BY ANGELA CARAWAY-CARLTON PHOTOS BY VISIT TELLURIDE/ RYAN BONNEAU AND VISIT TELLURIDE/ TONY DEMIN.
Locals in Telluride like to throw around the catchphrase, “People go to Aspen to be seen. People come to Telluride to escape the scene and hangout.” Every time someone said some version of the phrase during my visit to the remote town in southwestern Colorado, it resonated with me. Not because of the vastly different personalities of the two mountain towns, but because after five months of being grounded, I had finally escaped the suffocating scene of South Florida. Healthy, and searching for the same promises of an off-the-grid, one-with-the-great-outdoors experience that lure people to Telluride year-round, I braved two plane rides — hardly recognizable in a face mask and a plastic face shield that your nail tech hopefully wears, while executing more glove changes than a surgeon — to Montrose Airport and drove the hour to Telluride.
I’ll admit the rugged, small mountain town wasn’t on my radar, until one of my close friends in Miami returned from spending much of the pandemic in her new vacation home there. She was hooked on the peaceful isolation and desperate to go back to the place that excelled at social distancing activities before that was ever a mandate. As quickly as I ripped off my clothes from the plane, my mood swung from anxious to relaxed. Maybe, it was due to the fresh alpine air, crystalline blue skies, and jaw-dropping scenery filled with mountain peaks and impromptu elk and deer sightings. Or, maybe it’s that while everyone is following tight safety protocols, the heaviness of the pandemic seems much lighter there. Whatever it was, my mountain reset had begun.
Stepping foot into downtown Telluride, breathtakingly hugged on all sides by the San Juan Mountains, it’s like you’ve been dropped in the middle of an Old West postcard. Only instead of horses, everyone is walking a cute dog, or three. The historic town has managed to preserve its former mining town aesthetic, while lodging modern-day shops and restaurants run by entrepreneurs who had former big careers somewhere else but found totally new pursuits in order to permanently live there. The result is a mix of on-trend and mountain apparel boutiques, eclectic jewelry makers, handcrafted home goods, and art galleries, one run by a photographer mentored by Ansel Adams. Yet, the understated vibe shifts with a swoosh of the gondola up the hill to European-style Mountain Village, where lavish dwellings and upscale ski-in, ski-out resorts prevail. Even there, no one is hyper-focused on how you’re dressed — there’s no shame in sipping expensive Champagne while wearing Patagonia — as everyone is in their own blissed-out world, caught up in the scenery or chatting about the day’s adventures. That special balance of natural ruggedness, laidback luxury and privacy seems to be the reason that celebs like Oprah, Hilary Swank and Ralph Lauren own homes on the outskirts of town. Fun fact: the hour-drive from Montrose Airport to Telluride spans about 20-minutes past Lauren’s sprawling ranch. (Yes, I timed it.)
While my first few days were spent breathlessly hiking up Bridal Veil Falls, Colorado’s tallest waterfall, paddle boarding on pristine Trout Lake dramatically edged by towering pine trees and mountain peaks, I was lucky enough to experience the town’s first, unexpected snowfall of the not-yet season in September. However, my wallet wasn’t as fortunate, when I had to go on a cold-weather clothing shopping spree. As fluffy flakes somersaulted from the sky, my attention focused on yet another one of Telluride’s biggest draws — the enchantment of winter. Formerly green trees were now dressed in thick winter-white coats, the gondola felt more like a fairytale journey instead of mere transportation, and restaurant fire pits were cranked up for roasting s’mores and sipping warm drinks. I had come for the tail-end of summer, but Telluride began building a case for a winter visit.
There’s a reason that Telluride is gaining attention as a top ski destination in North America. It’s a powder lovers’ paradise with near-perfect terrain and softly packed snow; dependable sunny days that often cut the bitter chill; and with 148 runs, plenty of skiing for everyone on slopes that never feel crowded. Whether you’re a never-ever skier, or an adrenaline junkie who wants to be dropped by helicopter on an exhilarating summit to swish down deep bowls, there’s an adventure for every skill set. Rookies (let’s face it, we’re from Miami and we relate more to après ski than the actual sport) aren’t banished to the bottom of the mountain on monotonous runs with gaggles of ski school kids — beginner skiers can access the third-highest lift for a long green run, which affords the opportunity to soak up those stellar views for which Telluride is famous. Telluride Ski Resort is forging ahead with their traditional opening on Thanksgiving Day, but expect to be appropriately spaced out on chairlift lines and to ride with your group. There are sanitization stations everywhere from the gondolas to the lifts, you’ll be covered in ski gear from head to toe, so think of it as organic PPE.
The season also brings more adrenaline-pumping action like snowmobiling with Telluride Outfitters, where tour guides whisk riders to Alta Lakes, a trio of stunning turquoise lakes, to cut loose on snow-packed trailheads and explore the remains of the well-preserved ghost town of Alta. In summer, Telluride is a mountain biking mecca where scads of adventurers howl as they barrel down white-knuckle hills; but in winter, you can hop on a fat-tire bike from Boot Doctors to plow through well-groomed or tougher trails for a picturesque workout through frosted trees. People who simply want to soak up the dreamy scenery should make a reservation with Telluride Sleighs and Wagons, where you’ll take a horse-drawn sleigh or wagon ride to a fifth-generation sheep ranch for dinner in a whimsical yurt that comes with killer views of the twinkling towns below.
Indulge in the ski-in, ski-out lifestyle at the Madeline Hotel & Residences, a posh Auberge property primely planted in the middle of Mountain Village and boasting large, cushy suites that will tempt you to stay indoors by the fireplace. After a full day of alpine activities, head straight to their rooftop for a dip in the heated pool and bubbling hot tub that offers a top-notch vantage point of 14,000-foot Wilson Peak, which gleams blue and icy white when it snows and is famously featured on a Coors beer can.
Gather around one of the flickering fire tables or firepits at Black Iron Kitchen & Bar for their creative cocktails (like a smoking drink made of Mezcal infused with mushrooms), order a s’mores kit to roast marshmallows, and then take a spin on the property’s ice skating rink as live musicians play. By December, the hotel’s lobby and guest rooms will have a new look, transformed from a heavy and dark mountain-lodge aesthetic to a lighter, contemporary-chic look that better jives with the Auberge brand.
The high-energy dining scene solidifies Telluride’s spot as the whole-package vacation. Lunch at always-packed The Butcher & the Baker for decadent pastries, piping-hot homemade soups, and artisanal breads layered with organic goodness; join the line at Taco del Gnar to load up on chef-driven tacos stuffed with everything from tempura avocado to Korean short ribs; and at least one dinner should be had at 221 South Oak bistro. Chef Eliza Gavin, a former contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef”, prioritizes fresh ingredients and a hearty vegetable menu with items like pillowy ravioli bursting with surprising ingredients such as pickled peppers and strawberry, or beets and horseradish — all just as delicious as her Colorado meat dishes from elk T-bones to bison short ribs with edamame and corn succotash.
It’s easy to alternate après ski dates between Downtown Telluride and Mountain Village thanks to the free gondola that generously runs until midnight every day. (At the San Sophia Station, you can’t miss the now-famous print entitled “Gondogula” by local artist Mary Kenez, featuring adorable dogs riding the gondola – her gallery filled with cheeky, fun art is also a must-stop.) For an elevated experience with a cozy atmosphere and breathtaking views, especially at sunset, stop at Allred’s, where expansive windows present the chance to watch the snow fall while staying nice and toasty. For a blast into Telluride’s past, head to the Historic Bar at the New Sheridan Hotel in downtown; it’s been around since the 1890s and offers the feel of a saloon where a mix of locals and visitors mingle while sipping $5 Jack Daniel’s.
When it was time to head back home, I was already planning a return visit in winter. This time, armed with a suitcase filled with clothes fitting of a snow bunny — in high-low fashion, of course — just the way Telluride likes it.