I’ve been meaning to visit Steamboat Springs for many years but somehow I didn’t make it there until this January. I was skiing whenever there was snow in the forecast and while I usually try to avoid skiing on weekends, Colorado had a slow start to the season and Steamboat was expecting some snow.
On January 6th, somewhat on a whim, I packed up my gear and drove up. One thing I love about this new freedom is that I can travel spontaneously. While I have a general outline of places I plan to go, I can adjust my plans in the moment. Fortunately, I also had amazing neighbors who loved watching my dog whenever a trip like this came up.
Once exiting I-70 at Silverthorne, I headed north. Most of the front range weekend traffic turns south on the exit towards Keystone or A-basin. Both are places I enjoy, but not ideal when you want to avoid lift lines, parking issues, and traffic. Steamboat is a good 3-3.5 hour drive from Denver so it’s also not a ski area you’d visit for just the day.
I drove past the beautiful Green Mountain reservoir and at Kremmling I turned towards Rabbit Ears pass. As I came up the pass, the snow started. The road was tough to see, and the few other cars driving in that direction were traveling slowly. It was a sketchy drive down to town.
That evening I arrived in Steamboat and walked through town. Downtown Steamboat has a fun mountain vibe, plenty of restaurants to choose from, and plenty of night life. I found a place to grab a quick bite and look up places to park my truck for the night. There is no overnight parking allowed anywhere in Steamboat, let alone car camping.
This was my first night winter camping in my truck and I didn’t realize what a challenge this would be. I had done it plenty of times over the summer and fall, but that was when I could easily drive up clear trailheads.
I drove around a bit and finally settled on a lot that appeared to have overnight parking. I’m sure that camping wasn’t allowed, but I was tired after the drive and wanted to get some rest. My bed wasn’t built yet, so I was staying on the bed floor or my truck (more details on the build and planning in another post soon.) All things considered, I was pretty comfortable. It was about 20°F and still snowing when I went to sleep. I had a warm sleeping bag and got some shut eye. Sometime around 2 or 3am, the snowplows began clearing the area around me. It was so loud, and not what I wanted at the time. I also knew that I couldn’t exactly leave the car because I was not supposed to be there in the first place. I waited about 45 minutes until they finished clearing the lot and got back to sleep. The good sign with the snow plows was that I knew it was still snowing and the next morning there would be good skiing.
I got up early and drove to the main lot, I was one of the first ones there and got to park right up front. When I arrived at the gondola, it was a different story. It was packed. I thought that I would only get a couple of fresh turns before it was skied out. Fortunately, I was wrong. I grabbed a trail map as I jumped on the gondola and examined it closely on my ride up.
I figured that the runs to the North east of the Storm peak express lift would be the best bet. I skied right down there from the gondola and hopped on one of the first chairs. Visibility wasn’t great, but I was able to scope out a bit of a line to the left of the lift (“Triangle-3) just off the groomed trail and a bit in the trees. It was perfect. Powder, face shots on the first few turns. A couple of small pillow jumps, smiling the whole way down. I got back on the lift laughing like a kid who had just sled down a hill for the first time. Do it again. Same result. It was awesome.
More and more people made their way over to that lift, so I skied down “Morningside Park” and took the lift up to drop into the “Chutes.” Steep terrain, but even an hour or two into the day, it was untracked. I stopped at the top of a cliff drop and looked down. I could point my skis for a steep drop and come sliding out in a fresh powder field. It was still snowing a bit, and I was getting after it.
The skiing was so good there that there was no reason to explore elsewhere on the mountain. “Bar-UE” and “Storm Peak” lifts were the best places to be. “Crowtrack, the ridge, and the chutes”, all morning.
The clouds finally cleared, and I had to venture a little bit further out for fresh snow. I made the 10 minute hike to “east face.” Worth it. Steep and deep. The skiing out there requires a little bit of a hike out, and it takes you along “last chance” towards the “Pony express” lift. This lift was still closed for the season, but following the boot-pack I met up with a couple of other skiers who were visiting from New Zealand. They told me they were also heading that way. They’d skied there earlier in the day and they said, “Yeah, you could go out that route, but this one is a lot more fun.” I joined them, and yes it was. More awesome turns the whole way back down to the cat track. I don’t endorse skiing out of bounds, in fact, I’d never have done it had I realized it was closed. The boot pack out led there and it looked like the only way out, so I took it. A very good end to day one at Steamboat.
I sat out on the tail gate of my truck, looked out at the mountain, and reflected on my day there. I was also thinking of where I should park to stay the second night. The last thing I wanted was a repeat of my first night.
Lake Steamboat is about 20 miles away and I knew that there were some amazing camping areas up there so I drove up that way. Every trailhead was buried and it was getting dark. After a full day of skiing I was getting tired and wanted to rest before the next morning. I found a place to pull off near some camp grounds.
The views under the stars were incredible, and it was silent, almost too quiet. I couldn’t sleep. After a while I could hear coyotes howling in the distance. It was cold, much colder than the first night and I wasn’t sure why. I made the mistake of resting my snow covered skis by my sleeping bag and it was wet. I woke up multiple times tossing and turning. I turned on my car to move and the thermometer read -5°. Without a proper sleeping pad, a wet bag, and sub zero temperatures, no wonder I was cold. Around 6am I decided to head back to town. The sunrise was breathtaking. Every color you could imagine over the slopes. I had to stop to look at least a few times. The pictures don’t do it justice.
Today I knew the conditions weren’t going to be the same so I thought it would be a good time to rip some groomers and explore the rest of the mountain. “Valley view” was right under the gondola and was pretty much empty. Perfect for some high speed turns. I got after it, run after run. I took a gondola ride with a small group taking lessons. Their instructor asked me what I did for a living, and when I told them about this trip he suggested I apply to instruct for the following season. Noted, perhaps there’s a winter job in my future.
Later that afternoon I headed back to Denver for the night so I could rest before going to ski at Winter Park the following day.