Telluride Ski Resort does not lack variety, presenting visitors with a cornucopia of snowy selections. With 18 lifts, 127 runs, and more than 2,000 acres of skiing covering an astounding 4,400-foot vertical drop (3,800 feet of it lift-serviced), skiers and riders can easily spend a week exploring all the different options on the mountain.
The terrain skews toward advanced, although several lifts exclusively service beginner and intermediate runs. The 4.6-mile-long Galloping Goose trail is a gently graded way to take a gravity-powered ski tour down and around the mountain. Freestyle skiers and snowboarders drop into one of Telluride's three terrain parks, progressing through the features graded from beginning through terrifying.
For experts, Telluride has become sought out for its "hike-to terrain," some of it requiring hour-plus uphill slogs teetering on the edges of windswept ridges or clinging to the rails of steel steps.
For me, one hike in a day was enough, and I gladly spent the rest of my time riding the lifts up and across the different ridges of the mountain. The variety of slope facings and thickness of tree cover gave me the opportunity to sample many different snow and sun conditions in a single day - from breakfasting on the wind-chilled waffle ridges of an early-morning groomer run and lunching on hidden stashes of fluffy powder on a midday tree run to having a late afternoon taste of corn snow on a sun-baked slope on the lower mountain.
All that skiing gives one an appetite for some real food, and Telluride's on-mountain restaurants offer choices beyond the typical overpriced cafeteria fare. Alpino Vino Restaurant is a small ski chalet seemingly transported directly from the Italian Dolomites, with great wine selection, samplings of meats and cheeses, and some fine toasted panini for lunch.
It's also billed as "North America's Highest Restaurant" (not due to recent Colorado herbal laws, but because of its near-12,000-foot elevation). Apres-ski, be sure to stop at Allred's atop the Gondola for a drink and appetizers with a spectacular view of evening light over the town of Telluride.
Endless powder feast
For those whose appetite for ski adventure goes beyond the boundaries of a resort, Telluride-based Helitrax helicopter ski company has been serving up 200 square miles of special-ordered powder meals in the San Juan Mountains for 30 years.
I trek with 20 people in vans to a mountain base camp where we receive avalanche beacons and safety training. In shifts of four guests and a guide per helicopter, we swoop above forests and mountain peaks to reach a remote spot atop a pristine plateau. We quickly disembark from the chopper like some Special Forces team sent on a secret alpine scouting mission.
Our runs are exercises in cautious fun, with a focus on shifting snow conditions and visibility. Given the sensible safety precautions, this isn't exactly the extreme Warren Miller movie experience I was hoping for, but we're still able to whoop it up with run after run on wide-open slopes through knee-deep powder, planting fresh tracks across the mountains as though we were explorers in a new country.
Each run has conditions equaling the best I've had ever experienced at a resort. We stop for a picnic lunch in a secluded glen, catching our breath amid aspen trees and a mountain stream, before jumping onto the helicopter for more powder missions - a half-dozen over the course of a day quickly compiling more than 10,000 vertical feet of skiing like frequent fliers on a high-speed snow elevator.
Best of both worlds
Off the hill and back in town, Telluride presents visitors with a full buffet of lodging, dining and lifestyle options. U.S. ski towns typically tend toward one of two extremes: either a resort that's comfortable and convenient but composed of soulless time-share condos, chain restaurants and shops with all the personality of an icy Walmart; or an old mountain town that's "genuine," but with limited services and surly, insular locals who resent the yuppie tourist intrusion.
Either way, it gives people plenty to bellyache about. Telluride has been able to find a middle ground between these extremes, extracting the benefits of both with its bifurcation of the town of Telluride and Mountain Village.
The Mountain Village, a free gondola ride away from the town of Telluride, is a typical full-service resort area, with a walkable cluster of hotels, condos and rental homes tightly grouped around restaurants, stores, rental shops and the ski school gathering place.
Still, it maintains a certain amount of local character with special events, including beer dinners from Colorado's New Belgian Brewery at Tomboy Tavern, which on the night I was there seemed to have more local attendees than visitors.
The town of Telluride, designated in its entirety as a historical landmark, is a collection of Victorian homes gathered around a main street of red brick hotels and clapboard storefronts that looks close to what it did 100 years ago. The surrounding peaks provide a jaw-dropping backdrop to a simple walk down the street.
The dozen blocks or so of downtown combine an eclectic collection of quirky budget shops and cafes with the requisite ski-town fancy boutiques with thousand-dollar cowboy boots and custom hats. Nightlife has everything from the sticky-beer-floored jukebox dive-bar scene at the Last Dollar Saloon to garage bands at the Fly Me to the Moon, famous acts at the historic Sheridan Opera House and open-mike nights at the coffee house. (If you spend all your money on a big night out, you can shop at the "free box," a wall of cubbyholes just off Main Street where you can grab anything from a full set of ski gear to a blender for your hotel room.)
For a town with just over 2,200 residents, the surfeit of 60 bars and restaurants means the only danger of a bellyache is from eating and drinking to excess. To help narrow down my choices, I join Telluride Food Tours on a "tasting journey" sampling the fare at eight different restaurants. The tour combines historical anecdotes (pointing out the spot where Butch Cassidy committed his first bank robbery) to flutes of champagne, beer samplers and food ranging from basic barbecue to delicacies such as Rocky Mountain trout and flash-fried brussels sprouts.
I finish my day at the New Sheridan Hotel - "new" being a relative term, as the brick three-story structure was rebuilt in 1895 to replace the old wooden building destroyed by fire. The hallways are lined with old, sepia-toned photographs (including the shot of a railway car circa 1900 bearing the "Town Without a Belly Ache" banner). The refurbished lobby once had miners and cowboys enter on horseback, seeking out the warren of back rooms designed to protect a speakeasy, clandestine encounters and a gambling den.
On a snowy night with no traffic, I walk from the hotel lobby, and can easily imagine I've returned to Telluride's glory days of the early 20th century. The lights and sounds of the Opera House beckon from around one corner, while the obscured red glow emanating from a saloon's steamy windows implies some forbidden fun.
Like one of the old town's miners standing at a tunnel or a skier perched atop the mountain's peaks, in the city of Telluride, it's best just to follow your gut instinct and plunge right in.
Telluride Tourism: visittelluride.com.
I stare down the steep chute of Electric Shock, a double-black-diamond slope plunging from a jagged, icy ridge at 13,000 feet, near the upper limits of Telluride Ski Resort. I'm short of breath and my heart is pounding - from anticipation, from the thin air and from my hour-long hike to reach this spot.
Although Telluride's city slogan is "The Town Without a Belly Ache," I have a knot in my stomach.
My appetite for adrenaline launches me from the cornice, and I carve healthy chunks of snowpack with each turn, feeding my taste for hard-core skiing, until, satiated, I glide slowly through the trees, looking up at Black Iron Bowl to see what else is cooking.
Telluride, Colo., provides a feast of fun not only for serious skiers, but also for casual snowboarders and backcountry enthusiasts, along with, for a literal feast, a fantastic selection of dining options.
I spent a few days there last season to sample the buffet of options on the mountain, off in the wilderness, and in some of the many restaurants of what may be the best ski town in America.
Dining on downhills