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Every Labor Day weekend, Telluride, Colorado, shown here in the shadow of Ajax Peak, hosts a film festival that’s a magnet for A-listers

Telluride never shines brighter than during its low-key and star-studded film festival

t’s a paradox,” legendary filmmaker Ken Burns says of the Telluride Film Festival. “It’s without a doubt the best film festival on earth, located in the most beautiful of American towns, in the middle of the gorgeous San Juan Mountains. But in order to take part in that wonderful communion of strangers in dark theaters, you have to leave that stunning landscape.” So Burns, who has made a pilgrimage to Telluride, Colorado, every September for the past 25 years and has premiered most of his films there, devised the perfect solution. “I bring my family out a week before the festival starts, see friends, take amazing hikes, eat great food and then dive into the spectacularly curated festival,” he says. “It’s the best of both possible worlds.”

This simple banner exemplifies the Telluride Film Festival’s low-key atmosphere


In addition to the festival’s picturesque setting, the event stands out for its “only in Telluride” moments. For example, Stu Fraser, a longtime festivalgoer from San Diego, recalls his first time at Telluride: Producer Oliver Stone premiered The Joy Luck Club, and afterward, the cast and audience, including Fraser and his wife, mingled in a large tent outside the venue. It was unpretentious and intimate—typical Telluride. Then later, Fraser and his wife went horseback riding and ran into one of the film’s stars, Vietnamese-French actress France Nuyen, whom they adored, in an alpine meadow. “Everything seems to be serendipitous there,” Fraser says. The visit inspired Fraser to move his family to Telluride, where he now serves as the town’s mayor.

Pedestrians and a cyclist cross the small town’s main drag during the height of ski season, circa 1990


The Cannes International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival are all star-studded extravaganzas—filled with red carpets, velvet ropes and camera flashes—that last about a week. The Telluride Film Festival, held each Labor Day weekend for the past 40 years, is a different breed of film festival. Like the others on the circuit, it attracts famous folks and the highest caliber of movie talent, but its location in a remote pocket of southwestern Colorado self-selects the crowd of more than 4,000 movie buffs who attend. “There are two kinds of film festival: There are the mega-hyped, hoopla-infested selling circuses such as Cannes and even Sundance; and there is Telluride, where no prizes are given, and where, if people have come to buy and sell, they keep pretty quiet about it,” novelist Salman Rushdie wrote of the festival in an article for The Guardian dated September 7, 2001. “It is extraordinarily exciting, in this age of the triumph of capitalism, to discover an event dedicated not to commerce but to love. And if that sounds old-fashioned and starry-eyed, so be it. The cinema was always in the business of gazing at the stars.”

More unique, however, is that Telluride’s program is kept secret until opening day. But this uncertainty doesn’t prevent the festival from selling out months in advance. Indeed, the surprise is part of the fun, and it also keeps celeb-tracking paparazzi away, as nobody knows what notables might attend. And the programming always delivers: Over the years, such critically acclaimed films as Blue Velvet, Brokeback Mountain and The Crying Game have made their world debut at the festival. Michael Moore’s first documentary, Roger and Me, also premiered at Telluride.

“There are two kinds of film festival: There are the mega-hyped, hoopla-infested selling circuses...and there is Telluride,” wrote novelist Salman Rushdie in The Guardian.

In 2013, 27 feature films were shown at the festival, along with 33 shorts and student films, among others. Also that year, a sneak preview of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was screened outside the official program, an event attended by cast members Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Brad Pitt. The festival also pays tribute to three film luminaries each year. The collaborative team of T Bone Burnett and the Coen Brothers, director Mohammad Rasoulof and actor Robert Redford accepted last year’s honors. And a designated “guest director”—a role that in past years has been assumed by writer Don Delillo, Rushdie, stage director Peter Sellars and composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—selects a handful of film revivals to be included in the festival program.

The festival’s main venue over the three-day Labor Day weekend is the century-old Sheridan Opera House—the restored building’s antique sign in front simply reads “SHOW”—where French actress Sarah Bernhardt, magician Harry Houdini and comedy team the Marx Brothers once entertained area miners. In addition to the two other year-round theaters that host screenings, six more venues in Telluride—including the local park, the Masonic Hall and the middle school gym—and one in neighboring Mountain Village are transformed into cinemas.

There’s no better way to view Telluride’s magnificent landscape than from the gondolas that ferry visitors up and down the San Juan Mountains
A hot air balloon lifts off during the Telluride Balloon Festival, held annually in June

he film festival, though, isn’t all Telluride has to offer. Most know the town as a ski destination, but insiders will tell you the real fun takes place after the snow melts. Located within a striking box canyon at an elevation 8,750 feet, the former mining town, a National Historic Landmark District, hums all summer long with a revolving door of festivals centered on world-class culture. The season launches each Memorial Day weekend with the Mountainfilm in Telluride festival, which features films and conversations on topics such as the environment and adventure, followed by the Telluride Balloon Festival, at which more than a dozen hot air balloons are flown over the town, and the Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. (This year marked the 41st-annual bluegrass festival, and the lineup included banjoist Béla Fleck playing with the Colorado Symphony, Alison Kraus, Nickel Creek and Steve Winwood.) Then the season continues through about mid-September with a host of other festivals, including the Telluride Wine Festival, the Telluride Playwrights Festival, the Telluride Jazz Festival, the Telluride Chamber Music Festival and the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival.

Stagehands set up for the yearly Telluride Bluegrass Festival, circa 1995


But to get “the best of both possible worlds,” as Burns has figured out, you have to step into the landscape and leave downtown Telluride. The 13-mile Sneffels Highline loop is one of the most spectacular hiking trails in Colorado. For a horseback-riding excursion, look no further than Roudy Roudebush, Telluride’s resident cowboy persona. Projecting a rough-and-tumble character that’s mostly an act but also great fun—he sports a leather jacket and a handlebar mustache—Roudy’s been guiding horseback trips with Telluride Horseback Adventures since 1973.

An early morning glimpse of Ajax Peak and downtown Telluride


For more of an adventure, seek out “Glider Bob” (last name Saunders), who flies guests on a bird’s-eye tour of the area in a two-seat Stemme motor glider, buzzing by 14,000-foot-high peaks and gliding over valleys with the aid of powerful air thermals.

There’s much to see in Telluride by foot, too. Walking the town’s well-preserved streets, it’s easy to imagine the remote boomtown that sprang up there in the mid-1870s after the opening of the Sheridan Mine. The rowdy saloons, the old ice house and the Crayola-colored brothels still exist in one form or another. (Plus, according to the Telluride Tourism Board’s website, you won’t find chain restaurants or shops in town, and you’re 45 miles away from the closest stoplight.) The Lone Tree Cemetery, on the east end of town, reflects the diverse heritage of those who sought their fortune in the town’s mines. (Butch Cassidy likely stole some of those fortunes during his first bank robbery, in Telluride in 1889.) Dig in to Telluride’s illustrious and licentious past through an interpretative walking tour with Ashley Boling, a longtime local expert and former director of the Telluride Institute.

Another highlight of Telluride’s history is its role in the early days of electricity: It was the first town in the world to have electric streetlights—the premier alternating current power plant was built nearby. For a time, according to the tourism website, the town was even known as the City of Lights, and for a few days each Labor Day weekend, as the star wattage illuminates Telluride, that old moniker still rings true.


Where to Stay
Hotel: Hotel Madeline Telluride
Where: 568 Mountain Village Blvd., Telluride, CO 81435
Why: This well-appointed hotel is situated in a prime location near the gondola linking downtown Telluride with Mountain Village.
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Hotel: Lumière Telluride
Where: 118 Lost Creek Lane, Telluride, CO 81435
Why: This elegant boutique property is located in nearby Mountain Village.
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Hotel: New Sheridan Hotel
Where: 231 W. Colorado Ave., Telluride, CO 81435
Why: For Wild West flavor, check in to Telluride’s most historic hotel, recently renovated and located in the heart of downtown.
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Where to Eat & Drink
Restaurant: 221 South Oak
Where: 221 South Oak St., Telluride, CO 81320
Why: According to a review by the website Food Republic, chef Eliza Gavin serves up some of the best sausage in Colorado, cooking it in this charming refurbished house in downtown Telluride.
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Restaurant: La Marmotte
Where: 150 San Juan Ave., Telluride, CO 81435
Why: Enjoy excellent, elegant French bistro cuisine with a modern American twist inside a rustic 125-year-old building that once stored Telluride’s ice supply.
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Bar: New Sheridan Historic Bar (inside the New Sheridan Hotel)
Where: 231 W. Colorado Ave., Telluride, CO 81435
Why: One of the West’s oldest bars and featuring its original mahogany paneling and filigree light fixtures, this watering hole offers a taste of 1895.
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Bar: There…
Where: 627 W. Pacific Ave., Telluride, CO 81435
Why: Visit this bar for creative cocktails served in an eclectic setting of Old West and Pop Art décor.
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Andy Isaacson is a regular contributor to The New York Times and has also written for Mother Jones, National Geographic Adventure and The New Yorker, among other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.

  • Photograph by Michael S. Lewis; Courtesy of Corbis
  • Photograph by Daniel Shea; Courtesy of Gallery Stock
  • Photograph by Karl Weatherly; Courtesy of Corbis
  • Photograph by Walter Bibikow; Courtesy of JAI/Corbis
  • Photograph by Michael Smith; Courtesy of Getty Images
  • Photograph by Nubar Alexanian; Courtesy of Corbis
  • Photograph by Walter Bibikow; Courtesy of Getty Images
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