My wife, son, daughter, and I had a great visit to Steamboat ski area in northwestern Colorado in early January 2012. Snow conditions were unusually lean at that time, but no worries. The skiing was still super fun on over 1,000 acres, 3,600+ vertical feet, and ~14 of 18 lifts. We even caught six inches of fresh snow on our third and final day and got a taste of Steamboat’s legendary tree skiing. When you’re not drowning in champagne powder 24/7 you find out about the other stuff going on at a ski area and during our visit the four of us, including my wife a non-skier this trip, took full advantage of a world-class resort. This was our first time at Steamboat and we found it plenty entertaining on and off the slopes, while discovering an authentic western community of substance and character.
We arrived by car from Denver via Interstate 70 and highways 9 and 40. After exiting north off I-70 at Silverthorne there is a noticeable change in the landscape over the final 90 minutes to Steamboat. You’ve left the touristy interstate sprawl and entered the great American West of wide open spaces, reservoirs, agriculture, mining, and ranching. Nearing the end of our descent on Route 40 from 9,426’ Rabbit Ears Pass into Steamboat’s Yampa Valley we pulled over to catch a breath of fresh air and admire the twilit town beneath a gorgeous, crimson sunset. Just below us, off to the side of the road, we heard neighing sounds and noticed a working horse ranch. Later that evening we completed our embrace of Steamboat’s western flavor by dining on steaks at the Ore House at Pine Grove, not far from the base of the slopes. Our selections included NY Strip, Black’nd Rib Eye, and a bacon wrapped center cut filet with crab meat and béarnaise. Let me tell you, good ole’ red meat never tasted so good.
Steamboat the ski area is located about three miles from Steamboat Springs the town. The town is the real anchor of the region socially and commercially and provides a number of fun retail shops, excellent dining options, and various guest services. Most winter visitors choose to stay in the multitude of condo units spread across the foothills closer to the ski slopes. Under the discriminating influence of my wife Kathy we stayed at a really nice condo complex called the Champagne Lodge at Trappeur’s Crossing about a half mile from the base of the lifts. A frequent, free shuttle served us very well and gave everyone in the family the flexibility to come and go as they pleased.
My son Vince, daughter Suzy, and I had a great time teaming-up with Marc Bertrand, a fully certified professional ski instructor, for an introductory day of instruction and guiding at Steamboat. Marc gave us tons of tips and was a big help in exploring the mountain. It is hard to describe Steamboat’s trail network in a nutshell, but perhaps the image of a massive ice cream sundae with five scoops (peaks) piled in a heap will serve. The base is at about 6,900’ and is centered around the 8-passenger Steamboat gondola climbing 2,176 vertical feet to the first sub-peak called Thunderhead. It’s one of those big rolling mountains you can’t see the totality of from the base area.There are ~17 other lifts topping out at the 10,568’ summit of Mt. Werner. Even in “lean” conditions we were skiing close to 3,700 vertical feet! Despite this, for altitude sensitive folks like me, Steamboat’s elevation is moderate by Colorado standards making acclimatization for flatlanders easier than at many western resorts.
Marc led us to many fun spots during the day including long, sweet groomers like Vagabond off Thunderhead, a boulder strewn short cut trail called Hot Cakes leading to the beautiful “backside” of Steamboat served by the Morningside lift, a super scenic open glade from Mt. Werner’s summit called The Ridge, and plenty of long bump runs like White Out. Along the way we skied the really fun banked turns of a lower mountain skier-cross course and stopped beside a lengthy manufactured mogul run with spectacular jumps for a close-up view of freestyle competitors in training.
The young guys and gals sessioning the mogul course were representative of Steamboat’s tremendous heritage as a world class wintersports training ground. Something like 79 US Winter Olympians hail from Steamboat. Kathy mustered us for an après ski visit to downtown Steamboat Springs, stocking up on chocolate at Fuzziwig’s Candy Factory and bargain cowboy hats at F. M. Light & Sons Western Mercantile. We also sampled a delicious apple fritter in town from a donut shop called Milk Run Cafe. It cost $2 and was the size of a kid’s ski helmet. We concluded our first day with a relaxing soak in our condo complex’s hot tub.
Weather-wise, Day Two was just like Day One. We had bright sun, no wind, and temps in the mid- to upper-30s on the mountain. It was very un-January-like and not a bad fate in the absence of fresh snow. About 4,000-5,000 music-loving Texans joined us on the slopes for Texas MusicFest, a week-long annual early winter event at Steamboat. In the afternoon we were feted with live music at the gondola base by a band that sounded like ZZTop. Each evening the Texans enjoyed invitation-only concerts by a variety of performers under a giant tent. The Steamboat lift system has an uphill transport capacity of 40,000+ per hour and the crowds were absorbed effortlessly. We saw no significant lift lines all three ski days of our visit.
Sometimes there is an intuitive quality to skiing that should not be ignored. Back on our own this morning we followed that intuition for some great runs off the Morningside lift, which featured sunny open faces, pretty conifer glades, easy bumps, rock gardens, and friendly Gray Jays buzzing around the base of the lift. At 1 pm we went skiing with Billy Kidd, the face of Steamboat for generations and still the current Director of Skiing. Billy was the first American male (along with his good friend the late Jimmie Heuga) to win an Olympic Alpine Skiing medal. They took silver and bronze respectively in slalom at the 1964 Innsbruck Winter Games. Many afternoons during ski season Billy conducts a free clinic starting at the top of the gondola at Thunderhead. He was very articulate and allowed time for handshakes and photo opportunities. Then he spent a good 40 minutes with our group of about 15 tourists covering fundamentals as well as providing tips on moguls, trees, and powder skiing. Billy also shared interesting anecdotes about his ski career and was especially gracious with the youngsters in our group. After the clinic we enjoyed some hand-tossed brick oven pizza at the Slopeside Grill near the gondi base.
In the early evening the whole family made a memorable excursion to Strawberry Park Hot Springs. We used Sweet Pea Tours for a shuttle service to the Springs which are in an extraordinarily beautiful natural mountain setting about 30-40 minutes outside of town. There is no electricity at the Springs and on the night of our visit the pools took on a mystical quality as steam rose above bathers silhouetted by a silvery moon hung from a sky full of sparkling stars. One caution for family groups, at about 7:30 pm the sedate bathers sharing the pools with us suddenly became naked and frisky. Rescued by our timely shuttle, our session ended just as full moons were rising all over the place :-)
During the night it snowed. After a long drought even the locals were giddy about the prospects for improved trail conditions. Vince got out early and claimed to have made first tracks in six inches of fresh snow over bumps. But all four of us had a pre-arranged appointment for a guided gourmet snowshoe tour at 10 am with a nice lady Steamboat Ambassador named Cindy. This was my wife Kathy’s first chance to get up on the mountain and it worked out great. The tour started witha gondola ride to the 9,080’ summit of Thunderhead. All of us were never-evers when it came to snowshoeing, but it couldn’t have been easier. The snowshoes went on almost like step-in ski bindings and the tour had the exertion factor of a Sunday stroll. Cindy helped us gear-up and kept the pace manageable for approximately one hour on the mountain via mostly level terrain. We learned about the surrounding sub-alpine environment, the risks associated with tree wells, and some of the local geography like the Sleeping Giant mountain formation and the Flat Tops Wilderness Area to the west of Steamboat.
Eventually our tour circled back to the top of the gondola where we enjoyed a surprisingly elegant lunch at Hazie’s Restaurant located on the upper level of the mid-mountain Thunderhead lodge. Hazie’s is named after the late Hazie Werner, a rancher’s wife who became Steamboat’s preeminent early hostess and mother of three Olympic skiers. Hazie’s features a wall of 20’ windows overlooking the Yampa Valley. Here’s my best Steamboat lunch tip: $15 will get you Hazie’s great soup and salad bar with wait service, linen table cloths, and stunning views while one level down the hoards in the cafeteria are paying about the same for burgers and fries.
Over the last 12 hours a light snow had been falling on and off. After the gourmet lunch at Hazie’s I joined Vince on the slopes to finally see firsthand how the six or seven inches of new fluff had improved the skiing. I asked a member of the ski school for a good place to head and he recommended the low angle woods around the One O’clock and Two O’clock trails off the Sundown Express Quad Chairlift. It was a great suggestion. This area held snow well and was very quiet. We made a bunch of fun runs there and felt like we could now leave Steamboat saying we got a little taste of its renowned tree skiing. Someday we have to get back for the whole enchilada.
On our last evening in Steamboat we had one final après ski extravaganza that Kathy had been looking forward to all week. At 6 pm the four of us rode the gondola one last time and then from Thunderhead lodge we caught a 20-minute sleigh ride in driving snow across the mountain to Ragnar’s Restaurant. Ragnar’s is located in the on-mountain Rendezvous Saddle lodge (elevation 9,325’), not too far from where Vince and I had been skiing in the glades a couple hours before. We were served a five course Scandinavian-inspired dinner including spiced Nordic wine called Glug in a rustic, candle-lit lodge decorated with historic ski memorabilia and artifacts consistent with the restaurant’s namesake Ragnar Omtvedt, a world ski jumping record setter at Steamboat back in 1916. The meal was very relaxed and for two hours our elite group of about 30 diners was serenaded with soft folk-rock tunes by talented local singer/guitarist Jesse Christensen. Afterwards, as we loaded onto the sleigh for the ride back to civilization the wind died, the clouds parted, and a million stars came out. It was an unforgettably romantic conclusion to visit that was about so much more than just pounding vertical feet and riding high speed chairs. For sure, in lean times and in phat, a great family vacation at Steamboat is pretty much bombproof.
Before leaving town on our last morning we went to Sunday services at Holy Name Catholic Church in downtown Steamboat Springs. It happened to be the Feast of the Epiphany and as part of the celebration about 25 local children from ages 3-10 (probably every one a little ski ripper) staged a Christmas Pageant re-enacting the Nativity. It was super cute and moved me to tears. At that moment I had a revelation of my own. Not only was Steamboat an outstanding place to visit, but its sense of community, among the most distinctive, spirited, and genuine I’ve experienced at 70+ US ski areas, might also make it a mighty fine place to live.
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.