Too distant from Denver for a day trip, Steamboat Springs feels far removed from the bustle of Colorado’s Front Range. In the winter the resort is blessed with abundant snowfall and uncrowded slopes. But when the snow melts and summer arrives, the state’s northernmost ski town turns into one of its most delightful mountain retreats.
Colorado Highway 14 from Fort Collins may not be the quickest way to Steamboat from the Front Range, but the scenery and wide open spaces along this back-door route are well worth the extra hour or so of driving. The route winds alongside the river through Poudre Canyon, over Cameron Pass and across the peaceful emptiness of North Park to Rabbit Ears Pass. With plenty of places to stop and explore along the route, the three-hour drive can easily stretch into an all-day road trip.
Dusk is falling as I roll into town past the flickering neon pink rabbit at the Rabbit Ears Motel. Much of downtown Steamboat closes early on summer evenings, leaving tourists to fend for themselves between the ice cream parlor and handful of restaurants along Lincoln Avenue. I end up at Mahogany Ridge Brewpub for dinner and some local music. When I leave at 9:30 p.m. the streets are empty.
But the town wakes up early on weekends. First stop — the Saturday farmers market on the courthouse lawn. Joining soccer moms, dreadlocked Rastafarian wannabes, and leathery ranchers, I peruse stands offering buffalo meat, organic peaches, portabello mushrooms, sheep cheese and barbecue pork sandwiches. The people-watching is as good as the shopping — a mix of eccentric, outdoorsy and moneyed locals hefting melons and sniffing homemade soaps.
Like other Colorado ski towns, Steamboat has no dearth of kitschy tourist stores. But tucked between the fast-food joints and T-shirt shops, or hidden down quiet side streets, are little gems waiting to be discovered.
Try Off The Beaten Path bookstore for a morning latte and a browse through local photo books. Sweet Pea Market, housed in an old pole barn along the river on Yampa Street, offers fresh produce, homemade pies and a coffee bar with free WiFi. Historic F.M. Light and Sons has been at 830 Lincoln Ave. for more than 100 years, outfitting customers in authentic western wear.
Freshly caffeinated, I cross the Yampa River by bridge and walk to Howelsen Hill ski jump, where the sound of skis racing down a steep run rattles through the morning air. The snow melted months ago, but today young skiers plummet down the porcelain-surfaced jump, lifting off at the end and soaring impossibly long distances before hitting the plastic-covered landing hill below. A fall would be ugly, but in dozens of runs nobody goes down. Many Olympian jumpers have trained here, but on this warm summer morning no one is longing for the chill of winter.
The Yampa River runs through town, and one of the joys of summertime Steamboat is bobbing down the river in an inner tube. Each day beginning around midmorning, small flotillas of river runners drift downstream past waterfront cottages, under bridges and through small riffles. Renting a tube for a couple of hours, I get shuttled by the rental company to the east end of town and jump in along with a dozen or so others. For the next hour the gentle current carries me downstream in the warm sunshine and I enjoy a relaxing view of the town that can’t be seen any other way.
By late afternoon I’m swinging up the flank of Mount Werner on the ski resort gondola. Within minutes the town and mountains to the west shrink until they appear like a tiny museum panorama far below. At the top, biking and hiking trails fan out in every direction. Eliminate the croaking ravens, drop some brown cows on the hillside and squint just a bit, and this could be the Swiss Alps.
Far from the clatter and clutter of the Front Range, Steamboat Springs is one of Colorado’s top mountain getaways. Take the back route here and engage your senses along the way in a geological smorgasbord of canyons, rivers, high plains and alpine passes. And when you arrive, it won’t take long to find your own quiet place.
If You Go
For more information, go to www.steamboat.com