“When people are vacationing in the place that you call home it serves as an instant reminder of how fortunate you are to live there."
The Western United States is dotted with small towns whose populations multiply in size in the winter months as tourists flock to ski and snowboard on the fresh powder of the mountains.
While some cities like Jackson, WY, have a second, smaller tourist season in the summer as hikers explore the mountains in the warmer months, many mountain resort towns live and die by the three or so months in winter when the snow is fresh and the skiing is good.
It’s a very boom or bust way of life that leads to a truly unique lifestyle. Some people love the ups and downs it brings, thriving on the fast pace of peak season and using the offseason to do their own exploring and recharging. Residents tend to have a love/hate relationship with the hordes of tourists – they bring extra traffic and headaches, but they also bring their tourism dollars and are the reason for most of the jobs in the area.
Basing your life on tourist seasons can be difficult, but there are also plenty of rewards. We talked to some year-round residents of mountain resort towns to find out what their lives are really like. Here are some of the insights (and pros and cons) they shared…
These cities are resorts for a reason. You get to live in a place that other people only dream of visiting. There’s natural beauty everywhere you look and while others might only see it online or in photo books, you get to wake up to it every morning.
There’s something humbling and awe-inspiring about being surrounded by beautiful mountains and it helps remind you how big the world is.
An International Community
If we truly do learn something from everyone we meet, there’s something special about living in a place where you get to interact with people from all over the world on a day-to-day basis.
Taylor Luneau, who worked as a field educator at an outdoor school in Jackson, loved to see how people’s awe at the natural beauty in the area transcended cultures, languages and barriers.
“When people are vacationing in the place that you call home it serves as an instant reminder of how fortunate you are to live in this place,â€ he said. “Nature has this amazing capacity and I was fortunate enough to see its work while living in Wyoming.”
Living for ‘Mud Season’
When the snow starts to melt, the ground turns to mush and the tourists stop heading into town. That’s when Alex Filo, a chef who worked at resorts in Steamboat Springs and Vail, CO as well as Sun Valley, ID, got his best exploring in.
Peak season means difficulty getting into your favorite restaurants or even menu prices that you may not be able to afford. But as the tourist traffic starts winding down, many places discount prices, and that’s when Filo said he would try all the restaurants he’d been hearing so much about.
Many places will close for a few weeks or even the full summer, but that shoulder season as tourism winds down and summer isn’t quite there yet is a great time for locals to find deals, avoid lines and get to sample all the places tourists had been raving about all winter.
Another bonus of life in a resort town? People fly from around the world to ski on the mountains you have in your backyard.
Filo said he’d often wake up at 5 a.m. and be on the first ride up the slopes to take advantage of fresh powder after a storm. He and his friends would get in several runs before many of the tourists had even woken up. Even on days where he left work late and had to be back at the restaurant by 10 a.m., he’d fit a few runs in.
That being said, Filo also mentioned how by the end of his two-plus years in Vail, he wouldn’t think about going up the mountain if there wasn’t at least six inches of fresh powder. When you have access to the best, you start to become accustomed to the best and you might start to take that for granted.
High-end stores, top chefs, the best restaurants, stunning views, picture-perfect scenery – it can be easy to forget that you’re living in paradise and that’s a privilege, so you have to make sure you take the time to appreciate it. Taking a step back to remember and value all of that is important for your mental well-being.
It’s Not All Sunshine and Fresh Powder
Both Luneau and Filo mentioned the “fairytaleâ€ feeling that can come from living in a resort vacation town, and Filo pointed out that not everyone is great at navigating that feeling.
Luneau said there were times in Jackson where he felt almost disassociated – as though the whole thing was a bit like a theme park.
“(There’s) a bubble over many mountain towns that often results in an insular experience leading many to feel disconnected from the larger issues of the country. Navigating the fine line of this phenomenon was perhaps the most interesting thing I experienced while living (there),â€ he said.
Living in these towns often means isolation from family and friends and the transient nature of resort communities can make it difficult to create a support network of friends. The uncertainty of seasonal work can add financial stress. Many people who move to these towns have an idealized version of what life in paradise should look like and the reality rarely measures up.
“It’s kind of surreal. It’s different living in that environment,â€ said Filo.
Money, Money, Money
The median income for a resident of Aspen, CO is $66,635 and according to Denver Business Insider, the average sales price of a home in the city is just under $5 million (yes, you read that right). In Jackson, the median house price is $1.2 million.
Jackson, among other towns, has introduced housing subsidies to help locals bridge the gap. Without those programs, these towns will all but die out in the off season and necessary employees – like school teachers and the town manager – won’t be able to afford to stay.
Luneau points out that 97% of Teton County, where Jackson is located, is public land. It’s also the largest city proximate to numerous popular ski areas as well as Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. There’s an extremely small supply of land and a large demand for it, especially from those luxury, high-end buyers that have millions of dollars to spend on properties that often go uninhabited for most of the year. It can make for a depressing churn and turnover of the folks who keep the town running and make it difficult to stay, even for those who want to.
“The high cost of living in the area, in addition to the seasonal work and lack of long-term careers, has resulted in a transient community flooding the town every winter and then shifting to a new crowd every summer. While a full-time community does exist in this area, like many mountain towns, Jackson was faced with the challenge of managing a consistently fluctuating population,â€ said Luneau.
Slow Your Roll
John Muir said “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
There’s something magnetic and appealing about being far, far away from most everything else. It’s one of the reasons we love to flock to these mountain resort towns. We head into the mountains to get away from the stress of life and to feel removed from the hustle and bustle.
“The things I loved most were the remoteness (and) the relaxed pace lifestyle,â€ said Jen Bug, who spent years in Steamboat Springs.
Sure, it can sometimes feel hectic with long shifts or traffic jams full of tourists, but enjoying life in a resort town is really all a matter of perspective – and luckily, perspective is easy to find out here in the wide open wilderness.