Fresh powder, wide open skies, and the not-so-distant peak watching over you from breakfast to bed. That’s the dream for many and the reality for a brave few. They’re spread out across the bases of the world’s most lumbering mountains, working ski lifts, serving drinks, and blazing trails, all with lungs full of fresh mountain air. But before any of those transplanted mountain folk considered buying their first down jacket, they had to choose which little high-altitude community into which they would nestle themselves, and maybe more importantly, how.
It’s not insider knowledge that mountain towns match their high quality of life with an equally high cost of living. You cannot simply walk onto the streets of a resort town and call it home. There’s astronomical rent with which to keep up and relatively fewer number of skilled work opportunities (at least compared against metropolitan areas). Fortunately, there are always hourly jobs to keep you afloat while you sink into the mountain lifestyle. If you’re considering leaving your flat life behind for one in the mountains, then first consider the top 5 best mountains towns in which to work and call home.
The most classic of all ski resort towns, Aspen, Colorado and its sister Snowmass Village sports one of the most bustling hospitality industries in the United States. Home-away-from-home to the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Jeff Bezos, Aspen certainly maintains a ritzy appearance, but it requires a hoard of locals to keep it going. That’s where you come in.
When you’re not hitting the slopes at one of the four mountains in town—Buttermilk, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, and Snowmass—you will be developing your own community at one of its countless breweries (as is second-nature in Colorado). Upon waking up and hydrating, you’ll go to your gig providing for the town’s uber-classy needs. Think: interior designer specialized in old-growth wood furnishings. Or, if that’s not your scene, you can teach visiting kids how to “pizza” and “french fry” while their parents hit the black diamonds above. Either way, you’ll engage in the local culture, which is, for or for worse, build around the resort, while retaining that Rocky Mountain High you so crave.
If you’re really looking to escape the monotony of “The Lower 48,” there’s no better place to go than Alaska. In the shadow of North America’s highest peak, Mt. McKinley, sits the little gold-rush town turned lodge town of Talkeetna. You won’t have much in the way of nightlife in this town of 879, but you will have Denali National Park at your doorstep.
To say Denali is expansive would be an understatement. It’s the third-largest national park in the United States, spanning upwards of four-million square acres. Inside, there are elk to track, mountains to alpine, and endless expanses of backcountry to explore. What’s more, the median cost of living there falls just above national averages. You can land a studio apartment for somewhere between $600 and $700, which means you’ll only need to work a handful of hours a week at one of the many lodges dotting the park in order to get by. There are also seasonal positions available at the park, itself, which will not only get you out into the country as a wilderness guide but will also outfit you with complimentary lodging. You’ll live out the true mountaineer experience (at least for a Summer).
Hood River, OR
Just an hour up the Columbia River Gorge from Portland sits the kite-surfing capital of the world: Hood River. At the confluence of the Columbia and the Hood River and underneath Oregon’s tallest peak, Mt. Hood, you’ll find this quaint community built around sports tourism and the regional fruit industry. Apple wine, craft cider, and plain ole pears—you’ll find all kinds of work surrounding the cultivation, processing, production, and sale of such staples. Stories sprinkle the town of once-new-residents developing businesses all their own around the rainforest-like climate and its bounty. Perhaps, there is a burgeoning business waiting for you in this otherwise untapped economy (at least compare to Aspen).
If that isn’t your speed, it’s not unheard of to live in Hood River and commute to Portland a couple days a week. The New York Times recently ran a story about the number of cranes dotting its skyline in an attempt to underline the extent of economic growth at the drainage basin of the Columbia River. If you’re willing to compromise, you can combine the mountain-town lifestyle with metropolitan career opportunities.
As we’ve already alluded to, part of the decision to move into the mountains must include the cost-of-living. For residents of Ligonier, PA, they get the best of both worlds: low cost of living and easy access to the underrated Laurel Highlands, part of the vast Appalachian Mountain Range. Though you won’t find any Winter X-Games events in this region, you will find boundless backpacking opportunities, including the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.
Rent prices remain low, but you’ll of course need to secure work ahead of time. Fortunately, Pennsylvania and especially the neighboring city of Pittsburgh are big on community service. You don’t need to enroll yourself in AmeriCorps to find a position lending a hand to the notoriously underserved Appalachian communities, whether that means working at a clinic or after-school organization. The Laurel Highlands are the place for you to flex both your calves as well as your heart.
Steamboat Springs, CO
There are probably 10 other Colorado towns include on this list of 5 Best Mountain Towns To Work In (and probably another 10 in Alaska, California, and Oregon). However, they would all be a duplicate of the Aspen model: a classic small community thriving off of the local resort. Steamboat Springs stands out from the pack by maintaining a multi-generational sense of culture. Sure, it has its fair share of ski lodges, more often frequented by Boulder-and-Denverites than Midwesterners, but underneath it all resides community bonds seemingly sprung up from the rock like the waters from which it takes its name.
Moving to Steamboat, you could grab yourself the typical mountain job as a resort worker, ski instructor, or server, but you could also find yourself amongst the ranks of locals catering to visitors at independently-run ranches. Or, you could ingratiate yourself at the annual torchlit ski run or Winter Wondergrass Festival, two events that exemplify the undercurrent of homegrown culture that will be here long after the tourists leave.
Taos, NM – Home to adobe homes, indigenous peoples, and a thriving arts culture, Taos often serves as a refuge to those looking to escape Colorado mountain towns in favor of something more peaceful. Sound familiar?
Chattanooga, TN – Built on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains, Chattanooga offers access to mountain forests as well as a bustling foodie scene.
Boone, NC – Just outside illustrious Asheville, Boone builds itself around the hospitality industry, meaning there are plenty of jobs waiting for you when you get back from the hills.
Palm Springs, CA – Some might not consider it a mountain town, but what do you call those big rocky things rising just outside of town? Come for Coachella. Stay for the heat.