Double Diamond Telluride, Colo., sparkles as a place to tackle breathtaking ski trails or simply soak up the flavor of a quaint old mining town.

November 16, 1997|By Syd Kearney | Syd Kearney,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- A bearded skier bemoans the Monday afternoon crowds.

It seems that this bartender-by-night/ski-bum-by-day was forced to come to a full stop before boarding the lift.

"Too many people," he grumbles to a handful of skiers in an

otherwise empty lift station.

Heads swivel, searching for the hordes. What people? What is he talking about? This is Telluride, land of imaginary crowds and unbelievable skiing.

Couched in the San Juan Mountains and surrounded by the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in the nation, Telluride sits nearly by its lonesome in the southwest corner of Colorado. Purgatory, near Durango, is its closest ski resort neighbor.

Actually Telluride is never alone, for it really is two distinct districts: the historic mining town of Telluride and Mountain Village, a planned slope-side community. Each has its share of restaurants, hotels, shops and service centers. The symbiotic towns are linked by an 11-minute gondola ride or a 20-minute drive.

And while most ski areas inspire superlatives such as steepest, tallest and widest, Telluride, with its rugged charm and average yearly snowfall of 300 inches, has inspired the slogan "the most beautiful place you'll ever ski."

It is a claim we can't dispute after exploring many of its 64 trails.

Some of the best runs

Its 1,000 skiable acres feature some of the best runs in the West, including the double black diamond Plunge and the appropriately named See Forever.

Telluride is plucky: a boom town turned ghost town turned boom town again.

Founded in 1878, it reached its peak in 1890 when it boasted 5,000 residents and Tomboy, one of the world's greatest gold-producing mines.

That also was the year citizens were buzzing about a bandit named Butch Cassidy, who pulled his first holdup here in 1889. The soon-to-be-notorious outlaw snatched $24,000 from the San Miguel Valley Bank.

Skiing the San Juan Mountains is hardly new. There was a Telluride Ski Club as early as 1924. Members would ride a narrow-gauge train to the top of Lizard Head Pass and then slide down the mountain.

The town celebrates its second boom this year as Telluride Ski Co. marks its 25th anniversary.

To mark the occasion, the resort is rewarding itself with a new Mountain Village Activity Center, located steps from the gondola. The 30,000-square-foot center will house lift-ticket windows, ski- and snowboard-school offices, an equipment-rental shop, overnight storage lockers and a child-care center.

Just a gondola ride away

The resort's gift to its guests is a new snowboard park. Air Garden will features 16 acres of hits and obstacles for snowboarders when it debuts Dec. 19.

If you tire of the slopes, just hop aboard the resort's gondola, which is always free to foot passengers. The gondola, which made its debut last ski season, moves visitors from the Mountain Village over the peaks to the town of Telluride, with its colorful Victorian houses, plentiful shopping and hopping night life.

Walking tours of Telluride meet daily across from the San Miguel County Courthouse on Colorado Avenue, the town's historic main street.

The red-brick courthouse was constructed in 1887. Other historic sites include Popcorn Alley, a turn-of-the-century red-light district that earned its name from frequently slamming doors, and the New Sheridan Hotel, which became "new" in 1898, when it was built to replace the original, 1895 hotel, which burned down.

Most of the shopping is on Colorado Avenue, with its picturesque storefronts. Must-stops for browsing or buying include Bounty Hunters, for custom boots and hats; Picaya, for imports and well-priced jewelry; Apropos, with breathtaking art glass and chandeliers; Cadeaux, with fine textiles and original accessories; and the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, which showcases local and regional artists. Another place to find regional artwork is the Potter's Wheel.

Stop by Between the Covers for an espresso and a recycled book. If the kids are bored, drop by Ziasun, where you'll find puzzles, board games and whimsical puppets.

And don't miss the action at the Free Box, a local tradition. Residents put old -- and often brand-new -- items they no longer want in large cubbyholes of the Free Box, just off Colorado Avenue. You can find anything from outgrown ski boots to kitchen appliances, and you're sure to meet locals.

Off Colorado Avenue but not far from the main drag is the Cosmopolitan Restaurant. Chef Chad Scothorn's desserts are reason enough to come down off the mountain. His intimate, casually elegant restaurant is inside Hotel Columbia.

Other eateries worth consideration are La Marmotte for classic French cuisine; the New Sheridan for exotic game; and Baked in Telluride for tasty pizza.

Where to stay

Telluride also has a variety of accommodations. Historic lodging includes the New Sheridan Hotel and the Alpine Inn. The latter, a bed-and-breakfast, was built in 1903.

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