A brief history of Telluride and its surrounding ghost towns

telluride ghost townsTelluride. The name alone conjures a variety of associations, from the debaucherous (Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”) to the elite (Tom Cruise is the other inevitable mention). But this isolated little town in Southwestern Colorado’s craggy San Juan range has a truly wild past and a lot to offer. It’s not the only mining-town-turned-ski-resort in the Rockies, but I think it’s the most well-preserved, photogenic, and in touch with its history. Apparently I’m not alone, because the town core (all three blocks of it) was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964.

Located in a remote box canyon (waterfall included) at 8,750 feet, Telluride and its “down valley” population totals just over 2,000 people. I’ve lived in Telluride off-and-on since 2005, and there’s something to be said about a place where dogs outnumber residents, and you can’t leave home without running into people you know. Longtime residents burn out on the small town thing, but I still get a kick out of it after years of city living.

Today the former brothels of “Popcorn Alley” are ski shanties, but they’re still painted eye-catching, Crayola-bright colors, and the old ice house is a much-loved French country restaurant. Early fall is a great time to visit because the weather is usually mild, the aspens are turning, and there’s the acclaimed Telluride Film Fest, brutal Imogene Pass Run (Sept. 10) and Blues & Brews Festival (Sept. 16-18) to look forward to. The summer hordes are gone, but the deathly quiet of the October/early-November off-season hasn’t begun.

According to the Telluride Historical Museum, the town was established in 1878. It was originally called Columbia, and had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble mining town following the opening of the Sheridan Mine in the mid-1870’s. The mine proved to be rich in gold, silver, zinc, lead, copper, and iron, and with the 1890 arrival of the Rio Grande Southern railroad, Telluride grew into a full-fledged boomtown of 5,000. Immigrants–primarily from Scandinavia, Italy, France, Germany, Cornwall, and China–arrived in droves to seek their fortunes. Many succumbed to disease or occupational mishaps; the tombstones in the beautiful Lone Tree Cemetery on the east end of town bear homage to lots of Svens, Lars’, and Giovannis.

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[Photo credit: Flickr user hubs]

telluride ghost townsThe mining resulted in 350 miles of tunnels that run beneath the mountains at the east end of the valley; you can see remnants of mine shafts and flumes throughout the region. If paddling is your thing, you’ll see gold dredges runnning on the San Miguel, San Juan, and Dolores Rivers.

Telluride’s wealth attracted the attention of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, who famously robbed the town’s San Miguel National Bank in 1889 (trivia: I used to live in an upstairs apartment in that very building). But in 1893, the silver crash burst the money bubble, and almost overnight Telluride’s population plummeted. By the end of World War II, only 600 people remained.

Telluride is a part of the 223-mile San Juan Scenic Highway, which connects to the historic towns of Durango, Ouray, and Silverton. There’s only one paved road in and out of Telluride, and that’s Hwy. 145. The only other options are two high, extremely rugged mountain passes (which require 4WD and experienced drivers). There are also a handful of ghost towns in the area. Some, like Alta (11,800 feet) make for a great, not too-strenuous hike; you’ll see the trailhead four miles south on Hwy 145. There are a number of buildings still standing, and two miles up the road lie the turquoise Alta Lakes.
telluride ghost towns
If you want to check out the ghost town of Tomboy, it’s five miles up Imogene Pass (13,114 feet). Don’t underestimate just how tough it is if you’re hiking; you’ll gain 2,650 feet in altitude; otherwise it’s an hour’s drive. The trail begins on the north end of Oak Street; hang a right onto Tomboy Road. Unless you’re physically fit and acclimated to the altitude, the best way to see these ghost towns is by 4WD tour with an outfitter like Telluride Outside. Another bit of trivia: every July, the “Lunar Cup” ski race is held on a slope up on Imogene Pass, clothing optional.

How to get there
Telluride is a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, but it also boasts the world’s second highest commercial airport (9,078 feet) with daily non-stop connections from Denver and Phoenix. It’s closed in sketchy weather (if you’re flight phobic, just say “hell, no”), and it’s often easier and usually cheaper to fly into Montrose Regional Airport, 70 miles away. From there, take Telluride Express airport shuttle; you don’t need a car in town. Go to VisitTelluride.com for all trip-planning details. For more information on the region’s numerous ghost towns, click here.

When to go
Telluride is beautiful any time of year, but avoid mid-April through mid-May and October through before Thanksgiving, as those are off-season and most businesses are closed. Spring is also mud season, and that’s no fun. Late spring, summer, and early fall mean gorgeous foliage, and more temperate weather, but be aware it can snow as late as early July. August is monsoon season, so expect brief, daily thunderstorms. July and winter are the most reliably sunny times; that said, Telluride averages 300 days of sunshine a year. If you want to explore either pass, you’ll need to visit in summer.
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Telluride tips
The air is thin up there. Drink lots of water, and then drink some more. Go easy on the alcohol, too. Take aspirin if you’re suffering altitude-related symptoms like headache or insomnia, and go easy for a couple of days until you acclimate. Wear broad-spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and reapply often on any exposed skin or under t-shirts. Wear a hat and sunglasses, as well.

[Photo credits: Tomboy, Flickr user Rob Lee; Mahr building, Laurel Miller; winter, Flickr user rtadlock]

Hang-gliding over Telluride

Telluride, Colorado, is nothing if not an outdoor playground. Paragliding, in particular, is a summer recreational activity for locals and visitors alike. Check out this clip from the Telluride Air Force Hangliding and Paragliding Club featuring an epic ride over snow-covered peaks and through the clouds. Things culminate with several swoops over town, before a graceful landing in the high school playing field. If you make it out to Telluride for a flight of your own, try and time it to coincide with sunset.


Top five bars to get a (great) drink in Telluride, Colorado

telluride barsTo borrow a phrase, Telluride (and I mean this in the best possible way) is a little drinking town with a big ski problem. I’ve lived there off and on since 2005, and recently returned for a visit for the first time in two years.

Telluride–a former mining town–has never had a shortage of places to imbibe, but getting a well-made cocktail for under ten bucks is another story. Fortunately, there are a few old standbys as well as some new blood in town that hit just the right mix of ambiance, quality, and price.

Bonus: With just one exception, they’re all frequented by locals, so you can escape the tourist scene and get a true taste of Telluride. Just don’t wear a spanking new cowboy hat or boots, heels, or a starched button-down. This town is strictly casual, year round.

And a word of warning: You’ll feel the effects of alcohol more at altitude (Telluride is at 8,725 feet). Go easy, drink tons of water, and remember that one drink has the cumulative effect of two at this height. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

1. La Marmotte
Located one block east of the gondola, unassumingly nestled against the base of the mountain, this adorable, cozy, convivial restaurant is a dying breed: the classic French Alpine restaurant. Actually, it’s the historic Ice House, one of the oldest buildings in town, but inside, it’s dark, romantic, and surprisingly lively.

For over 20 years, “The Marmot” has featured well-rendered French country classics such as Coq au Vin and French Onion Soup, along with more contemporary versions. The 3-course, $35 prix fixe is the best deal in town, but if it’s just a drink you’re looking for, you also can’t go wrong. Take a seat on a stool at the tiny front bar, and have the friendly bartender (no ski town attitude here) pour you a glass off the thoughtful wine list, or whip you up a cocktail, such as the house-infused beet martini (trust me).telluride bars2. New Sheridan Bar/New Sheridan Hotel and Chop House Restaurant
A part of the famed New Sheridan hotel, this 1895 saloon is one of the oldest in the West, although the entire property underwent a major remodel a couple of years ago. Opt for cocktails, straight-up spirits, or beer at the dedicated bar (pool tables are in the back), which features its original mahogany paneling and filigree light fixtures. Happy Hour tends to attract visitors and locals (usually an older crowd) alike: it’s hard to pass up the wickedly strong five-dollar cocktail specials.

In the adjacent hotel lobby bar known as The Parlor, locals meet up for a glass or bottle of wine from one of the best lists in town (Wine Spectator has given it their Award of Excellence multiple times). Alternatively, grab a seat at the Chophouse’s beautiful long bar (my pick on where to eat/sit when I’ve got some extra cash), order some starters and a drink, and enjoy the good life side of Telluride.

3. Allred’s
The aforementioned tourist magnet, Allred’s is located at the top of the San Sophia gondola station, at 10,551 feet. Walking into the bar or adjacent dining room, both of which have giant windows, it’s easy to see why visitors (and locals celebrating special occasions or just a particularly gorgeous sunset) shell out the big bucks to dine here. The entire town lietelluride barss spread out below you, and the view includes waterfalls, red cliffs, evergreen forest, and the last snow clinging to the peaks across the valley. Try a glass of sparkling wine, a special house cocktail such as the pear basil swizzle (Grey Goose Pear Vodka, basil, soda water, and lime, $11), or, if you’re visiting in winter, one of the many excellent hot toddies on offer.

4. there…
Not everything in town is historic. This tiny space, tucked away on a side street in the residential “West End,” has been a pizza parlor, a Himalayan restaurant, and a longtime vacant space in the last five years. In December, it became a bar/Asian small bites spot, and reliably draws crowds for the creative cocktails and delicious, four-dollar steamed duck or pork buns (give the rest of the food a miss, ditto the silly and pretentious “jam drinks”). The decor is a schizophrenic mix of gorgeous Old West restoration with a hint of butt-ugly pop art, but super-fly bartender Oshane mixes up a mean house cocktail. He’s so gracious and charming, you won’t be able to resist coming back (the pork buns don’t hurt, either).

5. The Last Dollar Saloon (aka, “The Buck”)
PBR is King in Telluride, but you can also count on a reliably stiff drink at Telluride’s most classic bar, built in 1899: Don’t let your buzz distract you from details like the original stamped tin ceiling. TGIF is one of the best times to go if you want to mingle with locals (don’t expect a sober crowd) or see live music; The Buck is reliably packed weekend nights during the summer. My happy place is the corner table at the front, where the giant plate glass windows provide an aquarium view of Main Street.

5.5 O’Bannon’s Irish Pub (“OB’s”)
I can’t in good conscience write about drinking in Telluride without mentioning one of my favorite bars of all time, anywhere on the planet. Yes, it’s a hellhole, but if you really want to get down and dirty with the locals, no visit to Telluride is complete without a visit (if not a lost weekend) to OB’s. Plus, there’s a pool table and great juke. R.I.P., Harry (Force, the late owner).

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]

See the New Sheridan Bar (those are actors, FYI) in this recent Coors ad.


Dunton Hot Springs: mushroom foraging and soaking in Southwestern Colorado

There are few things I enjoy more than scrabbling around in forest litter, searching for fungi. Cooking and eating them is just a bonus. I know I’m not alone in my geeky proclivity, given the number of mycological societies and mushroom festivals all over the country. Mid-August is peak wild mushroom season in the Colorado Rockies, which hosts two well-known mushroom extravaganzas of its own, in Telluride and Crested Butte.

My mushroom lust is what led me to Dunton Hot Springs, a restored ghost town-turned-resort in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride. Dunton’s executive chef, Dennis Morrisroe, is an accomplished forager who uses wild foods in his rustic, localized cuisine. Morrisroe particularly loves mushroom hunting, and takes interested guests on his forays into the Lizard Head Wilderness surrounding the property.

If you’re into wild mushrooms, then you know that this willingness to share is a bit unusual. Foragers guard their collection spots with Pentagon-like secrecy. In the mid-nineties, a rash of murders occurred in Oregon when foragers horned in on someone else’s territory (back in the day before foreign markets started competing, domestic professional mushroom foragers could fetch up to $400 a pound, depending upon the species). On one mushroom forage I did with some chefs on the Oregon Coast , we headed back to our cars, only to find a decomposing deer carcass laid across the trail (true story).

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Understandably, then, I geeked out when I received an invitation to go foraging with Morrisroe. On a humid August afternoon, we headed up into the forest to look for chanterelles, and the odd boletus (porcini). I should add that unless you have considerable experience, you should always go with, or have your forage inspected by, an expert before consuming. Because, you know, liver damage or death just aren’t fun.

Once we’d hiked into the woods, armed with pocket knives, Morrisroe gave me tips on what to look for. “With mushrooms, it’s just as important to find what terrain they like, as well as what conditions,” he explained. “Out here, for chanterelles, we look for no aspen trees, but a high concentration of pines, and good groundcover. If I know of a good area, I’ll try and translate the same elevation and conditions to other areas.” After several hours of tramping around, we returned to Dunton to clean our booty, which included about six pounds of chanterelles, and a couple handfuls of porcini.

Dunton Hot Springs is one of the most innovative and sublime retreats in the United States. The gold, silver, and coal mining town of Dunton, established in 1886, was abandoned in 1905. Following that, a series of owners and caretakers variously used the town as a guest ranch, and backpacker, biker, and hippie haunt. In 1995, the decrepit town was purchased by German businessman Christoph Henkel. His vision was to restore Dunton to its former glory, in the form of an intimate, rustically luxurious, Old West “resort,” as well as protect the 700-acre property from further development.

Dunton is located atop a natural hot spring that bubbles up near the West Fork of the Dolores River; Henkel’s original plan was to heat the property by tapping into the springs, but sediment clogged the pipes. While it’s not a bona fide “eco” property, Dunton strives to take ecological measures wherever it can: Drinking water is piped in from an extinct mine on the property, low energy fluorescent lighting is in place, recycling and composting are routine. Fifty percent of the buildings are original structures; the remainders are originals from the same era that have been preserved and transported to the property.

The twelve little guest cabins and common buildings have been gorgeously restored using reclaimed materials, and designed and decorated by Henkel’s’ arts dealer wife, Katrin. There’s also a well-stocked library (and by well-stocked, I mean there’s a bottle of Dickel bourbon and a grizzly bear-skin rug to keep you company as you pore through art, architecture, and historical texts), dining hall, and saloon. The saloon’s focal point is the original, 1886 bar, into which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (allegedly) carved their names when they escaped to Dunton after robbing a bank in Telluride. Even the lush, plant-filled Bathhouse boasts graffiti from the town’s original residents upon its weathered spruce walls. The indoor and outdoor soaking pools (sublime) are fed by the hot springs.

Surrounded by 1,500 acres of National Forest and situated on the river, Dunton offers guests a range of year-round outdoor activities: horseback riding (there’s a stable on the property), world-class fly fishing, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, nordic and heli-skiing, ice climbing, and snow shoeing. But Dunton is equally acclaimed for its dining. Despite its isolated location and Colorado’s short growing season, the property is justly famous for both the quality of the food, as well as its commitment to supporting local ranchers and family farms whenever possible.

Morrisroe, 41, came to Dunton in April, 2008; he runs the kitchen with just one employee, sous chef John McClenny. Originally from Trinidad, Colorado, he attended culinary school in San Francisco, then stayed in California to work in a series of impressive kitchens, including The French Laundry. Eventually, he returned to his home state to become sous chef at Durango’s Seasons restaurant. He first developed his sensibilities about seasonality and locality from working in California, but was further inspired by his chefs at Seasons. His love of feeding people and getting them excited about eating was ingrained at an early age. “My mother and grandmother fed me well as a kid, and taught me the fundamentals of cooking. But what I didn’t realize until I came [to Dunton] is that they also taught me how to take care of people.”

Morrisroe’s eagerness to share his mushrooming spots is, I suspect, also because he’s so inspired by the wild and cultivated ingredients growing practically out his kitchen door. He works closely with Hungry Oasis Farms in Dolores, 40 miles away, and shops at the farmers market, “to the best of my ability. We currently don’t grow anything on the property because at 8,700 feet, the growing season is just too short.” Colorado is composed of so many microclimates that farming in Dolores is a viable enterprise.

Free range, hormone- and antibiotic-free pork and grass-fed, grain-finished beef come from Dunton’s maintenance man, Keith Evans; lamb are Navajo-Churro, a heritage breed purchased from the Navajo Nation outside of nearby Cortez. Morrisroe has also developed a good relationship with his seafood vendors, and has all of his fish Fed Ex’ed or UPS-delivered (because, one would assume, when guests pay as much as they do for a stay at Dunton, they likely have some very specific menu requests). In winter, when Dunton is buried under snow, he utilizes cellared root vegetables and hard squash, and relies on produce brought in from Colorado’s “banana belt” on the Western Slope, near Grand Junction.

Morrisroe’s passion, however, is foraging. “It’s a nice, relaxing way to wander the woods and get your produce at the same time,” he explains. “It’s been a hobby of mine for about five years, after I learned about it from a baker I worked with in Durango.” In addition to mushrooms, he collects odds and ends like wild mint, and chamomile. These end up in cocktails (wild mint mojitos), and on the table, in the family-style meals he describes as “fresh, simple, regional food.”

Late in the afternoon after our forage, Morrisroe, a couple of helpers, and I cleaned our haul. “I’m kind of a greedy, selfish person,” he joked. “When I clean mushrooms, I use a soft brush or paper towel instead of water, to retain all of the flavor.” I have to agree; when you’re dealing with the first wild mushrooms of the season- especially after you’ve collected them yourself- you want to savor every last, earthy, molecule.

At dinner that night, Morrisroe let our forage take starring role, with a simple salad of roasted porcini with arugula, Parmigiano Reggiano, and white truffle oil, and sea bass with a ragout of local corn and chanterelles, alongside Hungry Oasis Farms green beans and fingerling potatoes. Paired with marvelous selections from Cortez’s Sutcliffe Wines (believe it or not, there are a handful of great winemakers in Colorado) the meal was a celebration of seasonal ingredients, and the wild beauty of Dunton.

Dunton Hot Springs offers cooking classes, as wells chef-led mushroom forages (late July through August), and assist with food preparation and cooking, by request.

Chanterelle & Gruyère Fritatta

The key to sautéing mushrooms, says Morrisroe, is to have adequate heat, and not crowd them in the pan. This allows them to caramelize, which concentrates their flavor.

Recipe by chef Dennis Morrisroe

Serves 8-10

1 large russet potato
1 lb. fresh chanterelle mushrooms, cleaned
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. fresh thyme, chopped
10 large eggs
¼ c. heavy cream
2 t. white truffle oil
½ c. grated Gruyère
Unsalted butter, as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel the potato and slice to ¼-inch thickness. Heat a 10″ cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, and melt enough butter to coat the sliced potatoes. Add the potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and coat them with the butter. Place whole skillet in the oven, and roast potatoes until tender, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté the chanterelles in a small amount of butter (you may also use half olive oil), in a large frying pan over high heat. Sauté until the juices are released and reduced to a thick sauce, and the chanterelles have begun to caramelize. Remove the chanterelles from the heat, and season with the chopped garlic, thyme, salt and pepper.

Whisk the eggs with cream, truffle oil, salt, and pepper. To assemble the frittata, arrange the potatoes in a tidy layer that covers the bottom of the skillet. Add the chanterelles on top of the potatoes in another tidy layer. Pour the egg mixture over the chanterelles, making sure the tops of all of the mushrooms are moistened. Sprinkle the gruyère over the top of the egg mixture. Bake the frittata until the eggs are completely set and the edges are golden, about 30 minutes. Let the frittata rest for about 5 minutes. Using a thin spatula, gently and carefully remove the frittata from the pan onto a cutting board. A long serrated knife works well for slicing the frittata; it generally 10-12 provides slices.