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Local Guides to Mountain Destinations

For many travelers, mountain destinations are a draw for their scenery, wildlife and lakes, not for the prospect of sleeping in the great outdoors. For groups looking to mix some comfort into their outdoor adventure, historic mountain villages provide the perfect cultured counterpoint to not only a day in nature but also daily life at home.

In these villages, time has stood still in certain ways because there is simply no space for overdevelopment when you’re surrounded by protected land. The locals in these hidden enclaves, many born and raised in town and now proud business owners, have long hosted a sustainable number of “in the know” visitors who come as much for the warm welcome as the vast view.


—  Banff, Alberta  —

Unlike many picture-perfect mountain destinations, the town of Banff in Banff National Park was founded neither for its location nor its beauty. In 1883, workers from the Canadian Pacific Railway discovered the Cave and Basic hot springs at Sulphur Mountain, and the town and Hot Spring Reserves were founded on the spot two years before the rest of Rocky Mountain Park.

Banff has been welcoming tourists in ways that don’t conflict with its status as park land for more than 130 years. But the town has found a way to do that without skimping on luxury and style. Instead, it blends those elements into a mountain experience more reminiscent of the Alps than of other Rocky Mountain towns.

Despite new hotels and restaurants, groups visiting Banff today experience it much like their predecessors did more than 100 years ago. The most desirable rooms to book in town are at the chateau-style Fairmont Banff Springs, which opened in 1888 and has been welcoming well-heeled guests like Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth ever since.

On Banff Avenue, the focal point of both the town and mountain views, Banff has created its own apres-ski experience taking Swiss style as a point of departure and adding a Canadian twist. In storied lodges like the Grizzly House, groups can try Banff fondue or hot rocks service with wild game like rattlesnake and buffalo, along with traditional cheese and chocolate fondue and raclette.

Though easy to reach from Banff Avenue, the open-air springs are not attached to any hotel, and a dip on a cool winter’s day still allows you to take in panoramic views of the park.

“When you come out of the changing room on a snowy day and immerse yourself in the warm water and the steam, it’s really part of the experience,” said Kymberley Hill, senior manager of media for North America at Banff Lake Louise Tourism.


—  Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania  —

In Jim Thorpe, it’s easy to get confused over where you are. Apart from the impeccable Victorian architecture that seems more like a quaint suburb than a wilderness destination, many attractions, including the town’s opera house, still bear the town’s original name, Mauch Chunk.

Long a coal-mining town with a notable gap between the haves and the have-nots, Mauch Chunk was in need of an image overhaul. In 1954, the widow of Jim Thorpe, an Olympic athlete and professional football player hailed by many as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, was looking for a way to properly honor her deceased husband, and the town agreed to set up a memorial in Thorpe’s honor and change its name to match.

Despite its rich and unusual history, the biggest attraction in Jim Thorpe today is the outdoors, due to its enviable location right on the Lehigh River in the midst of the 2,400-square-mile Pocono Mountain area.

Each season has its own draw for Jim Thorpe; there’s rafting in the spring, hiking and biking in the summer, incredible foliage in Lehigh Valley in the fall and festivals that take over the Victorian streets in the winter.

Jim Thorpe is an ideal fit for small groups that enjoy independent properties, as the primary accommodation options are family-owned bed-and-breakfasts and inns. The compact, walkable downtown makes it easy to split a larger group among multiple properties.

Gabi Logan

Gabi Logan is a freelance travel journalist whose work has also appeared in USA TODAY, The Dallas Morning News and Italy Magazine. As she travels more than 100,000 miles each year, she aims to discover the unexpected wonder in every destination.