Swimming Hole

Tucked into the mountains of northwest Colorado, Steamboat Lake has everything you need for a quintessential summer weekend.
July 2012

Colorado has no shortage of scenic mountain reservoirs, and some of them are even bigger than 1,011-acre Steamboat Lake. But few feel so remote. No interstate highway roars past this shoreline, and the nearby village of Hahn’s Peak looks like a seldom-used frontier outpost. Thirty miles to the south sits the city of Steamboat Springs, but no pavement penetrates the wilds north of the park, where the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests extend across the Wyoming border and the next town (the hamlet of Encampment) is a half-day’s drive away.

Steamboat Lake is isolated, but it’s got all the ingredients for an idyllic summer weekend: sweet lakeside camping (or cabin-ing, if you book one of the park’s 10 tiny cottages), homemade roadhouse food, and activities that span the spectrum from nap-inducing sessions on a raft to lung-burning hikes up 11,000-foot peaks. Even sugar junkies can find their fix: Every week, Carolyn White (aka the Fudge Lady) cooks 75 pounds of silky chocolate to sell at the marina’s general store, and the 20-year-old tradition has made her a local celebrity.

After our first night on Bridge Island, we decide to earn our fudge by mountain biking the Coulton Creek loop at Pearl Lake, a smaller state park located seven miles to the southeast. A number of wild and scenic bike routes explore these Park Range mountains—none of them easy—but we choose Coulton because of the loop’s high singletrack ratio (only two of its 19 miles are on true roads).

We drive 10 minutes to the Pearl Lake trailhead, and after another 10 minutes huffing up the forested path, we feel like we’ve plunged into the back of beyond. My tires roll over soft pine duff and blaze past fields of bright orange mule’s ears. Often, the smooth singletrack lets me savor the scenery, but occasional rocky sections and the constant aerobic challenge grab my attention from time to time. The biggest thrill, however, is the solitude—we see no other trail users until we spill onto the two-mile Seedhouse Road segment in the middle of our journey.

Back at the car, we’re coated with a paste of sunscreen and salt, but we resist the urge to jump into Pearl Lake and drive instead to the swimming beach near our campsite. The afternoon’s 85-degree temperature has made this small strip of sand popular with families, who roast burgers over grills at nearby campsites and bat volleyballs along the shore. We find a spot for our towels, then sink into the water, which only shocks us for a second. It’s surprisingly warm for a high-mountain reservoir (8,100 feet in elevation), allowing us to splash and float for 20 minutes before we crawl onto the sand to relax.

Mountains form a serrated border around Steamboat Lake’s azure waters. Unlike the rounded, tree-covered summits around the city of Steamboat Springs, these peaks have more in common with Wyoming’s Wind River and Teton ranges, which appear steely and stern. Steamboat Lake can be harsh sometimes, too, especially when surprisingly strong blasts of wind sweep across the water, lifting kiteboarders off the surface and hurling them hundreds of feet across the water.

Lying prostrate on the beach, Ben and I won’t likely catch such air. But we do plan on piloting a boat across the lake tomorrow. The beach’s parking lot is shared by the marina, which rents a variety of watercraft, from paddleboards and canoes to fishing trollers, ski boats, and pontoon party barges. None approach the swimming zone, but we can hear the distant buzz of motors from elsewhere on the lake.

The sun lulls me into such a state of lethargy that I don’t want to exert the energy it would take to cook the spaghetti I’d packed. Instead, we drive three minutes to the Hahn’s Peak Café. There are a few other restaurants in the area, but the town’s folksy eatery draws us in with a flower-rimmed outdoor deck and the obvious stamp of owners who are passionate about their food.

D.J. and Katie Bessey bought the place eight years ago and transformed both its menu and its vibe by serving home-baked sandwich breads and desserts, and adorning the walls with locals’ landscape paintings. Their kids are coloring pictures by the kitchen entrance while D.J. mans the wooden bar. A band sets up in the corner. The cafe’s signature green chile is filling, as is Ben’s Reuben (served on thick slices of homemade rye), but we order dessert anyway. The rich chocolate Guinness cake more than soothes our sweet tooth. “We should stay for the music just to burn this off,” I propose. The Hahn’s Peak Café is a much-loved gathering spot that lures locals out of their rural hidey-holes and onto the dance floor most summer weekends. But instead of shimmying to the tunes, Ben and I drift back to our lakeside camp to catch a repeat of last night’s celestial show.