Steamboat isn’t on the road to anywhere, but locals like it that way. After all, isolation is precisely what’s preserved “the ‘boat’s” unique character and kept its population from ballooning beyond a livable 10,000 residents. No interstate highway roars through town. Instead, Lincoln Avenue and its false-fronted buildings (some with covered wooden sidewalks) remains Steamboat’s de facto Main Street, the community crossroads where local teens check each other out and friends converge for a sandwich or a pint. Cowboy hats are worn without pretense—ranchers still work the land, and locals enter the weekend rodeos—but bicycles now outnumber horses on area trails, which thread among aspen-ringed meadows and rounded, spruce-topped mountains (Steamboat’s 10,500-foot summits sit below treeline). And everyone—families, tourists, dogs, anglers, paddlers, and overheated athletes—flocks to the Yampa River, which flows right through town and offers easy-access swimming and tubing.
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Your perfect weekend
Steamboat’s best wildflower displays brighten the hike to Rabbit Ears Peak, so make this your first stop on your way into town. From US 40, turn right toward Dumont Lake, drive 1.5 miles, and turn left to park by Forest Road 29 and the start of this three-mile (one way) hike. Follow the old logging road through meadows of yellow glacier lilies and 360-degree panoramas of the Park Range to the base of the Ears (which are crumbly enough to complicate climbing). Then drive into town for al fresco lunch at Creekside Café, which parks its tables on a flagstone patio beside Soda Creek. Down a Cobb salad or a Yampa Valley beef burger, then don your swimsuit and head for the river.
Tubing is a beloved Steamboat tradition, and in fact, tubers’ skyrocketing numbers (due largely to an increase in concessionaires) have aroused concern for the waterway’s health. So enjoy the Yampa, but don’t litter: Wear secure shoes, leash your phone, and let no beverage containers escape your grasp. If you’ve brought your own river tubes, you can fill them at any gas station and put in at Rotary Park, at the intersection of US 40 and Mt. Werner Circle (take out at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and deflate tubes before riding the free city bus back to your car). Or sign on with Backdoor Sports, which provides tubes and shuttle services. Either way, expect a two- to three-hour float combining sleepy flatwater and Class II rapids.
Tubing ceases to be fun by late July, when low water levels expose rocks that make the trip more punishing than pleasant. Go swimming instead: Park beside Dr. Rich Weiss Park to plunge into pools both cool and hot (this is where the downtown hot springs drain into the Yampa).
Afterward, stroll or drive to Ciao Gelato, where Lynne and her Italian-born husband Massimo make frozen confections that are just as good as the Old Country’s. Check in at the Hotel Bristol, where mosaic tile brightens the bathrooms, Pendleton blankets cover the beds, and the Lincoln Avenue location puts downtown attractions within an easy stroll. But if you’d prefer to escape town’s bustle, try the Mariposa Lodge, on the edge of town: Its wraparound porch overlooks pastures grazed by Percherons.
Once you’ve showered, stroll downtown’s sidewalks until you reach the new E3 Chophouse, which hosts Steamboat’s most scenic Happy Hour: Claim a table amidst the riverside flower gardens or belly up inside at the bar (garage-style doors dissolve the boundary between indoors and out). Relocate for dinner at bistro c.v., where Chef Brian Vaughn turns summer’s bounty into delectably innovative dishes. The grilled romaine salad (graced with truffle dressing, white anchovies, and country ham) is one of the few mainstays—everything else, from the house-made pasta to the wagyu beef and diver scallops—receives a makeover with each wave of just-harvested mushrooms, vegetables, and herbs.
If it’s a Friday or Saturday night, stroll across the river to the Brent Romick Rodeo Arena to watch some bull- and bronc-riding. Even the intermissions are wildly entertaining, since that’s when the “Ram Scramble” invites kids from the audience onto the dirt to chase down an improbably swift and nimble sheep.
Next morning, head to Winona’s to savor one of nine versions of Eggs Benedict or lemon-poppyseed pancakes (box up one of their famous cinnamon rolls for later). Then venture forth for a road or mountain bike ride. The valley’s byways may not be butter-smooth, but they’re splendidly scenic—and many see scant auto traffic. Steamboat Resort has expanded its downhill trails in recent years, so that lifts now serve some 50 miles of bermed turns, step-downs, and wall rides. And Emerald Mountain (which towers above Steamboat’s downtown) offers a sprawling network of buff and flowy singletrack. Signage is spotty, but that doesn’t much matter: Bring a sense of adventure and, starting behind the rodeo arena, pedal uphill till you hit the ridgeline or get tuckered out—whichever comes first—then descend the way you came, back down to town.
Grab a sandwich at Backcountry Provisions (which specializes in creative combos, such as turkey with stuffing, brie, and cranberry sauce) or Steamboat Meat and Seafood (for reubens and other classics). Then, reluctantly, turn the key and start your drive back to Denver. You may have acquired other souvenirs, but one is guaranteed to perk you up on your return: your cinnamon roll from Winona’s.
Festivals for All of Us
Time your visit for one of these events to give your weekend extra bling.
Mustang Roundup, June 12-14. Saturday’s car show is glorious (they sure don’t make care in such flamboyant colors anymore!) but Friday’s Autocross is not to be missed: Watch Cobras and other classics careen around a twisty course while engines emit the kind of rumble that’s worthy of Steve McQueen. http://rockymountainmustangroundup.org/
Hot Air Balloon Rodeo, July 12-13. Even locals—who see at least one of these colorful orbs take flight nearly every day—thrill at seeing whole teams of balloons take to the skies. This same weekend also hosts Art in the Park, an assembly of craftsmen, artists, and other creative vendors. steamboat-chamber.com
Steamboat Wine Festival, August 6-10. The only way to make Steamboat scenery seem more beautiful is to enjoy it with a glass of wine in hand. http://www.steamboatwinefestival.com