2021 Editors' Choice: A Town Above

What makes Telluride so unique and captivating? The SKI staff spent a week there last winter and can say for sure, it's just got that little something extra.

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A place that has captivated visitors since long before it even had a post office, Telluride is one of those rare domestic bucket-list trips that’s up there with the Swiss Alps or even Japan. The place just has an aura about it. Maybe it’s the incredible scenery, unrivaled by pretty much anywhere else in ski country. Perhaps it’s the laidback, anything-goes vibe of the place that makes people just want to spend time here. It certainly could be the next-level amenities on offer, or the great skiing up at the resort that’s connected to town by scenic gondola ride. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s all of these things that mesh together to serve up one of the best all-around ski destinations on the planet.

Last February, just before the pandemic turned the world upside-down, the SKI staff made its way down to Telluride for a week of skiing, eating, drinking, backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, sightseeing, more eating, and definitely more drinking. We’re grateful to all our gracious hosts both up in Mountain Village and down in town, and can say with certainty that we get, beyond a shadow of a doubt, why this place is so beloved by those who know it well. We learned a few things along the way, and hopefully you can learn from our experiences, including where to eat, sleep, ski, après, play, and more in this one-of-a-kind destination.

But first, Telluride’s colorful past looms large over the town, and has certainly worked to shape both the place and the people who call it home. Telluride was first the summer home of the Ute Indians, then was seized by Spanish explorers in the 1700s. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the town made it onto the map thanks to the discovery of gold, silver, copper, and more at the Sheridan Mine, located on the hillside above town. Treasure-seekers descended, and by the 1890s the population swelled to 5,000, roughly double what it is today. The town, originally named Columbia, became quite the rowdy place—the type of place known for famous bank robberies (Butch Cassidy began his career in thievery here when he famously robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank in 1889), and where the revenue from prostitution helped pay the town’s taxes. But what most people don’t know is that Telluride also has a history of great innovation. In 1891, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse built the world’s first hydroelectric power plant in Ophir, just over the mountain from what would become the ski resort. They essentially kicked off the electrification of the planet when they ran electricity up to the Gold King Mine. You can see what’s left of the mine and the power transmission lines during a snowmobile tour through the area.

Skiing under the Telluride Gondola
Getting the goods right under the gondola.Photo credit: Brett Schreckengost

So what does all of this spell for present-day Telluride? It laid the groundwork for the rise of a quirky little destination built on innovation, individualism, and self-reliance. Talk to any local in town, and you’ll learn that this place is a tight-knit community that’s fiercely protective of its own. Yet unlike other somewhat remote destinations, Telluride still welcomes travelers; there’s no disdain from the regulars when destination skiers arrive to check out the slopes, dine in the restaurants, and bed down in the hotels.

When Pete Wagner moved his custom-ski factory from Placerville, 30 miles outside of Telluride, to Mountain Village, he wasn’t entirely sure how he’d be received. “But I was completely embraced by the community,” he says. “From Day 1, there’s been nothing but support from neighboring businesses, residents, and the village itself. That’s just the kind of place this is. A place that goes out of its way to support what it believes in, to do the right thing.” 

Wagner lives in downtown Telluride and describes an idyllic life packed with skiing, biking, running, hiking, and all the things that make a ski town the perfect place to settle down year-round. It’s the type of place where impromptu theater performances pop up in Elks Park and results from the Friday night hockey league warrant their own column in the Telluride Daily Planet. Up at the mountain, the resort’s strengths mirror town’s priorities: To provide a more individualized experience from slopes to dining tables, and everywhere in between.

“We’re not trying to attract the masses,” says former Telluride CEO and veteran ski industry leader Bill Jensen. 

Bill Jensen took the helm of Telluride Ski Resort in 2015 and just announced his resignation this past summer. No one would argue, though, that those were an incredibly productive five years for TelSki, which saw a renewed dedication to the resort’s dining and après program; a major increase in the number of flights to the town’s airport; the addition of a popular summer bike park; the debut of several new hotels in Mountain Village; and of course, the inclusion of the resort on the Epic Pass. “I have always seen our location as a blessing,” Jensen says. “We attract people who really want to be here, and we respond in kind, with the type of smaller-scale experiences and amenities that reflect who we are as a resort, and as a town.” While there has been no CEO announced as of press time, let’s just say there are some big ski boots to fill.

On our last night at the resort, the SKI staff dined on the mountain at Alpino Vino, the cozy, snowcat-accessible cabin located between lifts 6 and 14. With only a dozen tables and two seatings per night, serving the masses is clearly not the goal. As we lurched and bounced in the cat on the way up, we made small talk with some of our fellow diners, a man from New Zealand and his British companions. They shared how impressed they were with the place—from the skiing to the quality of the dining options to the service around the resort and in town. I guess we can add “international destination” to Telluride’s list of accolades.

Getting to Telluride

Telluride Airport Runway
The runway at TEX.Photo courtesy of Shahn Sederberg/CDOT

It’s common knowledge that Telluride is one of the hardest ski resorts to get to in North America. That is, however, a blessing. According to locals, it helps keep the slopes less crowded, hotel rates more reasonable, and dinner reservations more accessible. Here’s the skinny on traveling to Telluride.

By Air

Telluride Regional Airport is the closest airport to the resort and is served by regional jet service from Denver International Airport on Denver Air Connection. Travelers can also fly into Montrose-Telluride Regional Airport, which can accommodate larger passenger planes—including Southwest and Jet Blue, which just added service to the airport this winter—and is a 75-minute drive from the resort. Airport shuttles are available from both.

By Road

Telluride is about a seven-hour drive from Denver and a six-hour drive from Santa Fe. Winter visitors should be sure their vehicle has four-wheel-drive and snow tires.

Getting Around

The Mountain Village Gondola transports people from town to the village and runs year round from 6:30 a.m. to midnight daily. It’s a 13-minute ride each way. The Galloping Goose bus service also takes people between town and Mountain Village, so unless you’re planning day trips to other parts of the area, there’s no need for a rental car.

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