool Airbnb while flexing another stop on their Mountain Collective pass.
What, you thought you could actually live there? C’mon. The median listed home prices for great places to live and ski: Bozeman, $410,000; Whitefish, $519,000; Mammoth Lakes, $539,000; Truckee, $704,250; Telluride, $1.2 million; Jackson Hole, $1.4 million. Trailers in Aspen are going for half a mill. A recent headline from the Vail Daily: “Housing In Summit County Too Expensive to Hire Housing Director.” Talk to anyone in a ski town who does hiring and it’s the same story. Plenty of jobs, nowhere to live.
So what to do? If a friend wanted to settle in a place near the mountains—or was recently forced out of their ski town bungalow—where would you send them? Where are there careers, reasonable housing options, and powder?
The young, adventurous people I know aren’t moving to ski towns. Unable to afford the old ones, they’re making new ones. The more urban centers they’re trending toward are farther from the lifts, but still have incredible access, a more diverse economy, an affordable housing/rental market, and maybe even a little culture. Skiers might be harder to find—at least the community is less defined—but they are there, and they might be skiing more than you.
These places aren’t as idyllic as a traditional ski town. No, they’re a little rougher around the edges and their schools probably aren’t as good. But damn if they aren’t exciting. They have opportunity! And space! Not to mention more multiculturalism, cheaper beer, and year-round communities. And young people—especially skiers—are embracing them. They are places like Spokane, Washington; Reno, Nevada; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Waterbury, Vermont. For better or worse, these are the next ski towns.
Long live the ski town. —John Clary Davies
Reno, Nevada: Not Exactly Las Vegas
By Katie Baker
Median Home Price: $326,000
Miles from a chairlift: 25
Jen Callahan was part of the fifth generation of her family to grow up in northern Nevada, which is why she used to be so eager to leave. Her hometown enabled her to grow up skiing the nearby Sierra that loom over Lake Tahoe—but it also gave her a little too much proximity to what was, at the time, a place best known for not exactly being Las Vegas. “I guess growing up, Reno always felt, like, rundown, and hot, and tired,” says Callahan, who now skis in big mountain competitions. “Never would I have imagined going to college there. I was never gonna wind up in Reno.”
In the years since, Callahan has lived in Alaska, and in the Bay Area, and in Jackson Hole—and in an old school-bus-turned-tiny-home in Reno, where she and her boyfriend Andrew Hennigh met while working at Mount Rose, she as a liftie and he on ski patrol. Drawn back to the University of Nevada in Reno for its strong Natural Resources and Environmental Science department, Callahan saw the city with a fresh perspective—and loved what she saw. “My friend describes Reno as ‘brackish,'” she says. “It’s salty. It’s like a Quentin Tarantino town: It’s cool in its destruction.”
Lately, though, the story of Reno has been even cooler in its construction. With a population of 245,255; a thriving artsy-foodsy district called Midtown just a few blocks away from the banks of the Truckee River; a rising job market benefitting from Silicon Valley spillover; newly legal recreational dispensaries; and a location allowing outdoor lovers to ski, paddle, hike, and bike without spending all day battling traffic; Reno is breaking out of its old trappings without losing its distinct, oddball culture.
Mount Rose is just 25 miles from downtown Reno. Even inbounds, this low-key, old-timey ski area has plenty of thrilling terrain to be found, like the Chutes, which offer some of the longest steep vertical in North America. The base elevation of 8,260 feet can mean powder days when other mountains get rain, while 360-degree views pan from the blues and greens of Lake Tahoe and its surrounding national forest to the brown desert expanse of Nevada.
There are benign options as well: The city of Reno owns a quirky, small mountain called Sky Tavern that runs like a co-op, where parents volunteer to teach lessons and serve food and Olympic ski halfpipe gold medalist David Wise began learning his trade at age 3. (Last year, the owners of Sky Tavern offered a parking spot to Callahan’s school bus.) Getting to more well-known resorts isn’t difficult, either: Squaw Valley is less than an hour away, and driving from Reno down to backcountry stashes in South Lake doesn’t take any longer than it would from Truckee.
As Reno continues to redefine itself, the more traditional “ski towns” that dot the Lake Tahoe region—Truckee, Tahoe City, Incline Village, Meyers, Kings Beach—are in the midst of a housing crisis.
Median home prices in the Reno area are more reasonable (though growing quickly), and opportunities for employment extend beyond the usual ski-town fare. Apple, Amazon, and Google are among the companies investing heavily in data and logistics facilities in the vast Reno-Tahoe Industrial Center. The Tesla Gigafactory began mass-producing batteries there earlier this year. And Patagonia, which has based its national fulfillment center in Reno for decades, recently opened up an additional 17,000-square-foot outlet downtown—across from a West Elm that in 2016 was the first major retailer to open its doors in the neighborhood in some 30 years.
Bruce Old, the vice president for global wholesale at Patagonia, didn’t expect to stay in Reno for long when he first arrived. Sixteen years later, he can’t imagine leaving. He points to the city’s size, its lack of state income tax, its constant slate of events like the Reno Rodeo or the annual hot air balloon races, and its easy proximity to both the east and west shores of Tahoe—as well as destinations farther south like Kirkwood and Yosemite—as what keep him and his family around.
It all makes attracting and retaining knowledgeable employees easier, too. “When someone calls with a really technical question about their waders,” Old says, “we want to make sure we’ve got someone in the building that fishes. We want to make sure we’ve got someone that maybe works here part time and does ski patrol part time. We’ve got a lot of outdoor expertise in this building, being in a place where people have really good access to pursue those passions.”
Despite all the new restaurants and home renovations and galleries that have replaced what Moment Skis founder and Reno local Luke Jacobson says “used to be all liquor stores and sex shops,” there’s still plenty about Reno that retains its rough edge. You can play slots at the airport right at your gate. Jacobson points fondly to one dive bar, Tiger Tom’s, that features a stripper cage and an old seen-it-all bartender who introduces herself as “Marina—like where you park boats.”
Which is what Callahan loves, too. “That salty side,” she says. “Reno is the only town that is close to the mountains that has that.”
Waterbury, Vermont: Starting to look like a ski town
By Porter Fox
Median Home Price: $288,000
Miles from a chairlift: 17
Chuck Hughson was in his late-20s when he found his home in the mountains. He had worked for REI for seven years and had a job at Burton Snowboards in Burlington, Vermont. Rentals and real estate near his favorite resort, Stowe, were out of reach, so he found a place between the hill and his job: Waterbury.
Waterbury was just coming into its own. For years, it had been known as the home of a sprawling brick compound known as the State Office Complex and a mental hospital that once housed the criminally insane. (“Send him to Waterbury,” was once a saying in the state.) The town was a whistle-stop at the crossroads of Highway 89, Route 2, and Route 100—the Skier’s Highway—that most glimpsed from their passenger windows on their way to somewhere else. Hughson had stopped over plenty of times for gas, food, and occasionally a beer. When he moved there permanently in 2009, his friends were surprised. “They were like, ‘Waterbury?'” he said. “And I told them, ‘Yeah, it’s the place to be.'”
He was right. Set on the eastern fringe of Vermont’s Green Mountains, Waterbury is the quintessential satellite ski town. It is located 25 miles southeast of Burlington, wedged between the 4,000-plus-foot summits of Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump. Stowe Mountain Resort, Sugarbush, Mad River, and Bolton Valley are all less than 20 miles away. The town had been a skier’s hub since the first $3 ski trains rolled north from New York City’s Grand Central Terminal in the 1930s. Hundreds of skiers emerged from overnight sleepers and dispersed into Vermont’s mountains to ride the rope tows for 25 cents a day.
In the 1990s, a group named “Revitalizing Waterbury” set out to return the town to its former alpine glory. Ben & Jerry’s had been churning out ice cream from its Waterbury factory since the 1980s. Over the course of 20 years, the now-legendary Alchemist Brewery (Heady Topper), Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Cabot Creamery, Cold Hollow Cider Mill, and a solar installation company called SunCommon also set up shop there. Arts and music followed. A pub renaissance took over downtown. People began stopping over to grab a bite or drink a brew after skiing. Then they started moving there.
Hughson and his wife were shocked when a low bid they put on a house was accepted. After many years living in ski country, the idea of actually owning a home near a ski resort had seemed impossible. There are many others like them in town now, Hughson said: “Stowe employees, ski industry reps, ski bums, World Cup bootfitter P.J. Dewey, late-20s dudes trying to ski 80 days a year and work 40 hours a week, I see them all in the lift line.”
Instead of service or resort jobs, skiers living in Waterbury can work just about anywhere. Hughson’s wife has a job at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Berlin, Vermont. Other friends work at Stowe or commute to Burlington. Hughson eventually quit his job and opened Waterbury Sports with two business partners. “Friday and Saturday nights we stay open until 7 p.m.,” he said. “There are so many people in town waiting to be seated at a restaurant, they wander in and buy something.”
Off-resort living has gotten so popular in Waterbury that the town is seeing its own housing crunch, said Cindy Lyons, owner of Waterbury’s New England Landmark Realty, though that’s still just a $288,000 median price. Where ski town development is often limited by geographic or conservation constraints, though, towns like Waterbury have an easier time expanding with the population. “They are building rental units right now outside of town,” Lyons said. “They’re filling them up as fast as they are building them.”
Driving into town—past the woodlots, post-and-beam barns, and rolling stands of sugar maple you see on postcards from Vermont—Waterbury is starting to look like a ski town. From the east, you cross over the Winooski River and pass a half dozen clapboard colonial saltboxes. Pickups stacked with cordwood line South Main Street in the fall, alongside sport wagons crammed with kids, skis, and commuter bikes.
The Prohibition Pig marks the edge of downtown, and the beginning of Waterbury’s foodie quarter. Skiers often après at the Pig, taking down one of its 20 craft beers and signature pork cracklins. Blush Hill Bistro, Hen of the Wood, The Reservoir, and Michael’s on the Hill are other hotspots. Downtown is a collection of brick federals that looks a bit like Telluride. The Old Stagecoach Inn, built in 1826, has a stunning parlor and book-lined library bar. To the north is the Ben & Jerry’s mothership and The Alchemist brewery.
There are more young people than old in town now. A quarter of the people in Waterbury are under the age of 18. (The mean age is 37.) Hughson and his wife will soon add another, their first-born.
“Weekdays in the winter I get to Stowe at 8 a.m.,” he said. “I hit Star, Nosedive, Bypass, whatever is good, then I drive home, take a shower, walk the dog, and ride my bike two minutes to the shop. What else do you need?”
Spokane, Washington: Not a ski town—a place where you can ski
By John Stifter
Median Home Price: $175,900
Miles from a chairlift: 34
If you’d asked me a few years ago what the chances were I’d move back to my hometown in the inland Northwest, I would have said zero.
Last year, my wife and I did the millennial thing and drove our van around North America for 13 months. We visited small ski towns like Crested Butte and Jackson, foodie epicenters like Charleston and Austin, progressive hotbeds like Burlington and both Portlands. We were not only looking for fun and outdoor adventure, but also, potentially, our next hometown. And while there were many cities that we could see ourselves living in, we realized that a city or ski town is only as valuable as your ability to access it.
After a year on the road, we pulled into Spokane for the holidays and met friends at Perry Street Brewing for happy hour. It was 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon and packed. Here, it seemed no one worked excessively long hours, happy hour wasn’t a novelty, and everyone had traffic-free commutes. One friend, who works for a local arts nonprofit, mentioned her $700 mortgage she and her husband pay for a craftsman bungalow down the block. Another buddy, who hangs rain gutters for a living, mentioned spending the weekend skiing at Schweitzer, a 90-minute drive to North Idaho, where he rents a condo for the season. Others talked ski trips to Nelson and Red Mountain and hut trips in BC, and my lawyer friend who is the co-chair of the Spokane Mountaineers asked if I wanted to join a group for early morning skins up nearby Mount Spokane before work.
Maybe that “next best place” that’s both affordable and close to the outdoors was here. And so we stayed, becoming happy homeowners right where I came from.
Known more as the home of the “Zags,” Gonzaga University’s men’s college basketball team that has transformed the little Catholic college into a household name for sports fans, and a nation-leading property crime rate that earned it the nickname “Spokompton,” the second-largest city in Washington certainly isn’t a mountain town in the classic sense. But it has slowly been shedding its grimy reputation for business development and outdoor opportunity.
“The coolest thing about Spokane is that it still feels like that local ski town that is accessible to everyone,” says Rachel Harding, who moved to Spokane two years ago from Boise with her husband to revive the Spokane Alpine Haus, one of the city’s two specialty ski shops.
The Alpine Haus features a season-long ski gear lease program that’s only $150 for kids and $229 for adults. All fifth graders in the city ski free for three days at four of the local hills. Five ski areas—Schweitzer, Mount Spokane, Silver Mountain, Lookout Pass, and 49 Degrees North—are all within 70 miles and the average season pass price to ski them is $421, and just $58 for an adult full-day lift ticket. The Spokane International Airport is a major hub for those heading to BC. And the snowpack is neither maritime nor Intercontinental West, averaging about 300 annual inches with elevations hovering around 5,000 to 6,000 feet.
What Spokane lacks in a bucolic mountain town vibe and 500 inches of annual snowfall, it makes up for in bigger city options. Spokane has 20-plus wineries, 45-plus breweries and distilleries, and a quickly growing culinary scene highlighted by Southern fare Casper Fry, Durkin’s Liquor Bar, Santé Charcuterie, and Zona Blanca Ceviche.
The economic history is rooted in railroads, mining, and agriculture. According to a 2015 census of the city, the median income is $44,000. But the recent development of a downtown University District, featuring four colleges—including a new medical school that added 250-plus jobs alongside a health sciences campus predicted to generate a $1.7 billion economic impact to the region—and tepid embrace of a burgeoning arts and environmental culture, makes it feel like Spokane is a place where you can still have an impact as opposed to more saturated cities like Portland and Seattle.
“We’ve watched things shift from younger customers asking, ‘How fast can I get out of here?’ to those customers returning and saying, ‘I want to spend my time here, work less, and play more because the cost of living isn’t so high,'” says Micah Gentemen, who manages Sports Creel, a specialty ski shop that his grandparents opened in 1954.
One skier who knows the importance of the work/life balance is Spokane native Eric Schnibbe, the Northwest rep for Oakley for the last 11 years (also formerly the rep for Armada). The 33-year-old lived in Salt Lake City and Seattle but recently moved back to Spokane. “You’re not in a hurry here. The commute and cost of living are not mental boundaries you think of in Spokane compared to Seattle. Three hours from my driveway, I have access to Interior BC, which has some of the best snow and terrain in the world. Spokane is not a ski town. It’s a place where you can ski.”
On the last day of a near record-breaking 2016-17 season that saw 332 inches of snow, we picked up coffee and breakfast sandwiches at our neighborhood coffee shop, hopped on an empty interstate freeway, and pointed it to Schweitzer. We drove past lakes and carpet forests and made our way up the 6,400-foot-tall mountain overlooking Lake Pend O’Reille, the country’s fifth deepest lake. We skated through an empty lift line and admired our friends skiing in jeans while clutching cans of Rainier beer.
It wasn’t what we expected, but we were home.
Santa Fe, New Mexico: A skier’s outpost unlike anywhere else in the country
By John Clary Davies
Median Home Price: $310,000
Miles from a chairlift: 15
Snowfall looks different in New Mexico. When it snows, the ground looks redder, the junipers greener, and, somehow, the snow whiter. Snowfall stacking on adobe looks like some kind of magical realism. It makes for an altogether incredible aesthetic.
But those beautiful days were behind us, I assumed—it was late March after all. A few days earlier, I skied in denim. I had friends in town, visiting from California, and they didn’t even bring jackets. Plus, this whole mountain biking thing—that was pretty fun.
Then, in the matter of a March afternoon, the weather went from 75 and calm to gray and gale force. The plaza was eerie. By the time we left dinner at Tune Up, unarguably the best restaurant in town, it was dumping. Storms do that here, I learned. They show up unannounced and disappear just as quickly.
Ski Santa Fe reported 11 inches in the morning, but I still didn’t quite believe it. My friends and I took our time eating huevos rancheros smothered in green and red chile sauce and sopaipillas at the Pantry diner before we headed up Artist Road for the 15-mile drive to the 10,350-foot base of the ski area. The snow continued, blowing at hard angles. The road was a disaster—Texans. We counted a dozen abandoned cars. It was a war of attrition. Once we squeezed through a three-car pileup and a snowplow, we were on our way toward freedom.
We parked near the front of the lot and were on the lift at 10 a.m. At the top, we couldn’t see a thing. We pushed for the trees, where we would ski steep, fresh powder through the glades with about 50 other people the entire day. It was the best skiing of the season, and by the time we were home later that afternoon, it was summer again. We went into the historic plaza for cocktails at Secreto and a Spanish dinner at La Boca. The sunset was New Mexican standard—the desert turned gold and the patchy skies a range of oranges, pinks, and purples.
Welcome to spring in the “Land of Enchantment,” an unknown skier’s outpost with exceptional access to mountains that few people ski. It’s also livable. In Santa Fe, New Mexico’s state capital of 84,000 that sits at 7,200 feet, one can actually have real adult things—like a career, or a family, or a home—and still access world-class skiing in the backyard. Between the State of New Mexico, tourism, and the nuke factory at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the job market is more diverse than a traditional ski town’s. The median home price is a solidly middle class $310,000 in town and $161,00 throughout the rest of the state.
It isn’t all enchanting and skiable. Its unemployment rate is 6.7 percent—dead last of the states and only slightly lower than Guam. The state is ranked 49th in the country for child well-being, 49th in education, 49th in economic climate, 42nd in growth prospects, and 41st in quality of life. It is also especially susceptible to the diminished snowfall that is a result of climate change.
When it doesn’t snow, Santa Fe always has something to do, outside or in. Culturally, it is unlike anywhere else in the country. It was founded as a Spanish colony in 1610. Indigenous people had claimed the land a thousand years before then, as their pueblo ruins scattered around the state show. Ancient crooked streets lined with one-story, adobe-style architecture, art galleries, museums, and vast trail networks, surround downtown. Though the town is sleepy—the median age is 44 and it’s hard to find a drink past 10 p.m.—the area has long been a hotbed for creatives. “Touch the country of New Mexico and you will never be the same again,” wrote D.H. Lawrence.
But let’s talk about why we are all here in the first place: the skiing. In my first winter in New Mexico, I had a pass to Ski Santa Fe, a great community hill with bountiful backcountry skiing, like the 1,000-foot-long Nambe Chutes. Thirty minutes from my door, the town hill is a quiet place to spend a half-day skiing steep trees or a morning or evening skinning up the groomers. Meanwhile, weekend trips to Wolf Creek (two hours away), Crested Butte (five), and Telluride (six) are annual musts. And then there’s Taos. Two hours from Santa Fe, Taos has the most interesting ski terrain in the country.
One day last winter, my fiancé and I showed up to Taos after it had snowed 40 inches of characteristically dry desert powder. As we rode up Chair Two and then hiked beyond it, snow crystals hung in the air under bright skies. We sent it off the cornice and sped through the drainage near Juarez, dumping speed in the waist-deep pockets of light snow as we flew down to the cat track. Afterward, we headed to West Basin, the Freeride World Qualifier site, with someone skiing Taos for the first time. Steep, thought-provoking lines sluice in between 30-foot rocks. At the bottom, our friend’s mind was blown: “I’ve never skied anything like that before,” he said. That day the big lines on 12,480-foot Kachina Peak, accessed by the Kachina chairlift, were closed, like they are all too often. It’s big, exposed, and intimidating up there. Like New Mexico itself, the potential on Kachina was unlimited, if also often unrealized. So we headed to the Bavarian for steins of Hofbrau and pretzels on the best deck in skiing—always sunny and full of lederhosen, dirndls, and high spirits.
On the way home, we stopped by the inimitable Taos Mesa Brewery, a concert venue, community hub, and restaurant on the mesa built out of reclaimed and recycled materials by a longtime skier and musician. After a pint and a conversation with the affable owner, we kept south on the high road, past the massive fissure in the ground that is the Rio Grande Gorge, past hippie communities, geodesic domes, Earth Ships, and a mind-boggling amount of open space, until we arrived home in quiet, dusty Santa Fe.
Other Affordable places to live and Ski
Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Median home price: $268,500
Miles to skiing: 24
Median home price: $192,500
Miles to skiing: 25
Median home price: $262,000
Miles to skiing: 13
Median home price: $379,800
Miles to skiing: 48
Median home price: $269,500
Miles to skiing: 18
Median home price: $196,500
Miles to skiing: 24
Median home price: $368,905
Miles to skiing: 12
Red Lodge, Montana
Median home price: $266,646
Miles to skiing: 7
This story originally appeared in the November 2017 (46.3) issue of POWDER. To have award winning stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.