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There Still Be Dragons: Be Wary of Modern Mapping Devices When Traveling to Telluride


At 8,750 feet above sea level, autumn in Telluride, Colorado, is characterized by wild swings in the weather. Last week, it snowed four inches in town, but over the weekend, I went mountain biking in shorts and a t-shirt. Today, it’s sleeting. This schizophrenic season catches some trees still clinging to their golden leaves, while others have been bare for weeks. A few elk and deer still nibble in the high country, but most have already descended. Several stray birds are hopping around my front yard, but they won’t be here long. It’s migration time—even for people. If you don’t ski or enjoy a long snowy winter, it’s time to follow the animals to warmer climes.

Historically, the Yuta (later known by Americans as the “Utes”) were the first people to migrate in and out of this valley. They came to hunt in the summer and then wintered at lower elevations. The Yuta were the first men to navigate the San Juan Mountains, but the Spanish explorers, who arrived in the second half of the 1700s, were the ones who mapped the mountains and Yuta paths. These Spaniards were intent on pursuing legendary mountains of virgin silver, and maps proved an important tool for treasure seekers.

Telluride’s treasures have changed over the years. A town that was once rich in mining ore is now a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and festival goers, but maps are still an integral part of modern life. The local bookstore is full of guidebooks and topographic maps for adventurers. The atlas is my car is battered from road trips. And with computer technology, we can navigate anywhere with ease. Or can we?

While GPS and geocoding technology is no doubt helpful in some places, it can get you in trouble in the mountains. I’ve heard tales from visitors who arrived white knuckled in Telluride after their website of choice guided them here via a 4WD road in their Ford Fiesta rental car. A Blackberry’s directions, for example, will offer the “fastest route” or “shortest route” between Telluride and nearby Durango. Both options lead over Ophir Pass, a rocky mining road that rises to nearly 11,800 feet and boasts consequential drop offs. It is closed in the winter—buried under feet of snow—but, regardless of the season, it’s not the route of choice for a passenger car.

Medieval cartographers drew fantastical mythical creatures at the edges of their known world to indicate the dangers beyond. Now that we know the world is round and exactly what lies around every corner, lions and dragons no longer decorate the borders of our maps. But maybe these illustrations should be incorporated into cell phones, mapping websites and GPS devices. Unless you’ve got migratory paths ingrained in your DNA—there still be dragons. Telluride’s treasures are worth the journey, but these mountains are no place to trust technology blindly. 

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