Everything You Need to Know: Telluride Bluegrass Festival

The 42nd annual festival has come and gone, but it's never too early to start planning for 2016
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Jul 9, 2015 | By Samantha Alviani

hen I was 23 years old, my sister — a Massachusetts expat who moved to Colorado for a summer and never left — took me to my first Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I remember that first glimpse of sunset gleaming on the canyon walls, the sweep of the Uncompahgre wilderness, the white ribbon of Bridal Veil Falls just visible as you descend into the valley that Telluride inhabits.

I came back sunburnt and addicted. The next year, I returned with a rowdy pack of friends, renting a room in a Queen Anne Victorian that was being used communally by musicians, families, and groups of friends for the festival weekend. We built a routine: we woke up early, eager to get outside; walked to Colorado Avenue, Telluride’s main drag, and consulted the music lineup for the day around the breakfast table; we filled flasks with bourbon and mason jars with cocktails and basked on tarps in the midday heat of the festival, then pulled layers from backpacks when the sun sank; most importantly, we escaped, we were free — at least for four glorious days.

That same year, I found a discarded wedding dress in the town free box (an attraction that attendees troll by the hour) and wore it for an entire day, accepting free beers from the happy well-wishers I came across. It’s just that kind of place — the bliss of it all is unshakeable.

Nearly 12,000 people make their way through the craggy San Juan Mountain range for a four-day celebration of bluegrass and musicianship during the summer solstice every year. Situated in a box canyon at 8,750 feet, it’s as perfect for acoustics as it is beautiful; Telluride Bluegrass fanaticism is born as much from the otherwordly landscape as it is from the gathering of bluegrass greats like Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, and Peter Rowan.

This year marked the festival’s 42nd edition, and my sixth year in Telluride. The past six summers have lent an understanding — of the people, of the experience, of best practices — informing a collection of things to know before you make your own trek to Colorado’s music mecca.

The trip from Denver to Telluride is long — about six hours — but it’s worth it. I’d even say it’s part of what makes the festival so special. The haul eliminates overcrowding and keeps the town full of those willing to brave the terrain for the four-day reward.

It’s also a lesson in Colorado’s biodiversity: depending on which route you take (I recommend taking McClure Pass from Glenwood Springs) you’ll traverse green plains, lush riversides, shadowed canyons, and stretches of mountain, like the San Juan range.

For those looking to book it there, I-70 shoots straight down from Denver — your fastest bet. If you’re flying in from out of state and don’t want to sustain the extra mileage, there are shuttle planes from Denver International Airport that can get you to Telluride or Montrose (about an hour away), but the prices are steep.

It’s easy to get around Telluride during the festival no matter where you are. From Town Park and Warner Field, it’s a two-minute walk to downtown Telluride, affording easy access to beers or breakfast. From campsites like Lawson Hill and Mary E. Ilium, shuttles run every 45 minutes to and from the festival. If you’re staying in Mountain Village, it’s just a 15 minute gondola ride that runs until two am daily — and it’s a great way to see a bird’s eye view of the valley and box canyon. From downtown and the gondola base, you can hike, bike, or walk everywhere — the festival grounds and Town Park stage are just a short stroll away.

In its 42 years, Telluride Bluegrass Festival has amassed a cult following — and with headliners like David Byrne and Mumford & Sons appearing in the past five years, that turnout has multiplied significantly. It’s revered in the same way holidays are, and planned for accordingly.

If you want to experience the magic of camping at Town Park, enter the lottery that goes live on bluegrass.com every October (passes are $315 and include access to all days at the festival). If you’re a winner — the lucky ones are notified in November — you’ll have access to all that is sacred to the Town Park festivarians of old: a tent spot in what can only be described as a fully-functional, pop-up civilization; camp potlucks and late-night picking sessions; waterfall and river access; and proximity to the festival entrance, which bellies up to the campsite.

Camping at Warner Field, Lawson Hill, and Mary E. Ilium is easier to come by, with passes that can be purchased when you buy your festival tickets. If you’re renting a house or booking a hotel, it’s common to have to book eight months to a year in advance — try local resources like Telluride Alpine Lodging or rental sites like Airbnb.

Blazing hot during the day, cool when the sun goes down — Telluride’s unique locale and high elevation can make for a forecast that runs the gamut. One year, I emerged from a Nightgrass show to be met by a wall of sleet and snow. That said, there are a few essentials to help ease the transitions.

During the day, shorts and sturdy sandals are key and can take you from the Town Park stage to the network of hiking trails that are accessible from downtown or Mountain Village. Plenty of sunscreen and a light layer for covering scorched skin is important, too. For nighttime fun, switch to pants and pack a backpack with a fleece-weight layer, rain jacket, and a warm hat.

For campers, a few recommendations: tent with rainfly; a shade tent for hot spells; camping chairs or Crazy Creeks for posting up in the river; headlamps and/or lantern, a folding table; and a two-burner camping stove if you want to make coffee in the morning. All campsites — and the festival itself — have spigots with fresh water (snowmelt from the Telluride snow fields, at that) for keeping your water bottles and storage containers filled.

The festival — which was originally dubbed as the “Telluride Bluegrass and Country Music Festival” — is a pilgrimage for traditional bluegrass junkies. But its roots are really in experimentation and openness to music of all kinds. The 2015 lineup brought acts like Béla Fleck, The Punch Brothers, and Greensky Bluegrass together with indie pop quartet Lake Street Dive and R&B act Janelle Monáe. In any given lineup, you’ll find a celebration of the old and new, with representations of bluegrass, rock, soul, and folk — and everything in between.

Of all the wisdom I’ve garnered from festivarians each year, there are a few tips worth passing down to those planning their first trip.

Use the Festivarian Forum. It’s the place for first-timer tips, coveted ticket sales, ride shares, lost and found, and festival speak. The whole thing is moderated by the “mayor” of Town Park, Telluride Tom.

See music, everywhere. The single stage at the festival removes the hassle from running around to catch your favorite bands — if you’re looking for a more intimate setting, check out the stage at Elks Park a few blocks away or enter the lottery for Nightgrass shows, especially if it happens to be at the Sheridan Opera House, the “crown jewel” of Telluride. 

Watch the tarp run. Every morning, festival-goers wait in line — and then run — to claim their tarp spot. Bagpipe reveille included.

If you need a break from drinking in the sun, drink in a bar. The Last Dollar — or “The Buck” — specifically. It’s a relic of the old American West, and a perfect cool-down dive.

It’s a challenge to articulate what it is about Telluride Bluegrass Festival that sets it apart. Generally, my eyes glaze over and all I can manage are breathy sighs of “it’s just magical” and “it’s the happiest I’ve ever been.” Those sentiments are true — a lot of it’s the place, the welcome disconnection, the descent into a place so inhospitable in its terrain that it feels like a logistical miracle to have even gotten there. To this day, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

But it’s also the people: open, endlessly friendly, committed to living four short days to their fullest — anyone from aging hippies and adults who grew up on the freedom of the festival as kids, to whole families, new generations seeking bluegrass nirvana, and city escapists. As a result, it’s ageless, and easy — a respite for everyone.

I guess it’s something you have to see for yourself. [H]

Sam Alviani is a freelance writer and editor at Fellow Magazine
Her list of favorite things rambles on, but includes grilled cheese sandwiches, Stevie Nicks, New Orleans, and her Blue Heeler pup, Lucinda.
You can follow her stories on Instagram

Images ©: 1, 4, 7, 10; Channing Morris. 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11-14; Samantha Alviani