TO HELL YOU RIDE, TO HEAVEN YOU GO
by Todd Hartley
To my way of thinking, which is usually wrong, there is a hierarchy of mountain towns in Colorado based on how mountain-y they really are. And by mountain-y, I mean scenic, authentic and a pain in the ass to get to.
By this measure, a place like Vail — with its resort feel, interstate highway and weekend hordes — scores quite low, while a place like Crested Butte — quaint, frigid and 30 miles from Gunnison — scores rather high. Aspen, historic and scenic but burdened with things like an airport, culture and a mostly four-lane highway, scores somewhere in the middle.
Then there’s Telluride, which presents an odd paradox. On one hand, it’s quaint and historic, it’s an hour and a half on a two-lane road from the nearest airport with commercial service, and it’s about the most scenic town in America. On the other hand, you hear about things like Pearl Jam concerts, highly rated film festivals and Tom Cruise, and you start to question Telluride’s bona fides.
Don’t. It’s the real deal. I mean, yes, Telluride has culture and movie stars that Crested Beauties would scoff at, but I think Telluride still wins. It would take a dedicated mountain person to live in Crested Butte. It might take an even more dedicated one to live in Telluride.
Put it this way: If you live in Crested Butte, you could be in Denver in a mere four hours, there’s fast food a half-hour away down the hill, and the main non-highway approach to town is over Kebler Pass, which is closed in the winter but can be driven by a Prius in the summer.
If you live in Telluride, Denver is six hours away, you have to go over a mountain pass to reach the nearest fast food, and the non-highway approach to town goes over either 13,114-foot-high Imogene Pass or Black Bear Pass, a one-way jeep track considered one of the scariest, most difficult roads in the U.S.
But remoteness aside, Telluride really reigns at the top of the mountain-town heap because of how astonishing it is. The location, tucked into a steep-walled box canyon and practically encircled by soaring, craggy peaks, is one of a kind (well, two of a kind if you consider Ouray, Telluride’s neighbor across Imogene Pass). And wherever you are in the charming little downtown, you can always look east and see Ingram Falls, which drop 280 feet down a cliff at the head of the canyon.
Last weekend in Telluride, my wife, my son, my dogs and I went for a hike that aptly summed up what makes Telluride so special. Just to get to the trailhead, we had to drive up a bunch of steep switchbacks to reach the top of 365-foot Bridal Veil Falls. From there, we hiked along a rough, seldom-used dirt road that passed so many waterfalls in the first mile that it was tough to keep track of them. The main creek had one around every bend, but there also were tons of little tributaries pouring down over the cliffs.
The wildflowers were equally impressive, with columbines in a wider range of hues than I’ve ever encountered, and just when the waterfalls and wildflowers petered out, the really interesting part of the hike began.
Normally, it can be hard to get my son to talk much on hikes. That was no problem this time around. From the moment we encountered mining debris and ruins a mile into our hike until we’d reached our destination, Blue Lake, which lay another mile ahead, he didn’t stop yapping once.
There was an old winch house, an abandoned bunkroom, miles of rusted metal pipes and giant pieces of old machines, and it all inspired questions, speculation and observations about what it had been used for and how the people 100 years ago had done it all.
Even Blue Lake itself fired the imagination. It was about 40 feet lower than it should have been despite no apparent outflow and creeks filling it from both sides, and it prompted us to go investigate. It turned out that water from below the lake was being pumped back into the lake, leading us to wonder if there had been something like a mine flood years ago.
On the way back to town, we stopped at the base of Bridal Veil Falls to soak up the spray for a little bit. It was a Colorado moment that could only happen in one place, and it was just further proof of how Telluride wins.
Todd Hartley made up so many lies to answer his son’s questions that he can’t keep track of them.