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Although the “America the Beautiful” lyric about “purple mountain majesties” was inspired by Pikes Peak, the songwriter Katherine Lee Bates likely would have been equally impressed by the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. Extending above 14,000 feet in many cases, the San Juan’s rugged peaks form impressive backdrops for the region’s two major destination ski areas, Telluride Ski Resort and Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort.

Reaching this amazing scenery can be a little more challenging than just flying into major hub such as Denver. Although Telluride can claim North America’s highest commercial airport with flights by Great Lakes Airlines, most air travelers take major carriers to the airport in Montrose, Colo., about a 90-minute drive from Telluride. Also served by several big airlines, Durango’s airport is less than an hour south of Durango Mountain Resort.

The region’s relatively remote location is a positive for the actual skiing and riding experience. With the nearest major metropolitan area, Albuquerque, N.M., about 4 hours from Durango, the southwest Colorado ski areas rarely have lift lines.

Although Telluride and Purgatory are separated by less than 20 miles as the crow flies, the drive between them takes 2.5 hours. The drive on U.S. Route 550, known as the “Million Dollar Highway,” is as scenic—and some might say as scary—as they come. At night or in bad weather, the western, less mountainous, way through Dolores, Colo., is the advisable alternative.

The direct distance between the ski areas may be small, but each has a very distinct character. Telluride caters to a high-end clientele with a sliver of big-mountain enthusiasts in the mix. The well-to-do guests sip wine and eat crepes at Bon Vivant, a new on-mountain dining option. The hardcore skiers and boarders, meanwhile, hike Palmyra Peak to access almost 2,000 vertical feet of some the country’s most amazing in-bounds terrain.

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Telluride Revelation Bowl

Lodging in Telluride involves a choice between staying in the historic town or the generally newer digs of Mountain Village. The town sits in a box canyon at the bottom of the steep front face of the mountain. About 800 feet higher in elevation than the town, Mountain Village is nestled in the ski area and is connected to the town by a free gondola. The modern Hotel Telluride and historic, but recently remodeled, New Sheridan Hotel are a couple of the prime in-town choices. In Mountain Village, The Peaks Resort & Spa has put more than $13 million into improving the property in recent years.

Known for years simply as “Purgatory,” then “Durango Mountain Resort,” then a half-step reversal in name back to “Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort,” the ski area 30 minutes north of the town of Durango has a family-oriented vibe. The mostly tame runs stair-step down 2,029 vertical feet in a pleasant, rolling fashion. Unlike Telluride, Purgatory is entirely below tree-line, so more advanced skiers tend to stay entertained in the trees. Added in 2009 on the resort’s western boundary, the glades of McCormack’s Maze are prime examples of such terrain.

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McCormack’s Maze at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort

Purgatory in general can be more budget-friendly than Telluride– especially considering the inexpensive lodging in the town of Durango where winter is the off-season. For a more upscale option, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo at the ski-in, ski-out Purgatory Lodge runs about $580 per night in March for instance. Built in 2008, the lodge still feels brand-new and nicely furnished.

A destination trip to southwest Colorado may not be on the beaten path, but for anyone who has hiked to a powder stash knows, a little extra effort can provide a nice reward.

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Sub-Categories North America / Ski / Snowboard / Travel
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  • Rob Higginbotham

    Love the area – you gotta mention Silverton is talking SW CO skiing. An affordable extreme experience with world class snow and world class guides.

    • Eric Wagnon

      I agree. Silverton is great for experts. The other ski area fairly close by I should mention is Wolf Creek. It gets a TON of snow– generally the most of any ski area in Colorado. For this article, I stuck with the major destination resorts, but Silverton and Wolf Creek do have excellent skiing also. Powderhorn Resort, near Grand Junction, has new owners and could also be making some noise in the coming years.

  • braveskimom

    Eric, so glad you made the effort to come to my favorite part of Colorado! BTW, skied Telluride yesterday, and while I didn’t sip any wine, I certainly did enjoy a crepe. As good as it was, the skiing was better!

  • Mark Rosenthal

    By far the easiest un-tracked powder experience in the area has to be the San Juan Ski Company’s Cat skiing operation. They hold a permit for the largest acreage in the state of Colorado, and take clients to the roadless areas between Purgatory and Telluride. I skied with them yesterday, and it was an amazing powder-fest, with un-tracked runs all day long in DEEP snow!