Steamboat Summer

By Glenda Winders // Photography by Noah Wetzel/Steamboat Springs Chamber
This Colorado town offers more than skiing

The mention of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, conjures images of colorfully clad skiers sailing down the mountainsides of the magnificent Rockies. But what happens in Steamboat when the snow melts and summer arrives? Quite a lot, it turns out.

“The saying goes, ‘If you come in the winter, you come back every year; if you come in the summer, you never leave,’” says Gary Suiter, Steamboat Springs city manager. “It’s a very different vibe. The summer is very active with tons of events, and it is generally more affordable. We are a family-friendly resort, and many families visit us in both summer and winter.”

What to do
Floating on the Yampa River tops the list for locals and visitors alike because you can splash your way through downtown and stop to eat, shop or visit a park before heading back out. The city has divided the river according to use, leaving a quiet upper stretch for fly-fishing anglers seeking rainbow and brown trout. The 7.5-mile paved Yampa River Core Trail runs alongside the river and ties together the city’s parks and other recreational venues. Walkers and bikers can stop for a rest at several scenic spots that include the Yampa River Botanic Park, a 6-acre sanctuary filled with gardens, ponds and sculpture. If you’re seeking an airborne adventure, see Yampa Valley from the sky in a hot air balloon tour. These 45-minute flights, offered by Wild West Hot Air Balloon Adventures, feature breakfast snacks and a Champagne ceremony.

“We are a year-round outdoor playground and a historic resort town where Western heritage meets endless adventure,” says Sarah Konopka, communications manager at the Steamboat Springs Chamber. “Summers are filled with tubing the Yampa and soaking in the hot springs, golfing among the peaks and valleys, and exploring the abundant lakes, rivers and streams that dot the landscape.”

The city came into existence because of the hot springs where Ute Indians gathered to bathe and later homesteaders came to socialize. It got its name when trappers passing through heard a natural mineral spring and mistakenly thought it was the chugging sound of a steamboat. All of that being the case, you can’t come here and not take the waters.

Because the town grew up around this natural phenomenon, the original Old Town Hot Springs is smack in the middle of town. The kids can enjoy the waterslides and climbing wall while you rejuvenate in the springs or take advantage of the fitness center. At Strawberry Hot Springs, in a wilderness about 15 minutes away, soak in pools surrounded by an aspen grove at the edge of the scenic Yampa Valley. Then have a massage or try Watsu aqua therapy. This place is so rustic and tucked away that you’ll want to hike in to save your car; one of the ways to do that is on the scenic Mad Creek Trail, near the Zirkel Wilderness Area, where a network of trails winds through fields of wildflowers, canyons and fern forests. Along the way take a dip in the creek or climb up into a rustic barn loft for a picnic. Not a hiker? Not to worry — hotel shuttles will happily deliver you to the spa.

Ski season is over, but you can still enjoy the mountain. Ride the gondola to the midpoint on Mount Werner and enjoy more hiking, mountain biking, yoga or lunch. At the base of the mountain are Burgess Creek Beach, where children can play in the sand and splash in mini waterfalls while their parents relax, and Gondola Square, where the whole family can play a round at Maverick Mini Golf or ride the Outlaw Mountain Coaster, the longest in North America.

Be sure to take in the Steamboat Pro Rodeo Series, which celebrates the area’s heritage every weekend from June to August. Or if cowboys aren’t your thing, check out the summer schedule at the Strings Music Pavilion, where you’ll find a range of music from classical to rock ’n’ roll. And don’t miss the Steamboat Art Museum, which celebrates the culture of northwest Colorado.

Where to eat
Despite Steamboat’s population of only 12,000 people, there are 130 eateries here, ranging from international cuisine to coffee shops, high-end restaurants to small cafes. If you choose to start your evening with an adult beverage, check out the Steamboat Whiskey Co., the area’s only distillery, or one of several craft breweries, including Mountain Tap Brewery and Yampa Valley Brewing Co.

A real treat is to sip a margarita on the rooftop deck at Salt & Lime. Downstairs it serves Mexican food with a twist: bison tacos, lamb with roasted poblano peppers, tuna tostadas and a spicy dish called Chorizo Vampiro.

“As our community shifts into the summer season, so do our restaurants,” says Rex Brice, owner of this restaurant and six others. “We update most of our menus seasonally, and in the summer we strive to include as many fresh, light, local ingredients as possible. The Laundry, for example, is constantly updating its menus to include only the freshest seasonal ingredients in small-plates dishes, and a refreshing house-created craft cocktail pairs wonderfully well with a summer evening.”

Dine beside the Yampa River at Aurum Food & Wine, where you’ll find more seasonal produce and creative American fare, such as almond and cauliflower crusted Scottish salmon and oven-roasted ginger and hoisin chicken breast along with shared-plate options and a kids menu. Check out its signature cocktail menu for “Smoke and Fire” and “Bringin’ Spicy Back.”

Ore House at the Pine Grove is a steakhouse that takes pride in serving never-frozen Angus beef, and its history is as tasty as its dishes. Originally a barn when it was homesteaded in 1889, it has also served as the residence of a state senator and a Russian count. Or take the gondola to Hazie’s at the top of the mountain to enjoy an elk loin dinner with an unbeatable view.

Where to stay
Because Steamboat has so many visitors, lodging is abundant. Options range from B&Bs, hotels and motels to condos, guest ranches and private homes. Downtown offers Hotel Bristol, which bears the name of the man who built it in 1948, when building materials were once again available after World War II. You won’t be able to miss the Rabbit Ears Motel — also downtown — because you’ll be greeted by a large pink neon sign featuring a smiling rabbit’s face. At one time, the highway department wanted to take the logo down to build a new road, and at another period, locals complained that it was an eyesore. Today, the sign is a kitschy historic landmark.

Because you’re in cowboy country anyway, why not stay at a guest ranch? These are all-inclusive, so once you check in you don’t have to worry about added costs.

From June to August the Elk River Guest Ranch operates as a dude ranch, which means horseback riding, wildlife spotting, hiking, fishing and learning backcountry skills during overnight campouts. The property is secluded but still close to town, and the owners encourage guests to take part in their sustainable lifestyle and eco-friendly practices.

The Home Ranch is a Relais & Chateaux property, so you can expect luxury, even though the setting and the program are all about the outdoors. Here are also whitewater rafting, bicycling, rock climbing and yoga in addition to the usual ranch activities. While families come to be together, a group of counselors will keep your children engaged and entertained if you decide to take part in another activity. Farm-to-table meals provided by chef Jonathan are adventures that feature meat and produce grown right on the property.

At the Vista Verde Guest Ranch, also located in the Elk River Valley, you can enjoy many of those activities plus rock climbing, ballooning, swimming, visiting the fitness center, campfires, cooking classes and wine tasting. Horse-related activities include trail rides, family rides and clinics to improve skills, with riders keeping the same horse throughout the entire visit. Secluded cabins here are rustic on the outside but luxurious on the inside, and there are no TVs or telephones, making for a pretty nice way to retire for the night.