When snow melts, Telluride basks in the fun

In the summer, Colorado ski town turns on the charm

Destination: The West

July 31, 2005|By Alison Berkley | By Alison Berkley,New York Times News Service

A quarter-mile up the Cornet Creek Trail, a 10-minute hike from downtown Telluride, Colo., Richard Yeager pauses to watch a waterfall roll off the edge of a 60-foot cliff and explode into the small pool below like an endless fireworks display.

Yeager is in town from Albuquerque, N.M., for the annual balloon rally, one of 14 weekend festivals that packs Telluride's summer season (there's even the Nothing Festival for the one weekend there isn't a festival).

He's dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, a far cry from the technical gear recommended for Colorado's steep, rocky terrain, and wears a white and green jacket, with "Richard: Crew Chief" embroidered on the front. His eyes are hidden by a pair of mirrored Harley Davidson sunglasses.

He's begrudging Saturday night's big event, when selected teams showcase their balloons on Main Street in downtown Telluride. Yeager says he doesn't see the point in filling hot air balloons and leaving them anchored to the ground, but admits that it's Saturday night during a festival and that some kind of show has to go on.

Festival hype may draw summer crowds, but the true flavor of Telluride lies between the megafestivities when the town isn't swamped with bluegrass fans, mushroom connoisseurs, blues lovin' beer drinkers, jazz aficionados, food and wine tasters and hot air balloon pilots. All the hoopla seems excessive: Telluride by itself is enough to celebrate.

When the snow melts and the lifts close, Telluride sheds its winter layers and becomes as sun-kissed and freckle-faced as the laid-back summer tourists who inhabit it.

Gone are the fancy ski gear, expensive lift tickets, treacherous winter driving conditions and jet-set crowd. In are T-shirts, hiking boots, baseball hats, cars with bikes on the roof and camping gear in the back, and infinite ways to explore and enjoy the mountains at no extra charge.

Mountains all around

The scenery is a showstopper all its own. The main street dead-ends on the east end of Telluride, where a box canyon affords no further passage. Huge snow-covered peaks tower over the tiny enclave from every direction, with the knife-edge ridges, saw-toothed spires, narrow gullies, chutes and cliff bands that define the varied landscape. Steep, jagged mountainsides enclose the tiny town like the walls of a giant stadium. It's difficult to comprehend how this quaint place can exist so peacefully in the shadows of such daunting peaks.

Ever since Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise moved into the neighborhood in the last decade or so, Telluride joined the ranks of star-studded ski towns like Sun Valley, Idaho, and Aspen, Colo. If the historic downtown, at 8,750 feet, is funky, cool and eclectic, Mountain Village, the posh resort at 9,540 feet, is its estranged twin, distinctly separate but joined at the hip by the free gondola (about a 15-minute trip) that makes a visit to Telluride utterly car-free. (Dogs are allowed in gondola "pet cars" to protect passengers with allergies.)

On the funkier side are downtown's quiet side streets, lined with colorful Victorian architecture, houses with big bay windows and wraparound porches that are oddly reminiscent of the beach. There's the occasional chairlift patio swing, benches made from skis and a "Hippies Use Side Door" sign posted on the front of that small lemon- colored house on West Pacific Street.

However, funky does not mean inexpensive -- houses in the real estate listings for the town go from $1 million to $4.5 million.

For a true sense of the local pace, you can wander along the banks of the San Miguel River on a meandering gravel path that follows the river upstream to Town Park. At least two dogs for every human gallop happily around, their owners trailing casually behind (there are leash laws, though it appears no one pays much attention to them).

A map is hardly necessary when everything is out there where you can see it. There are the obvious sights, like the Bridal Veil Falls -- at about 350 feet, the tallest waterfall in Colorado -- or the gondola. But the real gems in this former mining town lie beneath the surface, and when you're this far away from the polish of the city (Denver is a six-hour drive in good weather) it's perfectly OK to get your hands a little dirty.

You'll find many small treasures just by strolling up and down Main Street: lattes at the Steaming Bean, boutique women's clothes shopping at Two Skirts, cool second-hand finds (like crocodile skin cowboy boots, designer labels and funky old dresses) at the Yard Sale, pizza at the Brown Dog and cheap beer and pool at the Last Dollar (also known as the Buck). Ample "puppy parking," hooks for attaching leashes, is available around town.

Table and trail

Telluride's cuisine is varied, fresh and sophisticated, especially when you consider the town's size and remote location. You'll find everything from sleek, urban-style bistros and elegant fine dining to street-side taco stands and cheap happy hour specials.

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