There’s an old adage that says the world can be divided into two types of people: those who adore the ocean and those who are mad for mountains. Research out of the University of Virginia more or less bears this out, showing that extroverts tend to make a beeline for the beach, while introverts head for the hills. But you can still be a people person and prefer “purple mountain majesties,” especially when those peaks are populated by towns that offer not only the best in outdoor activities, but also compelling culture, culinary scenes and more — just like the following mountain destinations.
Believe it or not, Whitefish, Montana, wasn’t always revered for its half-dozen mountain ranges. According to Explore Whitefish marketing and sales manager Dan Hansen, Whitefish was founded around the beginning of the 20th century as a rail town. Decades passed before visitors started trekking to Whitefish to enjoy the natural splendor.
“The main place visitors to Whitefish go is Glacier National Park,” Hansen said, “and then up to Whitefish Mountain Resort, which is right above town. From the summit on a clear day, you can see peaks in the park, as well as the Canadian Rockies. There are mountains everywhere you look.”
Ranked the third-best place in the West to hit the slopes by Ski Magazine readers, Whitefish Mountain Resort is a good-enough reason for groups to visit, but it’s not the only one. Hansen recommended that groups check out Whitefish’s “burgeoning art scene” at the First Thursday Art Gallery Night Walk, May through October. And summer Tuesdays bring the Downtown Farmers Market, which Hansen called “wildly popular, with food and crafts.
“It’s right next to the historic train depot, with a view of the resort,” he said. “It’s a perfect setting.”
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Encircled by the lush Ozark Mountains, Eureka Springs was so named by its Victorian founders for the dozens of cold springs throughout the town, supposed to have healing properties. Today, groups can tour the well-manicured spring sites, which offer signage that delineates exactly what the waters were said to cure, or simply discover them as they walk around the town — itself a pleasure.
“The entire ZIP code is on the National Register of Historic Places,” said Karen Pryor, group sales director for the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission. “We don’t have outlet malls, big-box stores or franchises. The person who greets you when you walk in the door is probably the owner of the store. We have approximately 75 restaurants that are chef-owned and -operated and a thriving artist community, too. It’s a special place.”
Guided tram tours of the historic district and a wide range of soft adventures, such as canoeing and zip lining, are available for groups. According to Pryor, other popular stops include the Great Passion Play, a spectacular retelling of the last days of Jesus staged in an outdoor amphitheater with a cast of 150, and the Thorncrown Chapel, a 48-foot-tall building alight with 425 windows.
Taos, New Mexico
Sure, Taos is home to Taos Ski Valley, one of the country’s most iconic ski resorts. But once groups pull themselves away from those double black diamonds and the luxe effects of the resort’s $300 million renovation, the town of Taos will utterly enchant.
“Its intimacy and authenticity is what makes it so special,” said Taos spokesperson Marissa Le. “We’re a homegrown arts community with deep multicultural roots, including Hispanic, Native American and Anglo. Taos really has a different look and feel than other mountain towns.”
Groups will want to wander Taos’ tony galleries and shops, but there are more structured activities in the area that shouldn’t be missed. Heritage Inspirations offers an horno baking experience at Taos Pueblo, a 1,000-year-old Native American community, that gives groups the chance to make bread in a traditional adobe oven. Or groups can learn how to make Southwestern cuisine with Cooking Studio Taos, a cozy venture that offers instruction — and a meal that follows — in the proprietors’ own home.
Want to see more? Historic Taos Trolley Tours takes visitors on tours around the historic town plaza or to cultural sites like the Millicent Rogers Museum, known for its collections of jewelry, pottery, baskets and other Southwestern goods.
Banff, Alberta, Canada
Banff was built, quite litterally, for visitors.Tucked away in the Canadian Rockies, inside Banff National Park, the town was founded in 1883 to welcome people to the country’s first national park. “It’s absolutely a year-round, vibrant town,” said Angela Anderson, director of media and communication at Banff and Lake Louise Tourism. “And we have three incredible ski resorts, so that’s one of the biggest draws for groups. There’s only one on-hill accommodation because we’re in a national park, and that’s Sunshine Village, which is a small, exclusive lodge. So, you enjoy your skiing in the wilderness and then come into town for the après.”
No matter the season, Anderson recommends a ride up the Banff Gondola, to the top of Sulphur Mountain. There, groups will find an easy-to-access boardwalk with breathtaking views, an interpretive center and Sky Bistro. Just as enjoyable, if a little more down-home, is Banff Trail Riders’ Cowboy Cookout. Groups take a wagon or horseback ride to a bucolic cabin setting, where they’re dished up a Western-style barbecue feast.
Tour leaders will also want to schedule a visit to the Athabasca glacier and skywalk. Groups get to go on the glacier itself, an experience not open to the general public, and then take a stroll on the glass-bottomed Sky Walk, which stretches thrillingly above the icefield.
There is so much fun to be found in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains that it can’t all be contained in one town or even in the legendary Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The country’s most popular national park is blessed with 800 miles of gorgeous hiking trails, but tour leaders should leave plenty of time for equally thrilling adventures in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.
“The communities keep adding new things, and the attractions keep reinventing themselves,” said Dave Jones, eastern division manager for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. “There have been many new investments over the past five years and also projected in the very near future. If you were here for a whole week you couldn’t do it all.”
Visitors can access the national park from Gatlinburg, also home to the mountaintop theme park Anakeesta. Less than three years old, it’s already expanding with a new restaurant, observation tower and more in 2020. Speaking of fine vittles, country star Blake Shelton has launched his eatery, Ole Red, which happily welcomes groups. So does the spectacular SkyBridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge on the continent, which debuted in May 2019.
Not to be outdone, Pigeon Forge’s Dollywood opened the $37 million Wildwood Grove last year. While the park serves plenty of great food, groups might want to head to Junction 35 Spirits, a new distillery and restaurant, for a sampling and tour. Come summer, all group members should bring their swimsuits to Sevierville when Wilderness at the Smokies cuts the ribbon on its new Soaky Mountain Water Park.