Ryan Bonneau/Courtesy Visit Telluride
THIS FORMER MINING VILLAGE COMBINES EPIC SKIING ON UNCROWDED, HIGH-ALTITUDE RUNS WITH UNPRETENTIOUS OLD WEST VIBES.
By ALEX BHATTACHARJI
December 5, 2018
As a half-dozen skiers, planks slung over their shoulders, hiked past us up the ridge toward Telluride’s famed 13,320-foot Palmyra peak, my new friend Seth thrust his ski pole forward for emphasis and shouted, “Confidence!”
It was less an exhortation than an exclamation of discovery. Seth, a fortysomething attorney from Chicago I’d met on the gondola in town, had found the black-diamond run bearing that name was somehow still unskied, despite the fact it was approaching midday. Falling away between granite walls and pines that poked out of deep billowy drifts, its untouched powder reflected the strong bluebird day sun. Before us, the expansive vista of Colorado's San Juans’ spiny ridges and sharp peaks were blanketed in 19 inches of fresh snowfall. Just up the mountain lay some of the most extreme in-bounds terrain in America; on our other flank, Galloping Goose, a beginner run that wends more than four and a half miles to the base of the mountain.
I followed Seth as we carved first tracks down the run, kicking up a spray of snow softened slightly by the morning sun, and made our way over to the Gold Hill Express lift, where there was no line—as had been the case at the gondola from town and every lift we’d taken up to 12,000 feet. It was a late-season Saturday, no less. Pretty much everyone in town was on the mountain and yet it felt intimate, like a living room concert, in one of nature’s most spectacular stadiums.
The gondola at Telluride Ryan Bonneau/Courtesy Visit Telluride
“This is just the way it is,” said Seth, who’d been coming to Telluride since the early '90s, with a shrug. “The way it’s always been.”
A short while later on the sun deck of Bon Vivant restaurant and wine bar, I told Seth: “You know, I think I’m finally beginning to get it.” We sat drinking in the stunning views of the Wilson Range’s trio of 14,000-foot peaks and the improbable back-of-beyond feel with a Bordeaux in hand. I had come to skiing late and Telluride even later, though the destination held my fascination before I could hold my own on its steeps. The accolades hinted at the compelling contrast I was experiencing now: The Best Big Mountain and Little Ski Town in America.
WHILE DISCERNING TRAVELERS PAN FOR KERNELS OF AUTHENTICITY, TELLURIDE SITS ON THE MOTHERLODE.
Since the mining village got its first lift in 1972, Captain Jack Carey, perhaps the most famous ski bum in history, and captains of industry (from oil barons to Enron execs, former Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman to mogul-loving movie mogul Kathleen Kennedy) have chosen to call it home. Telluride has every luxury amenity—five-star accommodations, spas, and gourmet dining—though other ski destinations have those things in greater numbers. And here’s the thing I had come to realize about Telluride: What it don’t have, you don’t want. Free of crowds, ostentation, tracts of cookie-cutter condos and franchise mall fare like Nordstrom and Forever 21, Telluride is independent and feels that way. If you find designer threads here, it won’t be at the Vuitton or Prada store like in Aspen, but in the Free Box, the open-air giveaway station where the town’s residents walk away with housewares and, occasionally, high-end clothing. And what you find in Telluride is far rarer and more coveted: A place that has only ever aspired to be what it is, that offers a ski experience that’s as pure, sublime, and free of artifice as any in America. While discerning travelers pan for kernels of authenticity, Telluride sits on the motherlode.
The first prospect who struck gold in the Valley staked his claim in 1875. Three years later the town of Telluride was established. Its main drag, Colorado Avenue, is lined by low, late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings that hark back to the town’s mining roots. The low-key restaurants and bars that occupy them today have a Western-inflected bohemian vibe that grew out of the hippie wave that swept into town in the seventies. In the morning, skiers in a hurry to get on the mountain stop at the Coffee Cowboy, housed in a permanently parked camper, for eye-opening espresso drinks in to-go cups. In the evening, they pour into The Last Dollar Saloon, the dive bar institution (since 1978) affectionately known as The Buck, gradually peeling off layers as they settle in with each successive round of après-après-ski drinks. All day long, from breakfast through dinner, the Butcher and Baker attracts a hip, casual crowd with its locally sourced, low-key fare, from hand-made croissants to house-cured salumi plates.
Downtown Telluride Ryan Bonneau/Courtesy Visit Telluride
On the other end of the culinary spectrum are the traditional cuts at New Sheridan Hotel ’s Chop House, which, like its classic bar next door, dates to 1895. Foodies have plenty of options, from the inventive New American cuisine at 221 South Oak (run by chef Eliza Galvin of Top Chef season 10 fame), to the seafood-forward Asian tapas at Siam’s Talay Grille in Mountain Village. But the most unforgettable meal you’ll have is, perhaps fittingly, back on the slopes. At Alpino Vino, the highest restaurant in America at 12,000 feet, you arrive at the chalet via Sno-Cat, are welcomed with an aperitif and views of the sun setting over the Wilson Range, then settle in for a sumptuous five-course tasting menu of northern Italian dishes with generously poured wine pairings.
Sure, there’s a Starbucks in slopeside Mountain Village (technically its own town, connected to Telluride by a free gondola), but it’s tucked away well off the beach at the base of the lifts. Besides, you’re more likely to see folks sipping locally roasted coffee from Tracks Cafe outside nearby Wagner Custom Skis and watching as the bespoke planks are painstakingly crafted over a period of three weeks. “It’s a skier’s town and mountain,” said Pete Wagner, who began making his skis, which start at $1,750, in a trailer park outside town in 2006. “If you want the most of this or that, you should go elsewhere. If you want the best, well, I’ll see you on the lifts.”
Telluride has more than 2,000 skiable acres, which doesn’t tell you much about the mountain other than it's smaller than Vail and Park City. (Another way to measure that: Its hotel capacity of 6,500, more than half which is in Mountain Village, is just a third that of Vail and half that of Park City.) Its vertical drop of more than 4,425 feet—1,400 feet more than Vail and more than 700 feet greater than Park City—is somewhat more telling. Although its trails are divided roughly evenly among ability levels, Telluride’s steeps—52 black diamond, double black diamond, and EX (extreme) runs—are capable of challenging the most adventurous skier. What’s more, its out-of-bounds terrain stacks up against any in North America. “It’s as challenging as Jackson Hole and easier to access,” said Matt Steen, a heli-ski guide with Telluride Helitrax, which operates in 250 square miles worth of alpine wilderness, mostly above the tree line. “I don’t want to blow smoke up clients’ you-know-what, but they really don’t know how good they have it on a perfect day.”
THE BIGGER THE BIG BOYS GET, THE MORE TELLURIDE FLIES UNDER THE RADAR, WHICH SUITS FOLKS HERE FINE.
Telluride is increasingly rare amid so many ersatz, theme-park-like resort villages (no offense Whistler Blackcomb), a genuine Old West town. Butch Cassidy, a sometime resident of the town, robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank here in 1889, a decade before he joined forces with the Sundance Kid and formed the Wild Bunch gang and got himself killed. Later, while telling patrons about the local lore, the bartender at the Buck can’t resist a few jokes at the expense of Sundance and Park City, Utah. The home of Robert Redford’s film festival had just gone corporate, selling out to the ski industry giant Vail Resorts, which also purchased Whistler Blackcomb in 2016. Last spring, in another billion-dollar buying spree, Aspen Skiing snatched up Mammoth Mountain and Intrawest Resorts. The bigger the big boys get, the more Telluride flies under the radar, which suits folks here fine.
Tucked within in a tight boxcar canyon, the town has less than 2,500 year-round residents—few things limit growth and sprawl as effectively as geology. The town is the seat of San Miguel County, which covers an area larger than Rhode Island yet doesn’t have a single stoplight. If traffic is backed up going into town, it’s likely because bighorn sheep are crossing the road.
Telluride is in the San Juan Mountains Ryan Bonneau/Courtesy Visit Telluride
People drawn to Telluride tend love its smaller scale, and over the years, it has become a consciously casual exclusive enclave that has attracted attention-weary celebrities. Tom Cruise, Oprah, Daryl Hannah, and her beau Neil Young all bought homes here. Ralph Lauren and his progeny stay just outside the valley at Lauren’s Double RL Ranch, which gives the designer’s rugged clothing line its name and gives the Polo Lounge in New York and Chicago and the New Sheridan Chop House on Colorado Ave its world-class Angus steaks. An outpost of Dylan Lauren’s Dylan’s Candy Bar stands out in an arcade below the Madeline Hotel & Residences, Auberge Resorts Collection in Mountain Village, which is one of just a couple of high-end properties here, including
Telluride’s pioneers and purists aren’t too sweet on that brightly colored confectionery, nor any development in and around town, which they worry is spoiling the place. “Of course, I have heard people saying that for 25, 30 years—even before I moved here,” said Steen, who arrived 18 years ago and never left. The changes haven’t altered the town’s sense of community. Telluride remains a place where scruffy twentysomething ski bums and silver-haired second-home owners mix at the Sheridan Opera House, the vaudeville-era concert venue, movie house, and theatre that hosted Sarah Bernhardt in its early days and more recently Tig Notaro and Mumford and Sons. It’s also the sort of town where a cross-country-skiing obsessed local throws a progressive dinner along the Valley Floor wilderness, where folks ski, snowshoe, or bike under the moonlight from hot cider and soup stations on through dessert. “It's just it keeps people glued together,” Steen said of such small town rituals. “Keeps the family going.”
Ten years ago, Telluride’s luminaries like Hannah, Whitman, and former ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke locked arms with locals in a battle to keep that same 570-acre swath of river-side woodlands near the entry to town from being developed into another resort village by the CEO of a defense contractor. Some residents even took out mortgages to help raise the $50 million necessary to acquire the parcel via eminent domain and have it permanently condemned, thus preventing development. If you don’t overbuild it, they—the right kind of they—will come.
The Dunton Townhouse, Telluride Jack Richmond/Courtesy Dunton Town House
Case in point: The Dunton Town House. Opened in November 2016 by the owners of the revered Dunton Hot Springs resort and situated half a block from the gondola, the property is home to five guest rooms, perfectly appointed with a mix of Western antiques and chic Tyrolean fabrics. If it seems indistinguishable from the charming 1900s homes on South Oak street, that’s because it is one—though the building exterior it belies the luxurious renovated space within. Over a heaping breakfast spread of frittatas, homemade yogurt, candied bacon, and scones, my wife and I befriended Jon and Kathleen Peacock, who first visited Telluride over the holidays, staying in Mountain Village, and were so taken it with they decided to come back less than three months later and stay in town—this despite the fact that they own ski houses in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and Grindelwald, Switzerland.
Their son Matthew, something of a ski prodigy, who had cut his teeth on Verbier, Wengen, and Murren when the family lived in Switzerland, plans to make Telluride a regular pilgrimage. “It really is the closest experience to skiing in the Swiss Alps,” he said. “Only better—because you have trees and the snow is incredible and reliable.” As at Europe’s top destinations, the wide open, uncrowded, high-altitude slopes make it easy to forget you’re at a resort at all.
My wife and I had plans to rent fat tire bikes and ride along the banks of the San Miguel River to frozen Bridal Veil falls, at the end of the canyon, a destination among ice climbers. But something else Matt said right before catching the airport shuttle made me reconsider.
“I skied my last run yesterday and even that late I was making second tracks,” he said. “This run called ‘Confidence.’ Everyone just goes past it to the peak. I don’t know why.”
Telluride just topped our annual Readers' Choice Award list for the best ski resorts in the U.S. and Canada—read on fo