Vacations are wonderful for two reasons – the experience itself and the memories that they generate. The most vivid recollection I have of a recent winter visit to Steamboat Springs with my two daughters is not the snow-packed ski trails that have lured me to this resort for most of my adult life, but the pristine solitude of a trail ride through a frosted glen of Aspen with a magnificent view of the venerable "Sleeping Giant" mountain range.
Not to suggest that the skiing was not great. It was, as always. But family ski vacations, which were once manic and single-minded sprints for the slopes, can today accommodate all manner of outdoor activities, while introducing kids to an eclectic range of winter sports. I know that what I am about to write is close to heresy, but I have learned that winter visitors to a destination resort like Steamboat need not even put on a pair of ski boots to have a great outdoor experience.
But first, the skiing. Steamboat is not known for steep, gravity-defying terrain that draws skiers to Squaw valley or Crested Butte. Nor is it famous for champagne powder runs through untouched glades. What it does offer is an ever-expanding choice of ski terrain and snow for all but the hottest skiers. My daughters Eve, aged 14, and Morgan, aged 10, are both good, solid intermediate who skied confidently throughout most of the mountain. The key word here is "confident." There is little sense turning a young skier’s once-in-a-season major ski trip into a nerve-wracking battle against fear and good sense. Steamboat has prospered because of its well-deserved reputation for providing all skiers with challenging terrain that does not scare the hell out of you.
The wide, intermediate level slopes off Sunshine Peak were a morning favorite. Had there been more fresh snow I would have lead them down the open glades of Shadow, which has been thinned to accommodate less than expert skiers. As the day progressed, we’d head over to the Nastar and Steamboat Race Series courses, run on the Bashor trail. After winning a medal or two, we’d cruise the nearby Bear Claw and Vogue trails, which are perfect for long, sweeping turns.
This area is served by the Bashor chairlift, where we never encountered a line. Many skiers make the mistake of assuming that the higher up a mountain you go the better the skiing will be. At Steamboat, this mentality often leaves great intermediate skiing down Vagabond off the Thunderhead Express chairlift and the fast cruising runs off the Christie and Bashor lifts to a few smart, and tired, contrarians.
When I was a teenager I lived to ski. My daughters are more casual enthusiasts, an attitude which lead us to explore options that had never been part of my ski vacation itinerary.
Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch is a short ride and a world away from the ski resort complex at Mt. Werner. No horsemanship skills are required for the two-hour trail ride. Even if the animals were of a mind to be feisty (and they are not!), the narrow trail broken through many feet of snow leaves them no such option.
Del himself leads and when necessary breaks the trail, which runs through his rolling 300 acre ranch. The day was bright and clear, frigid and brisk, but we never felt cold or bored. The land’s quiet, ever-changing beauty was broken only by the labored breath of our horses as we rode through fields and forests of Aspen trees. To our south was the wide expanse of the Yampa Valley, home to Steamboat Springs. To our north, the resting place of the Sleeping Giant range, which has been featured in many of my bedtime stories over the years.
In their quest for new modes of winter transportation, my daughters chose to forgo skiing in order to spend a morning in one of the hot air balloons that hover ubiquitously in the skies above Steamboat. This was not an option I would have chosen. My ski vacations have always been just that, ski vacations, but the exhilarating trail ride had widened my horizons and I was game for anything.
Ballooning is a surprisingly low-tech enterprise, from the old-fashioned basket in which we rode to the simple mechanics that enabled us to take off from a parking lot in the shadow of the slopes, ride west to an altitude of 2000 feet, locate winds moving in the opposite direction and descend close to our point of departure.
Like the trail ride, ballooning offered a surprisingly quiet communion with the environment, broken only by the occasional firing of the propane burner to maintain our altitude. Our noiseless ascent lacked any sensation of movement. Yet as the balloon rose, we enjoyed an ever-expanding perspective. The Yampa Valley and the river of the same name, the town of Steamboat, the coal train from nearby Hayden, and of course the ski mountain and Sleeping Giant all appeared in a new, remarkable perspective.
When we reached 2000 feet, one of our passengers jumped out. As he fell he quickly disappeared, and it was only when his parachute opened one thousand feet below us that we were able to follow his fall.
"If you don’t pay," threatened our pilot, balloon owner Marty Pearlman, "you’re next." We decided that it was a good time to descend.
Our postponed departure from Steamboat – bad weather forced the cancellation of our flight – was transformed from a source of aggravation into an opportunity. We had left our slope-side condo and so decided to stay in the town of Steamboat at the Rabbit Ears Motel, whose neon pink rabbit ears have welcomed generations of travelers entering the town along Route 40. The town of Steamboat is now dominated by shops catering to the tourist and ski trade, but its architecture still recalls its past as a small town catering to the ranches and mines that were once its lifeblood.
Steamboat Health and Recreation Association is located just across the street from the Rabbit Ears Motel. In all of my time as a resident and visitor to Steamboat I had never entered the place. Whenever the urge to lounge in a hot springs struck, I had always headed out of town to the natural pools at Strawberry Park.
The center’s outdoor Olympic-size pool, featuring water direct from the mineral hot springs, was terrific and uncrowded. As guests at the Rabbit Ears, we were even entitled to a discount! My girls headed straight for the water slide and soaking pools, where I joined them after a few laps. As we gazed at the cloudless, nighttime sky above, our delayed departure from Steamboat didn’t feel so bad after all.
For more information on family travel in Steamboat, check out my article under Destinations here.
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