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Story by Megan Michelson
Photos by Jason Abraham
At the new Mellow Mountain Hostel in South Lake Tahoe, California, 11 standard motel rooms have been converted into dorm-style rooms, each with four handmade wooden bunk beds. Guests have painted murals of mountain landscapes along exterior walls. In the 1,200-square-foot common room, a kitchen and bar look polished and clean, bordered by a dining table with a Ping-Pong net and a lounge decorated with stray guitars. A 20-something guy with a European accent is cooking a pizza.
A map of the world covers the far wall, with pins indicating where guests have come from: Europe, South America, Canada, Australia, all over the U.S. From the lobby, you can see the Heavenly gondola, a 10-minute walk away, which whisks you up to snow-covered slopes, as well as glittering casinos across the state line in Nevada. A room this close to world-class skiing should cost over $100. But beds here are between $18 and $36 a night, depending on the season, and a Lagunitas IPA is just $2 in the lobby’s beer fridge.
In front of the hostel, a guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt is riding around on a scooter. Turns out he’s the owner of this place. Twenty-four-year-old Wolfie Shapiro owns and runs the hostel with his friend Elias Small, who’s 23 and looks slightly more official thanks only to a set of keys strung around his neck. They look like most of the guests here—youthful, a little scruffy, with permanent goggle tans.
“People assume hostels are going to be dirty,” Shapiro says. “But when you come into our rooms, they’re going to be clean.”
Hosteling in America has suffered in recent years. Just the word hostel conjures up images of smelly backpackers, gross shared bathrooms, and dishes piled up in a sink. But a new breed of hostels has arrived, and lucky for skiers, they’re opening up in ski towns from Colorado to Vermont (see sidebar).
The modern hostel has risen as an alternative to overpriced hotels, where you lock yourself in a sterile room and watch bad TV. Today’s newest ski-town hostels are warm and cheery, with mountain decor, croissant breakfasts, crisp white sheets, and a friendly guy at the front desk who’ll invite you to a fondue dinner party.
“I think there’s a growing trend of hostels in the U.S.,” adds Shapiro. “Especially for people traveling to the U.S. from other countries and skiers on a budget. They’re looking for this type of lodging.”
Shapiro and Small grew up together in the Los Angeles area and moved to Tahoe after high school to spend the winter snowboarding. Then they spent four months backpacking Europe, staying and working in hostels along the way. When they returned to Tahoe, craving that hostel environment they experienced in Europe, they started hosting travelers at their house through the website Couchsurfing.com.
Sometimes so many people showed up at once, they were sleeping under the stairwell. The guys considered building bunk beds to house them all. But then they walked by an abandoned motel on Cedar Avenue, with the windows boarded and a fence surrounding it, and something clicked. It was a foreclosed property that had sat empty for years. The plumbing needed repair, and the windows and doors had to be replaced. But they saw the potential.
With help from their parents, Small and Shapiro bought the place in November 2013 and spent seven months gutting the rooms and building it back up. They opened on July 4, 2014. The hostel filled to capacity on opening weekend.
“Any town that attracts a lot of visitors should have a hostel,” says Small. “South Lake Tahoe didn’t have one until now.”
“We saw how many young people were coming here and wanted to see the town in a budget-friendly manner,” adds Shapiro. “If I were looking for a hotel here, most are way too expensive, and then you just go into your room and you’re all alone.”
Guest David Werlen rolled in a few days ago, after traveling from his hometown of Biel, Switzerland, a watchmaking town. He’s 26 and came mainly to snowboard at Heavenly. He was in Tahoe five years ago and, looking for an affordable place to stay, ended up in a motel that he describes as “How do you say? Break down? It was really crappy.”
This time around, he found the Mellow Mountain Hostel. “If you’re on your own, you’ll pay $70 for a hotel and it’s not that interesting. It’s just a bed. I was so happy to find a hostel here,” Werlen says. “The community is nice. I came in and after five minutes people were like, ‘What are we going to do tonight?’”
Or take Matthew Holinski, who just drove out from Michigan. He came to Tahoe with friends on vacation and fell in love with the area, so he postponed his plans to get an M.F.A. at a school in Arizona and moved to the mountains instead. He has a bunk at the Mellow Mountain Hostel until he finds a place to live. “I’ve stayed in hostels in the Midwest before—this one is really nice in comparison,” says Holinski, who’s 23. “Other hostels can be dirty, dingy. Here they do a good job keeping it clean, and it’s very inviting.”
As for Shapiro and Small, they spend most days snowboarding and rush back to the hostel by check-in time to greet new guests. Ask them about their plans for the future and they’ll ponder for a moment, as if they’ve never considered what comes next.
“I’m feeling like some sushi tonight,” Shapiro responds.
Adds Small, “I’ll probably go to the mountain tomorrow.”
Then they’ll invite you to join them.
Other Hot Hostels:
1. Hostel Tevere
You’ll get a single bed in a shared room at the charming Hostel Tevere, which opened three miles from Sugarbush ski area in 2009. Quality bedding is provided but bring your own towel; otherwise they’re $2 to rent. An in-house bar serves local beers on tap and coffee is free in the morning.
[From $38; hosteltevere.com]
2. Urban Retreat Hostel
Big White, British Columbia
One of the few ski-in, ski-out hostels, the
Urban Retreat Hostel at BC’s Big White ski area came under new ownership in 2009, and rooms enjoyed major renovations. Now the 16 shared dorm rooms are well kept and decorated with art from local artists. Wax your skis on the tuning bench and join communal dinners in the common kitchen.
[From $30; urbanretreathostel.com]
3. The Bivouac
The Bivvi opened in downtown Breckenridge in December 2013 with hip mountain decor (see blue antler chandelier) and private and communal rooms. Breakfast is included—
French toast, scrambled eggs, organic
coffee—and the bus to Breckenridge ski
area is free. After skiing, enjoy a soak in the lodge’s 10-person outdoor hot tub.
[From $49; thebivvi.com]
4. The Hostel
If you’re looking for affordable lodging walking distance to Jackson Hole’s Tram, you can’t beat the Hostel, which has been around since the 1960s but was completely renovated starting in 2011. The six shared bunk rooms now have upgraded bathrooms, new carpets and mattresses, and faster wi-fi. Ask about discounted lift tickets when you book a room.
[From $25; thehostel.us]