Land of 100 Olympians: Why Steamboat Springs is a winter sports mecca

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — With fireworks shooting from atop his head and a rainbow of LED string illuminating his body, the Lighted Man lived up to his moniker while carving wide S-turns down the main slope of Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs.

As high-octane music pumped out of the speakers, a few thousand people of all ages bundled up against the February chill to watch as ski patrollers jumped through flaming hoops, teenagers on skis fired Roman candles into the night sky, and kids in illuminated costumes choreographed a red snake hundreds of feet long as they worked their way down a serpentine mountain trail.

“The Olympics got nothing on Steamboat Springs,” boomed the emcee through the loud speakers.

The emcee didn’t exaggerate. Marveling at what amounted to Burning Man on snow at the Saturday night ski show, a signature event of the annual Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival, was more enthralling than watching the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing on TV.

The show also pried me and my family away from the destination ski resort Steamboat, where 11 of us, ranging from 8 months to pushing 70, convened for a family-friendly ski trip convenient to both coasts. In turn, the nation’s oldest winter carnival west of the Mississippi River introduced us to the passionate, community-driven winter sports scene in the town of Steamboat Springs.

The nighttime extravaganza took place walking distance from downtown on publicly owned Howelsen Hill, a small ski area that frames the heart of this Colorado mountain town and anchors its sporting claim to fame: home of the most U.S. Olympians.

While the youth participants and coaches at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club were putting on their daredevil show for a bargain $5 — the Winter Carnival is a club fundraiser — four Steamboat athletes were in China competing at the Beijing Olympic Games. With their participation, this year’s Steamboat delegation created a new milestone. The town of 13,000 is now home to an impressive 100 Olympians.

On a weeklong trip, I explored the town’s Olympic past and present. I’ve visited 10 Winter Olympic host cities in five countries, nearly got thrown out of a Lake Placid, New York, bar during a heartbreaking Team USA semifinal hockey loss to Canada in 2014, and attended the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. For a town that’s never even hosted the games, Steamboat showcases the best of the Olympic spirit and makes for a remarkably well-rounded winter sports vacation destination.

Here’s everything you need to know before you go.

The town hill

Don’t be alarmed by the shortage of jagged peaks in Northwest Colorado. What this corner of the Rockies lacks in alpine grandeur it makes up for with high elevation that can hold onto even modest snowfall, from the 6,700-foot elevation in town rising to around 10,000 feet atop Mount Werner, home to Steamboat resort, and at other peaks nearby on the continental divide at Rabbit Ears Pass.

On my family’s visit, local residents bemoaned a lack of the white stuff dating back some six weeks, but I was impressed at how well what little snow had fallen through early January was conserved to keep the winter sports spectrum in full swing. Both Howelsen Hill and Steamboat boasted at or near 100% of their trails open, the four local Nordic centers groomed daily, and snowmobilers zipped around the forest on the continental divide.

That reliable winter snowpack was part of what attracted Norwegian immigrant and champion ski jumper Carl (born Karl) Howelsen to Steamboat during the 1910s. His larger-than-life presence led to the establishment of the club, the carnival and the ski area that now bears his name. Each is more than a century old and can claim “first” status in U.S. winter sports. The charming Tread of Pioneers Museum (adults $6) tells the full story in its permanent exhibit on the region’s Olympic winter sports legacy.

The day after the ski show, I made my way back to Howelsen Hill, which proclaims itself North America’s oldest continually operating ski area. Howelsen Hill is the skiing equivalent of a municipal golf course. It charges a modest admission (adults $39, youths 5-18 $28), but serves predominantly as a public amenity for local families to enjoy some fresh air during the long Colorado winter — and perhaps mint some Olympians in the process.

Admittedly, the skiing is likewise modest, with a mere 440 feet of vertical drop. A lone triple chairlift serves the summit, where on Ski Free Sundays (a perk open to residents and visitors alike) you might see ranchers from surrounding Routt County in bluejeans and cowboy hats teaching their kids to ski — or learning themselves — on the array of blue squares and green circles that fan off down the ridge.

Aside from the triple chairlift, the other way to the top is a between-the-legs Poma lift with direct access to the imposing array of ski jumps that make Howelsen Hill such a prime training ground for aspiring Olympians.

In between laps down the steep black diamond main face (which just 12 hours before had been the pyrotechnic stage for the Lighted Man), I watched the master’s division ski jumpers close out the Winter Carnival. Middle-aged dads hoisted their daughters onto their shoulders as they ascended the podium.

Inside the base area lodge, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club honors its athletes on the second floor. For each Olympian with roots in Steamboat, a flag bearing the nationality of that year’s Olympic host country hangs from the rafters. With the exception of 1936, every Olympic Winter Games since 1932 is on display. The Olympic rings, meanwhile, are woven into a wall tapestry preserved from the 1956 Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy (which will also host the 2026 alpine events).

Olympic heritage

Words of encouragement abounded during the Games themselves, from a downtown gas station sign wishing athletes good luck to a whiteboard at the Steamboat Springs Ski Touring Center inscribed with a short poem: “Our hometown team is Beijing bound / They fly and glide with grace! / We are proud to say they trained here! / Go Team USA!”

After looping some of the 15 kilometers (about 9.3 miles) of gentle Nordic trails at the ski center (adults $25, children 12 and under $19), located 3.5 miles from downtown, I stopped to chat with owner Kajsa Lindgren outside the ski shop.

During the winter, there’s a chance you might share the trail with an Olympian in training, but don’t be star-struck. “They’re totally approachable,” Lindgren said. “They’re my best friends.”

While Steamboat’s Taylor Fletcher and Jasper Good didn’t medal at Beijing 2022 in the Nordic combined — a duo of Nordic skiing and ski jumping — Lindgren cheered them on from home.

“I pulled an all-nighter to see my boys,” she said. “My poor neighbor texted me at 5 a.m.: ‘They can’t hear you screaming at the TV.’”

The touring center, which also operates the Haymaker Nordic Center farther south, is a third-generation family business founded by Lindgren’s grandfather, Sven Wiik. He was an Olympic gymnast for his native Sweden at the 1948 London Games, immigrated to Colorado, and then naturalized as a U.S. citizen to coach the cross-country ski team in the Grenoble Games in 1968; he later served as Team USA’s chief steward during the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Lindgren’s father was on tap to groom trails at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games before his death.

“The Olympics are ingrained in me,” Lindgren said.

Bronze or bust

Head left from the top of the Storm Peak Express chairlift atop Steamboat Ski Resort and a bust juts out of the forest to memorialize Buddy Werner, who cut his teeth at Steamboat before becoming the first American to win the legendary Hahnenkamm race in Kitzbühel, Austria, in 1959. He died in an avalanche near St. Moritz, Switzerland, five years later — and the 10,568-foot high point at Steamboat was renamed after him.

Skiers and snowboarders rub the bronze for good luck. I did the same on behalf of my knees as I prepared for a mogul clinic with one of Steamboat’s resident Olympians, Nelson Carmichael. While Werner never medaled in his three Olympic appearances (1956, 1960 and 1964), Carmichael brought home Steamboat’s first hardware: a bronze medal in the 1992 Albertville Olympics in France.

“It’s the wild side of skiing,” Carmichael said of what drew him to moguls after he moved to Steamboat Springs with his family as a 12-year-old boy. “It wasn’t the disciplined group of racers.”

Carmichael offers weekly free clinics on his namesake Nelson’s Run, though bump runs were in abundant supply at the resort after weeks without snow.

“Go slower than you need to so you can maintain a line,” Carmichael advised before I navigated gingerly through an icy mogul field. The 56-year-old swiftly followed with perfect form, now decades removed from competing on the World Cup circuit and professional freestyle tour. Carmichael made his Olympic debut in 1988 at the Calgary Games (when skiing moguls was still a fringe demonstration sport), joining Team USA for the opening ceremony in McMahon Stadium.

“For a skier, that’s a big deal — we don’t walk into stadiums all the time,” he said.

Carmichael has made his winter home in Steamboat ever since and showed me around the mountain. More than half the trails are beginner or intermediate, and there are relatively few options for extreme skiers. The sprawling resort does not have a single fall line from the top, but rather folds into multiple zones served by chairlifts nestled in basins, so navigation can prove confusing. Make your way to the terrain served by the Sunshine Express for wide, family-friendly cruisers.

As Carmichael and I lounged in deck chairs outside the Four Points Lodge, taking in the broad panorama of the Yampa Valley, the Olympian settled on one word to describe his beloved home mountain and the town below: “mellow.”

Ski trip logistics

A breezy, two-hour Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport operates once daily on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, servicing Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden, 24 miles from the town of Steamboat Springs. Numerous companies provide round-trip shuttle service (adults $100, children 12 and under $50) and car rentals are available, if limited. The return flight leaves late enough that you can take advantage of the Fly Alaska, Ski Free promotion and receive a complimentary Steamboat lift ticket on your day of departure with your same-day boarding pass.

Steamboat Springs proper encompasses an eclectic and bustling nine-block main street along Lincoln Avenue. F.M. Light & Sons is the standard-bearer for Western wear, if you fancy cowboy boots and Stetsons. For more contemporary mountain style, check out Ohana across the street. During the Winter Carnival, the street is covered in snow for the “street events,” during which horses tow young ski and snowboard racers.

Four miles separate the town from the resort, much of that distance lined by strip malls that make up in convenience what they lack in charm. Fortunately, a rental car is not a necessity. Free bus service runs back and forth between the town and the ski resort six times per hour, with additional service during the morning and evening rush.

Steamboat is on the Ikon Pass, which is the only rational way to plan a ski trip here. Steamboat holds the dubious prize of North America’s most expensive lift ticket at $269. No ski area is worth that king’s ransom, even if the resort’s Champagne Powder™ makes an appearance. (Speaking of trademarks, the resort’s owner made the cringeworthy corporate move to trademark Ski Town USA, then sue Salt Lake City over a similarly named marketing campaign.)

If you prioritize staying closer to the slopes, try the Steamboat Grand (rooms from $235) or book a condo directly through Steamboat resort. For a luxury ski chalet, Moving Mountains manages some 30 properties with room for as many as 32 guests. If you’d prefer to start your morning rubbing elbows with locals over breakfast, stay in town at the kitschy Rabbit Ears Motel (rooms from $159) or the Nordic Lodge (rooms from $149), but beware of short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo. Those lodging options are a live political football as local government wrestles with regulations in the wake of runaway housing prices, an all-too-familiar story in recreation towns.

Odds and ends

On a large family trip, cooking in is a must. Between the town of Steamboat Springs and the resort is a Safeway and a City Market, a Kroger affiliate, while Natural Grocers on the main street can supplement with any hard-to-find organic items, like, in our family’s case, a particular brand of baby formula.

On nights when no one volunteers to play chef, call on Moe’s Original BBQ (family meals from $32) for smoked chicken, pulled pork and ribs that come with a “Yampavore” seal of approval noting the restaurant’s reliance on local farmers and ranchers. We were less enamored of Blue Sage Pizza (18-inch pizza from $15), which couldn’t hold a candle to the pies we can get at home.

For early risers, Colorado Bagel Company serves up a tasty bagel, egg and cheese sandwich ($5.50) and the Steamboat Wine Collective, despite the name, is a reliable source for espresso drinks made with beans from local Big Iron Coffee roasters.

At lunchtime, tip your helmet to the PR genius that concocted the TacoBeast, a food truck housed inside an on-mountain snowcat that roams to different locations at the resort — then tuck into a plate of elk chorizo tacos ($5 each). For a stationary option, Thunderhead Lodge makes a mean burger and whips up themed bowls (think Jamaican and Thai options). Don’t miss the tiny Olympic museum in the stairwell leading up to the cafeteria, which includes artifacts like Carmichael’s ski jacket from the 1992 Olympics.

Après-ski oscillates between the traditional Slopeside Grill and its hipper upslope cousin, T Bar, where even on a Monday there was a DJ spinning live dance music. On a sunny day with a hint of spring, a margarita ($9) washed down a veal choripan, the day’s daily flatbread (market price).

Steamboat is a much lower-key nightlife destination than party-hearty resort towns like Whistler and Aspen. A Friday night line stretched out the door for bluegrass at Schmiggity’s, but my siblings and I opted to catch the USA vs. Canada hockey game at the lanes. Snow Bowl Steamboat — far enough outside town you’ll need a rental car or a taxi — boasted the biggest screen to watch the Olympics alongside a decent pub-fare menu and plenty of suds from local Storm Peak Brewing Company (lanes from $20 per hour).

Final word

While the Olympic spirit in Steamboat Springs undoubtedly shines brightest once every four years, when the Games are underway, the town and resort have immortalized their Olympic legacy in enough places to give a taste during any visit.

What’s more, training is a year-round pursuit, and simply watching youngsters at Howelsen Hill practice ski jumping is its own marvel, as the next generation of winter athletes puts in the time to compete at the highest level.

Most importantly, the winter sports infrastructure that makes Steamboat Springs such an ideal breeding ground for Olympians also makes the town an inviting destination for an active winter vacation. Downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, groomed and backcountry snowshoeing, snowmobiling and backcountry skiing are all readily available — and best enjoyed with a hot soak afterward.

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