For me, Steamboat Springs was a vacation ski resort where I’d occasionally spend a week when I lived in Florida. Colorado was always my favorite ski destination; so, now that I live here, I’m in heaven, and have my choice!
But so many other great ski mountains are closer to us than Steamboat; and it is really a destination, not someplace you drive by. We always flew into Hayden airport, rather than make the drive from Denver, as we did for the other resorts. So, now that I’ve lived here for just over a year, I’ve been to most of the other resorts in winter, summer, and whenever we felt like a drive. Steamboat, however, has been a bit out of reach for a daytrip, or so I thought.
Last weekend, we decided to bite the bullet and strike out for there in the effort to explore new areas in Colorado. We thought that if we got an early start, we’d be able to get there and back before too late at night. Well, the best laid plans…. We didn’t set out until about noon. Just after Idaho Springs we spied a herd of the phantom wildlife had eluded us since we moved here—bighorn sheep! We were so amazed that we exited I-70 and took a frontage road to the hillside where they were grazing. Last year, we braved freezing and windy conditions to visit Georgetown’s annual Bighorn Sheep Festival only to come up empty. Saw lots of pieces of dead sheep, though, courtesy of the informative rangers with telescopes also braving the conditions. The herd was a glorious sight, with a few males with huge curled horns eyeing us suspiciously and several unconcerned females and kids.
Finally, breaking away, we continued on to Georgetown for gas…then lunch (The Alpine—good choice!)… Although already way behind schedule, we spent more time for lunch than we ordinarily would, finding the Alpine delightful, tasty, and historically significant. Evidently it had been Georgetown’s original train depot, built in 1877 to accommodate the Colorado Central Railroad. After the gold and silver rushes declined, the railroad abandoned its line west of Idaho Springs, and the empty depot fell into disrepair. It eventually sold for $50 and became a restaurant. A large toy train runs on tracks above the bar section, suspended from the ceiling. It is an interesting place to visit and eat—great homemade meatballs!
After leaving Georgetown, for some reason our GPS took us all the way to Silverthorne to catch Route 9. So, we exited I-70 at Silverthorne, and after yet another “quick” stop at the Target there, headed north. By now, we were questioning the wisdom of our ambitious drive in the shrinking remainder of the day. We pressed on, however, and soon passed the turnoff for Cataract Lake, which we had recently explored. The hunters were still out in force.
Then, gnawing concern for the length of the drive gave way to fascination with the remarkable evolution of both landscape and weather conditions. For many miles, one would have thought we were driving through Nevada desert flatlands on straight roads flanked by endless cattle grazing fields. There were few mountains in sight.
As we approached Kremling, the terrain changed dramatically to what appeared to be treeless sand dunes. It turns out that just beyond Kremling is the Walden sand dune campground and dunes (often called North Sand Dunes). It is northern Colorado’s answer to great sand dunes that provide endless fun and entertainment for 4-wheelers and dirt bikes. Not having the time to explore, we forged on to Kremling, where we turned onto route 40 towards Steamboat. Kremling is an old-timey cowboy town that looks somewhat down on its luck.
As we neared Steamboat, we climbed in altitude for the first time since I-70, and the landscape changed dramatically. Up until now, the weather had been in the 60s, and there wasn’t a drop of snow in sight. Suddenly, we were immersed in a fairytale winter wonderland with thick picturesque pines trimmed with snow, and at least a foot of snow on the ground. People were snowshoeing, sledding, and even skiing! It was an absolutely gorgeous area.
We began to descend as we made our way into Steamboat Springs. We wanted to go directly to the slopes to see if there was a chance of taking a gondola to the top of the mountain we had skied so many times. We headed for the ski-in, ski-out Sheraton located at the lifts where we used to stay. By then, however, it was quite late in the day, the sun was waning, and there was no evidence of gondola rides. We learned there was currently one guest at the Sheraton—he must have gotten a dynamite deal!
It was still fascinating to see the place sans snow. It really is a great ski town made famous by Billy Kidd, the silver-medaled Olympic skier in the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics. In World Cup races in 1966, he was out-racing Jean-Claude Killy, until an injury sent him back to UC Boulder. Here he got a degree in economics. His injuries eventually ended his pro career, and in 1972, Kidd, who is part Native American,permanently relocated to Steamboat Springs. Here he remains the Steamboat Springs Resort’s director of skiing. During the winter, guests can ski free with him every day at 1pm. His ski tips, instruction and stories are priceless.
We decided to find a place to eat before beginning the long drive back. We chose the historic Ore House at Pine Grove Ranch. The restaurant is housed in a 100-year-old barn which is about as old as Steamboat Springs itself. It is the oldest restaurant in town, has great food, atmospheric interior, and is filled with memorabilia such as original old stoves and wagon wheels, and lots of old photographs. If you stop there, don’t miss their special house potatoes—incredible!
This time, our GPS had a different plan for the trip home, and kept us on route 40 through Granby, Grand Lake, Winter Park, Empire and finally I-70 close to Idaho Springs. It was a bit tricky and eerie in the dark navigating the many high-elevation hairpin turns, while the massive peaks from the Rocky Mountain National Park loomed to one side. However, it was an awesome experience, as the full moon illuminated the snowy peaks and mountainsides providing enough light for us to enjoy the surroundings. In spite of the windy way home, the trip took much less time on the way back.
I would highly recommend a day trip into this part of Colorado north of I-70, where you see scenery not seen in most other areas. Just get an earlier start in the day to enjoy it all in daylight!