The History of The Observatory at Alta Lakes


A photo to be treasured- this is some of the crew that built The Observatory

Jim Russell came to Telluride in the fall of 1972 after finishing a tour of Vietnam with the Navy. He wanted to build a place similar to something he had seen in Breckenridge. After buying a Silver Mountain Mining Company mining claim with a partner, Russell designed The Observatory on a bar napkin at the Sheridan Bar. George Greenbank, a new architect in Telluride, drew up the plans and construction began in 1975.

It took Russell and his self-proclaimed hippie crew three summers to build The Observatory. Due to the remoteness of the site and the character of the crew, they all lived in the ghost town of Alta during the summers. A cook was onsite and they had generators because none of the homes had electricity.

The Observatory was built to last. It is made of stone (from the nearby talus fields), concrete and timber. The foundation is attached to the bedrock, the walls are composed of 12-foot logs, the interior is constructed of cedar and Douglas fir and the exterior logs are from the Wilson Mesa (these trees were not chopped down but killed by beetles).

When you visit The Observatory today, you turn right at the 1941 Army truck that was used to haul whatever materials that were needed that Russell could not find onsite.  It is still there, marking the “driveway” to The Observatory, although it is slowly sinking into the ground.


The Observatory construction is well underway

When you visit The Observatory, many details catch your eye. One example is the window frame over the agate-lined hot tub. It is actually a bull wheel from a tram that operated above The Observatory many years ago. The handcrafted stain glass windows, which are even more beautiful with the sunshine streaming through them, definitely are one of the features of The Observatory that contribute to its uniqueness.

It did not take long for the locals to catch onto the heart and soul of The Observatory. By the early to mid 1980s, The Observatory had been rented out for weddings, full moon parties, end of ski season celebrations, workshops and retreats. It was during this time that The Observatory earned its name … being at 11,300 feet puts you so close to the moon and stars!

In the summer of 2011, Russell sold The Observatory to another local, Matt Bowling, and his brothers. The Bowlings have made some improvements to The Observatory, but the soul of The Observatory remains the same.

One change you will notice before you even reach the front door is the authentic red English phone box that has found some lakefront property to call home.

Some of the other improvements made by the Bowlings that you will surely enjoy are a well that will provide a year round water source of the purest water found on the planet, an updated kitchen and bathroom and improved heating.

The Observatory is available for rental, as it has been for decades. Almost every day, someone comments to Bowling his or her own personal connection to The Observatory. People have fallen in love there, become engaged, taken vows of marriage and return year after year to celebrate anniversaries. Nonprofits hold workshops and training sessions there. Groups have retreats there annually. Many companies have shot print and television commercials there. One year, it was even featured as the cover photo on the Nordstrom winter catalog. There are so many connections to The Observatory, it is impossible to name them all!  Bowling simply has this to say about The Observatory: “It’s an incredible place; all the history it has, its proximity to the ski area…step out these doors and look around you.  It’s absolutely gorgeous.”

Click to read “Once upon a Mining Claim,” Telluride Magazine Winter 2011-12