I knew Colorado from childhood vacations with my family. Growing up in the Midwest, I was fortunate that my folks took us out to Crested Butte one year for a baptism-by-fire ski trip (learning there sure beat the icy alternatives around Illinois and Wisconsin).
That trip led to a few more where we tried to become better skiers. My older brother then did the ski bum thing after college (lucky him). This afforded me a few additional visits to Vail to enjoy ski resort connections, on my, then, early 20s shoestring travel budget.
Having only visited in snowy weather, the chance to hit the road for a summer vacation to the Rockies was something I jumped at. While many think of Colorado mountain towns as winter get-aways, they are incredibly charming during the summer months too.
There are plenty of towns to choose from, and they each have their own unique character. We decided upon Vail and Telluride for our 10 days of Colorado road tripping. Vail because my boyfriend has friends and family there—he was lucky to grow up splitting time between Denver and Vail—and Telluride because, well, it’s Telluride! After all, there must be a reason why the likes of Tom Cruise, Oprah and Ralph Lauren have put roots down there.
But first, we started our trip in Vail. Vail has two main base areas for its ski mountain, Vail Village and Lionshead. Both offer plenty of options for lodging and are easily walkable from one another (and connected by a free shuttle bus). We opted to stay in Lionshead at The Lion: we had a spacious condo filled with all the amenities to really make us feel at home for a few days, key when you’re on the road for an extended trip. In addition to indoor and outdoor pools, the common areas with fire pits were especially cozy to come back to at the end of our days. And, we were just a short walk from the Lionshead base area to catch the gondola for easy access to all the ski slopes (or for us, the hiking trails, given the August timeframe).
Vail Village has all the Alpine charm I recalled from visiting it previously. The Bavarian style village sprouted from an old sheep ranch back in the day and grew almost almost singularly around the ski industry. It’s become a lot more international these days with the influx of global tourists (and residents). That shift has left a notable influence on the restaurant and shopping scene, not to mention the variety of languages heard while walking down the streets. We arrived on a Saturday so were able to catch the weekend Farmer’s Markets in both Vail Village and the small town of Minturn down the road. I’m a sucker for a local Farmers Market and both were well-worth it, with Vail being the more impressive of the two. The weekly Vail Village Farmers’ Market goes on for blocks and blocks with fresh produce (Lucky for us, peaches were in season and some of the nation’s best come from Palisades CO), specialty food purveyors and many vendors selling art, jewelry, clothing and more.
The rest of the visit was filled with art gallery hopping (be sure to check out Vail International Gallery), some great hikes right from the base of Lionshead, lots of eating, and more eating.
We also had the chance to take in a concert at Ford Amphitheater. A visit to the Betty Ford Gardens and Ford Amphitheater should definitely be on the list of Vail musts. The Ford Amphitheater is named after President Gerald Ford who frequented Vail for years and called the Vail Valley home after his presidency. It’s a charming, small outdoor venue with a gorgeous backdrop to enjoy a live performance. We caught a folk rock band while there, but the calendar is chock-full of events from well-known acts and indie artists, to the annual Vail Dance Festival which has firmly establishing the Vail Valley as one of the top summer dance destinations in the world.
Then it was off to Telluride. The drive along the Western Slope of Colorado alone would have been worth the trip, but pulling into Telluride, I knew we had made the right decision to add it to our itinerary.
We based ourselves in the Mountain Village at Madeline Hotel & Residences, Auberge Resorts Collection. The town of Mountain Village, situated at 9,450 feet elevation, offers more of a resort town atmosphere and is a purpose built, European style pedestrian village with all the associated charm. The town of Telluride, by contrast, is down the mountain, stretching eight blocks wide (at its absolute widest) and fifteen blocks long (at its longest). With just 2,300 year-round residents, Telluride has an authentic, historic atmosphere and is filled with most of the area’s restaurants, bars and shops. In either case, the local charm and friendly small town vibe of both areas will win over even the most sophisticated world travelers.
Madeline Hotel & Residences was top-notch and such a special way to end the final leg of our Colorado visit. From Champagne upon check-in, to the daily turndown service (polishing our sunglasses, different flavors of lip balm and other treats), no detail was left unchecked at this five-star property. There were backpacks and walking sticks left in the room for excursions, and all the luxury bath amenities I could ask for (to go along with an inviting soaking tub complete with wine tray!). One of our favorite aspects of the hotel was the self-serve water station adjacent to the lobby that offered three varieties of natural mineral infused water: charcoal, gemstone and chlorophyll. So there was no excuse to NOT be well hydrated for our daily excursions.
Our hotel in the Mountain Village was an easy trip into the town of Telluride. The two areas are linked by the only free gondola in the U.S. and getting from one to the other is a spectacular 13-minute ride of pure beauty. Talk about a fun way to commute! Once we checked in to our hotel, we didn’t use our car again for the rest of the weekend. Our daily gondola rides (and legs) were the best and most scenic mode of transportation.
One of our first stops to start the weekend in Telluride was The Telluride Historical Museum. Telluride is steeped in history. And a fascinating history it is.
Founded in 1878, the Town of Telluride has lived through many booms and busts. Fortune seekers came to the area seeking silver and gold, establishing Telluride as a rowdy mining camp. With the coming of the railroad in 1890, the remote boomtown flourished. A melting pot of immigrants seeking their fortunes turned Telluride into a thriving community of 5,000. But, when the mining boom collapsed in 1893, miners moved on and the town’s population dwindled from thousands to hundreds.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s that Telluride reinvented itself with a different sort of gold: skiing and festivals! Today, Telluride is not only a beautiful, rugged natural outdoor paradise, but it is also rich in history, sports a world-class ski mountain, boasts a legendary summer festival calendar, and has enough activities to keep even the most intrepid outdoor enthusiast content.
The $9 admission to The Telluride Historical Museum is a steal for the wealth of insight gained. We spent a couple hours engrossed here, learning about all things Telluride, including the Native American history, mining industry and immigrant groups of the early days, the music festival scene, and the more recent ski industry development. Ten rooms, each with their own theme, showcase these different aspects of Telluride history. Hands-on, interactive, and rotating displays engage all the senses, and offer a reason to return for a second visit.
Walking around Telluride, it’s hard not to appreciate the natural beauty and small town charm. Each street is filled with colorful Victorian homes, gardens and lots of Colorado flags. On our first night in town, locals and tourists alike poured into the streets to watch the magical sunset that painted the mountains burnt orange. We knew we were witnessing something special by the way even the locals were reacting to this particular Alpenglow.
The next day, we opted for a 4W drive excursion with the tour company, Telluride Outside. This was definitely a highlight of the trip! A friend in Vail had mentioned Imogene Pass and, had she not told us about this, we would have missed an incredible outing. This half-day excursion entails a climb of 13,114 feet to Imogene Pass, offering the thrill of high country adventure coupled with the colorful history of Telluride’s most famous gold mine, called Tomboy.
Later that night, we changed the pace from adventure to relaxation with one of the best meals we had on the entire trip. 221 South Oak is set in a tastefully refurbished historic home, steps from the Gondola in downtown Telluride. The homey atmosphere has a color-filled art exhibition lining the walls and exudes warmth all-around. Award-winning chef and owner, Eliza Gavin, was on season 10 of Bravo’s Top Chef and produces eclectic cuisine with only the freshest ingredients, all stunningly presented. Be sure to make a reservation as this place books months in advance, for good reason.
We spent our last evening enjoying the cozy atmosphere of Timber Room back at our hotel, while plotting our next trip back for a ski weekend. And also pondering how we could move here… what we could do for work here… How we could ever buy one of those cute Victorian row homes in town… maybe someday… In any case, we will return! Summer, fall, winter or spring… Telluride is already calling us back! ☐
Yeti’s Grind for coffee and Monkey Bread
Ludwig’s at Sonnenalp Resort for brunch
The Red Lion for its great Apre scene
Sweet Basil for upscale dining
The Blü Cow for the locals’ favorite Swiss Hot Dog
Pepi’s Bar & Restaurant for a beer and Austrian cuisine
The Butcher & the Baker for the best breakfast in town
221 South Oak for a spurge-worthy meal
Brown Dog Pizza for a casual lunch with the locals
There for amazing cocktails & small plates in a cool, tiny space
Timber Room for cocktails with cozy atmosphere (Madeline Hotel)
Megan Reilly covers interior design, lifestyle and travel, and is based in Los Angeles. She is the Co-Founder and Principle of WestEdge Design Fair, a tradeshow and lifestyle event that takes place in Los Angeles and Dallas.