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Once the roar of our snowmobiles dies down, the glade at the top of the San Juan Mountains goes quiet. To the southwest, the sun is setting behind Mount Wilson and the Lizard Head Wilderness, the famous alpenglow bathing their rugged lines in rose-gold.
We’re currently at 11,800 feet (3,597 metres), exploring the ruins of Alta – a former gold mining outpost once home to hundreds of people, now a ghost town fallen into disrepair.
Above our heads run transmission lines – this is where Nikola Tesla’s first long-distance AC transmission occurred in 1891 – and to our north sits Telluride, a picture-perfect mountain town and world-class ski resort.
To get to Alta, we drove snowmobiles several miles up into the Rockies, wind chilling our faces and dizzying views of Wilson – one of the state’s 58 ‘14ers’, summits that top 14,000 feet – and the San Miguel Mountains flying past on our right.
On our way back down a light snow begins to fall, and I find myself marvelling (read: kicking myself) that Telluride has never crossed my holiday radar, despite being born and raised in the United States.
That this unforgettable experience lies a mere one-hour flight from Denver, the third busiest airport in the world, is astounding. And it’s not the only Colorado ski town worth seeking out.
Acclimating in the Mile High City
Those glittering peaks and lofty views come at a cost, at least for the first couple of days. Even the lowest point in Colorado is higher than the lowest point in any other US state, so altitude sickness is a concern.
If you have the time, spend a day or two acclimating in Denver. Giving yourself a minute to adjust to the higher climes will help you hit the slopes later in your trip without worrying too much about headaches, nausea, and fatigue.
Far from just a place to adjust to the elevation, Denver has a fresh energy that reflects the state’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Gold runs wild through Colorado’s veins, echoes of its rich mining history and pioneering soul writ large on the rustic building facades and in the proliferation of budding businesses lining its streets.
Big-city atmosphere and small-town charm collide in Denver, which thrives at an altitude of 5,279 feet (1,760 metres).
You can feel the Mile High City’s connection with its people; Denver residents seem to take great pride in their home, painting its walls with irreverent art and expressive murals and packing its kitchens with world-class cuisine like that on display at Tavernetta, a first-rate Italian restaurant from a James Beard Award-winning team.
Inside the iconic Union Station, Denver’s transportation hub and a historic landmark laden with bars, restaurants, and retail, you’ll find the Crawford, a boutique hotel with 112 rooms designed to illustrate chapters of Union’s history.
It feels secluded, yet a stay here will set you right in the heart of Denver. As an added bonus, you can catch the train straight from the city’s airport to the hotel’s front door.
Once you’re acclimated, it’s time to head on to the ski resorts of Breckenridge and Telluride.
When to go and how to get there
Getting to Colorado from Australia is easy – just one leg to a major US hub like Houston or Los Angeles and another short flight to Denver, and you’re there. Then, it’s that easy hour-long flight to Telluride (you can fly nonstop from Houston or LA, too, if you prefer).
For our other recommended destination, the beautiful Breckenridge, you’ll want to hop in the car for a quick hour-and-a-half to two-hour drive from Colorado’s capital city.
January is the most popular time of year for Australians to visit, but any time from December through early March will get you that winter experience. If you’d prefer to visit in the summer, when skiing and snowboarding give way to mountain biking and hiking, plan for mid-June to September.
The climate is generally spectacular – the sun shines 300 days of the year – though it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for potentially temperamental mountain weather.
Luxury lodging and vibrant town vibes in Breckenridge
Thanks to Breck’s proximity to Denver, dense crowds tend to flock to the lifts, of which its Imperial Express is the highest in North America.
For that reason it’s best to plan your drive from Denver during the week, and prepare for an influx of skiers and snowboarders (and resultant lengthy lift lines) if you’re there over the weekend.
But outside the occasional crowds, there’s much to love about this epic spot in Summit County, which boasts the highest concentration of Colorado’s 28 ski resorts.
Perched at a lofty 9,600 feet (2,926 metres) in town and 12,998 feet (3,962 metres) at the summit, Breckenridge thrums with a kind of youthful energy; it feels notably different to the Hollywood glamour of Aspen or the understated luxury of Telluride.
The ski area comprises Peaks 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 of the Tenmile Range, and there’s abundant terrain here for all levels, whether you’re looking for a gritty day on double-diamond slopes or a more relaxed time coasting down powder-covered beginner runs.
If you’re an expert, the outer peaks offer the most advanced options.
After a day in the mountains underneath classic Colorado bluebird skies (and keeping an eye peeled for the moose family that had taken up residence in the area) we headed down to One Ski Hill Place, our immaculate ski-in and ski-out lodging.
These spacious rooms are beautifully appointed – mine had a very welcome fireplace which I immediately set to crackling – and offered a comfortable place to refresh before taking the free BreckConnect gondola into town.
At night Breck’s streets come alive, warm string lights decking the branches of trees and lining the eaves of old-timey saloons and elegant restaurants run by award-winning chefs. Rootstalk, on North Main Street, delivers my favourite meal of the trip.
Adventure and hidden gems in Telluride
Telluride, like the state as a whole, is a place of well-kept secrets – an enchanting crossroads where a community of people passionate about their land welcome adventure seekers and travel lovers with warm, open arms.
Look down the main street and you’ll see mountains bounding you on three sides; this is Telluride’s box canyon, home to a charming village and one of the most prestigious festival locales in the US, with the Telluride Film Festival bringing in the likes of Cate Blanchett, Robert Downey, Jr., and Anne Hathaway each September.
TFF is an incredible way to experience Telluride outside winter. As far as skiing goes though, it’s impossible to be disappointed in this diamond of a town.
Telluride has a reputation as an expert mountain, and indeed many of its runs are spectacularly steep – I won’t soon forget my (accidental) trip down Bail Out – but the actual balance of terrain is 23 percent beginner, 36 percent intermediate, and 41 percent advanced.
Choose your adventure, but be sure to make your way to the historic Gorrono Ranch under Lift 4, where you can grab a table underneath the cloudless sky, listen to live music, and enjoy a tasty mid-ski snack and a drink or two (the tap beers from local Telluride Brewing Company are the ultimate refresher).
The sweeping views of the San Juans don’t hurt, either.
Nestled in its canyon at a grand 8,750 feet (2,667 metres), Telluride retains a kind of pure charisma and grace, thanks in large part to the absence of chains like Starbucks.
What you’ll find instead is a rejuvenated mining town steeped in history and awash in adventure – the spot where legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank in 1889 and where snowmobile tours place you among the skies.
I’m told there’s even luxury accommodation up there: the Alta Lakes Observatory. I’m pencilling that in for my next visit – because if my week here has made one thing clear, it’s that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer in Colorado.
And I can’t wait to return for round two.
The writer travelled as a guest of Colorado Tourism.