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It would be pretty easy to compose a bucket list filled with all Colorado sights and activities: Hike a fourteener. Catch a trout on gold-medal waters. Catch a show at Red Rocks. Ride a sandboard at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. Whatever you’re drawn to—the wilderness, the arts, the beer—there’s a Centennial State list to be made. But there’s one event that should be on every Coloradan’s must-do checklist (and out-of-staters, too, for that matter): the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival (June 21 to 24).
Now in its 45th year, Telluride Bluegrass has become a Colorado rite of passage. The sustainable mountain festival draws more than 10,000 attendees per day to groove to what’s become known as “Telluride bluegrass” (more on that below). But to enjoy the four-day fête, one must be prepared. We chatted with experts to pull together this list of six things you absolutely need to know/pack/plan for before heading (south)west.
1. If you want a decent spot, plan on losing some shut-eye.
Telluride Bluegrass is an equal opportunity event. Translation: It’s all general admission lawn seating, so bring a tarp or low-back lawn chair. To reserve your spot, you’ll need to join the decades-old tarp line. Attendees line up along the river the night before each day’s shows and enter the festival grounds to the sound of bagpipes when the gates open—around 9 or 10 a.m. depending on the day—to throw down their tarps and mark their spots. Tip: Bring flags or something else you can hang on a flexible pole so your crew can easily identify your tarp among the throngs. (Friendly reminder: It may be hot during the days, but Colorado’s weather is ever-changing. Pack a raincoat and warm clothes for the evenings. It has, on at least one occasion, snowed during the festival.)
Don’t want to deal with the line? You don’t have to. Even if you wind up with a back-of-the-lawn seat, festival ethos says if you see an empty tarp, you’re welcome to sit on it until the owner returns. So scoot to the front for your favorite musician and make some new friends when the tarp’s rightful seat-holder returns.
2. It’s all about sustainability.
Planet Bluegrass, which puts on the festival, is well-known as an environmental leader in the entertainment business. Since 2007, the organization has purchased carbon credits to offset not only the emissions created by the festival, but those resulting from travel to and from Telluride by all attendees.
This year’s focus is plastic awareness. That means no single-use plastic products (water bottles, plastic wrap) are allowed on the festival grounds. Plan to pack a reusable, nonplastic water bottle and reusable utensils; consider shopping in the bulk section of the grocery store rather than purchasing bags of chips that can’t be recycled once empty. Event organizers are working with bands to adjust their riders if they include chips or candy that comes in plastic bags, and they completed an audit of all their vendors and warned any selling single-use plastic products that they’d need to find an alternative or risk losing their spots at the festival, said Marina McCoy, sustainability supervisor for Planet Bluegrass and founder of Waste-Free Earth. “We’re one of the most sustainable entertainment companies out there,” she says. “We push the limits a little bit.” (Their bagged wine supplier spent a month finding someone who could recycle the bags in order to comply.) To learn more about the event’s eco efforts, stop by the sustainable festivation booth; beyond an education, you’ll get the chance to win some reusable gear.
3. Don’t expect bluegrass—this is Telluride bluegrass.
Yes, the Infamous Stringdusters and the Del McCoury Band will be gracing the main stage, but so will Sam Bush, “the king of Telluride,” who is making his 44th appearance at the festival along with his electric mandolin. “[Bush] defined the genre of this festival,” says Brian Eyster, Planet Bluegrass’ director of communications. “Telluride Bluegrass is really one of the precursors for Americana. Rock and roll and jazz and folk and bluegrass are at the base of it. It’s its own genre really.”
4. You can totally bring the kids.
As long as you have enough sunscreen and are planning on a little more, er, subdued festival experience, the kids will do just fine. Plus, attendees are able to bring in their own food, so you don’t have to leave Timmy’s favorite snack back at the campsite. (No outside alcohol or glass are allowed inside the festival grounds; water stations are available.) One longtime festival-goer said must-packs for tots include ear plugs, a shade tent (which can only be set up along the back fence), toy instruments, and a fold-up wagon so you can more easily transport your offspring and your gear. And don’t forget to check out the Family Tent‘s lineup of activities.
5. Not every show is on the main stage.
Telluride Bluegrass is a single-stage festival—mostly. All of the big acts play there. But there are also free shows at the Elks Park workshop stage in town (an easy walk from the festival grounds), and a free FirstGrass concert in Mountain Village on June 20. All of the NightGrass shows (small, late-night, indoor concerts around town) are sold out, but that doesn’t mean you won’t stumble upon musicians plucking away spontaneously throughout the festival.
6. The party can last more than four days.
Town Park Campground opens five days before the festival. Similar to Burning Man, campers organize a slew of activities, including parties and homebrew tastings. Eyster says bands often show up and play at some of the campsites as well. “Half of the people at the campground arrive at least three days before the festival. A couple of years ago, somebody put up a hydroelectric generator to power a disco ball in their camp. There are elaborate constructions that people are hauling from around the country,” he says. “It’s a beautiful spot to spend a week.”
Bonus tip: Bring cash. Many of the vendors don’t accept plastic—including the beer tent.