Ski resort exudes Old West panache

  • Article by: PAM LEBLANC , Cox Newspapers
  • Updated: January 28, 2012 - 12:53 PM

The rugged slopes and cowboy verve of Colorado's Steamboat Springs has spawned many Olympians.

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Horsing around on the slopes: Professional rodeo cowboys competed in the 38th annual Cowboy Downhill ski rodeo Jan. 17 at the Steamboat Ski Resort in Colorado.

Photo: Larry Pierce, Associated Press - Ap

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Like your ski town with cowboy flair?

In Steamboat Springs, Colo., residents gallop on horseback down Main Street, pulling people riding on snow shovels, and ranch hands strap on skis and careen down slopes like they're aboard bucking broncos.

That's only during the Winter Carnival (slated for Feb. 8-12 this year) and Cowboy Downhill (in mid-January), of course, but the Old West flavor pervades the place year-round.

I channeled my inner cowgirl last spring, in the midst of one of the best snow years in recent memory.

In Steamboat, they call big snow years "four-wire winters," because the snow stacks up to the top wire on area fences. In all, the Steamboat Ski Resort recorded more than 400 inches of the white stuff during the 2010-11 season, well above the 352-inch average. So far this year, they're inching up to near 100 inches.

We didn't complain. It meant plenty of fluff to cushion my falls as I followed my husband through the pine-and-aspen-spackled terrain, honing our tree-dodging skills. We also got to see what the locals call "ghost trees," a line of pines near the mountain's top caked with so much white they looked like human giants, frozen into place.

In all, the ski area covers nearly 3,000 acres and boasts 3,668 vertical feet. Of that, just 14 percent of the resort's terrain is designated for newbies. Forty- two percent is intermediate, and 44 percent is advanced.

Kids get five lifts all to themselves, and Rough Rider Basin features kids-only terrain, plus tepees and a frontier-style fort.

A gondola lift keeps things moving, whisking eight skiers at a time to mid-mountain. We started each day on it, then peeled off to explore Storm Peak, Sunshine Peak and Mount Werner, where this year some of the trails have yet to open.

If you like things hairy, check out some of the chutes, narrow slicks just 40 feet wide with a 30-degree incline. One even has a tabletop-shaped jump at the bottom. (Not that I know this firsthand; I've just been told about it.)

At Steamboat, it's all about tree skiing, and I recommend getting off those busy groomed thoroughfares and trying it.

Head to runs called Closet, Shadows and Twilight and you'll be in heaven. Or seek out a vaguely defined area called 2:30, which doesn't appear on official mountain maps but blends the area between runs called 2 O'Clock and 3 O'Clock. It was one of our favorite spots.

The key? Control your speed. Use the dips and divots beneath each tree to slow you down. Enjoy the scenery. And check out the birds, squirrels and porcupines that hang out away from the hordes, too.

All that rugged terrain means folks who grow up on these hills learn how to ski. Steamboat has spawned 63 winter Olympians -- more than any other American ski town. Among them? Billy Kidd, who became the first American man to medal in skiing at the Olympics in 1964. He still haunts the slopes here, where he serves as director of skiing.

The term "champagne powder" was coined here, too. We're not sure what that means, but we presume they're referring to the delicately rising bubbles in the bubbly. Maybe that equates to fluffy snow.

About the only thing we don't love about Steamboat is that the ski area has only one main base area. That means that at the end of the day, all skiers are funneled into the same place. Heads-up as you head in on the milk run, people.

We stayed in a lodge at the mountain base, a seven-minute drive or a short shuttle ride from downtown. If you're looking for nightlife, opt for town. If you're only about the skiing, pick from slopeside options. If you want inexpensive and kitschy, we can't resist the neon bunny-themed sign for the affordable Rabbit Ears Motel.

Steamboat offers the requisite array of activities for non-downhillers, too: cross-country skiing, ice climbing, hot air ballooning, fishing, snowmobiling, sleigh rides and even something called snowbiking, which looks like a groin injury waiting to happen. (Is it really a good idea to ride a metal steed down a snow-slick mountain?)

In town, stop by FM Light & Sons, a historic clothing store that opened in 1905. Just walking across the plank floors will make you want a cowboy hat.

When you're done, kick back and enjoy the weather. Because the one thing that Steamboat has is snow.

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