To Hell You Ride

Beyond a wealth of skiing, this Colorado town offers a taste of the true West

Telluride during the Blues & Brews Fest.

Photo by Whit RichardsonTelluride at sunset.

Las Vegas has been called the last great frontier town in America, but given the changes of the past 20 years, it hardly seems that way anymore. Enter Telluride, a Wild West enclave at the tip of what might be the longest dead-end road in America. And if it isn’t, it certainly feels that way.

Bootstrapped into the bottom of a box canyon in Colorado’s southwest corner, Telluride is home to 2,500 hardy, freedom-loving locals who have carved out a living by capitalizing on the town’s location at the base of the towering San Juan Mountains. Skiing and snow sports dominate Telluride from November through March; hiking, mountain biking and a full festival calendar—food, music and film—rule the warmer months.

Throughout the year, the spirit of Telluride seeps in, a variation of the frontier libertarianism (“I don’t care what you do as long as you don’t do it to me”) that once ruled the West. It’s the kind of place where modern troubadour Edward Sharpe plays the same festival as Lyle Lovett, and everybody loves it. It’s where the fungi-focused Shroom Fest just had its 30th installment, and where one of the town’s longest-running restaurants was a 1975 bakery and pizza joint called Baked In Telluride (wink, wink)—one of the first eateries in the nation to focus on sustainable food. (Sadly, Baked burned to the ground in February, and plans to rebuild are tentative.)

But Telluride wasn’t always this way. Much like Las Vegas, it has suffered cycles of boom and bust. Also like Las Vegas, the discovery of gold and silver fueled the first boom in the mid-19th century. For 60 years, Telluride (whose name, folklore says, originates in the Gold Rush-era send-off “To hell you ride!”) was home to thousands of fortune seekers, many at the edge of lawlessness. The infamous Butch Cassidy is said to have launched his career here, hitting up the San Miguel National Bank and setting the stage for a string of brazen robberies that would become part of Western folklore. But by the mid-20th century, mining was tapped out and the boomtown had shrunk.

With a main street of picturesque Gold Rush-era buildings, an Old West cemetery and a river running through it (the San Miguel), the remote Telluride might have become a prize stop on the ghost-town tours of Colorado if not for the effort of some industrious locals in the 1970s. Hoping to save their town by capitalizing on the rapid rise of snow skiing, a ski run was carved on the edge of Gold Hill. The area’s annual 170 inches of snow is little more than half that of Aspen, but Telluride’s Alpine terrain resulted in a chiseled run that more than makes up for that with difficulty. Telluride quickly became a must-visit spot for technical skiers looking to boost their Black Diamond experience—not the type who spend their time warming their feet in the lodge.

With the fringe skiers came fringe folks to serve them. Hippies, ski bums and all manner of outsiders (re)discovered the little town on the edge of the world, and Telluride became the Alpine equivalent of the surf enclave. A sushi joint is within a block of a coffeehouse/bookstore selling fringe political material; a nice hotel room costs $200 a night, within sight of the town’s legendary Free Box, where you can leave something, you can take something, and by doing so help the universe retain its karmic balance.

Inexplicably, adding a ski run allowed Telluride to survive while remaining true to itself. Despite what some would call the commercial ruination of ski towns like Aspen, Telluride has, for the most part, been able to maintain its authenticity. That’s likely because an entirely separate resort area, Mountain Village, was built on the other side of Gold Hill. From Telluride, this fancy enclave of hotels, bars, restaurants and shops is reachable only by enclosed gondola (free, 24 hours a day) or a 30-minute drive, thereby isolating such modern development from the old town.

The split nature of Telluride is evident when driving from Las Vegas. And, much like Las Vegas, everyone, it seems, comes to Telluride to escape. In recent years, the town saw an influx of few free spirits who had left New Orleans running from Hurricane Katrina and never looked back. Sure, more folks who made their money elsewhere are owning the restaurants, but the hippies and ski bums still take your order, still vie for lift tickets during winter and concert tickets the rest of the time. Many of them will fit you for ski boots during the day and pour your whiskey at night. Telluride, it seems, is a lifestyle choice for those who live there. Las Vegas—and Las Vegans—could stand to learn something from the balance they seem to have struck with their past, present and future.

If you go

Getting there: Fly into Telluride Regional Airport, or take an amazing road trip, looping north through Moab, Utah, and down into Telluride, then south through the Four Corners and Flagstaff, Ariz., back to Vegas.

Staying: It’s not cheap, but the Hotel Columbia (800-201-9505) is recently remodeled and at the base of the free gondola to Mountain Village.

Eating: Excelsior Café reminds us of Las Vegas’ legendary Jazzed Café: a comfortable wine and pasta spot in an old bank building (200 W. Colorado Ave.). For a lively scene, visit Honga’s Lotus Petal.

Drinking: We love the historic bar at the base of the Sheridan Hotel (231 W. Colorado Ave.), perfect for bourbon and branch water. The adjoining Chop House is a classic for steaks.

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