It’s accessible, gorgeous and fun.
Can we adopt it?
It’s on my second night in Telluride, alone in a freezing gondola carriage, poised high above a silent menagerie of town lights so tranquil and perfect it seems like the lead-in to a Frank Capra movie, that the notion first occurs to me: We should adopt this place.
Not adopt in the legal sense, obviously, but claim on principle – the way we’ve claimed Rocky Point as “Arizona’s beach town.” Telluride could be “Arizona’s ski resort.”
Yeah, yeah, I know. Arizona already has ski resorts. Three of them. But only if you use the word “resort” in the most charitable sense. Telluride is a different breed. Nestled in a ridiculously pretty shoebox canyon about 120 miles southwest of Denver, the town of 4,000 runs on skiing the way a Peterbilt runs on diesel. Telluride Ski Resort was named North America’s Best Ski Resort three years running by Condé Nast Traveler, and is in such a coveted chunk of improved wilderness that Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey have both owned homes near the slopes.
All the same, Telluride has managed to slide under the radar for many Arizonans, who generally are better acquainted with Park City, Aspen, Breckenridge and other jewels of the greater Rocky Mountain ski community. But maybe they shouldn’t be. Maybe Telluride should be our forever ski home.
Reason #1: Location, location, location.
Sequestered in southwest Colorado, cut off from Denver and its harem of chi-chi resort towns by the jagged rampart of the Rocky Mountains, Telluride has something of a PR handicap relative to other elite ski destinations. Denver-area folks generally regard the place as charming but remote, rarely worth the six-hour drive when Aspen and Breckenridge are so much closer. For that reason, Telluride has long settled for novelty status. Publicists sometimes use the sobriquet “Colorado’s best kept secret.”
Ironically, the same topographical challenges that make Telluride a logistical pain for most Coloradans make it a breeze for Arizonans. Spared the burden of navigating around the Rockies, a motivated Valley motorist can make the drive in about eight hours. That’s three hours less than Aspen, and five less than Breck.
Flying to Telluride is quicker too, thanks to five-times-weekly direct flights (about 90 minutes one-way) on American Airlines from Sky Harbor to the nearby town of Montrose during peak ski season. It’s a tidy, hassle-free little regional airport – no lines, quick rental car fulfillment, etc. – and the main reason Telluride is the most accessible of the great Rocky Mountain ski towns for Phoenicians.
Reason #2: It’s a gentrified mining town. And we love those.
It seems unlikely the original patrons of the Cosmopolitan (301 W. San Juan Ave., 970-728-1292, cosmotelluride.com) knew “Wagyu beef” from a wagon wheel – they were, after all, wind-chapped prospectors and miners primarily concerned with hard drink and showgirls. Now the Cosmopolitan specializes in carnal comforts of a different breed. Set in a former grand saloon, the restaurant is run by James Beard House-invitee Chad Scothorn, whose knack for grafting Asian culinary traditions over American fine-dining fare suggests the work of Citizen Public House maestro Bernie Kantak. Paired with a no-nonsense Old Fashioned, my Wagyu rib-eye – sourced from 7X Beef in Hotchkiss, Colo. – is the marvel of marbling you might expect, with a hypnotically buttery mouthfeel and just the right coppery zing of quality organic beef.
Located a block off the main downtown drag, the Cosmo is emblematic of Telluride’s transformation from mining town to thriving cultural outpost, a process that we Arizonans understand – and appreciate – as well as anyone. Named after the gold telluride ore that 19th-century prospectors mistakenly believed resided in the nearby mountains, Telluride was sustained by silver, zinc and copper until the 1960s, when the mining companies moved out and an influx of outdoor-loving hippies moved in. Lined with century-old row houses and storefronts, downtown Telluride bears a strong resemblance to Bisbee in southwestern Arizona – also a former mining town rehabilitated by hippies – albeit with a steady IV drip of Dom Pérignon. Lots of boutiques, wine bars and seven-figure real estate offices. In other words, it’s swank – or as swank as a Colorado mountain town populated by skiing and hiking enthusiasts can be.
One great way to orient yourself to Telluride – especially in the winter – is a fat-tire bike tour. Led by Paragon Outdoors-BootDoctors (217 W. Colorado Avenue, 970-728-4525, bootdoctors.com), the two-hour “Bike to Brew Tour” starts downtown and hugs the San Juan River through snow, mud, and stream crossings to the Telluride Brewing Company (156 Society Dr., 970-728-5094, telluridebrewingco.com). None of the tourists in my group were experienced or even competent off-road cyclists, but we managed to get to the brewery and back with nary a scrape – pints of imperial stout notwithstanding.
Reason #3: It’s got outlaw mystique.
Some 11,000 feet above sea level, I’m ripping through a stand of skeletal, wintertime aspens on the backside of Palmira Peak – not on skis, like most of the outdoor enthusiasts enjoying this crisp winter afternoon, but atop a 700cc Yamaha snowmobile.
First order of business: not tipping the 500-pound machine on its side or plowing its nose into a tree trunk. Second order of business: keeping an eye peeled for the many forms of exotic fauna people have told me inhabit this part of the forest. Red foxes. Spotted owls. Besotted Samuel L. Jacksons.
Certainly, Telluride is plenty accustomed to celebrities. Fed a daily diet of Oprahs and Toms, locals know the correct response to seeing a celebrity is benign indifference. But even the most unexcitable Telluridians seem a little excited by The Hateful Eight, the blood-spattered, Quentin Tarantino-directed frontier thriller that’s shooting in a cabin not far from my snowmobile trail. The entire cast and crew are staying in Telluride during the shoot, and the place is awash with alleged Kurt Russell sightings, Tarantino pick-up rumors, Sam Jackson tipping anecdotes, etc.
It’s not just the abundance of snow and pine that made Telluride a natural fit for Tarantino’s outlaw saga – the town has a bit of a transgressive tradition itself, immortalized in the Glenn Frey drug-runner anthem “Smuggler’s Blues” as a favored drop-off point for marijuana mules in the 1980s. That was before the Hollywood A-listers started snapping up mountain mansions, of course – and before Colorado legalized marijuana in 2013. Now, procuring pot is as easy as slapping down an AMEX at one of the dispensaries camped out on Colorado Avenue.
I don’t spy a Jackson or a Tarantino on the snowmobile excursion, but the guide from Telluride Snowmobile Adventures (7214 Hwy. 145, 970-728-4475, telluridesnowmobile.net) does lead us to a clearing in the forest inhabited by the decaying remnants of a mining dormitory, where dozens of soil-blackened souls would bed down after a long day of pulling silver from the earth. Interesting, but I’ll stick with my suite back in town, thanks.
Reason #4. Duh. The skiing.
Telluride was just starting to find its legs as an arts-focused counterculture community in the 1970s (see Summer Attractions sidebar) when an enterprising Californian named Joe Zoline got the idea to clear some slopes near Gold Hill and bus in skiiers from town. Later, a free public gondola was installed on the mountain, connecting downtown Telluride with Mountain Village, a newer resort community at the foot of the ski slopes where the bulk of the area’s hotel rooms are located. The gondola is perhaps Telluride’s defining man-made feature; it’s terrifically convenient and affords unforgettable views.
From my room at the Madeline Hotel & Residences (568 Mountain Village Blvd., 855-923-7640, madelinetelluride.com) in Mountain Village, it’s perhaps 100 steps to the lobby door, then another 50 steps to the hotel’s on-site ski rental shop, then a 30-second bunny slope ride to the first of Telluride Ski Resort’s many high-speed quad lifts and – by extension – over 2,000 acres of skiiable terrain, much of it geared to extreme black diamond skiiers, but plenty tailored to two-plank leisure riders (tellurideskiresort.com).
The highest, most gnarly hike-in trails at Palmira Peak top 13,000 feet, but I resign myself to the more stately blue-square-type slopes of See Forever, a meandering ridge trail that – true to its name – gives you a bird’s eye view of what seems to be most of the Western United States.
Gearing up for one of my blue-square pleasure rides, I peer down at Telluride, so small from here it seem like I could stick it in my pocket and take it home. Were it true.