San Juan Sojourn - Ski Mag

San Juan Sojourn

Where to ski, find ghost bears, and relish funky mountain culture along Colorado’s U.S. Highway 550.
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Skiing Colorado's San Juan Mountains | Photo: Liam Doran

“Do you speak English?”

It’s not every day you get asked such a question in your home country. This Forest Service ranger is clearly flummoxed by the camera-toting tourist shooting frozen roadside waterfalls: me.

“Uh, ya,” I manage, though still thoroughly absorbed by the row of 30-foot icicles dangling over the road. Apparently, I hadn’t responded fast enough to his stern warnings of avalanche danger.

“Well, you should probably get moving,” he warns and speeds off, burying me in diesel fumes from his four-wheel-drive truck.

He’s right. Red Mountain Pass between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado, is traversed by two-lane U.S. Highway 550, an area that gets anywhere from 300 to 400 inches of snow a year. The Colorado Department of Transportation spends about $500,000 annually on snow removal and avalanche control to keep Red Mountain Pass clear. And that’s exactly why I’m here.

Photographer Liam Doran and I joined pro freeride competitors Jesse Ambrogi-Yanson and John Mason for a spring trip through the San Juan Mountains as an antidote to our I-70 and Summit County blinders. We all live in Colorado and ski religiously, but we were craving something less crowded, more rural and more skier friendly than our home turf. With steeper, more dramatic mountains than central Colorado, the San Juans feel far away. A local local’s trip was in order.

Purgatory, er, Durango Mountain Resort

After bellying up to the bar at El Rancho Tavern for last night’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, we skirt past the hulking steam engines of the Silverton/Durango railroad and follow the Animas River north to Durango Mountain Resort.

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Still “Purgatory” to us all, DMR can want for truly epic snow conditions, with its southern latitude and 10,822-foot summit elevation (somewhat low for Colorado). We get our kicks on the mountain’s rolling terrain and benches.

“On a powder day, the launching potentials would be endless here,” Mason lusts from the chairlift.

Called by slush in the aspen groves, we play around in there and discover a tree covered with bear claw scratches. The topic of bears had come up the night before, when an old timer regaled me with bear hunting stories (“Baiting with a skunk is bad form. So is hunting them with dogs.”), so the claw marks catch our attention. Later, the bear theme becomes a running joke. “Ghost bears” stalk us everywhere we go: at Purgatory’s Bear Bar & Grille, and in Telluride—where decorating with bearskins is de rigueur.

Purgatory’s après scene is appropriately spring-like, with dudes relaxing in tank tops and girls showing cleavage. Ambrogi-Yanson gets inspired and rides the mechanical bull in Purgatory Village. It’s a party! A gray-bearded security guard perks up when he hears our plans to ski Silverton and tells me about his speed-skiing glory days breaking speed records and bombing down Colorado’s slopes

“You can’t believe what it feels like to ski that fast,” he says with a conspiratorial smile. 

Silverton

Silverton is, bar none, the coolest ski town I’ve ever been to. With only 628 fulltime residents and sandwiched between two 10,000-foot-plus passes, it attracts the seriously committed. The roads are dirt, and icicles form off sloughing roofs. Nearly every driveway has a snowmobile or a locally crafted Mountain Boy Sledworks kicksled.

We stay at the Teller House Hotel, a brick Victorian built 1896. A note taped to the front door reads, “Please do not lock”—Silverton’s unofficial credo. Many of the buildings are painted in happy pastel colors, a bright antidote to the severe winters in this shadow-filled valley. First settled in 1874, and now a designated National Historic Landmark, Silverton was the kind of mining town where people accepted avalanche and consumption deaths per course.

We taste pirate-worthy rum at Montanya Distillers and eat steaks at Pride of the West (since gutted by a fire), another brick Victorian with a tin roof. Wyatt Earp is said to have worked the bar here. Old West portraits flank the requisite wall-mounted moose head, pheasant, and wooden skis. A live, all-male bluegrass band from Durango noodles away in front of a crowd of 27 men and two women, who dance on the warped wood floor. Isolation and cold ensure that Silverton has always been—and remains—a major sausage fest. Even the big, furry mountain dogs on every corner and in every truck seem to outnumber women.

The next day another forest service ranger approaches as we boot up for alpine touring on the flanks of Molas Pass (10,910 feet). He’s researching lynx habitat and talks Doran into wearing a GPS tracking device.

“Man, people are so friendly here,” Doran acquiesces. The day’s buttery, windblown powder turns serve the cause of environmental protection.

The one-lift Silverton Mountain “resort” is all we’d expected—and more. The rusty two-seater (purchased from Mammoth Mountain, California) shoots up 1,900 feet to a 12,300-foot ridge, where various boot packs lead to committing, steep terrain. We hike up to The Billboard at 13,000 feet and ski fun gullies, open bowls, and rocky cliff bands to the west and east of the ridge. Sticker-plastered buses and chatty bus drivers shuttle us back to the lift.

Late in the afternoon, we shell out for a heli-drop and ski Pequeño. It’s the same run where the Red Bull Cold Rush competition was held in 2011 (and where that Durango security guard bombed runs in the ’70s), and we’re feeling mighty when we finally enter the leaky tent structure that serves as the ticket office/bar/locker room/cafeteria for a beer. Good thing that Silverton makes up in charm what it lacks in swank.

Skiing Telluride

Forest Service ranger warnings notwithstanding, we safely negotiate Red Mountain Pass, soak at Ouray Hot Springs Pool, and stop for photo ops in fields of grazing steers. In Ridgway, we divert off Highway 550 and head to Telluride, because, well, it’s Telluride. The place may market itself ad nauseam, with at least three homegrown magazines (Telluride Magazine, Dining in Telluride, and Telluride Style), but it does have a lot to brag about. We decide that if Purgatory is Momma Bear’s somewhat cold porridge and Silverton is Dad’s piping hot bowl, Telluride is Baby Bear-perfect. It has everything—a historic, well-preserved town, high-speed lifts galore, and über-comfortable lodging. The hike-to terrain off Palmyra Peak is riddled with glory chutes, and the resort offers thoughtful perks, like running lifts later in the spring to maximize corn skiing.

Our stay at the Peaks Resort in Mountain Village is highlighted by one-upmanship on the awesome water slide, where we run the stairs like children. Our evening pub-crawl stops to pay respect Telluride’s legendary font of goodwill: the Free Box. Premium liquor bottles, studded tires, and ski boots are one fellow’s top finds. I leave a treasured Buff in thanks. 

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San Juan Mountain Towns 

Before leaving the red canyons of the San Juans and entering the yellow arroyos and plowed fields of Montrose, Delta, and the “bread basket of Colorado,” we stop at Kate’s Place in Ridgway. Ranchers in muddy boots and cowboy hats sip cup after cup of coffee as we dig into “empty-the-fridge” skillets of bacon, home fries, avocado, mushrooms, eggs, and cheese.

We wander the town square and admire yet more examples of ski art (so many towns along Highway 550 are decorated with ski chairs, ski fences, snowboard benches, snowboard awnings, etc.) and bears (a pencil drawing). John Wayne’s True Grit was filmed in Ridgway in the late ’60’s, so we approach the building that served as the movie’s courthouse and jail, now an art gallery.

“Do you want to see the jail?” the chipper owner asks. “It was built in 1906 and housed every cattle rustler in the territory.” We accept and tour the squat, stone building. Life pre-Highway 550 sure was different around here. Before snow farming attracted fun hogs and changed the economy, real farms fed real hogs.

As we exit, our host spots another couple and tries to invite them in, too. Flustered by the couple’s slow response, our hostess demands, “Do you speak English?” We burst out laughing. Sometimes it’s comforting to feel like a foreigner in your own home country. 

THE BETA

Adobe Inn

Durango

It’s grunge-chic, and almost cheap—an easy place to stay when arriving late and sleepy after a long road trip.

www.durangolodging.com, (970) 247-2743

Bread

Durango

Try the heavenly green-chile croissant, a loaf of fresh Ciabatta, and some strong coffee for breakfast.

www.breaddurango.com, (970) 247-5100

El Rancho Tavern

Durango

Find stiff drinks, free peanuts, and enthusiastic patrons here.

www.elranchotavern.com, (970) 259-8111

Durango Mountain Resort

Durango

Purgatory Village Express Lift from the lodge has the most vertical, and you can launch the series of benches.

www.durangomountainresort.com, (970) 247-9000

Teller House

Silverton

It’s got Victorian charm and mountain views—a good place to relax after a long ski day.

www.tellerhouse.com, (970) 387-5423

Montanya Distillers

Crested Butte

This female-owned-and-operated bar has tastings, live music, and 22 rum cocktails on the menu. A good place for some evenin’ high altitude drinking. 

www.montanyarum.com, (970) 387-9904

Mountain Boy Sledworks

Palmer Lake

They hand-make wooden sleds that sell all over the country, as well as in Canada and Europe.

www.mountainboysleds.com, (970) 923-5077

Silverton Ski Resort

Silverton

Favorite Run: Pequeño (heli drop run)—steep, 2,000 feet, cold snow.

www.silvertonmountain.com, (970) 387-5706

Red Mountain Pass

Red Mountain Pass

Favorite Run: Sledding off in any direction or sign up for the annual COSMIC Alpine Touring Ski Race.

www.snowstudies.org, (970) 387-5080

Ouray Hot Springs Pool

Ouray

Opened in 1926, the natural waters of the giant pool are beyond soothing.

www.ouraycolorado.com/discover-ouray/hot-springs-pool.php, (970) 325-7073

Mouse’s Chocolates

Ouray

They make their own truffles, caramels, and toffees for those après-ski cravings.

www.mouseschocolates.com, (970) 325-7285

Siam

Telluride

Authentic Thai food can be hard to come by in the mountains—Siam’s got it covered.  

www.telluride.com/siam, (970) 728-6886

Telluride Ski Resort

Telluride

Favorite Run: Hiking from Electric Shock run to any of the chutes of Palmyra Peak. The gondola is free and operates until midnight.

www.tellurideskiresort.com, (970) 325-7285

The Peaks Resort

Telluride

It’s the place to stay in Mountain Village—central, big, modern.

www.thepeaksresort.com, (970) 728-6800

Allred’s Restaurant

Telluride

It’s mid-station along the gondola and has a birds-eye view of the town. It serves après-ski drinks starting at 3 p.m. and a full dinner menu at 5:30 p.m. (Don’t miss the slippers in the boot room.)

www.telluride.com/allreds-restaurant, (970) 728-7474 

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Photos by Liam Doran

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