Steamboat Springs, Colo., an oasis of winter fun and natural beauty

March 3, 2017 GMT

On first glance, it may seem audacious for a town to crown itself “Ski Town, USA.” But whether you are walking down Main Street, carving down Mount Werner, cheering on jumpers at Howelsen Hill or just soaking it all in at a mineral hot spring, Steamboat Springs, Colo., earns its title.

Consider this: When trappers first settled there in the 1870s, skis were their only trusted mode of transportation in the long winter months. And it was only 1913 when Norwegian Carl Howelsen brought ski jumping to town on a downtown hill that remains a great skiing spot to this day. Of course, America’s beloved Olympic skier Billy Kidd calls it home; that helps the cause.

But it’s more than that — a visit to Steamboat is like a trip to another world, one where horses stand waiting for owners on Main Street, where flannel stands in as pretty darn formal, where a local millionaire imagines and builds world-record-breaking fireworks displays (and sets them off for free) and where people are just plain relaxed.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Wow,” I said aloud as I walked downtown one day. “This town is like the antidote for helicopter parenting.”

A nearby mom turned and smiled. “We live in the land of fun. Healthy fun,” she said, nodding at her 9-year-old, who was about to be pulled down Main Street on skis by a galloping horse. “And we let our kids experience it all.”

I traveled to Steamboat recently for the annual Winter Carnival, a weeklong event that’s been held for more than 70 years. Started by the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club — founded by Howelsen himself as a way to show locals that skiing was not just a means of travel, but fun — the carnival has evolved over the years into a true spectacle. The town transforms its long Main Street to a snow-covered field each morning (and moves it aside each night to allow regular nighttime traffic). One man spends much of his time, as his father did, prepping and preening his full-body “light suit” to ski down the mountain at night while thousands below him cheer. And the marching band performs in the parade — on skis.

And it’s all staged with a backdrop of quaint Western buildings and soaring white-capped peaks.

Steamboat proper is a long stretch of Main Street peppered with great restaurant choices, fun shops and historic spots. While modern life has come, Steamboat has taken great pains to keep it on the outskirts. There’s nothing wrong with having easy access to, say, a Walgreens, but I love that Steamboat has given that type of business its own place, and let Main Street and the Howelsen Hill area remain pristine.

ADVERTISEMENT

Steamboat has two parts: the Main Street area and the up-at-the-mountain area. While there are a few small B&Bs in the downtown area, most visitors opt to stay in the ski resort part of town, which is what I did. I chose the Steamboat Grand, next to the resort base area and just a few steps from the lift. The Grand gave me easy access to what I was mostly there for — the skiing — while connecting me easily to the downtown area via free, easy-to-access shuttles.

The ski area isn’t just about skiing either. There are plenty of shops and spots to dine, including hot spot Cafe Diva (for which I was unable to get a spot — even at the bar. Book ahead, folks!). I did find plenty of other spots up there, including the Truffle Pig for an apres-ski drink and appetizer and The Paramount for breakfast. The choices were so vast I could have spent all my time up there. But the town and carnival are also special.

One afternoon before the big carnival fireworks, I headed up to Strawberry Park Hot Springs. A quick drive from town (transportation is available should you not have a car), the springs offer true, natural mineral bath pools in a cool mountain setting.

But back to the carnival. Saturday evening brought fun to Howelsen Hill, with locals skiing through a hoop of fire (I even met a guy on the lift that day who’d be doing it that night. “Are you nuts?” I asked. “That,” he said without hesitation, “is exactly the point.”) Fireworks were set off and everyone headed home to rest up for the big show the next day.

I arrived at Main Street early. It was already covered with snow, and horses were prancing with excitement as their owners guided them to meet up with the kids and adults they’d be hauling down the street. I was able to grab a bite at famed Winona’s and then poke around F.M. Light & Sons, one of Steamboat’s oldest stores, filled with cowboy hats, boots and all the trappings. Outside, a small crowd was gathering.

Then, almost at once, the sidewalks filled with people, ready to cheer on kids doing crazy things, horses leading the way, and then, the highlight of the week, the shovel pull. For adults only, this involves folks sitting or laying on a shovel as a horse pulls them down Main Street! Winners are chosen by speed.

Everyone goes nuts cheering on folks (apparently, these people practice this).

And then, the winner zipped across the finish line. He was from Massachusetts. He came to visit and stayed for good. After the annual parade, featuring folks being pulled on skis by everything imaginable, it winds down and life goes on in town.

Now I know there is a place — Steamboat Springs— that truly is Ski Town, USA. And I know I’ll be back.

Winter Carnival 2018 takes place Feb. 7-11, but every week is a celebration in Steamboat. Learn more at www.steamboatchamber.com.