The route to Steamboat Springs makes it clear that you’re about to enter some sort of Wild West playground. Roadside signs along US 40 give drivers the warning miles out, as each incoming billboard seems to be selling some piece of gear meant for a cowboy…hats, boots, etcetera.

At first, it’s easy to assume that it’s all just part of the grand gimmick, something meant to make Steamboat stand out among a collection of other remote Colorado towns with their own rich histories in mining and ranching all now competing for the same flood of tourism dollars. But with each additional sign pedaling gear to ranchers, it starts to become obvious that this marketing effort represents something more authentic.

Signs of Steamboat Spencer McKee
One of the signs you’ll encounter on the way to Steamboat Springs. Photo Credit: Spencer McKee.

It represents the fact that the people headed to Steamboat aren’t exclusively tourists. They’re not exclusively newcomers to the state looking for their next great Instagram picture and water cooler topic. It’s not the typical weekend warrior metropolitan crowd coming in from Denver like a bat out of hell.

Of course, people from each of the aforementioned demographics do make up some portion of the sparse traffic on the road into town, but the mix is something more eclectic. While these 21st century-spawned groups still find themselves seeking out “Ski TownU.S.A.®”, there’s also a strong presence of a waning Colorado breed – the authentic Coloradan of days past, able to fight the challenges of ranch life in the harsh Centennial State environment and win.

To some, Steamboat Springs is a summer town. After all, this is when the weekly rodeos take place.

Steamboat Rodeo FotoBobCo (Flickr)
A rider falls from a bull in Steamboat, Colorado. Photo Credit: FotoBobCo (Flickr)

These weekly rodeos are one example of Steamboat’s unshakeable authenticity, often serving as the stage on which the children of local ranchers can show off their homegrown skills. You’ll find visitors to Steamboat Springs in the stands, but you’ll also find regular faces cheering on those they know in a way similar to what could be found at a high school football game in other parts of the country.

This authentic “wild west” nature of Steamboat Springs can also be seen in the width of the streets around town. Many seem to be much wider than the norm, though this isn’t due to a beautification or crime deterrent effort. The streets are wide because of ranching’s historical prominence in Steamboat. Wide streets allow for easier transportation of cattle.

All around town, there are subtle reminders of this same western feel, from building facades to art galleries to a museum that’s dedicated to sharing the stories of early pioneers.

There’s no doubt about it, Steamboat has a striking western feel, even when compared to other parts of Colorado that might bill themselves in a similar way.

Don’t be fooled by the wild west nature of this town – skiing, not the rodeo, is still the top dog here. In fact, Steamboat has been called “Ski TownU.S.A.®” since 1959, a nickname that the town trademarked in 1963. There’s even a special term for the snow here – champagne powder® – also trademarked by the resort, though much later in 2010. That being said, roots of this term are traceable back to the 50s.

Steamboat Springs, also known as Ski TownU.S.A.®.

Even the root of the phrase “champagne powder®” is embedded in Steamboat’s authentic “wild west” vibe. It was coined by a local rancher who was backcountry skiing on terrain that would eventually become Steamboat Resort. He called the snow champagne powder® due to the way that the dry flakes tickled his nose like bubbles rising from a champagne flute.

Snowmobiling Guide Michael Lambert Credit Spencer McKee
Colorado Sled Rentals guide Michael Lambert digs into some snow covering a meadow in the Steamboat backcountry. Photo Credit: Spencer McKee

To many, a phrase like “champagne powder®” probably seems more like another marketing gimmick than anything else. A lot of things in Steamboat do. But just like other seemingly cliche aspects of the town, this term also seems to be more so rooted in authenticity than monetary motives. To local population, the hype behind the mention of “champagne powder®” is well deserved.

Most who are lucky enough to take turns in champagne powder® describe it as light and airy. According to scientists studying the snow that falls at the local Storm Peak Laboratory, the snow in Steamboat is different because it’s the driest snow in the United States. Not only does this mean it has a low water content, it also means that flakes tend to weigh less.

Strawberry Hot Springs. Photo Credit: Steamboat Resort - ©2016 Larry Pierce:Steamboat Ski Resort - OutThere Colorado.
Snow piles high at Strawberry Hot Springs in Steamboat Springs. Photo Credit: Larry Pierce via Steamboat Ski Resort.

One local, Robin Craigen, was insistent that the snow is just as amazing and unique as its trademarked nature would imply. He romantically described Steamboat’s unique powder feel as being due to how the light, airy flakes of drier snow tend to carefully stack amid perfectly spaced tree glades, forming fragile mounds waiting to be tracked. According to some locals, it’s this perfect spacing of Steamboat’s trees that makes all the difference. Rumor has it that the “just right” placement of the trees provides protection from wind for the fragile flakes, dropping them straight down onto each other in a uniform manner instead of dropping them into inconsistent piles.

According to Craigen, this stacking seems to trap air in the snow, allowing for a unique phenomenon where a ripple pulses out from beneath charging skis on a powder day.

Robin Craigen is the CEO of Moving Mountains, a local real estate company that operates more than 80 luxury properties around the town. In his eyes, Steamboat Springs has all of the potential that tourism-focused ski towns like Aspen and Vail do. It just hasn’t been discovered on a wide scale yet.

One thing is for sure, though, times seem to be changing.

While summer tourism in Steamboat might not be prioritized, Robin Craigen has seen a rapid growth in popularity among the luxury properties at Moving Mountains during this time of the year. Each recent summer, the number of rental nights has seemed to double. More and more people are coming to experience the rolling hills of green perfection that surround Steamboat come warmer temperatures, while more people are also visiting the resort during the winter in recent years.

Fish Creek Falls Bridge - OutThere Colorado
Fish Creek Falls Bridge in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

From attractions like Fish Creek Falls to tubing the Yampa River to hiking to the lookout tower on top of Hahn’s Peak, summers in Steamboat provide plenty of opportunity for adventure. In the summer, Steamboat’s pristine nature is impossible to miss. Trails are uncrowded compared to those on the Front Range and wildlife seems to lurk around every bend. Nearby natural areas, like the Flat Tops Wilderness, provide a chance to escape even further from busy streets, with epic trails like the adrenaline-inducing Devil’s Causeway hike seeing sparse foot traffic even on what locals consider to be a crowded weekend.

There’s no doubt about it. Steamboat is a town that goes year round. However, one question remains – can Steamboat Springs keep it’s authentic vibe amid recent changes that could bring tourism in droves?

In case you haven’t heard, Steamboat has been added to one of the pass conglomerates – Alterra’s Ikon Pass – meaning it’s now on the same lift ticket as Colorado’s Winter Park, Copper, and Eldora, with limited days at Aspen included in the deal. Could its inclusion on this pass attract more visitors from the Front Range? Most likely.

That seems to be what’s happened to resorts on the similar Epic Pass, which includes ski hills like Breckenridge, Keystone, and Vail. In that case, inclusion on the pass seems to have added crowds to the point where many consider the overcrowding problematic. This overcrowding was so extreme that one resort, Arapahoe Basin, recently decided to bow out of their inclusion on the conglomerate pass altogether, fearing that the rapid growth they’ve seen is negatively impacting the experience their devoted long-time patrons have come to expect – a more laid back and relaxed feel compared to the big resorts.

In a sense, Steamboat can be likened to Arapahoe Basin in that its known for having the same authentic vibe. Like Arapahoe Basin, Steamboat is a ski hill where a visitor can feel like a local. It’s worth mentioning that unlike Arapahoe Basin, Steamboat Springs also has an entire town built around it that works to amplify this aspect of the local culture.

That being said, early signs seem to show that Steamboat is ready to embrace a tourism boom.

This can be seen in the way that the resort has plans to overhaul the infrastructure of the mountain the day after the current season ends, adding a new $15 million lift with the help of the resort’s new parent company, Alterra.

This can be seen in the feel of the base, home to slopeside concerts, swanky stays, and companies like aforementioned the Moving Mountains that offer coveted services like ski gear valet at their growing number of exquisite properties in the area.

Taco Beast snowcat at Steamboat Spencer McKee
The new Taco Beast snowcat at Steamboat Ski Resort serves up food slopeside. Photo Credit: Spencer McKee.

Of course, as Steamboat continues to evolve to cater to a new wave of tourism likely to bolster the local economy, changes haven’t been met without friction.

Mom and pop establishments still exist around town, but they’re sandwiched between new, hip joints, with overpriced mimosas and tacos inspired by continents on the other side of the world. Of course these spots are delicious, but they’re not what the town is used to.

On Steamboat’s wide streets, traffic seems to be a growing grievance among long-term locals thanks to a noticeable uptick in crowding seen on their short daily commutes.

On one hand, the wild west nature of Steamboat’s ranching past seems to be so ingrained in the town to the point that it won’t be going anywhere soon, but the question remains – can Steamboat remain authentic?

Many ski towns around the state once relied on very different industries to survive – in most cases, mining – though these towns have since shifted their focus toward tourism, ceding their own true nature in the process. Will Steamboat Springs be next?

I asked this question to Robin Craigen of Moving Mountains luxury rentals. He’s lived in town for more than 20 years and has been a witness to the changes taking place. In his opinion, he thinks that the appeal of Steamboat’s unique vibe will keep hanging on, finding its strength to do so in its authenticity.

While there’s definitely a Wild West-feel that’s prevalent around town, it’s not something that seems to have been manufactured with an ulterior motive in mind. Instead, this vibe seems to be something that’s been naturally honed over decades, growing with the town and with the ski industry instead of falling to it.

This “wild west” vibe that’s found in Steamboat Springs isn’t something that was created to attract droves of tourists in the same way that some ski towns choose to create an artificial Bavarian feel. Steamboat isn’t a town that fell apart and reinvented itself along with the construction of a lift ticket office. The same characteristics that have always made Steamboat Springs special are still present in the heartbeat of the town today. Until that heartbeat of authenticity stops, I’m guessing Steamboat’s one-of-a-kind charm will continue to survive and thrive.

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