The Great Colorado Unknown

Crested Butte
Crested Butte

Off the well-trodden traveller trail, you will discover there’s so much more to Colorado and its 28 ski resorts than just the ones you’ve always heard of.

“A lot of people we know back home think they know Colorado because they’ve been to Vail.” I’m sitting at a bar in an old silver mining town called Silverton, that you’ve likely never heard of, when I meet my first Australian in a week.

“That’s like saying you know Australia because you went to Sydney once,” he says. Fair point — there are 28 ski resorts in Colorado, connected along highways that get so lonely, I’ve taken to waving to drivers who pass me by. In 20 years of visiting, I’m still finding new places that make my old Colorado favourites obsolete.

I’m on a road trip through Colorado’s southwest; it’s not hard to get here from Australia, it just feels like it should be. I fly to Montrose from LA in barely two hours, bypassing Denver. My 4WD is waiting in the airport’s tiny carpark, then it’s a 90-minute drive between the San Juan Mountain range to Telluride, still Colorado’s best ‘secret’. Telluride is the Colorado ski town you all came for — you just didn’t know it. It’s one of the best preserved 1870s silver mining towns left standing in the United States. The town is wedged at the end of a box canyon surrounded by the highest concentration of 4000-metre-plus peaks in North America. There’s even a frozen waterfall right behind the main street. As I arrive, most of its inhabitants have gathered in the heart of town to watch a helicopter drop explosives on the ridge above town, triggering an avalanche that gets them all cheering. Telluride’s a real town with real locals, not just a resort with resort workers.

Most of its buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places — one of them was robbed by Butch Cassidy in 1889. It doesn’t matter what time of the year you visit either, winter brings an average of eight metres of snow, but summer brings with it a festival every weekend (including one of the world’s most iconic film festivals, the Telluride Film Festival). Aspen has its reputation as a hide-out for celebrities, but Oprah, Neil Young, and Ralph Lauren prefer homes around Telluride. There’s a rustic and non-contrived luxury about everything here, especially in its restaurants and hotels.

It’s home to two of North America’s best on-mountain restaurants, Alpino Vino and Bon Vivant, Italian and French restaurants built high on the mountain that offer genuine gourmet dining to patrons in ski clothes. Waiters wear ties and the wine offerings include the most comprehensive choice of some Italian varietals in the US, but nothing feels pretentious in southwest Colorado. Hotels are mostly of the ski-in, ski-out variety, with reception staff who know your name at check-in before you say it.

I could stay a month, but there’s much to see in this part of Colorado, along roads that weave their way through mountain passes with no one on them, certainly no Australians. I find the one-horse town of Silverton and am smitten. Mountains surround me on all sides, and the town’s a collection of saloons, stores, and hotels built 150 years ago. There’s a ski mountain (Silverton Mountain) offering heli-skiing in Colorado’s snowiest backcountry whose resort lodge is an old yurt set in the snow. But even in these forgotten corners of Colorado, there’s an easy-going sort of luxury offering around the corner. I stay at the newly restored 121-year-old The Wyman Hotel owned by a couple from New York, where guests mix over cocktails at the lobby bar, comparing Colorado secrets they don’t mind sharing within these walls.

It’s a three-hour and 30-minute drive northeast to Crested Butte, my favourite Colorado enigma. I’ve been here seven times and have never heard the accent of any foreign tourists, Australian or otherwise. This place competes with only Telluride in the beauty stakes. The main street is a collection of century-old cottages still painted in bright colours from the town’s hippie era (which, in truth, has never really passed) all set beneath triangular mountain peaks that look more like the Swiss Alps than the Rockies. There are historic cabins offering US$300 degustation menus served by Colorado’s best regional chefs, and trendy cocktail bars charging LA prices. But there are as many 19th century-era bars offering $4 local beers at happy hour, and stickers on locals’ cars advocating we “Keep Crested Butte Weird”. The steep skiing here is legendary, though there’s as much mountain biking terrain here when the snow melts — and a backcountry hike you can take to Aspen, should you be a fan of wildflowers. “People come to hide for a while and figure themselves out,” a local tells me over a whiskey at the bar. Travellers, I tell him: we’re doing the same.


Getting there

Delta Air Lines fly to LA from Sydney, then fly to Montrose with United. Rental cars are available from Montrose Regional Airport.

Staying there

Stay at Telluride’s most luxurious hotel, Madeline Hotel, with the best hotel bar in Colorado.

Stay along Silverton’s historic main street at The Wyman Hotel.

In the heart of Crested Butte, book into a European-style chalet with a Rocky Mountains flavour at Eleven Scarp Ridge Lodge.

For more information, visit

Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Visit Colorado

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