September 24, 1995
Long after the snow has melted from the famous ski runs that hover above town, it’s difficult to think of Steamboat Springs, Colo. as a resort town. More families than movie stars wander its streets. Mountain bikes are the preferred mode of transportation. Steamboat’s retail gem is F.M. Light & Sons, whose slogan “Outfittin’ the West since 1905,” suggests a western heritage that existed long before skiing. For a ski resort named No. 5 in the West by Snow Country magazine, Steamboat is just as rewarding a destination without snow.
Surrounded by cattle ranches and nestled on the banks of the Yampa River, Steamboat Springs is relatively isolated in north-central Colorado, about three hours from Denver. Steamboat’s isolation pegs it as a “destination resort,” and many out-of-state winter visitors fly directly into the area. But during “mud season,” after Labor Day a few months before the snow flies, Steamboat’s laid-back ambiance is seductive. Steamboat Ski Area and the town are separated by one mile of U.S. 40 along the Yampa, and the center of attention moves to the town when the snow melts. The vaunted ski area, although open for hikers and mountain bikers, drifts into hibernation as the town itself takes center stage.
During the summer and fall months, Steamboat’s ranching and western heritage shine, with professional rodeos frequently passing through town. Cowboys mix easily with locals and tourists. Mountain bikes are everywhere and most locals radiate a healthful, fit athleticism. The paved bike path along the Yampa connects Steamboat Ski Area and the town making getting around easy.
Nearby recreation opportunities are plentiful, from mountain biking, tubing down the Yampa River, to horseback riding and hiking. Ironically, much of the action in Steamboat after ski season is centered around Howelson Hill, the site of the town’s original ski hill, established in 1914 by Carl Howelson, a Norwegian stone mason. At the base of the hill are the rodeo grounds and Steamboat Stables, and several single track and wide dirt roads on the hill itself offer the mountain biker a number of challenges. From Howelson’s Emerald Mountain, the lush Yampa Valley spreads below. Bikers may have to steer clear of the horseback trekkers who zigzag up Emerald Mountain, but the two activities, beyond the occasional leer a trail boss may give a biker, seem to coexist peacefully.
Steamboat represents a special equilibrium – a modest, friendly town with a great ski mountain. Steamboat’s ski heritage is almost as well-developed as its more traditional western history. Beginning with Howelson’s arrival in Steamboat, the town has enjoyed a rich ski history. Steamboat Ski Area, established in the late 1960s, receives an abundance of light snow (307 inches/year). In an unusual historic twist, it was the ultimately displaced Ute Indians who helped create Mount Werner’s ski trails by burning thousands of acres on the hill in 1879 to discourage settlers (“The Historical Encyclopedia of Colorado,” Colorado Historical Association).
In many ways, Steamboat is more attractive before the lifts start churning again. The valley is grappling with a winter air pollution problem and traffic in town during winter weekends can be daunting. It’s often difficult to make reservations during high season at some of the best restaurants. Antares, for example, an excellent restaurant with a creative menu, is much more pleasant an experience when skiers have long left Steamboat. (Try the sesame and herb crusted ahi, grilled rare and served over field greens with Wasabi dressing). Antares’ owner told us his venue is packed during the winter. We were glad to enjoy the less-hectic pace of off-season.
With a number of hiking and biking trails close to town, Steamboat almost makes one forget that it’s home to some of the best skiing (particularly glade skiing) in the world. Walking along one of the trails that quickly takes one from the pleasant neighborhoods off the main drag into the forest, one encounters serene, smiling locals enjoying their quiet refuge. Enjoying the outdoors is almost too easy in Steamboat. Simply stop by Buddha’s Burritos for some fuel (the veggie burrito with jicama, sprouts, rice and beans is great) and take off. Steamboat Springs has plenty of character, much of it off the ski mountain and best enjoyed before the famous “champagne powder” falls.