Destination: Fall for Steamboat Springs
Come before the snow flies for outdoor fun and games in this sporty Western ski town
BY TINA LASSEN
|Fly-fishing on the Yampa River, which runs right through
Steamboat Springs; the historic More Barn outside Steamboat, with Mount Werner as a backdrop.
The Yampa River swirls around Paul Russell’s waders as he stares at a mucky stick he’s just plucked from the water, with tiny larvae clinging to it. “See?” he says, offering a look. “This is a sign of a healthy trout stream. This river is full of life.”
“Full of life” aptly describes the town 10 miles downstream, too. Tucked up against the western slope of the Continental Divide, 150 miles northwest of Denver, Steamboat Springs is best known as a winter sports town, home to the Steamboat Ski Resort and dozens of winter Olympians.
Yet at an elevation of 6,700 feet, Steamboat is equally lively in summer and fall, when its dry-as-ranch-dust snow is replaced with a sunny, cool mountain climate that’s idyllic for an outdoorsy getaway. In a single weekend, you can fly-fish mountain streams, horseback-ride across rolling ranchlands, hike through wildflower meadows and aspen glades, mountain bike on a growing network of single-track, browse a downtown lined with boxy Western storefronts, and finish it off with a soothing soak in one of the town’s steaming natural hot springs.
Long before it was a sports town, Steamboat Springs was a ranch town. Along with multimillion-dollar vacation homes, working ranches occupy much of the Yampa Valley—thousands of acres dotted with beef cattle and bus-sized hay bales. The cattle dogs you’ll see in the back of muddy pickups really do herd, and the cowboy hats worn in town—some of them, anyway—are the real deal, too.
The 10-block-long downtown still reflects Steamboat’s cowboy roots. Ranch supply stores sit alongside bike shops, boutiques and wine bars on the main artery, Lincoln Avenue. Foremost among them is F.M. Light & Sons (830 Lincoln Ave.; 970-879-1822), a century-old dry goods store where shoppers can browse the 2,000 pairs of cowboy boots, stop by the Hat Services counter ($5 for basic dusting and shaping) and pick up a handbag with a built-in gun holster.
To sample cowboy culture yourself, take a horseback ride at Del’s Triangle Three Ranch, in the Elk River Valley a half hour north of Steamboat Springs. Guides lead half- and full-day rides over sage-covered slopes and through the hills, keeping an eye out for the elk herds that often gather on the property. Come fall, blooming fields of yarrow and mule’s ear daisy give way to blazing yellow aspens. At this time of year, the elk put on their own show, as the males bugle loudly for female attention.
TAKE TO THE TRAILS
For those who want to hoof it in hiking boots, trails abound. Four miles from town, an easy quarter-mile route leads to Fish Creek Falls, descending 283 feet into a deep rocky seam. Paths continue to Upper Fish Creek Falls and five miles south to Lost Lake. Also near town, the Spring Creek Trail climbs gently for five miles through a broad canyon glowing gold with ferns and aspens. The surrounding Medicine Bow–Routt National Forest offers a dizzying array of options for long day hikes.
On a mountain bike you can cover even more terrain. Locals flock to the trails on Emerald Mountain, which rises up from the southwest side of downtown, and the 50 miles of trails at the Steamboat ski area, accessible with leg power or by gondola (tickets, $30 per day for a bike and adult rider). Explore the ski area’s trail network or leave its boundary to connect with a web of national forest trails.
This fall, Steamboat’s ski area plans to open a dedicated freeride park for mountain bikers: one-way downhill trails with banked turns, jumps, stunts and other action-packed features. The idea was pioneered by British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb, and it’s been such a success that it has spread to mountain communities throughout North America.
A cloud of fog and the tang of sulfur hang over Lincoln Park at the edge of downtown, where several of the region’s natural hot springs gurgle out of rock fissures and ponds. When early trappers came upon a nearby spring on the Yampa River’s western bank, they thought that the funny chugging sound it made resembled a steamboat whistle—which is how this landlocked town got its unlikely name. (Alas, construction of the railroad silenced the spring years ago.)
After a day on the trails, a visit to one of Steamboat’s hot springs provides the perfect remedy for weary muscles. You’ll find two decidedly different options for a public soak. The Old Town Hot Springs right downtown offers eight man-made swimming pools fed by hot mineral springs and open year-round. Also part of the facility: waterslides and a fitness center with a range of exercise classes.
On the more rustic end of the scale, Strawberry Park Hot Springs lies in the woods, eight miles from town (including three miles on a rutted dirt road). Steamy 147-degree water trickles down a hillside into a series of stone masonry pools, where it’s cooled with creek water to about 105 degrees. For the complete experience, take at least one plunge into the cold-water creek. Though it’s not the freewheeling flower-child scene found at many hot springs, Strawberry Park is clothing optional and adults only after dark.
Hot springs may be Steamboat’s identity, but the Yampa River feels like its lifeblood. Starting from modest streams high in the Flat Tops Wilderness, the Yampa grows into a broad river that flows right through town, just a block south of Lincoln Avenue. The seven-mile Yampa River Core Trail weaves along its banks, busy with runners, bicycling kids and stroller-pushing moms. Kayakers play in its waves, while inner tubers float past waterfront restaurants. Anglers enjoy several miles of public access, casting for rainbow and brown trout.
Outfitters like Steamboat Flyfisher can offer even more, accompanying you to private stretches of river that run through ranchland south of town. Here the Yampa instantly feels wild, framed by red dogwoods and golden willows, flowing cold and clear the color of single-malt scotch. “They say the Yampa has 1,200 fish per mile,” says Steamboat Flyfisher guide Paul Russell, who is just the guy to help you find them.
Casting a fly rod here is an utterly peaceful way to spend a morning. You’re serenaded by the gurgle of the water, the trill of blackbirds and the distant mutters and moos of ranch animals. You mend your line just so and watch it unfurl downstream, mesmerized, as you wait for the almost imperceptible tug of a rainbow. If you react in time, Paul will soon have it cradled in the net, glowing in pinks and golds, gaudy as a Western sunset. Then with a twitch of its tail, it’s gone again—swift, strong and full of life.
Guide to Steamboat Springs
The Routt County Riders organization
is a great source of local information.
High-quality bike rentals, maps and
friendly shop guys. 1136 Yampa St.;
35 5th St.; 970-879-6552;
lessons from $250
Grilled lamb, elk or pork tenderloin
with your choice of more than 30
dipping sauces. 435 Lincoln Ave.;
970-879-3773; dinner for two, $70*
Steamboat’s top pick for fine dining,
with an impressive wine list and seasonal
menu. 1855 Ski Time Square Dr.;
970-871-0508; dinner for two, $120
CREEKSIDE CAFÉ & GRILL
A local favorite for breakfast, with
exposed brick, a lovely patio alongside
Soda Creek, and eggs Benedict served
16 ways. 131 11th St.; 970-879-4925;
breakfast for two, $20
Lunch spot at the base of Mount Werner,
where everything’s freshly made—soups,
salads, breads and the best sandwiches in
town. 1865 Ski Time Square Dr.;
970-879-1170; lunch for two, $30
*Meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
A free walking map gives the location and
history of several area springs.
OLD TOWN HOT SPRINGS
136 Lincoln Ave.; 970-879-1828;
STRAWBERRY PARK HOT SPRINGS
44200 County Rd. 36; 970-879-0342;
Contact the local ranger station
(925 Weiss Dr.; 970-879-0273;
exploresteamboat.com) for info,
maps and suggestions.
RCI affiliated resorts in
Steamboat Springs include:
LEGACY VACATION CLUB
Fabulous views of Mount Werner
can be seen from the slope-side
suites. 1000 Highpoint Dr.
“This was our first vacation exchange,
and we were pleasantly surprised by
the resort. The view out over the town
from the huge window, visible from
both living room and bedroom, was
beautiful, especially at night.”
LEGACY VACATION CLUB
Centrally located, with hot tubs, mini
golf and outdoor grills for an evening
barbecue. 1485 Pine Grove Rd.
“The resort was a wonderful distance
from local shopping and the botanic
gardens, and only an hour or less
from several state parks.”
WORLDMARK STEAMBOAT SPRINGS
Fly-fishing, mountain biking and
Class IV–V river rafting make this
a great spot, even outside ski season.
900 Pine Grove Circle
“The resort has an indoor pool and
both an indoor and outdoor Jacuzzi.”
WYNDHAM VACATION RESORTS
This is the perfect place to call home
while exploring the mountains—there’s
an indoor pool, two outdoor pools and
three outdoor hot tubs. 900 Pine
“The beds were very comfortable and
the master suite had a tub with Jacuzzi jets.”
Kick back and relax in the whirlpool,
or venture out to the mountains, less
than a mile from the resort. 3400/3377
“These units are beautiful and elegant,
with cherrywood decor and gas fireplaces.
The location is excellent—lovely views,
plus a bus stop (free bus) at the development.”
For complete member reviews
(as member reviews have been condensed)
and additional resort listings,
visit RCI.com or call
Club Members, please call your specific
Club or RCI telephone number.
Non-RCI Affiliated Resorts:
CANYON CREEK CONDOMINIUMS
2740 Eagle Ridge Circle; 800-276-6719;
two-bath units from $390 per night
THE HOTEL BRISTOL
917 Lincoln Ave.; 970-879-3083;
from $109 per night
855 Grand St.; 970-879-1467;
from $149 per night
1175 Bangtail Way; 970-879-9000;
from $278 per night
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
Published: Fall 2011
Photos: Corey Kopischke/Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association; Larry Pierce/Steamboat Ski Resort