Steamboat’s Trademarked Snow
By William C. Triplett
There are so many reasons to ski Steamboat Springs – the slopes, the shops, the restaurants, the hot springs, to name just a few – but the main one for me is the snow. I know, “Champagne Powder™” sounds like such a marketing hook, the kind fabricated by hotshot ad execs in L.A. or New York who’ve never been on a pair of boards.
Then you ski it. And, oh my… you understand why it’s the only snow in the world that’s been trademarked.
It all has to do with Steamboat’s location in the northwest corner of Colorado. Storms tracking in from the Pacific first hit the Rockies here, where much of the moisture in the air evaporates, reducing the snow’s water density by more than half the density of what falls elsewhere.
I’ve never skied bad powder – is it even possible? – but I’ve also never experienced anything quite like Steamboat’s. Normally, you have to adjust your technique in powder. But here, you ski as if it’s not there, not changing a thing in what you do, because it’s so amazingly dry, light and wispy. Just try making a snowball out of it.
I first skied here some seven years ago. I live on the East Coast, I love skiing the West, and I loved my time in Steamboat. But wanting to hit resorts in Utah and Wyoming as well as others in Colorado over the years, it wasn’t until this most recent ski season than I made it back. I just wish I’d returned sooner.
Day one was a spectacular bluebird with brilliant sunshine glistening off a patchwork of white slopes and trails. I hopped on the gondola to mid-mountain, then gradually made my way toward the Sunshine Express lift on one of the far ends of the resort. Lots of pitch to choose from – greens, blues, blue-blacks, and blacks – all great for a shakeout day, given it was my first outing of the season.
The next morning, I woke to a heavy storm – snow and wind everywhere – that had rolled in just after midnight. From the window in my room at the Steamboat Grand, I could barely see Gondola Square, maybe a hundred yards away. I usually don’t enjoy skiing in storms, but I try to make the final call on the mountain, after one run. Off the gondola, I followed some blue trails over to the Four Points lift, and the snow and wind picked up. I then rode up to the Four Points Lodge and decided to hang inside for a while.
A couple of mugs of tea later, the wind and snow stopped as the clouds suddenly disappeared, as if swept aside by some divine hand. Now there was nothing above except blue sky and that brilliant sunshine again.
Below? The stuff of miracles – that powder, up to the top of my boots. Doubtlessly no big deal for the locals and others who ski Steamboat regularly, but for me it was pretty close to nirvana to glide through it all as it blew up from my shins. I headed for the Bar-UE lift and mostly stayed on trails in the area, just floating my way down, skiing as if indeed the powder wasn’t there. Only it was, and it was magical. I even ventured a couple runs through one of Steamboat’s renowned glades of aspen and spruce. (In recently listing Steamboat among its top five resorts in the West, Ski magazine said it has “some of the best lift-served tree skiing anywhere.”)
It was a banner day. By the time the lifts closed, much of the powder had been skied out, and it didn’t snow again during my stay. But that was fine by me – with or without its special powder, Steamboat is a big, friendly place that will keep you occupied with 169 trails, many of them blues and blue-blacks and what I call entry-level black diamonds, cut across nearly 3,000 acres. (Intermediates looking to get better: Put the ‘boat on your list if it isn’t already.)
There were banner nights, too, such as dinner on-mountain at Four Points Lodge. Yes, there’s night skiing at Steamboat now, but the lodge isn’t accessible by any of the trails open after dark. You take the gondola to mid-mountain, where your limo – a snowcat – awaits. Pile into the comfy, heated cabin with maybe four or five other people, and you’re in for a helluva ride as well some startling views and a superb meal.
One of the other great meals I had was in downtown Steamboat at Mazzola’s Italian Diner. Pretty authentic fare, I must say (don’t pass up the Sicilian Mussels, if you’re at all inclined to shellfish). Downtown is maybe four miles from the resort, but one of the many nice things about staying at the Steamboat Grand is its regular – and free – shuttle service. Drivers drop you right where you want to go, and when you’re ready to come back, just call the hotel for pick-up.
It’s worth spending some time just strolling around downtown, day or night. Local officials and merchants have done a nice job of preserving the old frontier vibe from the 1800s when cowboys and ranch hands lived in the area. (There’s still a lot of ranching going on.) Drop into FM Light & Sons, which opened in 1905, if you’re looking for a Stetson and maybe a pair of hand-tooled boots to match. Or take a walk down Lincoln Avenue for a more contemporary feel with its art galleries and gift shops.
One afternoon, I headed out to Strawberry Park Hot Springs, one of many hot springs in the area. I’d been to Strawberry Park before and wanted to see if anything had changed. Fortunately, no – it was still the cozy oasis I remembered. In fact, I can say the same thing I said when I first visited, describing it as “a collection of several pools that you might say are nestled in an Eden-like setting, had Eden been located in the mountains amid pine trees and rock slabs. The pools vary in temperature, the majority just slightly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s quiet, remote, and unlighted” – kind of perfect after a full day of skiing.
All that plus a brand new gondola along with more esplanade added to Gondola Square means it won’t be another seven years before I make my next trip to Steamboat Springs.