The family guide to Colorado ski resorts - STEAMBOAT SPRINGS
Jump for joy in the historic home of Champagne Powder
It’s no secret that Colorado’s ski resorts are legendary, and I’ve been spoiled enough to grow up a couple of hours from many of them, including Breckenridge, Vail and Copper Mountain, to name a few. But for a true taste of the Rocky Mountain beauty combined with “old west” charm—where you’re just as likely to rub elbows slope-side with cowboys as Olympic hopefuls—we trek nearly twice as far to ski Steamboat Springs (160 miles from Denver).
Known as Ski Town U.S.A. and home to the trademarked “Champagne Powder,” this Yampa Valley jewel in northwest Colorado was an easy choice for 19th settlers to call home. Lured by plentiful hot springs and idyllic ranch land, the 1909 arrival of the railroad put Steamboat Springs on the map as a thriving community. And more than 100 years later, its historic appeal and utter lack of pretense—combined with lots of opportunity for outdoor adventure—make it one of my family’s favorite winter destinations.
Centralized Starting Point
Families wanting to shred “The Boat’s” slopes—comprising 165 named trails, more than half designated as beginner or intermediate—will appreciate that the action is condensed into one spot: at the heart of the ski village in Gondola Square. (A caveat: The downside of all ski traffic funneling through one gondola means you can get get caught in a LOOONG lift line if you head there, say, mid-morning on a big powder day. The gondola opens at 8:30 a.m., so I suggest getting an early start.) Offering a wealth of lodging options—including The Steamboat Grand, my kids’ top choice for its prime location and oversized, heated outdoor pool—it's just across the street from the Square's entrance. (Translation: Parents don’t have far to schlep skis and boards.) And while there are plentiful restaurants to serve any picky palate, our pre-ski standby is Gondola Joe’s Coffee Shop and Cafe. Oh, one more thing: Kids as young as 2 years can opt for a private lesson, the youngest I've heard of in any local ski resorts.
Insider’s tip: If you have time to wait for a table at this popular spot, drive about 2 miles north for brunch at Freshies Restaurant on S. Lincoln Ave.
Hospitable Historic Downtown
Like many of Colorado’s most popular ski towns, Steamboat’s historic Main Street adds to its allure. Just 3 miles from the Steamboat Ski Area, guests can ride free city buses to experience the roughly 10 blocks (3rd to 13th Streets) of 19th-Century history. With endless shops, galleries and restaurants—in addition to Howelsen Hill, the state’s oldest ski area in continuous use (1915) and rodeo arena—there’s plenty of entertainment in this modest enclave.
Stop for yummy margaritas and Mexican food at The Cantina or tasty BBQ at the Steamboat Smokehouse. And be sure to step inside the iconic F.M. Light & Sons, the western outfitter that opened in 1905 and welcomes visitors with copious signage south of town along U.S. Highway 40. Once you see those signs, you know you’re almost there.
Insider’s tip: While Strawberry Park Hot Springs gets tourists’ attention, families are more suited to Old Town Hot Springs, where we sit for hours mesmerized by climbing-wall participants in their pursuit to reach the lofty bell before dropping in the pool below.
Wild Wintertime Pursuits
Ski areas are not just for skiers and boarders; there are usually plenty of pastimes for non-skiers as well. From sledding to horse-drawn sleigh rides, Steamboat offers all of that and more. But of all the tubing hills we’ve visited in Colorado, the most epic is the one at Saddleback Ranch, about 17 miles west of the ski resort. Located on a working cattle ranch, the Yee-Haw Tubing Hill was 90 minutes of thrilling, adrenaline-filled tubing. (A helmet is recommended.) Even better? Saddleback Ranch provides free transportation for tubers from the Mt. Werner Transit Center.
Insider’s tip: Colorado’s ski towns are dog-sledding hot spots. But for an authentic “Alaska-style” experience, try Grizzle-T Dog & Sledworks, where guests can drive the sled for as much as two hours under the tutelage of Iditarod musher and Grizzle-T co-owner Kris Hoffman.
OTHER LODGING OPTIONS
The Lodge at Steamboat - Located at the base of Mt. Werner about 200 yards from the Gondola, these 1, 2 or 3 BR condos are a great alternative for families who don't want to pay to stay on the Square. Offering a free shuttle to and from the ski area, we probably waited no more than 2 minutes for one to pick us up. In addition, the 1 BR rental was updated and spacious, and we would definitely stay there again. The only downside? In my opinion, part of the fun of ski lodging is hanging out in a centralized hot-tub/pool area where you can chat with other adults and kids can seek out temporary pool buddies. But there is no true gathering spot, even though the property has an outdoor, heated pool and several hot tubs spread throughout the buildings.
The Trailhead Lodge at Wildhorse Meadows - If you want to splurge on your Steamboat stay, book one of these luxurious 1, 2 or 3 BR condos, built in 2009. It may be about a mile away from the ski resort, but it does have its own gondola, Wildhorse Gondola, a quick ride that drops you in Gondola Square. (My kids loved that we had "our own gondola.") Plus its outdoor pool and three hot tubs are a only a close second favorite of ours to the Grand's. Pricey but worthwhile.
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