I didn’t want to like Telluride. Like a lot of Texans, I’ve spent many years escaping to Colorado to fly fish and beat the summer heat, and sometimes in the winter to wobble around in deep powder on a pair of skis. But I primarily stick to the front range, staying in towns like Breckenridge, Vail and Beaver Creek.
They all have unique charms and are really pretty easy to get to — especially if you’re going in the off season. From the Denver airport you can get to Summit or Eagle County in under two hours. But Telluride isn’t so simple. If you’re flying from Austin, you have to make at least one stop in Dallas or Denver to change planes and fly into Montrose. From there, you still have to drive almost two hours to get to the village.
But perhaps that’s what gives this little hideaway it’s appeal. If it were easy to get to, it would be overrun with tourists. (For an example of that mayhem, try Breckenridge over a President’s Day weekend in February.) In fact, Telluride manages to keep a pretty low profile, and the ratio of local residents to vacationing visitors is relatively balanced.
Telluride still looks much like it did more than 100 years ago: clapboard storefronts, streets lined with quaint Victorian-style homes.
It’s nestled within the protective walls of a natural box canyon of the San Juan Mountains. Oddly enough, on my last visit, I met more Texans there than I had at any other Colorado ski town. Many of them began visiting Telluride just for vacation, but a lot of them never left, opting for the friendly, welcoming community of locals, and saying goodbye to oppressive Texas summers.
Originally established as a mining camp in the late 1870s, Telluride has grown leaps and bounds in its maturity and appeal. Strolling through the 8-block by 12-block core of town, you’ll find this National Historic Landmark District still looks much like it did more than 100 years ago: clapboard storefronts, streets lined with quaint Victorian-style homes and old brick buildings such as the landmark New Sheridan Hotel. To date, there are no chain restaurants, and you won’t find a stop light around for more than 45 miles.
In truth, it didn’t take long before Telluride’s charms lured me in.
I stayed in the Mountain Village, a separate sister town just over the ridge from the historic part of Telluride. My home for a few days was in a hotel apartment called the Lumiere. There are a number of more traditional hotel options that have all the luxury you could want. But there’s something about having a sleek, fully decked out apartment in the confines of a petite boutique hotel setting that adds a feeling of home to the vacation stay.
Some cities rely on bus or train for public transportation. Telluride relies completely on a state-of-the-art gondola. Sure, there are still cars around, but the winding mountain roads take more time.
And it doesn’t hurt that the each one of the 29 hotel or apartment suites at the Lumiere has its own, unique view of the mountains — the first few floors are the garage and lobby to make sure each room is elevated enough such view.
You’ll also find a similar feel at the slightly larger Hotel Madeline, which is home to REV, a sensational five-star level restaurant serving locally-sourced ingredients. It’s also an ideal ski-in/ski-out facility during the winter season with direct access to the lift right outside the hotel.
There are plenty of mountain town shops and cafes in Mountain Village, but to really get a feel for this area, you have to hop over the ridge into the Town of Telluride, using the Telluride gondola. Whereas some cities rely on bus or train for public transportation, Telluride relies completely on a state-of-the-art gondola. Sure, there are still cars around, but the winding mountain roads take more time.
The gondola only takes 13 minutes between towns; it’s how residents do their shopping, how vacationers do their sight seeing and even how kids get to school. (No more yellow school bus!) At the top of the gondola, hikers and mountain bikers hop off to find a few excellent mountaintop trails to traverse. You’ll also find one of the town’s most picturesque fine dining spots, Allred’s, which showcases a full menu of classic American cuisine spotlighting everything from wild game to fresh seafood and affords beautiful sunset views of the mountain terrain.
The first thing you notice about this well-preserved town is its rich history as a part of America’s settlement of the western frontier. To get a deeper understanding of that, I met with Ashley Boling, a local fixture among the Telluride community and an expert on everything from the historic Sheridan Opera House, the former red light district of the old mining camp and the first bank ever robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Boling’s tour gave me a quick glimpse into the many locally-owned shops and boutiques around town, not to mention a busy little farmers’ market that’s open each Friday through October offering a full range of high quality food products and artisanal good and crafts — all from within 100 miles of Telluride.
In terms of dining, I found this little town has a lot more to offer in culinary options than I had time to sample. (There are at least five places I want to visit when I go back.) If you visit with just a few days on your calendar, here’s a quick run down of spots not to miss:
For lunch, head to Butcher and Baker Cafe, it’s a quaint soup and sandwich shop offering fresh breads, baked goods and other midday pick-me-ups. Or you could hit Baked in Telluride, also charming and also full of delicious lunchtime snacks, soups and sandwiches. (It's been a town staple for more than 35 years.)
For dinner, no trip to Telluride is complete without a nod to the past at the classic Chophouse at the New Sheridan Hotel, where white table cloths and ornate wooden booths set the tone for first-rate steaks and elegant continental cuisine.
If you're looking for a more contemporary approach to homemade cooking, 221 South Oak restaurant is the place, where chef Eliza Gavin serves up a creative and refined menu of locally-sourced ingredients.
Or stop in at Rustico, where you actually can find an authentic Italian experience, even in a small town in Colorado. Here you’ll find everything from beautiful charcuterie plates to classic veal scaloppine with lemon sauce and capers.
While great dining options are usually at the top of my list for places to visit, when it come to the Rocky Mountains, I’m always keen to find a good spot to fly fish. With easy access to the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers, Telluride definitely delivers. I went out on the San Miguel with the amiable Boxcar Willie, an expert fly fishing guide from Telluride Outside who not only knew the perfect spots to hook a fish, but also had a great knack for teaching newcomers to the sport.
Within the first 15 minutes, Boxcar had my two first-time fly fishing friends landing fish — and my first brown trout wasn’t far from caught either. He took us to deep pools, rippling river bends and steady drifts along the river and we fished a delightful morning away.
Spending time on a mountain stream may be one of my absolute favorite things in life. And while I found the town, the food, the people and the scenery enchanting, it was here on the San Miguel River that I let my guard down and warmly welcomed Telluride into my heart as a must-return destination.