You could say we knew Telluride when . . . all its roads were dirt except the main drag . . . you could still get a parking place wherever you pleased . . . the businesses weren’t all gussied up and the cost of a meal still seemed reasonable by most Colorado standards. It was in the late 1990s, one of our first trips to the state and Telluride was just beginning to get a name for itself. But it didn’t take long before it was ‘discovered’ and the $$$ began to roll in.
Now it’s much more hoity-toity. Its ski area, Mountain Village, has really taken off, and some rich-and-famous celebrities have made Telluride the upscale place to have a home. Not exactly our kind of place. We learned that a few years later when we made a second visit back. Much had changed. Except for the location it was barely recognizable. We didn’t hang around longer than a short stroll through town.
So, why bother now? Our tastes haven’t really haven’t changed that much in recent times. And we certainly didn’t expect to see Telluride coming around to be more of our kind of place. Indeed, if anything, the town would be even more off the charts. So, what would have us give up a full day just to drive a good hour or more to come here? Well simply put—it’s all about location, location, location. When the town investors began pouring money into upgrading this town and making it into what it is today, they undoubtedly knew what a good investment they had. You see, Telluride is located in what hands down, arguably is one of THE positively most picturesque areas to be found in this most scenic of all Colorado mountain ranges. Whatever the season, whatever the conditions, it’s this location that receives top billing.
And thus, we made the drive.
You might say that it’s the getting there that is the highlight. Whichever approach you take, it’s the scenery that easily makes the whole experience most worthwhile. I happen to think coming from the north has great impact . . . and if you dare to choose that backroad drive rather than the paved highway, then your experience will be all the more enhanced—both in the scenery and the thrills.
At first glance you might think that backroad drive would be the shortcut route. Why swing wide through the small burg of Placerville when there’s a more direct route down to Telluride? Yet, closer inspection shows has there’s lots of squiggly lines to that more direct route. And therein lies the reality. Or the interest, some might say This backroad drive goes cross-country, following the dictates of the land. It’s not that the highway route is all that boring, it’s just you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck when you take the Last Dollar Road. While the highway circumvents the rugged scenery, the Last Dollar drive takes you straight through it. No doubt about it—this was our (my) kind of road.
The Last Dollar Highway began as an old wagon road used to convey supplies from the railroad town of Ridgway to the mining camps around Telluride. Departing the San Juan Skyway just a mile east of the Dallas Divide, it’s a hard-packed dirt road that really doesn’t get dicey unless it has recently rained (then even 4WD vehicles will be challenged). Rising in elevation, it leads across a high plateau which offers outstanding views at every turn in the road. It’s definitely a Rocky Mountain High kind of drive.
With spreading meadows, old homesteads, forest corridors and inspiring vistas of chiseled peaks, it presents a microcosm of all the Colorado Rockies have to offer—in their best light.
Once you surmount the high point of the road at slightly over 10,000 feet and then break out from the aspens, there’s a whole other view that easily surpasses what has already been seen. The sight is expansive, the scenery superb—I call it jaw-dropping amazing (if you’re into mountain scenery, this one can’t be beat).
Spread out on the horizon is a view to give any mountain-lover pause—or perhaps convert you to being an admirer. The San Miguel Mountains—part of the San Juan Range—can easily hold their own when compared to the Sneffels Range, both in their beauty of form as well as lording over the surrounding landscape, soaring several thousand feet above all else.
The surrounding aspen forest intermingled with the dark green conifers encircling the mountains’ flanks will create an outstanding landscape come late September. Well into summer, snow will linger inside the more deeply etched couloirs and crevices, and the grey and white rock that make up the alpine summits will bring the mountains into sharp contrast against a blue and violet sky at dusk.
Wilson Peak stands out prominently and tends to garner most of the attention. It is simply one beautifully perfect peak. Besides being an officially ranked Fourteener, Wilson Peak is familiar for another reason—it figures prominently on all the Coors labels and products (or so I’ve read). When viewed from the north, Wilson Peak does indeed strike a strong resemblance to the graphics on Coors’ designs. Whether it’s fact or fiction, it no doubt has been the inspiration for countless photos and works of art.
While speaking of amazing photo ops, there’s one more to capture on the last leg of this scenic drive. Perhaps not featured in any calendar or magazine layout, nevertheless it’s a view that’s hard to pass up. And it’s an easy roadside image to bag. Once again, Wilson Peak has a starring role.
The Last Dollar Road soon ties into Hwy. 145, and then Telluride is just a short distance away. This is when you’ll get a true feel for the town’s setting, you’ll see why it’s become a popular place to visit. Its location as a mountain town just can’t be surpassed.
Probably the most famous of the San Juan Mountain towns, Telluride is nestled in a gorgeous box canyon that backs up to sheer canyon walls from which Colorado’s highest waterfall, Bridal Veil Falls, cascades down 365 feet. The town sits amid high mountain scenery of steep, forested hillsides, sharp grey peaks, scree-covered slopes and smooth summits high above the treeline.
The Ute Indians called it the “valley of hanging waterfalls”. Fur trappers traded here as early as the 1830s. Prospectors arrived in the mid-1870s to find rich veins of silver, and mines popped up. Battered by avalanches, covered by great depths of snow, and set in utter isolation, Telluride was a particularly perilous mining site. (Legend has it that Telluride’s name refers to its remoteness—to hell you ride!)
In 1890, the nearly inaccessible town welcomed the arrival of the railroad, which at last connected it with the rest of the world. But like all Colorado mining towns, Telluride’s fortunes rose and fell. By WWII, mining appeared to be in steep decline, and the town with it. In the early 1950s, though, giant Idarado Mining Co. came to Telluride’s back door, bought up all the nearby mines, and put people back to work extracting zinc, lead, and copper. But even better days were on the horizon.
Given the deep winter snows here (with averages around 175 inches), Telluride’s residents always used skis for getting around. Eventually, the citizens created a recreational ski area on a ridge off Gold Hill, which started to draw visitors. Next thing they new, it began making them some money. So they took the idea and ran with it. The Telluride Ski Area was established in 1971 and grew exponentially after the 1987 unveiling of the ski-in/ski-out Mountain Village. With a major expansion occurring in 2001-2002, the resort became a world-class destination offering every amenity to please those with plenty of $$$. The little mining town of Telluride will never be quite the same again. Still, it’s a town with a lot of character and atmosphere.
We strolled Colorado Avenue (aka, Main St.), had a bite to eat, and then set out for more scenic cruising.
Heading south of town back on a section of that San Juan Skyway, we found the views to be equally outstanding. Telluride is surely located deep within some of the most scenic parts of the San Juans.
For awhile the road follows the course of the San Miguel River, a clear-flowing, mountain stream that offers good trout fishing. A couple of forest camp-grounds are located nearby, one with electrical hookups and sites suitable for midsized RVs.
More good fishing is found at Trout Lake (maybe its name is a good indication). Located at nearly 10,000 feet elevation, it’s another asset in the Telluride area. Easily seen right from the highway, it surely warrants a photo op, if not to take the great trail to Hope Lake (something we did in our earlier days). Nestled beneath several 13,000-foot peaks, it is one beautiful place to take in. Soak up the scenery, fish awhile, walk through the flowers. It’s the Colorado thing to do.
Just a little further down the road you’ll come to another striking landmark of the area—Lizard Head Peak. At slightly over 13,000 feet, it’s not nearly one of Colorado’s highest mountains. But what it lacks in height it more than makes up for in its unusual formation. Can’t see the resemblance to its name? Perhaps that’s because a big chunk of its ‘head’ fell off a few years ago. A volcanic pinnacle (not a plug), its towering spire-like form makes it one spectacular peak. And tempting to scale, but it’s one of Colorado’s most difficult technical climbs. if you have any interest in reading about the first harrowing ascent, achieved by Albert Ellingwood in 1920, check out the story here. I certainly found it absorbing to read.
For the less skilled (or foolhardy) there’s some great hiking trails to be taken around its base.
As you might see from my photos, the day’s conditions were taking a slight downward dive. The predictable afternoon monsoons were rolling in, preceded by ominous dark skies. No doubt about it, we had seen the best the day had to offer. Backtracking our route, and prudently foregoing that Last Dollar Road, we followed the San Juan Skyway back to camp.
And came to see an entirely different perspective of the mountain views.
You’ve gotta love that Colorado scenery!
Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris
soaking it in and craving for more.