Telluride, Colo.

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The term "mountaintop restaurant conjures a big, sprawling place, with outdoor grills and lots of seating. Giuseppe's, at 11,890 feet, is the size of your average mobile home. A few tiny tables are crowded within, but most people sit outside, absorbing in-your-face views of the west San Juan mountains.

That a nearly 20-year-old shack of a restaurant has endured as Telluride's loftiest eatery says a lot about how Telluridians sidle up to change: slowly. That caution—combined with geographic isolation—defines a community that is fighting hard to be a town first and a resort second.

After 30 years in the ski business, Telluride remains intimate, albeit increasingly cosmopolitan. Only 5,300 guest beds are available in town and at Mountain Village, and Telluride's projected resident population at full build-out is a mere 3,600 souls. Most locals like that."I really like—and hate—the fact that I know almost everyone, says Jenny Russell, an attorney who moved here from Boulder, Colo., in 1995 and spends most weekends skiing or rock climbing. "Except for times that you wish to be anonymous, it's really nice to know the people you live with. I feel connected here, much more than any community I've ever lived in. What I don't like about Telluride is the people who just want to own property here because it's cool or beautiful, but make no commitment to making their income here or contributing here.

Shoehorned into a west-facing hanging valley, boxed in by 13,000-foot peaks and a half-dozen waterfalls (including Colorado's two longest), Telluride is one of North America's most dramatic ski resorts, and one that is on exceptionally close terms with nature. Beavers frolic in a large pond across the street from the post office, and they regularly try to dam the San Miguel River, which cuts through the southern edge of town along the ski area base. Hiking and biking trails lead off the ends of the abbreviated cross streets (the whole town site is just over a mile long and about a quarter-mile wide).

During the past decade, residents have built upon this natural appeal with their own creations: a new $8.9 million library, a $1.9 million historical museum renovation, summer music and film festivals. Such achievements are valued here, but many locals recognize that they also foster The Big G: gentrification. And that's something a large part of the populace aggressively resists.

"What is most positive to me is the collection of things that have not changed, says Jim Pettegrew, a 23-year Telluridian. "The quality of the backcountry in winter and summer, the feeling of community among citizens, the level of participatory democracy and cultural enrichment, and the caliber of events we get—those are things that have largely not changed, and that's one of our successes.

Three-fourths of the town was named a National Historic Landmark District in 1964, well before the ski area opened in 1972. The town government subsequently adopted aggressive design review guidelines to blend new buildings into the 400-acre downtown's late-19th- and early-20th-century architecture. To date, the town's only national chain store is ACE Hardware.

Founded on gold in the 1870s, Telluride was laid out compactly, and its pedestrian-friendly streetscape remains a defining element. The ski slopes on the north side of Coonskin Ridge connect to the town streets, and the streets themselves—especially Colorado Avenue, the main drag—function as open-air pub, coffeehouse and living room.

Geography has played the biggest part in helping keep Telluride small. The town is famously difficult to get to. Commuter planes fly to the town's small airstrip, weather permitting, from Phoenix and Denver. But most air service is to Montrose, 65 twisting, two-lane miles away.

Although Telluride is 45 miles from the nearest stoplight, traffic moves slowly, allowing dogs and children to wander with impunity. A rental car is unnecessary; one can walk ross town in 15 minutes, and Telluride is connected to Mountain Village—the plush, new base-area development on the western side of the ski runs—by a free gondola.

"What makes Telluride distinctive is that it is a real town where a ski resort got built, says Michael Zivian, who arrived in 1973 and built two small hotels. "Our biggest threat is development by big corporations and large landowners who don't have long-term interests here.

That threat is coming from both sides. Idarado Mining Co., which operated the valley's last gold mine until 1978, has proposed a 64-luxury-home development on 405 acres along Telluride's eastern edge. Voters rejected the project last year, but some development is likely there anyway. On the western side, the town government has moved to condemn 550 acres of wetlands and meadows to keep it as open space rather than let a proposed hotel, homes and golf course be built there.

Elbow room is important here. Twenty percent of the town's tax revenues are devoted to buying public open space; the local San Miguel Conservation Association has protected more than 5,000 acres, including the heart of Bear Creek, a spectacular canyon that slices south from town and marks the eastern edge of the ski area. Backcountry skiers exiting recently reopened gates at the top of 12,255-foot Gold Hill drop through chutes into Bear Creek and then cruise right onto Pine Street.

Inbounds, the options improved significantly last season with the opening of 733-acre Prospect Bowl. Telluride Ski & Golf Co. insists that much of the terrain, opened at a cost of $14 million, is intermediate, but it's closer to green than blue. "It's not for me, says Paul Kolachov, who lives in a yurt on a mesa west of Telluride, commutes 42 miles daily by mountain bike and telemarks 100 days on the mountain each season. But, he adds, Prospect Bowl has taken a lot of pressure off the steeper trails.

When Telluride ski area opened in 1972, the lifts didn't connect to town; all the skiing was on the west-facing side of Coonskin Ridge and led down to the development that has since become Mountain Village, a work-in-progress of fractional-ownership condominiums, oversized log houses, upscale hotels and some employee housing. The town wanted part of the action, so runs and three fixed-grip chairs were added between 1975 and 1985 to link the town to the ski area.

Those lifts made the town of Telluride an integral part of the eponymous ski resort. The addition in 1996 of the $16 million gondola between downtown and Mountain Village connected the two with an 11-minute ride. The gondola, which runs from 7 a.m. to midnight during winter and summer, is free, and significantly faster than the eight-mile road that links the two. The lift was designed to ease traffic congestion, and did so for several years, but by 2000, town planners concluded that traffic was back to pre-gondola levels.

Today, the ski area's town-side slopes are noticeably less crowded as skiers head to the new runs in Prospect Bowl, including the double-black diamonds served by the Gold Hill chair in what was previously hike-to terrain. The expansion was financed by Joe Morita (son of the founder of Sony Corp.), who bought the ski area in March 2001. Morita quickly spent $3.1 million on snowmaking, boosting coverage to 204 acres from 155, and $4.9 million on Allred's Restaurant, a luxury dinner spot at the gondola midstation.

Morita also won permission from the U.S. Forest Service for two more lifts—one to the base of Palmyra Peak and another into San Joaquin Bowl on the east side of Gold Hill—and a 100-seat restaurant at the top of the gentle slopes of Lift 10, on the western edge of the ski area. No date has been set for construction, however.

Locals have been cautiously optimistic about Morita, who replaced Mountain Village developers and ski area owners Ron Allred and Joe Wells. They are pleased to have an owner who is willing to invest.Morita is "committed to making Telluride the No. 1 destination resort in North America, says Telski spokeswoman Annie Kuhles.

That's a refrain heard in many ski resorts these days, but not one that echoes through Telluride's streets. If anything, residents lean the other way. "I don't need Telluride to be a world-class ski area, says Pettegrew. "I honestly think we have one of the greatest mountain communities that I've ever been to, and it's got a more than adequate ski area for what we need.

Maybe so, but there are a lot of real estate offices in town now, and the last of the old miner's cabins are being snapped up for six-figure prices even as the fate of the proposed luxury-home subdivisions are hotly debated.

Can Telluride be both a top destination resort and home to a stable, diverse community? No one can say yet, but a lot of Telluridians recognize they are part of something special, and that its size may be this town's most important asset of all.

Local Lore
Stories abound as to the etymology of Telluride's name. Some say it derives from "To hell you ride. More likely, it's from "tellurium, an element believed to indicate the presence of gold. The mining town may have used it as a ploy to draw settlers.ing Telluride the No. 1 destination resort in North America, says Telski spokeswoman Annie Kuhles.

That's a refrain heard in many ski resorts these days, but not one that echoes through Telluride's streets. If anything, residents lean the other way. "I don't need Telluride to be a world-class ski area, says Pettegrew. "I honestly think we have one of the greatest mountain communities that I've ever been to, and it's got a more than adequate ski area for what we need.

Maybe so, but there are a lot of real estate offices in town now, and the last of the old miner's cabins are being snapped up for six-figure prices even as the fate of the proposed luxury-home subdivisions are hotly debated.

Can Telluride be both a top destination resort and home to a stable, diverse community? No one can say yet, but a lot of Telluridians recognize they are part of something special, and that its size may be this town's most important asset of all.

Local Lore
Stories abound as to the etymology of Telluride's name. Some say it derives from "To hell you ride. More likely, it's from "tellurium, an element believed to indicate the presence of gold. The mining town may have used it as a ploy to draw settlers.