Many of the ski resorts in the North American West were originally mining settlements; and most of them play on their history for marketing purposes. Breckenridge in Colorado, for example, has barely a handful of surviving 19th-century buildings, but it still invites skiers to experience its old-mining-town ambience. Deeds are more effective than words, and Park City in Utah really is atmospheric, its ski slopes being littered – rather poetically – with lift-winding towers, spoil hoppers and other relics of the mining era. But Telluride, in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, is different. It is the real thing. It is still an old mining town, even though there are no miners left.
Apart from the gondola which climbs discreetly away from the southern side of town, Telluride looks nothing like a ski destination. The town sits on the flat floor of the San Miguel Valley. Its ski slopes lie out of sight, across a 10,000ft ridge which the gondola traverses on its journey to Mountain Village, a slopeside development begun in 1987.
It's an ideal arrangement. Mountain Village has towering lodges, cobbled piazzas and all the other accoutrements of a late 20th-century ski resort. Skiers who like that sort of thing stay there and enjoy the convenience of walking to the slopes; those who prefer something more authentic than a purpose-built "village" head for the town. Everybody is happy, particularly because the ski area they share is so good.
In the early 1870s, when miners first came to the area in search of silver and gold, the settlement was called Columbia. But its application for a post office was turned down, on the grounds that a Californian town with the same name already had one. The US Postmaster General resolved the problem in 1880: the settlers got their post office, but it came with the address "Telluride". The name the Postmaster General gave it was probably derived from tellurium, an element often associated with gold seams; the alternative theory, that the name was a contraction of "to hell you ride", is just too fanciful.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Telluride had a population of about 5,000 – twice what it is today. So rich were the local seams, and so efficient the extraction techniques that the town produced precious metals to the value of $16m between 1905 and 1911. After the First World War activity decreased; but a late and brief revival driven by the soaring price of precious metals saw mining continue until the late 1970s, by which time the US government had already designated Telluride as a National Historic Landmark District.
Look down from the gondola upon Telluride and its grid-pattern streets fill the full width of the valley below. The town is squeezed in between the lake up above, and 570-acre meadow below, the latter recently purchased by the municipality – after a long dispute with its owner, a prospective developer – for a cool $53m. At its centre, the town's dominant colour is brick red; but around it is a patchwork of pastel shades, the cream and green, ochre and flat red of the old wooden houses, tall and narrow with steeply pitched roofs. Main Street (actually "Colorado Avenue") has a mixture of rather fine brick buildings – including the still functioning San Miguel County Court House, which dates from 1887 – and the clapboarded structures more suggestive of Western towns.
There has never been any wholesale development of central Telluride so the buildings are all different, some rich in detail, some very plain. On almost every block there's a cafe where tattooed staff serve strong cappuccinos in fine but unkempt premises. Next door to the New Sheridan Hotel, built in 1895 and just refurbished, is the Steaming Bean Coffee Co, whose extravagant, almost intact stucco ceiling would add £25,000 to the price of a Victorian house in Clapham – although the "stucco" is, in the US style, made of tin, rolled out like kitchen foil and stuck to the ceiling.
Telluride's shops are a lot more precious, and no place for bargain-hunting. On the sidewalks a young, none-too-affluent crowd – ski bums, café and bar staff, building workers – is most in evidence. But there are plenty of seriously rich residents in the mountainside properties, people who can count Tom Cruise, Jerry Seinfeld, "Stormin" Norman Schwarzkopf and Dan Quayle among their neighbours for at least parts of the year. The social mix is apparent from the traffic on Colorado Avenue, where battered Chevy Blazers and pick-up trucks mingle with sleek, black Range Rovers. The most popular vehicle, though, is the four-wheel-drive Subaru, which is Telluride's "official car". Subaru sponsors the ski-area maps on the chairlift safety-bars, also allowing itself space to brag, quite reasonably, that its factory in Indiana recycles 99 per cent of its waste products.
It can never have been easy to fit the piste map onto a safety bar; and it's getting ever harder. For many years Telluride's ski area has been characterised as "small but rewarding", or something like that. But "small" is no longer applicable, because since the millennium the ski area has doubled in size.
Johnnie Stevens, one of the handful of people who got skiing going in Telluride's early days – the first proper lifts were installed in 1972 – told me that "in those days we didn't know what we were doing". Their hope was primarily to breathe new life into the town, whose population had fallen to about 300. (Stevens reckons that it was the moribund economy that saved Telluride from redevelopment rather than its National Historic Landmark status.) They succeeded triumphantly; and they learned a lot along the way. The core of the ski area is spectacularly good, a thing of beauty and a textbook example of how to squeeze a lot of interesting skiing into a small space.
Stevens admits that in recreating Telluride as a ski destination he and his colleagues had outside help: "God gave us the scenery, and God gave us the town." But the exceptional layout of the pistes is not the result of divine intervention, just cunning exploitation (by a group that included the French ski-area designer Emile Allais) of the terrain.
In recent years, two large ski areas have been added to the core: first came Prospect Bowl in 2001, then – for the 2008/9 season – Revelation Bowl. Regrettably, neither of them was open during my visit in early December, there being too little snow. But the rest of the skiing was as sublime as I remembered it from a previous visit. Wozzley's Way, for example, is an intermediate's delight. It hairpins off the 12,000ft, See Forever ridge, runs down a steep pitch onto a short, sharp mogul field, and then circumnavigates a bowl before plunging down to the lift base.
Telluride is not a place you come upon by accident. Colorado has many resorts just a short drive from Denver or its airport; but to get to Telluride from Denver airport you fly, if possible – and still have an hour-long transfer from Montrose to the cul-de-sac of the San Miguel Valley.
Inaccessibility makes Telluride a "destination" resort, one for holidaymakers rather than the more numerous day-skiers; it also gives the place a cachet, which has helped it become a haunt of rich and famous property owners. But in the current economic climate, those assets have been devalued. Pessimism about how much business an up-market destination resort could attract this season was rife in December; and for a community which has done very well out of developing $5m, five-bedroom houses (it is said that among Telluride's current population of 2,500 there are 300 real-estate agents) the steep decline of the property market was deeply threatening.
The owners of Mountain Village's two glossy new hotels, the Capella Telluride and the Lumiere, can count themselves unlucky to have opened in this of all seasons: lodgings have suffered a dip, and the proposed five-star Rosewood property seems to have been abandoned. There may already be fewer real-estate agents in town, too. But Telluride's skiing has done well. Lift-ticket sales are only slightly below last season's record figure. Up where they should be, in fact.
Montrose is served from Heathrow via Denver by United and United Express (0845 8444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk).
Ski Independence (0845 310 3030; ski-i.com) offers seven-night holidays at Telluride's New Sheridan hotel from £1,179 per person, including United flights from Heathrow via Denver to Montrose and transfers.
New Sheridan Hotel, 231 West Colorado Avenue, Telluride (001 970 728 4351; newsheridan.com). Doubles from $167 (£120), room only.
Capella Telluride, 568 Mountain Village Boulevard, Telluride (001 970 369 0880; capellatelluride.com). Doubles from $219 (£156), room only.
Lumiere, 118 Lost Creek Lane, Telluride (001 886 530 9466; lumierehotels.com). Doubles from $235 (£168), room only.
tellurideskiresort.com; 001 970 728 7517