Telluride Colorado: Full of Fun and Festivals

Telluride Bluegrass Festival Telluride Colorado
Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Kurt Jacobson photos.

Balloons, Music, and Winter Sports in Telluride

By Kurt Jacobson

Almost everyone who lays eyes on Telluride, Colorado with its backdrop of waterfalls and towering mountains falls in love at first sight. In winter skiers and snowboarders flock to the deep snow to test their skills on runs like The Plunge, Gold Hill, Mine Shaft, and other steep runs.

Bluegrass Festival fans in Telluride, Colorado.
Bluegrass Festival fans in Telluride.

Come summertime, Telluride blossoms in fields of deep-blue lupine, Columbines the color of the sky, and red Indian Paintbrush. With the coming of warmer weather and long sunny days, the Telluride festival season blossoms too.

Starting with the Balloon Festival in early June the mountains are decorated with hot air balloons as they rise to greet the morning sun.

Something for Everyone

For music lovers, Telluride can compete with just about any small town, or big city in America for the best music festivals. My wife and I had been to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003 and had a blast. Now, 15 years later it was time to return and see the 45th helping of bluegrass and Americana music.

We wondered how much the festival might have changed in all those years. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is always held during the Summer Solstice. With all the sun and music on offer, fans come from around the country and the world to enjoy probably the best bluegrass festival anywhere.

Free Concerts

We rolled into Telluride June 20th on a Rocky Mountain blue-sky day. When Bridal Veil Falls came into view at the end of the box canyon, we felt like we were coming home. There was a free concert that evening with Billy Strings and the Lil Smokies up at the town of Mountain Village.

With no time to spare we checked into our lodging for the first two nights at the Hotel Telluride. This boutique luxury hotel would give us an in-town location within walking distance of the festival. After dropping our bags off in the room and getting the lowdown on the hotel, we grabbed a ride on the hotel’s free shuttle to the gondola.

Telluride to Mountain Village gondola
Telluride to Mountain Village Gondola.
The Hotel Telluride
The Hotel Telluride

Mountain Village is easily accessed by taking the free gondola up past the midway station, then the downward leg of its spectacular ride.

We soon discovered hundreds of other music fans wanted to catch this free Wednesday night concert too.

The line was the longest I had ever seen at the gondola, and we had made dinner plans at Allred’s restaurant at the top.

It was soon apparent that we would be too late for the concert to make it to dinner on time. Since Billy Strings would be playing the next day at the bluegrass festival, we skipped the first part of the concert to make it to dinner.

Allred’s sits at 10,551 feet elevation and offers stunning views of the San Juan Mountains.

High altitude and alcohol

Telluride kid's fishing pond
Telluride kid’s fishing pond.

For those of us from a lower elevation, like sea level, drinking alcohol is different up high. I found that one glass of wine had an equal effect of two glasses at sea level.

That kind of makes drinking in Telluride cheaper except the prices are almost double. Some visitors choose to imbibe in the legal marijuana products available in town instead of alcohol.

With a three-quarters moon rising over the San Juan’s we were in awe of the view. The town of Telluride is laid out below Allred’s and it’s cool to watch the town lights take over from the sun at dusk.

With our entrees of elk and bouillabaisse finished we dashed for the plaza where the Lil’ Smokies had started their set.

The crowd was big and loud, obviously enjoying the free show. All summer long these free Wednesday concerts draw a crowd. If you ride the gondola up from town be sure and get there early!

We only stuck around for a few minutes since we’d get enough music over the next four days. I wanted to see the Town Park where the main event would be held before the crowds showed up.

A golden glow

The sun was starting to set as we walked past the kid’s fishing pond to Town Park, casting a rusty-golden glow all over the peaks and forest. People on the streets stopped and whipped out their smartphones to try and capture photos and video of this stunning sunset.

Telluride at sunset
Telluride at sunset.

The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is the biggest festival of the summer drawing a crowd of about 11,500 each year. The show is put on by Planet Bluegrass who years ago met with the town of Telluride to cap the number of tickets sold since the town can only accommodate so many concert goers in such a small space.

All four days of the festival were filled with the best bluegrass musicians on the planet like Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush (Mr. Telluride), Del McCoury, Emmy Lou Harris, and more.

Our favorites were the House Band, Billy Strings, and I’m With Her- a trio with Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aoife O’Donavan, and newcomers The War and Treaty.

Other Fine Festivals

Del McCoy and Sam Bush at Telluride Bluegrass Festival
Del McCoury and Sam Bush at Telluride Bluegrass Festival

As impressive as the Bluegrass Festival is, we are also aware of the other fun festivals all summer long. There’s a four-day Wine Festival in late June, a Fourth of July celebration that brings in up to 20.000 revelers, an American Music Festival in July, a Yoga fest., a playwright fest., jazz fest., six-day chamber music fest., a mushroom fest, an important film fest, and closing out the summer a three-day Blues and Brews festival.

All these festivals are just a drop in the bucket of things to do in Telluride. Camping, fishing, hiking, Frisbee golf, skateboard park, mountain biking, photography, mountain climbing, and four-wheel drive tours are some of the best summer activities.

Since I was short on time, and breath, I took the Telluride Outside four-wheel drive jeep tour up Imogene Pass.

Telluride Outside's jeep at the top of Imogene Pass
Telluride Outside’s jeep at the top of Imogene Pass

Telluride Outside provides jeep tours, river rafting, photo tours, and fly fishing for those wanting a guided adventure.

I had been chomping at the bit to visit Imogene Pass ever since first laying eyes on it in 1978.

It was now or never. Our guide Lance told us, “I’m a trained geologist and on the four-hour tour, anything you want to know about these rock formations, just ask”. Lucky us having a geologist to explain some of the fascinating features all along the road.

Way up High in the Mine

Our first stop was at the famous Tomboy Mine, where at its peak of production was supporting 1,200 miners and their families. A stamp mill, boarding house, and other mine facilities were reduced to piles of rubbish over the years.

Still, it was jaw-dropping to see what they had built so high in the mountains with picks, shovels, lots of dynamite, and hard labor.

At the top of our tour, I stood at some 13, 200 feet elevation looking out on breathtaking 360-degree views of the San Juan Mountain summits. After receiving less than normal snowfall, most of the snow was gone from the peaks too soon, making the high country more accessible for summer tours.

Colorful Red Mountain (a famous mining district) was visible to the south of us. I walked some 100 yards downward to get a good shot of Red Mountain. On my walk back uphill it was breathtaking in a different way as I struggled to get enough oxygen.

The ride down was halted at Social Tunnel for a history and geology lesson. Lance told us “The town, the mine, and the ladies of the night had an agreement that this spot was the place of business. The Social Tunnel boundary kept such naughty activities away from the job site. A few shacks stood here for years but are now long gone.” The tunnel remains, and a few still know what used to go on by this tunnel of love.

By the time we got back in town, I had noticed a strange sensation in my legs. I had been bracing myself for almost three hours and felt like I’d just skied a full day! Although the jeep tour was bumpy, I saw a lady in another jeep who must have been 80 years old. As long as you hold on tight, this is a ride not to miss for young and old adventurers.

social tunnel Telluride
Social tunnel Telluride

Winter Sports Abound

Telluride is legendary for its snow sports. In much of the 1990s and up to 2010, I was working at Copper Mountain Ski Area. My job at Copper gave me free skiing at Telluride. I’ve skied almost every ski area in Colorado and Telluride is in my top three due to its deep snow and incredible views.

The town of Telluride looks much like it did that first visit in 1978 thanks to strict zoning regulations. The New Sheridan Hotel, Floradora bar/restaurant, and most of the old homes lining W. Colorado Avenue look as they did 40 years ago.

There’s so much to do here I could spend two days just exploring, eating and drinking my way around these historic streets.

The New Sheridan Hotel on Telluride's main drag
The New Sheridan Hotel on Telluride’s main drag

Finding something new

While not enjoying the Bluegrass festival I found two new favorite places. One was Tacos Del Gnar for the best tacos in Colorado, and the other was a hike through the town cemetery.

Our shuttle driver Dave O. at the Hotel Telluride tipped us off on Tacos Del Gnar. Dave recommended the delicious Gnar Taco Dinner special of two tacos, house beans, and possibly the best tater tots ever for a mere $10.50!

A ten-minute walk to the town cemetery gave me a peaceful respite from the energy of the bluegrass festival. I gazed upon Mrs. Emma Olden’s grave, who died in 1887 at 26 years of age.

Times were tough back then in the Colorado mountains, and Mrs. Emma’s grave reminded me of how easy we have it. The top of the cemetery backs to a thick aspen grove providing gentle quaking of aspen leaves fluttering in the mountain breezes.

Telluride cemetary
Telluride cemetery

Visiting the cemetery was a great way to spend a few minutes of our last day in town. We still had three more bands to catch before riding off into the sunset for our flight home.

When the trip was over, my wife and I agreed it was one of the best vacations back to our former home state. Check out this town that’s already legendary, but waiting for you to make your own memories way up high in the Rocky Mountains.

Getting There:

Fly into the Telluride Airport if you are feeling brave. Telluride is one of the scariest airports in the U.S. but safe.

The Montrose Airport is less frightening and has five airlines servicing it, but is a 70-minute drive to Telluride.

Drive in from Denver on either Colorado Highway 285, Highway Colorado Highway 50, then Colorado Highway 550- appx. 7 hours.

Drive in from Denver on Interstate 70, Highway 50, then Highway 550- appx. 7 hours.

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