Gaze up at the soaring cliffs above Telluride and you might imagine that only rock climbers with nerves of steel could scale the foreboding walls. Yet a via ferrata, or “iron road,” traverses a sheer face above town, offering an adrenaline-infused adventure for anyone willing to clip onto a steel cable and negotiate a rock wall using metal ladder rungs. Think of it as hiking on steroids.
Via ferratas originated in Europe, with many built during World War I to help soldiers travel across the steep Dolomite mountains. Inspired by the idea, a local climber and ironworker named Chuck Kroger started work on Telluride’s Via Ferrata, which was completed in 2007.
Part hiking, part climbing, these iron roads offer a taste of the vertical life even for those who have never before touched toes to rock. Telluride’s thrilling route traverses two miles of sheer cliffs and narrow ledges above this picture-perfect southwestern Colorado town. In the distance, Bridal Veil Falls tumbles 365 feet over a cliff, helping take your mind off the space between your feet and the earth below.
Pause at the plaque that honors Kroger, who died of pancreatic cancer on Christmas Day in 2007: “Goodbye dear friend, Father of this Via Ferrata. You shared generously with us the art of engaged living, taught us the rewards of discovery, design, and grit. We humbly pay you back now by grabbing these irons, and by hiking your clean miners’ trails—joyfully and with wonder!”
What to Expect
The route starts as a hiking trail, then quickly tapers to a ledge that becomes increasingly narrow and eventually disappears. Expect steep drop-offs. A cable bolted to the rock face allows climbers to clip in for safety along more dangerous sections.
Beware: Some parts of the trail have no cable. A guide (if you hire one) will rope you in for extra protection as you navigate these sections.
Assess your comfort level along the first stretch, then take a rest on Kroger’s bench, where you can peer around the corner to see what’s to come. From here it gets real with the “Main Event”—a 300-foot stretch of metal ladder rungs scrawled across the rock face, which drops off 200+ feet below your feet. Those with a fear of heights need not apply.
Past the Main Event, the course mellows out a bit, alternating between a shoe-wide trail and sections of ledge, with a few more ladders. Don’t let down your guard. To avoid crossing private property, you need to return the same way you came. The full out-and-back route takes three to four hours.
When to Go
You’ll want to tackle the via ferrata when the weather is nice—usually starting in June and extending into October.
If you want to take on Telluride’s via ferrata, make sure you’re fairly fit and aren’t a stranger to a bit of hair-raising adventure. Though you clip into the cable for the gnarly bits, you still might need to take a few deep breaths and dig deep for courage. That’s part of the fun.
Go with a guide unless you have experience with rock climbing and have your own gear. San Juan Mountain Guides is a top-notch operation. San Juan Outdoor Adventures and Mountain Trip are also good options. Sign up a couple of weeks in advance to make sure you can get a spot.
Essential Gear and Tips
You’ll be hiking and stretching your limbs, so wear comfortable clothes that allow you to move freely. Hiking shoes will do just fine (no rock shoes required). Bring water, snacks, sunscreen, an extra layer, and rain gear, but keep your backpack light so you feel nimble on the rock. Gloves can help protect your hands.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Your guide can provide all the necessary technical gear, which includes a climbing harness, helmet, and “via ferrata kit”—a shock-absorbing lanyard with two locking carabiners on it for clipping to the cable—that will protect you if you fall.
Other Via Ferratas
Europe has a mother lode of via ferratas, spanning a wide range of difficulty. Some are so tough they make Telluride’s look like child’s play. Buckle up.
- Dolomites, Italy: Via ferratas (vie ferrate in Italian) criss-cross the Dolomites in the Italian Alps. Pick a day adventure, or string together several routes and stay in mountain huts along the way.
- Austria: Options abound in Austria, with a selection of routes that range from family friendly to fear inducing. Check out Tyrol and Montafon.
- Chamonix, France: The snow-capped peaks of the French Alps create a stunning backdrop for more than a dozen via ferrata routes near this charming town, which many consider the birthplace of mountaineering.