Population: 215,973
Median Home Price: $175,900
Miles from a chairlift: 34

If you'd asked me a few years ago what the chances were I'd move back to my hometown in the inland Northwest, I would have said zero.

Last year, my wife and I did the millennial thing and drove our van around North America for 13 months. We visited small ski towns like Crested Butte and Jackson, foodie epicenters like Charleston and Austin, progressive hotbeds like Burlington and both Portlands. We were not only looking for fun and outdoor adventure, but also, potentially, our next hometown. And while there were many cities that we could see ourselves living in, we realized that a city or ski town is only as valuable as your ability to access it.

These Are the Next American Ski Towns

After a year on the road, we pulled into Spokane for the holidays and met friends at Perry Street Brewing for happy hour. It was 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon and packed. Here, it seemed no one worked excessively long hours, happy hour wasn't a novelty, and everyone had traffic-free commutes. One friend, who works for a local arts nonprofit, mentioned her $700 mortgage she and her husband pay for a craftsman bungalow down the block. Another buddy, who hangs rain gutters for a living, mentioned spending the weekend skiing at Schweitzer, a 90-minute drive to North Idaho, where he rents a condo for the season. Others talked ski trips to Nelson and Red Mountain and hut trips in BC, and my lawyer friend who is the co-chair of the Spokane Mountaineers asked if I wanted to join a group for early morning skins up nearby Mount Spokane before work.

Passing Through: Where to go at Schweitzer Mountain

Maybe that "next best place" that's both affordable and close to the outdoors was here. And so we stayed, becoming happy homeowners right where I came from.

Known more as the home of the "Zags," Gonzaga University's men's college basketball team that has transformed the little Catholic college into a household name for sports fans, and a nation-leading property crime rate that earned it the nickname "Spokompton," the second-largest city in Washington certainly isn't a mountain town in the classic sense. But it has slowly been shedding its grimy reputation for business development and outdoor opportunity.

"The coolest thing about Spokane is that it still feels like that local ski town that is accessible to everyone," says Rachel Harding, who moved to Spokane two years ago from Boise with her husband to revive the Spokane Alpine Haus, one of the city's two specialty ski shops.

Schweitzer Ski Resort is a hidden gem. PHOTO: Sean Mirus

The Alpine Haus features a season-long ski gear lease program that's only $150 for kids and $229 for adults. All fifth graders in the city ski free for three days at four of the local hills. Five ski areas—Schweitzer, Mount Spokane, Silver Mountain, Lookout Pass, and 49 Degrees North—are all within 70 miles and the average season pass price to ski them is $421, and just $58 for an adult full-day lift ticket. The Spokane International Airport is a major hub for those heading to BC. And the snowpack is neither maritime nor Intercontinental West, averaging about 300 annual inches with elevations hovering around 5,000 to 6,000 feet.

What Spokane lacks in a bucolic mountain town vibe and 500 inches of annual snowfall, it makes up for in bigger city options. Spokane has 20-plus wineries, 45-plus breweries and distilleries, and a quickly growing culinary scene highlighted by Southern fare Casper Fry, Durkin's Liquor Bar, Santé Charcuterie, and Zona Blanca Ceviche.

The economic history is rooted in railroads, mining, and agriculture. According to a 2015 census of the city, the median income is $44,000. But the recent development of a downtown University District, featuring four colleges—including a new medical school that added 250-plus jobs alongside a health sciences campus predicted to generate a $1.7 billion economic impact to the region—and tepid embrace of a burgeoning arts and environmental culture, makes it feel like Spokane is a place where you can still have an impact as opposed to more saturated cities like Portland and Seattle.

"We've watched things shift from younger customers asking, 'How fast can I get out of here?' to those customers returning and saying, 'I want to spend my time here, work less, and play more because the cost of living isn't so high,'" says Micah Gentemen, who manages Sports Creel, a specialty ski shop that his grandparents opened in 1954.

One skier who knows the importance of the work/life balance is Spokane native Eric Schnibbe, the Northwest rep for Oakley for the last 11 years (also formerly the rep for Armada). The 33-year-old lived in Salt Lake City and Seattle but recently moved back to Spokane. "You're not in a hurry here. The commute and cost of living are not mental boundaries you think of in Spokane compared to Seattle. Three hours from my driveway, I have access to Interior BC, which has some of the best snow and terrain in the world. Spokane is not a ski town. It's a place where you can ski."

On the last day of a near record-breaking 2016-17 season that saw 332 inches of snow, we picked up coffee and breakfast sandwiches at our neighborhood coffee shop, hopped on an empty interstate freeway, and pointed it to Schweitzer. We drove past lakes and carpet forests and made our way up the 6,400-foot-tall mountain overlooking Lake Pend O'Reille, the country's fifth deepest lake. We skated through an empty lift line and admired our friends skiing in jeans while clutching cans of Rainier beer.

It wasn't what we expected, but we were home.

This story originally appeared in the November 2017 (46.3) issue of POWDER. To have award winning stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.