Out West Where the Wild Meets the White

Sure, the mountains of the American West are known for their skiing and riding, with deep, plentiful powder that delights anyone with a downhill inclination. But the communities at the base of those mountains are also often places where the spirit of the Wild West—ranching, mining, horses, the cowboy way, Native American heritage—runs deep, and in some cases, is still alive and well.

If you’re going to go west to ski, you might as well experience the “other” west while you’re at it. These are the destinations where the Wild West meets the White West.

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Steamboat Springs, Colorado
steamboat.com

The White West
Steamboat is known as Ski Town, USA, and home of the trademarked “Champagne Powder” (which falls across nearly 3,000 acres of terrain to the tune of 350 inches per year). But it’s also located in the Yampa River valley, in the heart of Colorado’s ranch country. The Park Range of mountains provides the backdrop for the ski resort, but it’s the ranches and aspen groves in the valleys below that truly define the landscape.

The Wild West
This is a mountain that hosts an annual Cowboy Downhill ski race, featuring professional rodeo cowboys zooming downhill in riding chaps and cowboy hats. The town, for its part, hosts an annual Winter Carnival—in its 99th year this month—that features events such as skiers and snowboarders getting pulled down a snow-covered Lincoln Avenue by horses (not to mention other Western-themed events). Through the ski resort, you can sign up for winter horseback riding at nearby ranches, such as Del’s Triangle 3 and Saddleback, that have been family-run for more than a century. And the mountain’s director of skiing is none other than Billy Kidd, Olympic silver medalist skier, local rancher and captain of the Native American Olympic Ski Team. Does it get any more Western than that?

The Local Flavor
While in town, don’t miss out on dinner at Mahogany Ridge Brewery & Grill, where the menu includes elk and bison steaks, paired with your choice of the restaurant’s signature dipping sauces, including smoked tomato demi-glace in a veal stock reduction.

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Taos, New Mexico
skitaos.org

The White West
Colorado’s neighbor to the south, New Mexico, is another locale that offers the perfect blend of snow and Western culture. To find it, look no further than Taos. The resort, Taos Ski Valley, is legendary. For many skiers, it’s a bucket list mountain. With 12,481-foot Kachina Peak as the centerpiece, the number 300 is significant here—Taos averages at least that many inches of snow per year and at least that many days of sunshine. Plus, a few short years ago, Taos lifted its longtime ban on snowboarders, making the mountain accessible to all skiers and riders.

The Wild West
Nearby Taos Pueblo is the only living Native American community designated both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. Its striking multi-story adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years, centuries before Europeans landed on the American continent and pioneers pushed west into the Rocky Mountains. Dances are held throughout the year (be respectful of local etiquette…no photos or talking during performances) and artisans create stunning works that would uniquely commemorate a ski vacation to this corner of New Mexico.

The Local Flavor
Don’t miss El Meze Restaurant in the town of Taos to sample authentic northern New Mexico cuisine, including buffalo tamales with chile verde, grilled trout and wild mushrooms harvested from the nearby mountains’ forests.

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Sun Valley, Idaho

The White West
Set against the rugged Sawtooth Range—sometimes referred to as the “Swiss Alps of Idaho”—Sun Valley Resort is arguably where the modern-day ski resort was born. It was, after all, home to the world’s first overhead chairlift, and was (and remains) popular with the Hollywood elite (it started with Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Bing Crosby, who were all regulars on the slopes of iconic Bald Mountain).

The Wild West
Sun Valley was founded by the Union Pacific Railroad, and also sits in the heart of pioneer and ranch country, with the town of Ketchum at its core. Ketchum was a mining boomtown in the late 19th century, and the rivers and creeks of the valley still host some of the same hot springs in which weary miners once rested their bodies. Several undeveloped hot springs are located along the banks of the Salmon River near Route 75, which runs north out of Ketchum. Easley Hot Springs offers a developed alternative. During the early 20th century, the surrounding mountains were home to abundant sheep-herding operations. That tradition lives on today in area guest ranches such as Wild Horse Creek Ranch.

The Local Flavor
The Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum has been the place to go for beefsteaks and potatoes (you are in Idaho, after all) for more than 60 years. Try the Ketchum cut prime rib. It’s the restaurant’s smaller size, but still enough to feed a horse.

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Mount Bachelor, Oregon
mtbachelor.com

The White West
Banish any rainy and dreary stereotypes you have of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Set along the banks of the Deschutes River, Bend sits on Oregon’s arid, high desert, thanks to the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, which lie just to the west. The result is glorious blue-sky days. All that would-be moisture not raining on Bend falls as snow in winter—to the tune of nearly 390 inches per year—on nearby Mt. Bachelor, a 9,000-foot tall volcano. (Don’t worry, it’s dormant.)

The Wild West
Pioneers heading west stopped along a bend in the river, which is where Bend gets its name. The surrounding countryside is still home to many ranches and when your legs tire from enough runs down Bachelor’s slopes, local museums—including the Des Chutes Historical Museum and the High Desert Museum—make great places to soak up the local history. Or sign up with the Cowboy Carriage to see the town in a wagon pulled by a pair of draft horses.

The Local Flavor
The Deschutes Brewery is a must-visit for dinner. Aside from sampling Deschutes’ excellent assortment of beer, don’t miss the house-smoked baby back ribs in the brewery’s Black Butte Porter BBQ sauce.

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Bridger Bowl, Montana
bridgerbowl.com

The White West
Think of skiing and riding in Montana’s Northern Rockies, and resorts such as Big Sky, Moonlight Basin and Whitefish Mountain Resort probably come to mind. But if you haven’t heard of Bozeman’s Bridger Bowl, consider yourself put on notice. Last month, it hosted the Skin to Win Randonnee Rally ski mountaineering race. Its slopes will host the NCAA Skiing Championships next month, and Bridger’s Ridge Terrain (avalanche transceiver required) is some of the gnarliest in-bounds skiing and riding you’ll find anywhere in the US.

The Wild West
Bozeman is also a place where the cowboy culture runs deep—in 2010, the Northern Rodeo Association named the Bozeman Stampede “Rodeo of the Year.” Call it a seal of approval. Native Americans once followed herds of bison through these lands. Trappers and fur traders took to the forests, while prospectors sought gold in the mountains and creeks. Discover all of that and more at Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University.

The Local Flavor
Fittingly, Montana Ale Works in Bozeman serves up all things buffalo. Try the bison potstickers, Montana meatloaf (with a blend of bison, beef and pork), the bison burger, bison patty melt sandwich or the sublime bison tenderloin.

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Jackson Hole, Wyoming
jacksonhole.com

The White West
Finally, no roundup of ski towns where the White West meets the Wild West would be complete without mention of Jackson Hole Resort and Jackson, Wyoming. The readers of SKI Magazine perennially rank it among the best in the country for skiing and riding. Consider that it boasts more than 4,000 feet of vertical drop and 475 inches of annual average snowfall. Located in the famed Teton Range between Teton Pass and Grand Teton National Park, skiing and riding doesn’t get much more beautiful (and if you want, more challenging) than this.

The Wild West
If there was any doubt about Jackson’s Wild West roots, a roadside sign coming over Teton Pass from Idaho erases any doubt: “Howdy Stranger. Yonder is Jackson Hole. The last of the Old West.” Native Americans called this valley home. Fur trappers—some of them from the Lewis and Clark expedition—worked these forests. The National Elk Refuge sits just outside of town (every year, local scout troops harvest all the antlers that have been shed and erect an enormous antler arch in Jackson’s main square). Historic ranches dot the landscape. And on the main drag—part of which has a wooden boardwalk—you’re as likely to find Western wear, cowboy boot and horse tack and supply shops as you are ski and snowboard shops.

The Local Flavor
The Blue Lion, located two blocks from the Town Square in an old house, serves Jackson’s best rack of lamb, not to mention Idaho red trout, grilled elk tenderloin with wild mushrooms, and other regional specialties.

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Snowbowl, Arizona
arizonasnowbowl.com

The White West
Picture this: 260 inches of average annual snowfall, blanketing 12,000-foot peaks. It’s a classic recipe for Western skiing and riding in…Arizona? Believe it. Welcome to Flagstaff, in northern Arizona, where the Arizona Snowbowl sits on the slopes of the fabled San Francisco Peaks. Incredibly, the ski area opened in 1938, just two years after Sun Valley, Idaho.

The Wild West
Snowbowl’s Western roots run just as deep, or deeper, as its skiing roots. Consider this: Some 50 or so years before skiers started schussing Snowbowl’s slopes, Flagstaff was home to a stagecoach robbery in which $125,000 in loot went missing (reportedly still hidden in the cliffs just outside of town). Later, more than 100 Westerns were filmed in the surrounding environs. John Wayne himself stayed in town. But perhaps most important of all, Flagstaff today still sits amidst five Native American cultures, including the Hopi and Navajo.

The Local Flavor
The Tinderbox Kitchen—just one block off historic US Route 66—serves up new American comfort food, such as sirloin tip steak with a house steak sauce and horseradish mashed potatoes.

Peter Bronski

Peter Bronski (peterbronski.com) is a Long Island native and award-winning writer from Boulder, Colorado. His book, At the Mercy of the Mountains: True Stories of Survival and Tragedy in New York's Adirondacks, came out earlier this year. His next book, Powder Ghost Towns: Epic Backcountry Turns at Colorado's Lost Ski Resorts, comes out this fall. Bronski's writing has also appeared in Men's Journal, Caribbean Travel & Life, Westchester Magazine, Vermont Life and 5280: Denver's Mile-High Magazine, among many others.