Inside the American cowboy town that became a multi-million-dollar ski resort

Steamboat ski resort Colorado America
Steamboat has morphed from a small frontier town into a big-dollar ski resort thanks to a recent $200 million investment

“Do you hear that sound?” asked my host Ray Heid, sun-crinkled and dressed in his signature cowboy hat and homemade elk hide duster, as he turned to look up at a plane flying through the brilliant blue haze above. “That’s the sound of money coming into Steamboat.”

We were on horseback, me following gingerly in Ray’s hoofprints as we ambled through the snowy wilderness 20 miles from the town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Born here in 1937, Ray has been riding horses and skiing since the age of four. Now at 86, he’s witnessed first-hand how Steamboat has morphed from a small frontier town into a big-dollar ski resort that – thanks to a recent $200 million investment by its owner Alterra Mountain Company –  is now the second largest in the state after Vail.

I had arrived in Steamboat a few days earlier, but this was not my first visit. I skied here in the early 1980s when my parents, stationed in Texas for work, took the family skiing in Colorado. Having ticked off some of the state’s larger resorts they fell for Steamboat’s small-town charm, family-friendly skiing and affordability. Returning some 40 years later, I was curious to see if the multi-million-dollar investments had dampened the town’s rugged Western spirit.

Set deep within the Rocky Mountains in northwest Colorado, some 70 miles north of the I-70 highway that links Denver to the state’s busiest slopes, Steamboat wasn’t always a ski resort. Settled by ranchers in the late 19th century, it was named Steamboat after the “chug chug” sounds of the nearby hot springs.

From the beginning locals navigated the snowy plains on homemade wooden skis but it was the arrival of Norwegian Carl Howelsen in 1913 who showed them just how much fun snow could be. Howelsen built a ski jump, launched a winter carnival and established what is today known as the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club (SSWSC), a training facility that has coached 100 Olympians, more than any other town in North America.

Steamboat ski resort Colorado America
The resort was named Steamboat after the 'chug chug' sounds of the nearby hot springs - Duke

Among the earliest was Ray, who grew up on Howelsen Hill along with his cousin, three-time member of the United States Olympic Team, Buddy Werner. Steamboat’s Mount Werner was named in the skier’s honour after he was tragically killed in an avalanche in 1964. Today, Howelsen Hill is reserved for the SSWSC, and young Olympic hopefuls click on their skis the moment school’s out.

Those past their Olympic prime, me included, take their skis to the newly reimagined Steamboat Square, part of the recent investment project that has overhauled the base area into a wide-open space with new dining, shopping and après options.

Crucially, there is also the new-for-this-season 10-person Wild Blue Gondola that whisks skiers up to Sunshine Peak at 3,221m (Steamboat itself sits at 2,103m). It pauses halfway up to deposit beginners at the swish new Greenhorn Ranch Learning Centre. The summit is the starting point for adventures among the resort’s six peaks and 3,741 acres (165 km) of trails, including the newly opened Mahogany Ridge and Fish Creek Canyon. Until this season, this area of expert gladed terrain was only available to backcountry skiers prepared to hike in.

Steamboat ski resort Colorado America
The resort's new gondola whisks skiers up to Sunshine Peak at 3,221m - Duke

But before tackling the new slopes my guide, Kari Rillos, wanted to show me what the locals call the Sunny Side of the mountain. We started along Tomahawk, a gentle, wide curving run with perfectly groomed snow and cinematic views over the snow-blanketed plains of the Yampa Valley. In the distance stood Elk Mountain, known locally as the Sleeping Giant. Next, we tackled Quickdraw and High Noon, their names echoing the town’s ranching roots, before ducking into the trees.

Runs that in Europe might be designated off-piste are in Steamboat proudly highlighted on the ski map: skiable glades peppered with perfectly positioned aspen and fir trees are everywhere. We started with the family-friendly Sunshine Olympian Trail where panels showcasing the town’s athletes are scattered among the trees. Shadows was more challenging, but Twilight was my favourite. The sun streamed through the tree branches and the snow was soft and light underneath as we navigated our way over bumps and between the frost-covered aspens. It was the perfect run – and markedly more successful than when I last tried skiing among the resort’s famed trees aged nine.

“That’s what Steamboat is known for, our gladed skiing,” said Kari. “That and our snow.”

Steamboat ski resort Colorado America
Steamboat's trademarked Champagne Powder is the stuff of legends - Duke

Steamboat’s trademarked Champagne Powder is the stuff of legends, so light and fluffy and dry that you’re said to float through it. My trip coincided with a run of bluebird days so I didn’t experience the sugar-like powder but regardless, the snow was divine: a fresh dusting among the trees, corduroy tracks on groomed slopes and oodles of soft stuff on the more challenging runs.

On my second day we headed over to Mahogany Ridge and tackled Edge of the World, the only run in the newly opened terrain that is groomed. It’s a glorious, long sweeping run that allows you to dip in and out of the trees along the way.

“Steamboat has always been known as a gentle mountain,” said Olympic mogul skier Nelson Carmichael, who moved to Steamboat aged 12. “This new expansion gives skiers the opportunity to try something a bit more challenging.”

Accessing Steamboat’s wonderfully varied terrain comes at a price, however, particularly if you don’t purchase the multi-resort season-long Ikon Pass. While it’s a given that lift prices are more expensive now than they were 40 years ago, it’s not uncommon for one-day rates to soar well above the $200 mark; one woman I spoke to on a chairlift admitted she had paid $280 for the day.

Steamboat ski resort Colorado America
The town itself has a 'community feeling' - Your Mountain Moments Photography

I spent my final afternoon wandering along Lincoln Avenue, Steamboat’s main drag lined with historic low-rise buildings. Rather than the luxury designer shops that populate so many ski towns, I found local craft makers, artists and family-run stores; F.M. Light and Sons has been pedalling Stetson hats and cowboy boots since 1905.

“That’s the thing about Steamboat,” said Caroline Lalive, another Steamboat Olympian. “It has the best community feeling, it’s not just a ski town.”

So far, at least, it seems that Colorado’s now second largest ski resort hasn’t lost sight of its pioneer roots. Let’s hope that doesn’t change.


United Airlines flies from London to Denver from £536 return. Flights from Denver to Yampa Valley Regional Airport from £114 return. Winter rates at The Steamboat Grand start from $439 (£346) (001 877 306 2628; Steamboat Springs is a member of the Ikon Pass.

Katja Gaskell was a guest of Colorado Ski Country USA, United Airlines and Steamboat Springs Resort