Until this winter, the last time I skied Steamboat was Spring Break 2006. My husband had to fly to the East Coast to be with his father, and my boys and I had no plans. At the last minute, we contacted Steamboat and planned a five day Mom-and-Boys Ski Trip. It was the first time I had ever taken my kids on a ski trip by myself. And, while of course we missed having dad/husband along, it turned out to be a very memorable and positive experience for us all.
So this year (well last year really, 2010), we didn’t have any plans for the week between Christmas and New Years. My husband needed to wrap up some year-end stuff at work, so he would not be able to join us. With time running out, we decided to reprise Spring Break 2006 with Christmas Break 2010: Mom-and-Boys Ski Trip, Part Two.
You Can’t (Quite) Go Back Again
It had been nearly five years since we’d been in Steamboat. The first thing we all noticed as we drove into Ski Town, USA from the south is that the developed area around the base of the mountain is enormous. It took us all by surprise. “Wow,” we thought. “No wonder we didn’t have any trouble finding a last-minute place to stay. There are a ton of condos up there.” Not good or bad, just surprise, and for me, as the driver, just a bit of relief that I knew where I am going and wouldn’t have to wind my way around through the mountainside condos and hotels.
We had stayed downtown in 2006 and liked this location a lot. It is close to the Steamboat Hot Springs pool and close to restaurants. Steamboat has a really efficient bus system that runs between downtown and the ski area approximately every 10 minutes or so. For us, the convenience of being downtown outweighs the expense of staying in ski-in, ski-out accommodation. We also like how downtown is close to Howelsen Hill.
You see, we were all looking forward to skiing at Howelsen on the afternoon of our arrival. When we came to Steamboat in 2006, we had arrived mid-day and not wanting to waste any of our precious ski time, we’d spent the afternoon and early evening at tiny, historic Howelsen Hill skiing through dusk and into night and having a really fun time. We thought we’d try it again. Wrong. We arrived on a Monday, the one day Howelsen is closed. Slightly disappointed, we made due by spending the evening at the Hot Springs, where our personal verdict was that the remodel of the water slides have made a really scary, dark, nighttime experience even scarier and darker! It was a blast (and the above-pool climbing wall is fun too).
Skiing Day One: Chasing the Sun
Finally, it is morning and time to go skiing. The bus service to Gondola Square, the ski area base, is efficient and seamless. We get our tickets and this time, we bypass the lengthy gondola line, heading over to the Christie Peak Express chairlift, which is new to us, having been installed in 2007. We love it! The lines are short and they move quickly. Without a hitch, we ski to the base of Thunderhead Express, take it up and successfully bypass the gondola and its crowds.
But now we have to decide where to ski. In October of 2010, I had interviewed a friend who frequently skis Steamboat and knows her way around the mountain. Unfortunately, in our rush to get out of town, we didn’t review her recommendations. So we didn’t have a plan.
It is a frigid morning and we, like everyone else, want to chase the sun. We quickly ski over to Sundown Express and stand in line. There is no escaping the crowds this time. But when we get to the top of the mountain and look around, we can’t figure out where everyone has gone. The runs aren’t crowded, the snow is great. Where did all these people go? That is when it really hits us: Mt. Werner is truly big. We take a couple groomers on some great snow underneath the oh-so-aptly named Sunshine Express and then pop over to Morningside Park.
Cutting through the trees to the lift base, I remember why I enjoyed skiing Steamboat so much in 2006 with my then-young skiers. Morningside Park is made for kids who want some adventure. There are numerous routes through the trees, winding, dipping, bucking trails that kids love. The pitches are not too steep, not even when you enter Morningside Park through the gates at the top of the lift. The snow is soft in the morning, thanks to the eastern exposure, and the steep-ish lines don’t last too long. For intermediate and above skiers seeking some challenge and wanting to gain experience in the trees, Morningside Park is absolutely perfect.
For skiers seeking more of a challenge, the hardest terrain at Steamboat can be accessed as you come out of Morningside Park and move across to the front of the mountain, which is exactly what we did. We skied Chute One moving from the sun and soft snow of Morningside into real steeps, hardpack snow, trees and brrrr-chilly temps. It was fun and our reward was a great runout into lots of powder at the bottom of the chutes, but we decided it would be better to save this area of the mountain, along with Christmas Tree Bowl, for afternoon.
Get A Plan
That is the thing about Steamboat. It is a big mountain and you need to be strategic in skiing it. Not only because it can be cold and you may want to chase the sun, but also because Thunderhead bisects the mountain and can make it confusing trying to get from here to there, especially at the end of the day. Spend your day over in the Rendezvous Saddle area and you’ll have to plan how you are going to get over to Storm Peak or Pony Express. Spend your day at Pony Express and you may just want to stay there and take BC Ski Way back to the base. Take the time before you ski to study the map and choose where you want to be. This doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind and choose another area, but at least you won’t be wandering around, moving from lift-to-lift and never getting a rhythm going. Pick a lift and really ski it. Then pick another. That is my advice for a great day at Steamboat.
Skiing Day Two: Got A Plan
And that is exactly what we did on day two. It was another cold, but not so cold, day and it was snowing hard. Before heading out, we decided we wanted to ski Storm Peak. When the wind picked up and that became almost too chilly, we moved down to Pony Express and proceeded to spend the rest of our time there. Looking at the map, we didn’t ski much of Steamboat. We had been told by some locals to ski Rolex, off of Sunshine or South Peak, and we never even came close. Judging from our smiles and our tired legs, however, we skied all that we needed to. For a great day at Steamboat, all we needed was a plan.
When You Go…
Now you may be wondering, “Why all the other info about buses, and condos and waterslides in this post? Why not just focus on the skiing?” Well, the answer is simple: I couldn’t focus just on skiing in this post, because visiting Steamboat is about a lot more than skiing. Steamboat is ultimately a family vacation destination, not just a family skiing destination. Yes, Mt. Werner has some incredible skiing and the overall skiing experience is first-rate. But Steamboat is, first and foremost, a real town. Take away the mountain and you still have the hot springs, the history and the hospitality (and without exception everyone we met and interacted with at our motel, in restaurants, in ski shops and at the resort was genuinely friendly). Plus there are many other outdoor winter activities such as snowmobiling, tubing, cross-country skiing and of course, shopping.
Again, the hardest thing about visiting Steamboat is making a plan and limiting your choices so that you can really experience a few things rather than trying to take it all in at one time.
Probably the very best place to start in planning a Steamboat winter vacation is the Steamboat Resort website. It is very comprehensive and has a wealth of information on special packages and deals at Steamboat, including Kids Ski Free. Since 1982, Steamboat has allowed kids 12-and-under to ski free with a paying parent or grandparent when the adults purchase a 5-day-or-more lift ticket. Kids Ski Free is available all season long.
Steamboat also has a wealth of learning options for kids through their Kids Vacation Center which serves kids ages 6 months to 6 years. Older kids and adults are served via the ski school which has a myriad of options including family private lessons, teen lessons, clinics, camps and of course, one-day group and private lessons. In addition, most every day at 1:00, visitors can ski with Olympian Billy Kidd and get a free quick 10-15 minute lesson from him.
As for lodging, again, the Steamboat Resort website is a good place to start. Downtown, we have had good luck at the Rabbit Ears Motel, while up on the mountain, we’ve enjoyed the Bear Claw Condominiums. But as I mentioned above, Steamboat is relatively huge. There are hundreds of options.
As you might expect, with this many condos and hotel rooms, there will have to be a lot of restaurants. Every time we boarded a lift with a stranger I asked them for their dining recommendations. Many people were eating in at their condos, but we met some locals and other visitors with strong opinions. Here are the recommendations we received: The Sweetwater Grill (this restaurant was mentioned positively by nearly everyone we met), Hazie’s (on the mountain at Thunderhead, get reservations), La Montana, Cafe Diva (for a romantic, kid-less dinner), Azteca Taqueria, The Rio Grande and Big House Burgers.
Finally, while this is neither the time nor the place, Steamboat is also an amazing family summer destination. Look for that post in June or July. In the meantime, happy skiing!
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