America’s Best Ski Resorts: Telluride, CO
Welcome back to America’s Best Ski Resorts. For skiers and snowboarders, deciding where to spend that precious winter vacation week each year is vital, so as the name suggests, each of these columns will profile one of the nation’s truly great destination ski resorts, a place worth a five-day or longer trip. But because even the best resorts come in many flavors and styles, with varied appeal, I will include pros and cons and try to provide the information you need to make the best choice for you – not every great ski resort is a great pick for every type of skier.
Today we visit snowy Southwestern Colorado and Telluride, among my all-time favorites for several good reasons. Telluride has many charms, but the one thing that sets its apart from the competition is the incredible variety of terrain, in and out of bounds.
Virtually every major ski resort claims to be all things to all people, but this is rarely true, and most are lacking something, be it beginners slopes or ultra-advanced steeps. More than any other mountain in the country, Telluride truly has something for everyone – and lots of those somethings. As an example, one mid-mountain canyon is full of double blue trails, a self-contained Mecca for advanced intermediate skiers, who can ride the high speed chair over and over lapping this terrain, a feature you will see almost no place else. There’s also plenty for beginners, plenty for experts, lots of chutes and hike-to terrain, accessed more easily with permanent stairs and rails, and on top of all this, some of the best mogul skiing in the world. There are bowls, chutes, cliffs, glades and unlike most resorts, beginners can access some of the highest spots and enjoy the stunning vistas while still having good options to ski down, and there is intermediate glade skiing, also uncommon. It is one of the few U.S. resorts with a daily heli-ski operation, accessing an additional 250 square miles of powder. If there is a type of terrain you like to ski or ride, Telluride has it in spades. This is great, but it gets even better because there are basically never any lifts lines – utter “crowded” here and locals might ignorantly shake their heads as if never having heard the word before.
Mountain Village Telluride CO. Photo: Telluride Ski Resort
Ski-in/Ski-Out Mountain Village is home to several deluxe resorts, homes, shops and services. Located conveniently mid-mountain, it is a distinct alternative to the historic 19th Century town below. Photo: Telluride Ski Resort
Plenty of great skiing with few skiers is a big appeal, but then there is the town, as ultra-charming as a ski town could possibly be, oozing Old West flair since the days when Butch Cassidy robbed his very first bank here. The slopes run right down to the edge of the Victorian Old West district, and it is not only possible to ski down for lunch, après or stay in town and ride the lifts from the sidewalk, it is a daily occurrence. A second alternative is the contemporary Mountain Village, up on the slopes, served by a gondola that does double duty as public transport, the first and only of its kind in the nation, running day and night. This gives visitors the distinct choice between smaller hotel properties in town or the bigger full service resorts and swank rental homes of ski-in/out Mountain Village. The choice is more one of style than compromise because everything here is so easy to navigate – stay in Mountain Village and you’ll visit town at will, and vice versa.
Telluride has an air of exclusivity, not because it’s snobby, but instead because it is a bit remote, harder to get to, and rewards those who make the effort. Because it is surrounded by protected parks and forest, with little room for development, real estate prices here are among the highest in skiing, yet while there is a definite luxury element, it flies more under the radar than in Aspen, Deer Valley, Beaver Creek or Vail. You can get your sushi and fine wines, but Telluride has some of the best “normal” food of any ski town in the country, including both the best pizzeria and best barbecue joint in skiing, and that is saying something. There are no bowling alleys cum cocktail lounges or European style nightclubs, but it is a full service destination combining small town charm with big mountain skiing. If you want paparazzi and Prada shops go elsewhere, but if your main concerns are skiing well, eating well and enjoying romance or escapism, it is hard to do better.
BEST FOR: Skiers and riders of all abilities; backcountry fans; varied groups and families; laid back luxury travelers; those who find the Old West romantic; those who hate lift lines.
PROS: Stunning variety of terrain for every taste and ability with no weak spots; a charming Old West ski town right at base of slopes; wide variety of upscale ski-in/out lodging options and homes; exceptional real ski town food and après; no crowds.
CONS: Harder to get to than many competitors, a hour and a quarter from the closest significant airport, Montrose, CO, which when I last visited a season and a half ago was the most dysfunctional in American skiing, though I’ve heard it has improved; several upscale hospitality options but no true luxury full service resort on par with other top ski resorts.
THE MOUNTAIN: Telluride has the fourth greatest vertical in the nation at over 3,800 feet with 127 named trails served by 18 lifts and fairly evenly divided by ability. In this vein, there are also three distinct terrain parks for beginners, advanced intermediates and experts with over 100 combined features. The slopes down to town include a trio of world famous steep, long bump runs for mogul fans, including Spiral Staircase, Mine Shaft and Kant-Mak-M. For experts looking beyond even the many lift served blacks and double-blacks, Telluride offers an immense amount of in and out of bounds hike-to terrain including gates off Bald Mountain and Revelation Bowl, the ten Gold Hill Chutes, Black Iron Bowl, and 200 more acres off Palmyra Peak. Hikes ranges from 5 to 90 minutes.
AMENITIES: There are two distinct parts of Telluride, the town below and Mountain Village above, both connected to the slopes though most of the hotels and eateries in town are a few blocks off the lifts and snow. Mountain Village is a modern manufactured base area in the style of Beaver Creek or Northstar but set higher up, with several full service resort hotels, stores, eateries and services, mostly ski-in and ski-out. There are lots of spas, bars, restaurants and retail in both, and the two are linked by a gondola that is free to ride in either direction to or from dinner, lunch, shopping or après.
BEST LODGING: The ski-in/ski-out Lumiere in Mountain Village is my favorite, a wonderful hidden gem, a residential European-style boutique hotel with a feel like staying at a friend’s home and very well appointed rooms and apartments. It’s not quite full service but offers a high-touch personalized experience and was just rated Number One here by US News & World Report. The Madeline is the most full-service upscale resort in Mountain Village, while in town the top options are the Hotel Telluride, Element 52 (a recent residential hotel offering from Auberge Resorts) and for pure Old West flair, the historic New Sheridan, circa 1895.
BEST ON-MOUNTAIN DINING: Venerable Allred’s offers classic full-blown Continental style fine dining atop the gondola, but the hidden gem is the trailside Alpino Vino, a European style chalet serving exquisite charcuterie and Italian alpine fare with great wines and views, perfect for lunch or pre après.
BEST OFF-MOUNTAIN DINING: The best food is down in town, where Telluride has two of my favorite casual ski town eateries ever. Brown Dog Pizza serves up the rare but delicious “Detroit style pan pizza,” while Oak does superlative and authentic Alabama style slow smoked BBQ (especially ribs) and house cured bacon with an extensive bourbon selection. These are not to be missed. The top fine dining choice is easily 221 South Oak, and there are a number of quaint saloons including the period New Sheridan Bar (“new” 120 years ago), while the New Sheridan Hotel also has an atmospheric Western-style chophouse.
BEST APRES: For some reason Telluride has become home to the Bloody Mary topped with a slider on a toothpick, a great invention that combines après food and booze. This is found at both the Hotel Madeline’s buzzing Black Iron Bar and the Peaks Resort’s Legends (while Tomboy Tavern does theirs with shrimp). Black Iron is the hot spot, and also offers an array of upscale après snack specials like short rib nachos and heritage pork belly sliders, along with “mule” specials. They also win the battle with their “Smak Mary,” which adds lots of bacon and veggies to the slider for an immense array of edibles atop the cocktail.
BEST NON-SKIING ACTIVITIES: Choices include horseback riding, Nordic skiing, and historic town tours, but the most fun offering is the guided fat-tire winter bike tours ending at the Telluride Brewery (you get driven back). It is one of only a handful of U.S. ski resorts with onsite daily heli-skiing via Telluride Helitrax.
GETTING THERE: Montrose airport is about an hour and quarter drive (several shuttle companies will transfer you and you don’t need a car in Telluride at all) and is served by United, Delta and American with smaller-scale service on Allegiant and USAirways. There are non-stops from as far as Newark, Atlanta Chicago, Houston and San Francisco, and these make getting there much easier, but several of these flights are weekends only and getting to Montrose usually requires a connection, while at peak times (mostly Saturdays in ski season) the airport can be overcrowded and understaffed. The next choice is Gunnison but this drive takes almost three hours in winter.
Contributor: Larry Olmstead – 2/28/2015 @ 9:11AM