Department

Swimming Hole

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

As the sun goes to bed over Steamboat Lake, the landscape takes on a Monet-like quality. The sky and the water melt together in a blur of color and light that compels me to heed my husband’s advice. “Let’s leave everything in the car for now,” Ben suggests once we locate our campsite at Steamboat Lake State Park. I nod, grab only the camp chairs out of our overstuffed Pathfinder, and face them toward a sunset that’s warming the sharp summits towering above the lake. Our site, located on a peninsula called Bridge Island, makes us front-row spectators to glistening water, jagged mountains, and the light show overhead. Not all of the park’s 188 tent and RV sites sit along the lakeshore, but those that do get snapped up fast: We’d reserved this patch of paradise weeks ago, and the planning was worth it. From our chairs, gazing up at streaks of pink and orange, we listen as wavelets slap the gravelly shore. “I wish we had a canoe,” I murmur. A sunset cruise would be lovely, especially one departing right from our campsite, but a boat is one piece of gear the SUV simply could not accommodate. “This is nice enough,” Ben replies, holding a frosty can in one hand and holding my hand with the other.

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.

The next morning, after downing camp coffee and bacon, we consider taking a hike before our boat trip begins at 1 p.m. Sand Mountain (10,847 feet) and Hahn’s Peak (10,849 feet) dominate the horizon and require short hikes of less than three miles one way; we opt for the 1.7-mile trek to the fire tower atop Hahn’s. A 10-minute drive lands us at the trailhead. From there, the hike initially follows a jeep road but soon narrows into a footpath that contours across meadows and emerges past wind-stunted trees for the rocky push to the summit. The panoramas underscore just how unpopulated this area is: In every direction, we look out over wide swaths of undeveloped country. We can hardly make out roads or houses—just a rolling sea of green and gray in all directions.

Back at the marina, we waste little time hitting the water. The rental clerk points out our pontoon boat and gives us basic instructions on how to drive it; then we haul our cooler onboard and chug slowly away from the docks. I can barely wait to toss our burgers on the grill (most pontoons are equipped with propane cookers), but Ben insists on waiting till we’ve hit open water.

The mountain views unfold as we leave the shoreline behind, and initially they’re enough to keep us entertained. Then, to suss out what our craft is capable of, we throw the throttle to max speed—which turns out to be a pretty sluggish pace (the pontoon fleet is new for 2012, but these barges are no speedsters). Finally, Ben gives the OK to fire up the grill, and we motor into a quiet cove to relax.

The sun scorches my back as I flip the patties, but I’m enjoying it. I’ll cool off with a splash in the lake after lunch. For now, I’m savoring the interplay of sun and heat, along with the burger’s overpowering aroma and the sound of water smacking the boat’s hull, in a moment of delicious discomfort that feels like pure summer.

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Stay: Steamboat Lake State Park is located 185 miles northwest of Denver. Lakeside campsites fill quickly; reserve well in advance. Daily park pass $7/vehicle; campsites from $18/night. 970-879-3922; 1-800-678-2267 (reservations); www.parks.state.co.us/Parks/SteamboatLake

Boat: A private concession within the park, the Steamboat Lake Marina rents camper cabins (from $80/night) and boats. Nonmotorized crafts start at $35, fishing boats at $70, and pontoon boats at $179; a MasterCraft ski boat (with driver, water skis, surf and wakeboards) starts at $450/half day. 970-879-7019; www.steamboatlakemarina.com

Eat: Hahn’s Peak Café, 61070 County Road 129; 970-871-1495.