Backcountry

2021 Editors' Choice: The Observatory at Alta Lakes, Telluride

A backcountry "cabin" steeped in Telluride lore.

When we step over the wooden threshold of the Observatory at Alta Lakes, our jaws drop. We’ve all spent our fair share of nights in rustic backcountry cabins—but this isn’t a cabin. There’s plenty of rough-hewn timber sure enough, but there are also stain-glass windows, a gigantic stone fireplace, and a unique suspension staircase that leads to two upper levels. Not to mention a fully stocked kitchen that boasts granite countertops, stainless steel appliances (including oven, dish washer, and refrigerator), and mother of all backcountry luxuries—running water and indoor plumbing. This is like no backcountry cabin I’ve ever been to, making it as unique as Telluride itself.  

A cushy and generously appointed bedroom at the Observatory at Alta Lakes.
A cushy and generously appointed bedroom of the Observatory. Photo courtesy of The Observatory at Alta Lakes
SKI's editors enjoy the sun and views outside the Observatory at Alta Lakes
SKI’s editors enjoy the views and some local spirits outside the Observatory at Alta Lakes. Photo: Keri Bascetta

Built by Jim Russell in 1975, the Observatory was steeped in Telluride history from the get-go. Russell, a Vietnam veteran who came to Telluride after the war, purchased a mining claim near the mining-turned-ghost town of Alta, just 13 miles southwest of Telluride. He designed the lodge on a cocktail napkin at Telluride’s historic Sheridan Bar, then built it himself with the help of a ragtag crew using stone and timber from the surrounding area. Not long after its completion, Russell and his wife began renting it out to guests from near and far, and the Observatory soon made a name for itself as an idyllic backcountry retreat and favorite hangout for friends of the Russell family. 

While ownership has since changed hands—Telluride local Matt Bowling bought the property in 2011 with his brothers—the spirit of the Observatory remains, and Bowling’s work over the years to update the interior with modern amenities has made it more accessible and comfortable than ever before.

But as gorgeous as the Observatory is, it can’t compete with its natural setting. We arrived at the Observatory at dusk on snowmobiles—save for skiing or snowshoeing, the only way to access the lodge via an unmaintained county road during the winter. Already too dark to explore the area, we settle for stargazing from the outdoor hot tub and learn first-hand how the Observatory got its name. 

Backcountry skiing right outside the Observatory at Alta Lakes' front door.
The Observatory is situated at 11,300 feet, yet 13,000-foot Palmyra Peak and Silver Peak still tower above the basin. Photo: Keri Bascetta

When we awake to sun pouring in through the Observatory’s windows the next morning, the majesty of our surroundings is almost overwhelming. The Observatory is situated at 11,300 feet, yet 13,000-foot Palmyra Peak and Silver Peak still tower above us. We spend the day exploring the Alta Lakes basin with San Juan Outdoor Adventure guides, hired for the day to show us the backcountry skiing zones in the area. We skin across one of three Alta Lakes covered in snow and ski multiple lines on mellow terrain below Palmyra Peak that’s perfect for February backcountry conditions.  

Mellow backcountry terrain right outside the Observatory at Alta Lakes.
Walk out the door of the Observatory at Alta Lakes and into a backcountry skiing paradise. Photo: Keri Bascetta

At the end of the day, our guides lead us back to Telluride Ski Resort via an established skin track that spits you out at one of the resort’s backcountry gates near the top of the Prospect lift. Back within the resort boundaries, we transition to downhill mode and conclude our backcountry adventure with a joy ride down Telluride’s groomed runs back to Mountain Village—just over three miles from the Observatory as the crow flies, yet worlds away from the peaceful solitude of Alta Lakes.

Trip Planning 

  • Getting there: During the winter, the Observatory is only accessible by skis, snowshoes, or snowmobile. Ski to it from a nearby backcountry gate at Telluride Ski Resort or navigate the five-mile Alta Lakes county road on snowmobile. 
  • Rates: $1,000 per night for 1-7 guests; $1,100 per night for 8-12 guests; book the Altamate Package for an all-inclusive experience that includes lodging, transportation, and cleaning fees 
  • Info: altalakes.com 
  • Guided Backcountry Skiing: Book single-day or multi-day guided backcountry skiing excursions with San Juan Outdoor Adventures, a fully insured USDA Forest Service permitted outfitter.

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