Story and photos by Lynn DeBruin
The tiny flashlight was pointed downward as I deftly negotiated the dirt and pebble-strewn path toward the hot springs. But my eyes kept drifting high above the trees, at a mesmerizing sky ablaze with a million stars.
It was so dark – and yet so bright – on this moonless night that skinny-dipping at Strawberry Park Hot Springs wasn’t even a worry. It simply was a matter of where to enter the 103-degree waters and which boulder to drape my clothes over for later retrieval.
Thank goodness I wore a white sweater during the winding, 25-minute drive from the hotel through the pine-and-aspen forest above the ski resort. It’d serve as a distant focal point – my foggy lighthouse so to speak – to maintain one’s bearings in the natural pools while my body melted under a nighttime canvas painted with the Big Dipper, Milky Way and no less than six shooting stars.
There are many beautiful places in the world, but few rank as perfect as this idyllic spot high in the northern Rockies, where clothing optional and no children allowed after dark is part of the allure.
Then again, to many, Steamboat Springs already is paradise.
There is the ski resort, with its hundreds of ski-in/ski-out slope-side rooms, its iconic director of skiing, former Olympian Billy Kidd, and of course the famous champagne powder that often falls by the foot on the 165 trails of Mt. Werner.
But unlike Vail, Copper Mountain or Keystone to the south, there also is a real town, 10 minutes away from the slopes, with a historic downtown, rustic as well as fine dining, and even an old-fashioned candy store where everything from Pez dispensers to sugar straws and suckers fill the shelves.
“It’s a town first and foremost,” said former Austin resident Jonathan Hieb, co-owner of Sweet Pea Café on the Yampa River in downtown Steamboat Springs. He called the town, with its 10,000 or so permanent residents, a small community, where everyone has everyone else’s back.
“It’s like-minded people – outdoorsy, healthy, who love good food – and we just happen to have this amazing hill to ski on as an added bonus.”
Hieb’s café used to be a former roadside fruit stand that has been converted to a market and health-conscious restaurant that serves up as much local produce as possible.
“This has been a vision of mine for seven years,” said Hieb, who once franchised Chili’s restaurants in Austin and hated every minute of it. He finally could afford to buy the property when the economy slowed, prices dropped and developers with big plans called wanting to sell. Now he has a menu that features a beet salad, with the towel-rubbed veggies marinated overnight in olive oil, orange juice, rock salt and a touch of truffle oil. “It was probably the wrong time to buy, but I just knew the idea I had was going to work,” he said. “I believed in it.”
Another former Texan, Donna Downing, calls her new home simply paradise. “You spend so much time in the Yampa Valley and then it’s got you, that old Yampa Valley curse,” she said during one of the town’s many festivals. “It has it all. And the people are wonderful.”
Along the river, new and old sit side by side as kayakers and tubers in all shapes and forms float by.
Set on the river, Sun Pies offers cold beers and fried oysters, and a place for the river runners to crawl up the banks and dry off.
Long-timer Kidd, now 66 and 46 years removed from his silver-medal run at the Innsbruck Olympics. reminded me four months earlier of Steamboat’s unofficial motto during one of his free mountaintop ski clinics. “Come for the powder; stay for the summer,” he boasted. He did many decades ago.
So did Hieb, who sold his BMW seven years ago, bought an old, black truck, tossed in his dog and skis and headed toward Jackson Hole, only to pull into Steamboat Springs at 3 a.m. to rest. “I woke up and there was about a foot of fresh snow. I didn’t even know you could ski here,” he said. He never did make it to Wyoming.
Living it up
While the local rugby tournament is called the Cowpie Classic and one can still find horse and human shampoo next to each other in the Safeway, Steamboat Springs isn’t without some hip hot spots. On a recent Friday night, the Ghost Ranch Bar was pulsating to the sounds of Filthy Children, a funky, seven-member Indie brass band with sexy vocals from Jenny Anderson.
Even the crowd was eclectic, with three cowboys in Wranglers having wandered in after a steak dinner and cattle auction. They stood near a young man with an expensive fitted leather jacket and silky red shirt. The rest of the dance floor was littered with dozens of others in shorts and T-shirts. Instead of a cab or shuttle back to the hotel, Ghost Ranch had its own School of Rock-like black van for delivering guests safely home.
Two blocks away, Harwig’s-L’Apogee offered a fancy dining experience, albeit in a relaxed atmosphere. I chose the chevre leek ravioli appetizer with arugula and a pear vinaigrette balsamic glaze, followed by the pheasant breast with summer squash, haricot verts and a warm, cherry vinaigrette.
But there were plenty of other tempting choices, from the lamb sliders and the grilled Turkish-styled octopus to the ostrich entrée – all accompanied by warm asiago cheese bread.
Tip: Before leaving check out the decadent deserts, take a tour of the wine cellar, with its private dining and cork roof, and view the creations displayed on the walls upstairs and down each week by a different local artist.
Tee it up
Haymaker Golf Club might not look like much as you drive by on State Route 40. But the wide undulating fairways are kept in great condition, with trouble to be found in the thigh-high native grass and water hazards. Of course, the west-facing runs of Mt. Werner serve as a fine backdrop.
Rollingstone Ranch offers even more of a challenge. The Sheraton’s resort course winds along the flanks of Mt. Werner, with the scenic Fish Creek flowing through six of the holes and two small lakes placed strategically on Nos. 8 and 9.
Also nearby is Steamboat Golf Club, a 9-hole gem that borders the Yampa River, as well as Catamount, the latter of which you’ll need to know somebody to get on the private Tom Weiskopf design that features a 530-acre lake.
Steamboat Lake is only about 20 miles north as the crow flies from downtown, but it takes about 45 minutes to reach by car as it winds along the Elk River, through ranch country and past fields of blue lupine and yellow mule’s ears wildflowers. When the rainbow trout are biting, be ready.
The novice fisherman that I am, I managed to haul in a 4-pounder one early fall morning. That same day a former colleague scored a trophy fish – an estimated 7 pound cutbow – though he was so worried about getting it back in the water for someone else to enjoy I never got an exact measurement.
Other friends say the Yampa River is good for brown trout and rainbow, while Hahn’s Peak Lake and Pearl Lake (lure only) also are great for catching fresh-water fish.
There’s nothing fancy about Steamboat Lake, or its accommodations.
Steamboat Lake Outfitters offer cheap, clean, no frills bunk rooms a few miles away for $89.
Then there’s the tiny cabins by the marina that come equipped with two bunk beds, electric heat, a tiny refrigerator/freezer and outdoor fire pit perfect for grilling fish, warming up turkey stew or toasting marshmallows before easing back in a folding chair to soak in the night sky.
Restrooms/showers are in a nearby building, close enough not to worry about wildlife and with hand-dryers for those days when one’s cameras inexplicably go for a swim.
Strawberry Park is open year round, and each season offers a different experience. There’s nothing like soaking in 103-degree mineral water while champagne powder is falling and mist is rising off the water. In the fall, the surrounding aspen trees offer another unforgettable experience.
In spring and summer, the drive up the windy, washboard (the last two miles) road is less harrowing, and it’s a lot easier to negotiate the steps down to the springs.
What2Bring: A small flashlight will help you find your way in the dark so you don’t end up in the river, or a campground. But be sure not to flash it over the water as guests will heckle unmercifully at the invasion of their privacy. Water socks are a good idea as is an over-the-wrist car key holder, plastic drinking bottles (the signs claim no alcohol or glass), towels, and cash (entry is $10 for adults and they don’t accept credit cards).
Check it out: Massage and Watsu therapists are available from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Prices range from $50 for a half-hour massage to $180 for two hours combining both therapies.
Stay2Play: Rustic cabins are available for rent for $60 a night. The simple, single-room log cabins come with one double futon, and feature gas lighting, heat and gas grill. Guests need to supply their own bedding material, food (in a cooler), flashlights, swimsuits and towels. Two-story rustic cabins are a little more spacious and offer gas fireplaces, with exclusive access to a central bathhouse with hot showers and flush toilets. Cost: $70 for two per night. Extra person: $20 adult, $10 child.
Caboose: The most popular way to go is to rent a renovated train caboose, complete with fireplace, bathroom and shower, full-size futon, linens and stocked kitchenette. Cost: $110 for two per night.
Other choices in Steamboat Springs can be found at Steamboat.com.
Visitors can choose between Stagecoach or Steamboat Lakes for their trips, and go for an hour, for a sunset cruise or a full day. Special requests also can be made for larger parties or multiple day use.
For more information, contact Steamboat central reservations at 1-877-783-2628.
Steamboat is known for its champagne powder and perfect summers, but fall is also a great time to visit as well. It is less crowded, the fish are still biting and there’s great weather for hiking, fishing, golfing or biking. There’s also some great drives for the leaf peepers.
1. Rabbit Ears Pass gets its name from the granite outcroppings that are visible on a mountain in the Park Range. Though the area gets a considerable amount of snow in winter, it is ablaze with wildflowers in spring and offers great fall views, especially on the east side as it approaches Muddy Pass Lake.
2. Steamboat Lake. The drive along County Road 129 cuts through open meadows, and follows the Elk River past majestic Hahn’s Peak to the small lake, just 20 miles (as the crow flies) south of the Wyoming border.
3. Flat Tops Trail. The 82-mile scenic byway tour from Meeker to Yampa (south and west of Steamboat Springs) traverses the scenic upper White River valley and crosses Ripple Creek and Dunckley passes. Almost the entire drive is lined with aspens and there are many scenic lookouts to pull off, making it one of the best for taking in Colorado’s fall colors.
Be warned. The only downside to Steamboat is a problem plaguing much of the Colorado Rockies. Beetle kill. The Lodgepole Pines have been devastated, with as many as 90 percent of the mature trees infested and dying. Park officials estimate they cut down 10,000 dead trees near Steamboat and Hahn’s Lake. Younger trees and other species, however, are unaffected so there’s still plenty of green to see.
For more information on everything about the parks, visit http://parks.state.co.us/Parks/SteamboatLake/Pages/SteamboatLakeHome.aspx.