Hiking, biking, soaking in Steamboat Springs pristine mountain air.
Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin.
Like many people in 2021, I chose domestic over international travel, open space over urban centers. Steamboat Springs, Colorado, was the perfect choice-pristine countryside, blue skies, and enough to do to peak my activity barometer.
My usual route to Steamboat Springs was a short flight to Denver, a car rental accompanied by a scenic three-hour drive wending through some of the prettiest countries in Northwestern, Colorado, replete with panoramic views of peaks and meadows before descending into Rabbit Ears Pass. The eroded large rock towers resemble rabbit ears, and the pass opens into the mountain resort of Steamboat Springs. Due to Covid this last year, car rentals were as scarce as silver dollar coins, so I flew to Hayden, Steamboat Springs airport, 30 minutes from Steamboat Springs. My brother retrieved me, but there are daily busses that go to and from the airport.
Steamboat Springs attracts the young and adventurous, families and seniors, and everyone else who thrives in nature or prefers unpretentious over pretentious environments. In the winter Steamboat is all abuzz with skiing, but summer affords a more diverse insight to this mountain community, renowned for sapphire skies, friendly people, and the Yampa River. Yampa is a root vegetable that grows along the riverbanks. In a less dry summer season, fishing, canoeing, and tubing are favorite activities on the Yampa, but this summer was atypical. Due to the low water levels and exceedingly warm weather plaguing the West, fishing and water activities are strictly prohibited on the river at this juncture.
Historically, the Ute Native Americans were the first inhabitants in Steamboat Springs, drawn to the region’s geothermal mineral springs. Today, the two most popular year-round springs for a soak are Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs and Old Town Hot Springs swimming pool and mineral baths. Strawberry Park Hot Springs stone-lined pools measure 147°F at their source. The seven-mile dirt road up to Strawberry Park rewards bathers with a natural, wooded setting. Beware of the chipmunks if you bring food. The cute little critters habitually rifle through backpacks searching for food while the unsuspecting bathers soak.
Old Town Hot Springs offers an urban setting in town. It heats to a 103°F at its source with eight mineral pools and a large mineral swimming pool. There’s a slide for kids, a mineral jacuzzi for adults, and a shaded grassy area. Locals, families, and medicinal pleasure-seekers frequent these pools. While you need wheels to reach Strawberry Hot Springs, and reservations due to Covid are required, Old Town Hot Springs is easily accessed by the free bus that circulates and drops off near the hot springs or you can take your hotel shuttle if you don’t have a car.
Perhaps the best way to grasp the size of the mountain range is to whizz to the top in a gondola at the ski area. The 2,200 vertical climb ends at 9,080 feet atop Mount Werner. The mountain is named in honor of Buddy Werner. Born in Steamboat Springs, Werner competed in three Olympian alpine and Nordic skiing events, retiring at age 28. Shortly after his retirement, while in Switzerland, he died in an avalanche.
Once atop Mt. Werner, hike one of the numerous trails off the mountain. Keep in mind for those individuals accustomed to sea level, Steamboat Springs rises 6900 feet above the sea; the air is thinner and the sun more intense. Pack water, a hat, and sunscreen if hiking.
If pedaling is more to your liking, there is no dearth of bike rental options in town from mountain to ten-speed bikes or electric bikes. Prices are reasonable and bikes rent from one to three hours, half a day or the entire day. My favorite bike path is the 8 mile Yampa River Trail. The trail isn’t difficult and has plenty of access. I never miss a chance to stop at the free Yampa River Botanical Gardens along this route. Moseying through this luscious urban oasis of twisting paths, seasonal blooms, ponds, and trees is a favorite with locals and visitors. For the more adventurous bike enthusiast, there are mountain and dirt trails galore ranging from 357′ to 1000′ elevation.
For hikers, Steamboat offers numerous accessible trails. If this is your first time in Steamboat Springs, the Fish Creek Falls trail loop is a grand hike. Access is easy with various levels of difficulty. There’s plenty of places to picnic, and the dog is welcome too. The entrance fee is $5.00 a day. Another popular hike is the four-mile Emerald Mountain Quarry Trail with glimpses of Mt. Werner. For hikers who prefer a heart-thumping climb, the 6-mile Rabbit Ears Peak Trail proffers a stunning view of the Continental Divide.
Admittedly, I don’t partake in two of Steamboat’s popular pastimes, golfing, and fishing. Steamboat prides itself in being a golfer’s paradise with five picturesque courses to tee off from; three are public, and all are located minutes from downtown. The golf scuttle at the Sheraton Resort is the most coveted course to play on.
With the Yampa River low this summer, fly fishing wasn’t an option, but Steamboat Lake State Park was and continues to be the best place for catching fresh trout.
Whether you stay on the mountain, near the lake, or further afield, eventually you’ll end up in the center of town strolling down Lincoln Avenue. While there is a smattering of art galleries, independent boutiques, a divine bookstore, bakeries, and ice-cream parlors, the town is also a mecca for food. Eateries serve up organic delights from kombucha to fat, juicy steak, many with delightful happy hours from 4-6 pm. My favorite was the casual Taco Cabo with a view of the river. Attire– flip flops and t-shirts. Patience is a must here because there is always a substantial line to order. Best to order, then sniff around for an outside table, grab a local brew from the outside bar and wait for your food. If you are in town on Saturday, don’t miss the farmer’s market in the center of town.
Alas, my cowpoke days have ridden into the sunset, but anyone who has spent time in Steamboat knows this area has a larger-than-life history of cowboys and cattle ranches. Today, much of the land has given way to homes or gentrified ranches, but horseback riding is still a favorite in this area. So, if you are looking to saddle up for a guided ride, put on your Stenson and pull on your boots before heading to either Saddleback Ranch, Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch, or Steamboat Stables-all a tad bit out of town.
It’s true. Visitors come to Steamboat for the outdoor adventure, but the town also boasts a stunning cultural center on the mountain, Strings. During the summer, Strings offers several free outdoor concerts on the lawn, as well as paid concerts with an outdoor stage. This is a heavenly venue surrounded by verdant mountains, gentle breezes, good music, and vibes. This is one of my favorite stops when visiting Steamboat Springs.
Truly, we have all experienced an enormous amount of uncertainty over this last year, yet I uncovered one certainty: whether as a traveler you choose to bike, hike, soak, tee off, dine, or simply breathe in the natural beauty blessing this mountain town, Steamboat Springs is a mighty fine place to kick back and relax, that’s for certain.
IF YOU GO:
Travel and trail information is online at the City of Steamboat Springs website.