Thoughts of the American West conjure images of vast, wild terrain nestled against technicolor sunsets. This appeal has lured ambitious folk from all walks of life to venture west in search of fortune or an escape from the bustle of modern life. These romantic inklings, coupled with the hard work and perseverance needed to eke an existence in a foreboding land, have come to define life in the West, both in modern and historic times. Steamboat Springs is a ski town with a rich western history, rooted in ranching and molded by the character and excitement of this land.
The spirit of Steamboat has enticed humans to the area for centuries. The surrounding Yampa valley was the traditional summer hunting grounds of the Ute Indians and a sacred location for other tribes because of the naturally occurring mineral springs found here. The first homesteaders appeared in the area in the late 1800’s. A man named James Crawford built one of the first homesites here and was the main founder of the Steamboat Springs Townsite Company in 1884. A half dozen families moved to the area soon after and by 1900, the town was officially incorporated.
Cattle ranching also sprung up in the Steamboat Springs area in the 1880s and is still prominent today. These original ranchers were hardscrabble people bent on living off of the land and making the most of a region that offered ample grazing in warmer months but bleak and difficult times during the winter season. The cattle industry fueled the progress of this far off Colorado settlement and development of the town and region soon followed. New businesses began to pop up in the early 1900’s, including hotels, banks, and stables to support a fledgling economy.
The foundation and enduring character of the town came less than a decade after its inception when a Norwegian named Carl Howelson showed up with a pair of skis and the knowhow and wherewithal to build a ski jump on a hill downtown that still bears his name today. The area was always prone to heavy snowfall and with dry climactic conditions creating infamous ‘champagne powder,’ Steamboat has been known as a beacon for skiing enthusiasts even in those early days. The enthusiasm that Howelson had for skiing and shared with others created the start of the thriving ski industry that persists today.
A railroad was built in 1909 and its construction led to the growth of both the cattle ranching and skiing industries. Ranchers could now easily transport their livestock to market in other regions, increasing profits substantially and supporting the growth and success of their operations. Tourists and skiers also used the railroad, visiting the town in droves to attempt the new sport that was gaining in popularity all across Colorado. Ranching and skiing quickly became the lifeblood of Steamboat Springs and though skiing and tourism has now surpassed the cattle industry, both still live on and have defined the look and feel of the town and surrounding region.
The relationship that both skiing and ranching have had on Steamboat Springs is never more evident than during the town’s annual Winter Carnival celebration. This event is a truly unique and entertaining experience that can be an added highlight to any ski trip to the area. The carnival is beloved by locals and endless fun for tourists with the downtown area transforming back into its roots for 5 days each February. After the opening ceremonies kick-off the carnival, event after event line the schedule for the rest of the week. Ski jumping lessons and competitions take place on the same hill where Howelson made his first jumps in town. New and old elements of the ski industry are evident with terrain park jams and Nordic skiing competitions scheduled throughout the day. The feel of the West lives on with Ski-Joring competitions; skiers and snowboarders are towed by horses through the streets in an exciting legacy from these founding traditions.
Steamboat Springs is a unique destination combining the modern allure of a thriving ski industry with the storied ranching and homesteading past of the West. It is a town both true to its roots and alive with current day happenings. This authentic spirit abounds on the streets, ski slopes, and ranches throughout the region and makes Steamboat Springs an idyllic year round destination.