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WESTERN TRAVEL

Telluride from the top down

Colorado's tiny mountain town doesn't roll up when skiing is over. Festivals and hiking keep visitors busy.

July 09, 2006|Joyzelle Davis | Special to The Times

Telluride, Colo. — AFTER many hours on interstates and highways, we felt as though we had made a wrong turn as we steered onto the spur to Telluride.

How could it be that this renowned southwestern Colorado destination -- home to breathtakingly steep ski runs and a perennially sold-out summertime bluegrass festival -- is off a two-lane, dead-end rural road?

But two miles in, there it was: A quaint Victorian mining town dwarfed by the surrounding 14,000-foot palisades of the San Juan Mountains.

The road, it turns out, dead ends for good reason: It's blocked by a waterfall at the end of the glacial box canyon that cradles what may be Colorado's last unspoiled ski village. My husband and I were groggy from the eight-hour drive from Denver, but the sight of the 300-foot sparkling waterfall sent us scurrying for our sneakers.

As Nick and I hustled along the eight-block stretch that makes up Telluride's commercial district, we looked distinctly out of place. Nobody walks purposefully here. They stroll, they run into friends on the street, and they coo at dogs, which seem to be at least a third of the town's population. There's a citywide 15-mph speed limit and not even one stoplight to race through.

Bridal Veil Falls, it turned out, was just the first of several cascades we saw in Telluride as the snow melted and the 8,725-foot high town thawed into the rhythms of summer. Hiking boots and fishing lures replace the ski poles and ice axes of winter, and you'll easily have a car to yourself on the free gondola that connects Telluride with the ritzy, newly developed Mountain Village ski resort.

We hopped in the gondola one evening to take in the sunset from 10,535 feet. As the car glided up the mountain, Telluride shrank to the size of a toy train town lost amid the forests and saw-tooth peaks. From the top, snow-dusted mountains stretched out as far as the eye could see.

The town's 2,500 or so residents live for the outdoors, so much so that a sporting goods store clerk advised us that we should really have two sports for each season, just so we didn't get burned out. (He suggested ice-climbing as our winter backup.)

The splendor of Telluride's setting is enough to attract summertime visitors, but the town decided to seal the deal by throwing a season-long party. Bracketed by a hot air balloon festival in June and a post-Labor Day Blues & Brews festival, Telluride hosts a themed event of some kind (including the mid-July Nothing Festival, described by the tourism office as "nothing, nothing and more nothing") every weekend.

Our midweek visit wasn't timed for the festivals; we came for the scenery and the hiking. And hike we did, starting with the 2.7-mile Jud Wiebe trail, a steep trek that's a field guide to Rocky Mountain wildflowers.

Along the way we got a taste of summertime weather in the Rockies, which can whipsaw from brilliant blue to a fusillade of thunder, lightning and rain. On one of our hikes, we decided to press farther along the Bear Creek Canyon trail to join the heart-pounder Wasatch Trail, but our enthusiasm crumbled as the clouds blackened and the breeze turned into an icy gale. We turned around before the thunder started but still tromped three miles back to town in unyielding rain.

Mining history

ON the way downhill, we passed the detritus of rusted and abandoned mine shafts -- a reminder that this recreational playground was once a miserable place to carve out a living.

Telluride's first boom came when miners struck it rich in the 1870s, eventually boring more than 350 miles of tunnels in their search for silver and gold. Along with riches came rowdiness, and Telluride was home to brothels, bar fights and Butch Cassidy's first bank robbery in 1889.

The town's name came from telluride ore, a compound of tellurium and precious metals, but the popular lore is that railroad conductors called out the last stop as "To hell you ride." Telluride's boom was short-lived, collapsing after the turn of the last century, and the town remained a remote destination -- visited by only the most intrepid and daredevil skiers -- for most of the 20th century.

That all changed in 1985 with the opening of Telluride Regional Airport, the highest commercial airport in America. Suddenly it became accessible, and the accompanying influx of tourists and money has given rise to ongoing worries that the town is in danger of becoming another glitzy, economically polarized ski town such as Aspen or Vail.

Telluride has a way to go before it meets that fate.

It's unlikely, for instance, that in Vail you'd find graffiti assuring visitors that they're in a "civil liberties safe zone," as we did in Telluride. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise reportedly have, or had, retreats in the area, but aging Subarus and Volvos rather than Range Rovers are the de rigueur ride. Not that you need one. We parked our car when we arrived and didn't touch it for a week.

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