Why Telluride and Crested Butte Will Make You Want to Skip Aspen This Year

The adventure begins before I even get to Telluride — one minute I’m admiring North America’s densest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks, the next my Denver Air Connection flight appears to be setting down atop one of them. Little do I know that Telluride’s airport is the loftiest in the United States, its sloping runway bookended by thousand-foot drops to the San Miguel River.

It would not be the last jaw-dropping moment on a week-long trip to Telluride and Crested Butte. Separated by 250 kilometres of Colorado blacktop, the destinations share more than scenic Rocky Mountain settings and eponymous ski areas covered by the multi-resort Epic Pass. Both are geographic and cultural outliers that uniquely combine frontier history and active alpine living. Both are home to stylish accommodations and diverse dining, drinking, shopping and, this being Colorado, toking options. On that note, both even offer free public transportation, albeit in very different forms.

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From sublime skiing to fun-loving frontier culture, Telluride and Crested Butte have much in common. That said, it’s their differences that make splitting a week between the Colorado resort towns such a savvy move.

You know that scene in Speed where the bomb-rigged bus jumps the gap in an unfinished overpass? It springs to mind midway through my first trip on Telluride Ski Resort’s 4.5-kilometre gondola system, the first and only free public transportation of its kind on Earth. Seconds after leaving the ridge-top station between the resort’s modern Mountain Village and the historic town, my stomach leaps into my larynx when the gondola cabin abruptly plunges down the southern slopes of the summit-lined box canyon in which the former silver mining hub is picturesquely nestled.

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Three days of sublime skiing (and après-skiing) later, I meet Ashley Boling at the base of the gondola for a 90-minute walking tour. The trench-coated local historian regales me with star-studded stories stemming from the many Oscar-winning flicks that have premiered at the annual Telluride Film FestivalSlumdog Millionaire, Lost in Translation, Moonlight, the list goes on — and delivers an evocative account of Butch Cassidy’s 1889 robbery of the San Miguel Valley Bank, the first institution to be knocked over by the celebrated outlaw.

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A three-hour drive across mesa-and-reservoir-stewn southwestern Colorado sure seems like a small price to pay for three nights at Scarp Ridge Lodge. Just south of Crested Butte’s five-block-long downtown strip, this former Croatian saloon has been transformed in every conceivable way, save for its colourful Wild West facade. Iron and wood reclaimed from local mills decorates the five expansive suites and seven-bunk children’s quarters, while luxe amenities such as an indoor saltwater pool and rooftop hot tub pamper tired muscles after a day of cat-skiing on a nearby private tenure which, like the lodge, is owned by the Eleven Experience boutique resort chain.

Bon Vivant is the most aptly-named restaurant I’ve ever reached on skis. Scenically set atop Telluride’s Polar Queen Express Lift, the giant-umbrella-equipped al fresco eatery pairs awe-inspiring views of 13,320-foot Palmyra Peak with a dazzling wine list and sumptuous fare such as French onion soup stocked with stone-ground mustard croutons and topped with melted Gruyere.

Secret Stash, meanwhile, is the quirkiest pizza joint I’ve ever reached on a decommissioned school bus painted with wildflowers. The trippy vehicle is part of Crested Butte’s free Mountain Express town-to-ski resort shuttle service, while the restaurant blends whimsical Indian decor with esoteric hand-tossed pizzas such as “Notorious F.I.G.,” a sweet-and-savoury amalgam of prosciutto, dried black mission figs, mozzarella, and bleu and asiago cheeses drizzled with truffle oil.

Sprawling across the snowy slopes beneath Telluride’s Village Express chairlift, Gorrono Ranch is hard to miss. The former sheep farm is even harder to resist towards the end of a ski day, what with scores of lounge chairs lining a tiered expanse known as “the beach” and its rustic cocktail cabin churning out tangy margaritas.

As one of the 300-plus historic buildings in Crested Butte, the Dogwood Cocktail Cabin has a much lower profile. That is, until I open its drinks menu. The cozy spot specializes in house-infused liquors ranging from roasted butternut squash vodka to ruby red grapefruit tequila, with the cucumber- and soy-infused “Miso Thirsty” turning out to be as refreshing as it is punny.

Images courtesy of Visit Colorado, Telluride Ski Resort, and Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the Telluride Film Festival