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Scenic Telluride offers a heady mix of glitz and great skiing

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- "Captain Jack" is drinking a beer in the smoky Last Dollar Saloon and his beard, which he hasn't shaved since 1991, is midway down his chest. One of the last of the modern-day ski bums comes up for air and says in a thick New Hampshire accent, "I like it when the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I like it when I'm breathing hard. I like it when I'm pumping, and I find that easy to achieve when I'm skiing."

Leave it to Jack Carey, who grew up in Keene and has been living the Colorado ski town life for more than 30 years, to nail the feeling of riding the snow down the steeps in high-altitude Telluride.

With glitz on one side, true grit on the other, Telluride is a small town of free spirits, dogs aplenty, and a mountain of skiing with a variety of trails, chutes, glades, and bowls that make powder dreams a reality. Its history is rich with miners looking for gold and Butch Cassidy pulling his first bank robbery. The box-canyon, Victorian-style town in the San Juan Mountains, established in 1878, is a National Historic District and a pedestrian delight at 8,725 feet. Eclectic shops, a historic theater, restaurants galore, and killer Main Street mountain views give Telluride an unpretentious air.

Mountain Village, linked to the town by a free gondola, is the place to find style, boutiques, a conference center, trailside condos and trophy homes, ski-in and ski-out lodging, spas (even for dogs) and luxury, all at 9,540 feet. If altitude is a problem, consider staying back in town.

It is the challenge that brings disciples of snow to remote Telluride. This is evident on the Plunge, an aptly named black diamond expert run where stomachs play catch-up during the 3,140-foot-high squeeze. After spending a late March morning getting to know the land, we were left on our own and to the Plunge we went.

"The Plunge is known as the run to ski here," says instructor Martin Firle. "There are T-shirts in town that say 'I survived the Plunge.' It's a good black run when it's groomed."

It is also a run that will leave Eastern skiers and snowboarders no longer wondering what some of the steep runs in New Hampshire's Tuckerman Ravine would be like if they put a chairlift in the bowl. The Plunge has some fine neighbors that face town off chair nine (it's slow, but you'll need the rest): Spiral Stairs and Kant-Mak-M. Those trails funnel down to narrow Cat's Paw, which, depending on your ability, will have you purring or hissing into town.

Opened since 1972, the ski area features glades of conifers and wide-open bowls, like Prospect, which officially opened in 2002, nearly doubling the resort's terrain. Winding our way to access Prospect Bowl, we were on a narrow cat track through the shade. Up ahead we heard skiers warn of a patch of ice. It's like home in the East, where real skiers can hear their turns.

In Prospect Bowl, the jagged tips of Palymra Peak at 13,319 feet are incredible to see, but imposing to ski. Underneath, accessed by the Prospect lift, are three intermediate cruisers -- Stella, Magnolia, and Sandia -- that boost confidence levels and are sprinkled with trees.

Gold Hill lift maxes out at an oxygen-sucking 12,260 feet and has stellar alpine vistas. It's where local back-country skiers hike and out-of-staters stiffen.

If the steeps on Millions are daunting, stick to See Forever, a quintessential, photo-op intermediate trail if there ever was one. Over three miles long, the views are to Utah's La Sal Mountains and Telluride's cliffhanger of an airport.

Lift four, less of a chairlift commute, has a few dandies, too, in Humbolt Draw and Peek-a-Boo. One morning it is where we go for silent turns while floating on powder. Spent thighs soak afterward in the Jacuzzi of the slopeside Wyndham Peaks Resort and Golden Door Spa in Mountain Village.

After four days on the mountain, we wanted to see another side of Telluride so we left luxury and went straight to a rustic dude ranch, about eight miles from town.

The romance of the West lives at Skyline Guest Ranch, a working ranch on about 150 acres that overlooks a few of Colorado's signature 14,000-foot peaks. Three of those peaks adorn the logo of a famous Denver-area brewer, and a Super Bowl commercial featuring football-playing horses was filmed in a ranch meadow. One of the horses that played Seabiscuit in the movie summers here.

Once the site of a mountaineering school, the ranch's cabins and rustic bunkhouses are a down-home alternative to Mountain Village's ritz. Stick-retrieving dogs, an outdoor sauna, and an honor system for drinks in the lodge are all part of the package.

Instead of strapping on the boards, we strapped on snowshoes and followed rugged owner Cindy Farny on a romp through the woods, walking under evergreens, along frozen ponds, and by the face of Palmyra Peak.

Then, under a cathedral of aspens, we plopped down in the snow to make snow angels.

Marty Basch is a writer living in New Hampshire.

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