In Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the snow is powder-fresh and the town is a winter wonderland.
Colorado’s Steamboat Springs is known for its famous Champagne Powder and reputation as a winter wonderland, so after hearing talk of new gondolas and big upgrades, I needed no convincing to pack my bags and hit the slopes.
Leaving Auckland on a hot summer’s day for zero degrees seemed a tad crazy at the time, but the feeling was temporary. I felt like a superstar standing on the tarmac in Hayden, Colorado, just a short hop from Denver in a plane small enough to get to know all the occupants.
The skies were beautifully blue as we flew over the Rockies. My adrenalin was pumping, not from the bumpy flight (which it was) but from knowing I was in for a mountain dream experience like no other.
I was a source of amusement to three local lads, Bob, Jesse and Duke, as I arrived in shorts, having had no time to change at Denver airport. As I shared a ride to Steamboat Springs with them, they only upped the anticipation about the famed “Champagne snow” that was due to fall.
In the Rockies, they use this term to describe snow that is ultra-fluffy, light and smooth to ski, with just 6 per cent water content (compared with at least 15 per cent in most areas). It is so unique that Steamboat Springs has trademarked it.
Steamboat Springs sits at a bend in the Yamba River, an area rich in minerals. It was known as the “bubbling springs”, and the indigenous Ute Indian tribe believed it had healing powers, thus, it was named Medicine Spring.
As the first of our group to arrive at One Steamboat Place (our luxury lodging for the next four days) right on happy hour, I changed into more appropriate attire and then sat by the roaring fire to indulge in a cold beer and pulled pork sliders as amped skiers told me stories of their day.
Luxury accommodation company Moving Mountains, which offers high-quality holiday experiences, took care of our every need while we were in Steamboat Springs. This began with a private catered dinner for our group of six in our apartment. This was not going to be any ordinary ski trip.
After breakfast at the lodge, we picked our skis up — all waxed, named and lined up ready to go — from the valet. It was just a 50m walk to base camp, where we found the gondola and our guide for the day, Dave. I only hoped my powder-hound legs could handle what was coming.
There was not a cloud in the sky, and more snow was due to arrive by lunchtime. Dave whisked us up the new gondola Steamboat Springs, which has transformed the mountain by increasing moving capacity by 1000 people per hour.
As a source of local stories and knowledge, Dave assured us “the challenge at Steamboat Springs is to be fearless in the trees and the forest”. Though this sounded intimidating at first, he kept us well away from any other skiers and found the famous patented “Champagne snow”, which really was the soft and fluffy stuff it was made out to be.
I got a false sense of nailing the powder, as he found us the perfect conditions (with trees not too close together), so we first-timers could experience the very best of Steamboat Springs. We stopped for lunch at the cosy mountain restaurant Ragnar’s, where I had a Reuben sandwich stuffed full of pickles, cheese and corned beef, with a cup of roasted red pepper soup. I had re-energised for the afternoon.
By now large fluffy flakes were falling outside and I didn’t want to miss a minute of this snow. On returning to the lodge, we stepped out of the skis, and the valet took care of them. It was all too easy to adjust to this.
I got the feeling Steamboat Springs has its own natural rhythm full of characters, many of them old family names in the valley and many who “came for a winter and have never left”. I met a hardcore group who skied all 145 days that the mountain was open last season. Steamboat Springs is also proud of the thriving young athletes that it produces, and the free Friday skiing on Howelsen Hill, where locals get the opportunity to have an ex-Olympian put them through their paces.
Back in the warmth of our lodge, we popped into happy hour before wrapping up warm for a sleigh ride and dinner at the Haymaker (which is a golf course in summer). On arrival at the Haymaker, we received delicious nibbles and a hot toddy. Then we put on our ski gear (advisable) and the draft horses and sleigh looped us around the grounds.
We were surrounded by the starry skies and rolling hills of the Yampa Valley. Dinner was a feast of local meats, wine, and sticky date pudding to top it off.
The mountain view from our apartment was so gorgeous that we had breakfast there to savour every moment.
Today’s ski guide mentioned that summers are even more popular than winter. His enthusiasm is unequalled, listing his many physical hobbies as skinning, mountain runs and biking, all of which he competed in. Throughout the day he guided us ahead of the crowds to secret spots where we had free rein of the ski runs.
It was hard to drag myself away from the slopes for other activities, but if there is one apres-ski adventure you must do, it is a visit to the truly magical Strawberry Park Hot Springs. No froufrou here, no cell phone coverage, no cafe, not even a tourist shop. It is a wild remote valley with hot steaming pools surrounded by snow and trees. Getting the shoes off to trudge through the snow to the hot pools only adds to the adventure.
For a shock factor, there was a pond at the natural freezing cold temperature of the surrounding streams that fill up the pond. The cold plunge into the freezing pool had to be done just to save face.
We had pre-booked into the rustic-chic restaurant Laundry, known as one of the most popular restaurants in Steamboat Springs.
Bison carpaccio and truffle and parmesan fries were just a couple of the delicious sharing plates that provided us with a huge array of taste sensations from around the world, with an American twist. The whiskeys, tequilas and house-infused vodkas are also worth visiting for. Following dinner, we went to a two-step bar, Schmiggity’s, where the young locals swinged away in formation to modern country rock.
We dragged ourselves away from the snow for an enchanting morning experience close to my heart. As someone who grew up riding horses on my family farm, horse riding at Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch was a particularly special activity. There is nothing like being in the country and breathing that early morning crisp air.
The ex-racing horses and farm horses were big-hoofed and boisterous, fit for the deep snowy conditions. The horses took us on a well-trudged circuit for a good couple of hours. One can only imagine how beautiful it would be in summer, through snow-covered aspen trees.
Checking out the town and country scene that Colorado is renowned for is a must. No fur coats or swanky dresses here, Steamboat Springs is down-to-earth, with plenty of cowboy hats, boots and belts on offer. You could be sitting by a famous CEO, an ex-Olympian or a film star but would never know.
Up at 8am, there was no time for leg fatigue. We had a quiet ride up on the chairlift in anticipation of the famous First Tracks and the pristine Corduroy runs, with nine inches of fresh snow and a perfect sun rising over the mountaintops.
The powder was completely untracked and we had the runs to ourselves. After two hours hard at it, the legs were burning, and we stopped for a quick coffee at the quirky Paramount Cafe before packing and very sadly exiting our One Steamboat Place lodgings. Leaving Steamboat Springs in a snowstorm seemed fitting, with more perfect snow falling for the next punters.
The next stop was Winter Park, 160km away, over Rabbit Ears Pass. Although the visibility was slight we managed to see some golden eagles circling. The breeding grounds of these long-winged beauties in the United States are mostly on the western side, preferring the topographic features of wide open areas with short vegetation, mountain ranges, or rolling hills, which means Colorado is an ideal habitat.
On arrival in Winter Park, it was -15 degrees, so our dinner trip up the gondola was delayed. The village sits at the ski resort’s base and includes many shops, restaurants, and bars. We enjoyed a meal at Vertical Bistro, dining on local produce in a relaxed, fun atmosphere.
Winter Park offers some skiing in and out of your hotel, or it is a short walk to the first gondola. Thankfully, our stay at the Zephyr Mountain Lodge included hot tubs, ideal for weary legs.
DAYS 6 and 7
Winter Park mountain, connected to Mary Jane mountain, has fabulous mid-mountain areas for beginners, wonderful furry spruce trees lining the ski down, and wide-groomed pistes. It was a blessing having our tour guide Katie, who found us knee-high light and fluffy powder to fall into and set a challenge. With so much snow falling, visibility was minimal.
Queue-hopping with Kate was a luxury when there is so much terrain to cover. The terrain on Mary Jane is challenging and you can’t help but think she is watching over and laughing as the moguls swallow the skiers. “No pain, no Jane.” Don’t get too comfortable here.
Lunch was at a fancy restaurant on the mountain with 360-degree views and we huddled around a pot of hot chilli soup, sipping cocktails, and eating pizza to recharge for the afternoon. This place caters for all needs, from a simple mac n cheese for the kids to a decadent long lunch. Winter Park also has night skiing, snowcat rides and ski biking for the daring. Sounds dreamy, right? Well it is.
I was blown away when we skipped any traffic queues and hopped on the Express train back to Denver, leaving the glorious snow and people from Winter Park behind. We walked the 50m to the train that had brought day-trippers from the city in the morning — they were on the mountain skiing by 9am.
As our train departed, the apres-ski party started on board. The bar was pumping as we sidled our way through the stunning mountains, singing and telling our skiing stories and refilling our glasses along with the locals.
Arriving at Denver Union Station after such an adventure was exhilarating. It was my first time in Denver and the city felt alive, with squirrels scampering up trees and people bustling into bars and restaurants as dusk fell. We dined at Le Bilboquet, a five-star French restaurant packed full of locals in the know. The food was extravagant and extremely tasty — seared tuna, wagyu beef tartare and delicate duck confit. Not to mention the truffle fries!
On the final day, light snowflakes were falling as we did a tour of the main sights of Denver including the obligatory photo on the “One Mile Above Sea Level” step at Colorado State Capital, which is, as stated, literally one mile above sea level.
Civic Park was full of amazing sculptures, among these, the Big Sweep, and The Yearling, along with the Blue Mustang at Denver airport. There was so much to view in these artsy streets, museums, and markets.
Transitioning from skiing the best Champagne powder in the world to wining and dining in style was effortless, and the transport very accessible. Colorado is full of passionate people living their dreams, happy to open up their world to travellers.
For now, though, it was back on board the flight home, with happy memories and the dream of revisiting one day.
Angela travelled as a guest of Travelplanski.com, Coloradoski.com and Winterparkresort.com. Travelplan offers a variety of Steamboat and Winter Park ski packages, including discounted accommodation, lift tickets and airfares.