By Kerrick James
My first trip to Telluride was in the summer of ’73, and it made an indelible mark on my memory in just one wild summer afternoon. Something about the mountain air, the expansive vistas, the free-spirited people, the lure of the high peaks … all was intoxicating and unforgettable to a high school kid from the West Coast.
Over the intervening years, I’ve returned to Telluride many times, for music festivals and to ski my legs out. This time I came back to Telluride for mountain biking, kayaking, hiking and horseback riding, fly fishing, rock climbing and paddle boarding. All this and a jeep tour to see the San Juans from 13,000 feet.
Telluride offers an array of lodging in town, but on this trip I stayed at the AAA Three Diamond The Peaks, A Grand Heritage Resort & Spa, perched high over town in exclusive Mountain Village, with spectacular views and tasteful rooms and dining. The free gondola quickly becomes an addictive ride into the town below.
My first adventure began by meeting Rob of Telluride Outside and two fine couples for mountain biking down the Galloping Goose Trail. Rob gave us the smartest training with our bikes I’ve ever gotten from any guide, anywhere. My personal technique improved measurably, as did my confidence and skill. We drove south toward Rico and mounted up near Trout Lake, to cruise 17 mostly easy miles downhill towards Telluride. I say mostly, as some rising switchbacks had us all walking and puffing at the 9,500-foot elevation! Descending from Lizard Head Pass the vistas varied as the old railroad trail wound above abandoned mines and through groves of aspen and pine.
After a Mexican lunch at La Cocina de Luz on Telluride’s main street, a remarkable AAA One Diamond restaurant, I drove 35 miles south of Telluride to saddle up with Michelle of Circle K Ranch. She led me through meadows festooned with flowers up to a high ridge and then descended to the Dolores River, under skies that threatened showers but gave us only a scented lightning and thunder display. My trusty mount Jigsaw was sure-footed and steady, even as thunder cracked like gunshots. We splashed across the Dolores River, scaring the trout but finishing the ride with stories of Butch Cassidy robbing his first bank nearby, beginning his ride into legend.
After a day in the saddles, I opt for easier play next morning and meet Dave Hill of San Miguel Anglers, veteran fly-fishing and hunting guide, at Telluride Sports in downtown. We sip coffee and swap stories of the San Juan Mountains as we ride 45 minutes south to his favorite stretch of the Dolores River, close to where I rode Jigsaw. I’ve never tried fly fishing, and truth be told, am a poor excuse for a fisherman but I just want to study Dave and then try to mimic his grace and skill.
“The fly has to go the same speed as the river. You can bank on that!” says Dave as he teases the line across the surface and soon enough a feisty rainbow trout is hooked, played and released. I watch him with admiration and eventually I try my hand, but I am thinking too much about it all. Doubtless the trout sense a rookie in their midst and I give up, while vowing to have fish for dinner this night.
Telluride is literally surrounded by walls of quality rock for climbing, and in 2006 local climbing legend Chuck Kroger used his own hand-forged hardware to construct the Via Ferrata, across an exposed wall with marvelous views of Telluride. Built to emulate similar iron routes in the Dolomites of Italy, this route allows people with little or no climbing background to traverse a wall that otherwise would be suicide.
With Jim Howarth of San Juan Outdoor School leading the way, I hike the airy ledges, clip in with dual carabiners, and work my way across the Main Event, which is the longest exposed section of the route. Forget the axiom to not look down, as you can’t help it anyway. It’s best to simply trust the foot and handholds, make sure you always have at least one carabiner clipped on the cable, and then enjoy the “exposed hiking,” as this is now being described. This is a bad place and time to explore one’s vertigo, so know your limits, but the honest truth is that if you are reasonably fit and strong and have good balance, you’ll love this adventure and never forget the feeling of being out there in space. I was intense and focused on controlling my fears on my first traverse, and much more relaxed and enjoying the “ride” when coming back across.
That night I splurge and dine at The Cosmopolitan, a AAA Three Diamond restaurant inside the Hotel Columbia, right across from the gondola station in Telluride. The day’s adventures seem to have sharpened my taste buds, as the calamari and shrimp with spicy aioli, peppered filet and petite lobster tail all are knockouts in both flavor and presentation. Planning to hike a bit next morning, I order wild blueberry pie with gran Marnier ice cream, and ride the gondola under a starry sky to bed.
Colorado’s tallest free-falling waterfall is at the head of Telluride’s box canyon, and at 365 feet, Bridal Veil Falls is well worth the 1,200-foot elevation gain, and four-mile hike. I drive to the trailhead past the Pandora Mine, and huff and puff upward to the base of the falls, feeling strong and now happy with my dessert choice of the previous evening. Breezes push the mist my way, cooling and thrilling me all at once. Water and summer go together like gold and tellurium, so I hoof it downhill to meet Andy of Telluride Kayak School, a handsome Eastern lad who came to Telluride one day and never left.
We load kayaks in his trailer and drive south on the now familiar route to Trout Lake, which at 9,800 feet is the highest body of water I’ve ever paddled. This afternoon the lake is flat calm, with near perfect reflections of Sheep Mountain. Andy and I paddle about, mesmerized by the mirror surface. Soon his friends appear with paddleboards, a sport I’ve just learned of. As a trio they balance on their boards and chat and paddle their way across the silvery lake. I’m tempted but knowing the water is cold and loving the kayaking so much I’m content to follow them in the golden light of midsummer.
That night was my last in Telluride, and I’d heard tales of the fine dining and views to be savored at Allred’s, clinging to the mountain at 10,551 feet. I marvel at both the view and the taste of scallops with a crisp chardonnay, and think what a change time and taste have wrought with this isolated, rough-hewn mining town.
Just one adventure is left to beckon me on this trip, an open jeep ride to the roof of the San Juans. I drove the Last Dollar Road from Telluride north to Montrose, and then south to the self-anointed Switzerland of America, Ouray. I take a suite at the AAA Two Diamond Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs, grab a towel and try their three pools before dinner. The middle pool was just right, at 105 degrees.
My last day in the San Juans dawned clear and warm, not a cloud in the sky, and smiling and loquacious Don Fehd of Switzerland of America Off Road Tours invites me into his customized truck. I pick a corner seat so I can look out into space and we begin climbing immediately from 7,700 feet in Ouray, past mines, waterfalls, stoic marmots and snow banks en route to Imogene Pass, 11 miles above and beyond the town. Don masterfully weaves tales of mining history, geology, avalanches and assorted mayhem into his driving, which is a tour de force over slabs, streams and boulders. It is not for the faint of heart.
Finally we ease past a jeep heading downhill and we’re atop the orange-red soil of Imogene Pass, light-headed at 13,114 feet, with views encompassing much of southwestern Colorado. Stunning vistas, rarefied air, smiles all around, and just the moments I seek to top off my summer sojourn to hidden Telluride, the jewel of the San Juans.
Kerrick James (kerrickjames.com) is a freelance writer and photographer from Arizona. He has photographed the lands and cities of the American West, Mexico, and the Pacific Rim for more than 25 years, shooting both adventure and destination travel features. His work has appeared on more than 200 book and magazine covers and in major features for Arizona Highways, Alaska Airlines Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Voyageur, Conde Nast Traveler, Outdoor Photographer, Sky, Sunset and Virtuoso Life.