Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
I’ve been warned that the landing at Telluride Regional Airport will be heart-stopping. At 9,070 feet above sea level, Telluride is not only the highest commercial runway in the United States, but it’s also surrounded by mountains, some of which rise almost another mile into the air. Landing, I’ve been told, is like dropping into the bottom of a deep bowl. But as we begin the descent, the view is so magnificent that I forget to be frightened.
Even by Colorado standards, Telluride is stunning. Located in the southwestern corner of the state, near the point where Colorado meets Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, it’s girdled by the largest concentration of “fourteeners” [mountain-talk for peaks that are more than 14,000 feet above sea level] in North America. Three hundred days a year the slopes —forest green in summer, aspen gold in fall and snow white in winter — are backed by lapis-colored sky.
I soon learn that the word “Telluride” actually refers to an area that contains two very different towns: Telluride Village, which dates back to the mining days of the nineteenth century, and Mountain Village, which was established in 1987.
Our first stop is Telluride Village, located at the bottom of a box canyon. We saunter down Colorado Avenue, the town’s main drag, and gaze rapturously at Bridal Veil Falls, which tumbles 365 feet down the mountain in front of us, the tallest free-falling waterfall in the state. On either side of us are old buildings, mostly brick or clapboard, that have been turned into small locally-owned restaurants or shops that carry out the twin themes of mountains and the Southwest. There’s a wide selection of turquoise jewelry, leather belts, warm sweaters and paintings featuring mountains and aspens.
As we wander up the side streets, we pass small Victorian homes painted rainbow colors and note that there isn’t a chain store or mall in sight. In fact, we soon realize that there isn’t even a gas station or stoplight. In the 1980s, as many of Colorado’s ski towns morphed from outposts for ski bums into enclaves for the wealthy, Telluride Village took steps to retain its old-time character. It has a strict set of building codes, and the core area has been designated a National Historic Landmark. As a result, while the town certainly has its share of wealthy folks, the ambiance in decidedly Bohemian and unpretentious.
Since we haven’t bothered to rent a car — a non-necessity in Telluride — we pile our suitcases into the gondola. In 13 minutes we’ve traveled 1,000 feet higher and disembark in Mountain Village. Here the atmosphere is more rarefied, both in altitude and atmosphere.
Mountain Village is a planned community of European-styled hotels, condos and private homes. As the center of the area’s ski operations, many of the lodgings have ski-in/ski-out operations, and most offer multi-bedroom accommodations complete with kitchen. The small plaza is filled with restaurants and shops featuring outdoor clothing and sports equipment.
Until recently, snow sports were Telluride’s main claim to fame, but the two towns are becoming equally well known as a summer destination. During the summer, activities range from hiking and biking to fishing and golfing. In addition, the area has a full program of warm-weather weekend specials, from world-renowned music and film festivals to small but classy craft and culinary shows.
For some folks Telluride is all about doing, but for me it’s also about simply being. I’m convinced there’s no place more beautiful, and my husband agrees. As we climb into the little 19-passenger plane to be lifted out of the canyon, he sums up our trip by saying, “I feel as if I’ve been living inside a National Geographic photograph.”
• For more on Colorado’s charms, see the Napkin Notes section of this website.