When it’s time to pick a ski vacation destination, there are tons of choices, and the industry’s big names immediately leap to mind: Vail, Jackson Hole, Park City, Aspen, Whistler, and so on. They all have great facilities, but Colorado’s Telluride often gets overlooked in this discussion. That’s a huge mistake: not only is it worthy of consideration, I could make a compelling argument that it is the single best ski vacation choice in the country. But no matter how you slice it, it’s near the top, with lots of strengths and very few weaknesses. In fact, in its 2016-2017 reader’s poll, industry leading publication Ski Magazine ranked it North America’s Best for Overall Satisfaction, and what do we want from our vacations if not the most Satisfaction? It also ranked Number One for both Scenery and Character.
While some ski resorts excel at one or two things, like cuisine, lodging, diversity, challenge, charm or convenience, Telluride excels across the board and is a near perfect gem. I say near perfect because it has two notable areas in which it is lacking, flaws to this diamond in the rough for certain customers, so I’ll get those out of the way up front. While Telluride has luxurious lodging options (Lumiere, Madeline, Hotel Telluride, Element 52), it has no true luxury hotel. If staying at a white glove 4-5 Star like a Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton or Fairmont is important to you, this is not your spot (though if swank luxury rental homes are your thing, you are in luck). It is also not a great choice for fans of retail therapy. It is arguably the best place in the country to buy both skis (Wagner Custom) and ski boots (BootDoctors), and there is no shortage of outdoor gear and Western stuff, but if your ski vacation must-do list includes the Prada or Moncler boutiques, scratch Telluride off your list. In general, pretension is not big here, and while the Kardashians are happily followed by cameras around Vail, the many A-list stars who favor Telluride come here to not be seen.
On the flipside, it blows many other resorts out of the water when it comes to what I consider the important stuff: quality of skiing, food, lack of crowds and just like Ski Magazine readers noted, scenery and unrivaled Charm – with a capital C.
Ironically, in two decades of covering skiing and ski travel, the number one knock I hear over and over again is not lodging or shopping, it’s “Isn’t that hard to get to?” There seems to be a perception that Telluride is on a different planet than other Western ski resorts. This has always been a myth, and one that is especially odd in light of the three to four-hour traffic jams that routinely clog Colorado’s main ski thoroughfare for accessing other major resorts, I-70, every winter weekend. For years, getting to Telluride mainly meant flying into Montrose, which is considerably closer to the resort than many rivals are to their Denver gateway. But this winter commercial service reopened, albeit on a small scale, into the super convenient Telluride airport after a multi-year absence (on a United regional partner). If you are flying private, there’s no major ski resort other than maybe Aspen that’s easier to get to. Still, most visitors will continue to use Montrose, and as of this winter, it has more flights than ever, on all three major carriers from the largest cities coast to coast (including New York, LA, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver and Chicago). On my most recent visit, I tried getting to Telluride from Denver in the middle of major winter storm across Colorado, and while I was rerouted into Durango, the next closest choice after Montrose, the flights to every other Colorado ski country airport I saw on the departures board, including Eagle/Vail, Aspen, Gunnison/Crested Butte, etc. were cancelled. Bottom line? Telluride has always been a great place to visit, but now it is easier than ever to do that.
What makes it so good? The town, the ski mountain and the food.
As a destination, the big differentiator it is its uniquely split personality. Telluride has one of the most singular layouts of any mountain destination in the world, with the ski resort linking two distinct enclaves, Mountain Village and Town. The former is a purpose built, contemporary and pedestrianized village, in the style of Beaver Creek or Whistler, set midway up the slopes, high above town. This is where the bigger resorts, spas, golf course and sprawling multi-million homes are located. Town has the Butch and Sundance vibe – Butch Cassidy robbed his very first bank here – with Victorian Old West architecture and the bulk of the bars, restaurants and stores. The landmark New Sheridan Hotel sits on Main Street and oozes cowboy charm – it’s so named because the old one burnt down and was replaced – eleven decades ago. Zoning and preservation has been so strict that you can walk a two block stretch of Oak Street and pass two of the most beloved restaurants and a new hotel without noticing any of them, all tucked into historic Victorians with minimal signage. Many other western ski towns have mining and cowboy heritage, but today are a hodgepodge of historic buildings and incongruous modern hotels or parking structures. At the other end of the spectrum are towns that have really preserved the charm, like Crested Butte, but are much smaller. Like the Goldilocks story, Telluride is not too big, not too small, just right, the perfect full blow ski town loaded with great bars, restaurants and shops, masquerading as a sleepy historic community. Locating new construction in Mountain Village was a brilliant touch that allowed the town to keep its amazing frozen in time vibe and character, all surrounded with the most stunning mountain views in the nation – you have to go to Canada’s Banff to find better ski resort vistas (though Idaho’s Sun Valley is a close rival). Pretty much all of Mountain Village lodging is ski-in/ski-pout, and so is town itself – I had to walk at least five steps after taking of my boots to have lunch at one of my favorite Telluride restaurants. and the last hotel I stayed at was half a block – half a short block – from the main gondola. By the way, this gondola, built 20 years ago, was and still is the first of its kind in American skiing, a free public transportation system that links the town of Telluride and Mountain Village until midnight – finish your ski day down in town, stay for après, stay for dinner, have a few drinks and be whisked back to your resort in Mountain Village. Or vice versa. You can’t beat it.
Just by way of reference, since I keep comparing American ski resorts, expressing opinions, and making personal judgments, it’s worth noting that I have been to every true destination ski resort in the country with the sole exception of Taos, NM, most of them multiple times. I have a pretty good working knowledge of the subject.
How about skiing? To put it bluntly, Telluride has the most balanced assortment of terrain I’ve seen. While most big resorts claim lots of terrain for all abilities, they usually lack something – not Telluride. I love Vail, but despite the immensity of its terrain, it lacks true expert challenge. Deer Valley is great for beginners and intermediates – enough said. Alta has excellent terrain and exceptional powder – but doesn’t allow snowboarding, period, end of discussion for many families. Jackson Hole is justifiably world famous for its extreme terrain, and surprisingly, is also a great place to learn, but it’s missing something in between. The most extreme example is Aspen mountain (Ajax), which to the surprise of many visitors each winter, does not have a single green beginner run on it. In comparison, Telluride has it all, taking it even further than the usual array you’d expect to find at a big resort in the Rockies: bowls, chutes, cliffs, and glades. Advanced intermediates are often overlooked, but here there is a self-contained canyon area full of double blue trails, a self-contained Mecca for such skiers and riders, who happily lap the high-speed chair all day. There is intermediate glade skiing, also uncommon. The resort wows for expert terrain, from in-bounds double blacks to chutes and hike-to terrain as challenging as any in the Rockies, accessed more easily thanks to permanent metal stairs and rails. Want to go really out of bounds? Telluride Heli-Trax offers daily beyond the resort heli-skiing. Bump fan? The resort is home to some of skiing’s best mogul runs, famous names like Spiral Staircase and Kant-Mak-M. Skiing for everyone? Yes.
Here’s the ultimate example of Telluride’s impressive terrain: there is not one lift that bears the sign, otherwise common in Western skiing, “This lift serves only advanced terrain.” At Telluride not only do beginners not have to worry about what chair they ride – there is a groomed easier trail down for every single lift – but they also have plenty to choose from, and unlike most resorts, where they are relegated to the base area, novices can enjoy the stunning vistas from the highest spots with good options to ski down. After all, what’s the point of big mountain skiing if you never get to experience the big mountains? Yet that’s exactly the case for less skilled skiers at many, if not most, other top resorts. Beginner terrain includes a 4 ½ mile run down from just below the summit, a rarity.
I could go on and on about the most charming town in American skiing, the best views, and the immense variety of excellent terrain but I’m running out of room so I’ll cover the final major attraction many travelers seek on their ski vacation: food. For a town this size, locals are spoiled by great choices, and like the terrain, it covers all the bases, not just the fine dining many rivals focus on. In fact, when it comes to “normal” ski town and après grub, Telluride is off the charts and home to the single best pizzeria (Brown Dog), single best barbecue spot (Oak BBQ), and single best taco eatery (Taco del Gnar) in American skiing. That’s saying something. A small hole in the wall burger spot here (Steamies) was rated Number One in Colorado. The ski resort itself has some of the best on mountain dining (Alpino Vino, Allred’s, Bon Vivant) you will experience, and both town and Mountain Village are loaded with choices spanning the spectrum. Here’s something to consider: no less than three completely unrelated local eateries born in this tiny mountain town have become so popular that they spun off locations in Denver.
Oh, and did I mention that it is never crowded, with lift lines virtually non-existent? On every visit over the years I’ve been shocked by how empty the mountain is. I skied it on a recent powder day and never waited more than four chairs.
The town’s tourist board just opened a new state of the art Visitor’s Center on Main Street, where guests can do everything from find where to eat to take 3-D video walk-throughs of popular local hiking trails using touch screens displays with amazing interactive technology. To help you plan a trip, the visitor’s bureau also has a fully featured website.
Pray for snow!