New owners, same soul at the Alta Lakes Observatory
Storied lodge is up and running for the winter
By Katie Klingsporn
Published: Tuesday, December 27, 2011 6:11 AM CST
Up near treeline in a lofty basin south of Telluride sits the Alta Lakes Observatory, a backcountry lodge surrounded by rugged peaks and steeped in Telluride lore.
Over the past three decades, the storied cabin has played host to small weddings and wild all-night parties, to summertime family reunions, outdoor classes and groups of backcountry skiers seeking solitude. With its great sunken fireplace, long dining room table, rustic timber walls and stunning views, the Observatory inspired ardor and made memories and became a well-loved destination.
So when news rippled out last spring that the Observatory was changing hands — from the building’s original owners, Jim and Salli Russell, to a trio of brothers — many panicked about the fate of the Observatory. Would it still be available for rent? Would it retain its decades-old magic? Would the days of the Observatory soon be over?
People can breathe easy — the Observatory is staying put, it’s still available and it even has a few improvements aimed at making it more comfortable. The lodge’s new owners, local Matt Bowling and his brothers, Dan and Michael, have committed to continuing its legacy as a rustic backcountry getaway. They completed a number of updates and improvements to the building this fall (yes, the hot tub is working again), and have it up and running now for winter stays.
“Our plan is to not forget all they’ve done,” Bowling said of the Observatory’s founders. “It’s an amazing thing that they put together. It’s about as unique a place as you can find.”
Bowling said the plan for the future of the Observatory is to maintain its character and make it more accessible to a broader range of visitors.
“One of our goals is certainly not to change the rustic charm in any way,” he said.
The two-story lodge is nestled in the pines at 11,300 feet in a basin shadowed by Silver and Palmyra peaks. It’s adjacent to the Telluride Ski Resort’s Prospect Basin, but since it’s five miles up a dirt road, it feels hours away from civilization, especially in the winter.
“It’s just absolutely peaceful,” Bowling said.
Jim Russell built the lodge in the early ‘70s with friends after buying a mining claim near the ghost town of Alta Lakes. They built the cabin over several summers, finding much of their building materials from the surrounding land — timber from the forest, stones from nearby scree fields.
What resulted was a one-of-a-kind place. The big, sturdy building has arched windows, thick timber walls, second-story decks, a large living room and beds to sleep 10. It’s 25 feet from the edge of a lake and surrounded by a lovely panorama of pines and mountains and sky. Jim and Salli Russell began renting it out to the public in the ‘80s, and over the years it became a destination beloved both by families and ski bums.
Bowling, who has worked as a landscaper, snowmobile tour driver, day trader, lift op and snowmaker in Telluride, had been up there many times during his 15 years living here, be it chopping wood or as a guest.
A friend of his encouraged him to look into it when he heard that the asking price had dropped last spring. Bowling started talking to his brother about it and the next thing he knew, they began the process of purchasing it.
They closed in June, and immediately had five weeks of guest stays.
When things quieted down this fall, the new owners completed a series of improvements to the building. They dug a new well, got the hot tub up and functioning and added a cell booster up there for people who don’t want to be completely off the grid. They made improvements to the upstairs bathroom, installed new lighting and appliances in the kitchen, put in some new furniture and, for the first time ever, chinked the place.
“Our goal is to make it more comfortable for everyone,” Bowling said.
Bowling said that a lot of people who have been helping out with the Observatory for years came up to work on it; and Jim Russell has been a constant advisor, offering his expertise, knowledge and guidance on anything and everything.
“It’s been a real group effort,” he said.
The Bowlings had their first winter guests this weekend; a family rented it out for the holiday. They are booked for New Year’s too, and are excited to get back in the swing of things.
He said nearly everyone he talks to about the Observatory has a story about it — it’s where they fell in love or held their 40th birthday party or stayed with their family that one weekend. He wants to continue running the place in that spirit — a place open to everything from avalanche education classes to reunions and unforgettable get-togethers.
“I think that what has made it so special is that there have been so many special moments there …” he said. “I want it to be everything for everyone.”
Winter guests can ski or snowshoe in — there’s a backcountry gate on the ski resort that offers easy access — or take a snowmobile.
Backcountry Magazine - Dec, 2010 - 2011 Photo Annual
Backcountry's Rider in Chief Mike Horn traveled to Colorado's Alta Lakes Observatory with a progressive crew of skiers and riders to experience the famed chutes and rustic ambiance of this high-mountain chalet. Within a cirque of spiny couloirs, they found deep powder and rich history. Check out this video from Off the Grid Media, and read the full story of Alta Lakes Observatory in the December 2010 issue of Backcountry.
“Walled In – Deep Power and Tight Chutes at Colorado’s Alta Lakes Observatory”
By Mike Horn, Photos by Scott DW Smith