Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is not a destination for maritime buffs. There are no steamboats here. Steamboat Springs takes its name from the peculiar sound made by a nearby hot spring, which the first non-native settlers mistook for a chugging steamboat engine.
Steamboat, as it’s popularly called, does have several beautiful (non-navigable) waterways fed by snowmelt from the surrounding mountain ranges. It’s also an acclaimed downhill skiing destination, with Steamboat Ski Resort routinely cited as one of Colorado’s best, and the smaller Howelsen Hill Ski Area beloved by cost-conscious locals and tourists. In the warm season, the rich waters and stunning mountain scenery draw anglers, hikers, cyclists, off-road riders, and campers.
Like other popular Colorado resort towns, Steamboat has its share of pricey restaurants and luxury hotels, but all in all it’s a far more budget-friendly outdoor adventure vacation destination than Aspen or Breckenridge. Here’s a rundown of the top things to do in Steamboat Springs without emptying your bank account.
Top Activities in Steamboat Springs, Colorado
1. Hit the Slopes
Snow sports, specifically skiing and snowboarding, are probably Steamboat’s biggest draws. Whether you’re an expert skier or rider in search of a challenging new slope to carve up, or you’ve never strapped on skis in your life and are in fact deathly afraid of speeding down a slick mountainside, you’ll find terrain that suits your tastes here (and builds your confidence, if you’re a newbie.)
Steamboat Ski Resort is unquestionably the main draw. Located on Mount Werner and surrounding minor peaks, it has 165 named trails, a vertical drop of more than 3,500 feet, more than 20 lifts, and 6 terrain parks. Steamboat gets about 350 inches of snow per year, much of it northern Colorado’s trademark “Champagne powder.” The ski season typically runs from late November through early to mid-April, though exact opening and closing dates are weather-dependent. Off the slopes, Steamboat Ski Resort has luxurious vacation rentals and hotels, trendy shops, fine dining, and other amenities (including a full-service spa).
Unfortunately, world-class skiing and riding is not cheap. Adult one-day lift tickets cost $149 apiece, with discounts available for teens, smaller children, and seniors (age 70 and older). Multi-day passes typically cost a multiple of the one-day rate. Advance purchases (seven days or more before first ski day) earn discounts up to 15%. Package deals that include lodging and other resort services can slash prices further – up to 30% off lodging and 20% off rental equipment, for instance. And, end of season specials such as the Springalicious Pass offer even bigger discounts – $119 for any three days between April 1st and April 10th.
If you can’t find suitable deals at Steamboat Ski Resort, or simply want a lower-key experience, head to Howelsen instead. First opened in 1914 as a ski jumping hill, Howelsen’s alpine runs date back to 1931, making it the oldest continuously operating ski area in Colorado. It’s now owned by the city of Steamboat Springs and boasts about a dozen named alpine trails, plus a terrain park, Nordic ski center (with fat tire winter biking trails), and ski jumping center. The ski jumping center is closed to alpine skiers, but it’s easily visible from Howelsen’s base, and is definitely worth watching – it’s still used as an Olympic training facility. For the alpine portion, adult lift tickets cost $25 apiece, and night skiing is just $10 per person.
2. Get a Little Culture
For such a small city (with a year-round population of only 12,000), Steamboat Springs has a vibrant cultural scene. For starters, take your ears on vacation at a Steamboat Symphony Orchestra (SSO) concert. Founded in 1991, SSO is a surprisingly sophisticated ensemble with a strong contingent of local players. If your trip falls in late March, check out the Strings Music Festival, which features multiple SSO performances. Single-performance SSO tickets start at $20 online, but may cost more at the box office.
If you crave a more visual experience, head to Steamboat Art Museum. This small, well-curated space puts on a slate of rotating exhibitions, including the annual Plein Air art exhibit and competition. Admission is free, though donations are welcome at the door or online.
3. Explore the Beautiful Yampa River Valley
Downtown Steamboat Springs lies in the stunning Yampa River Valley, a broad (in places) expanse that follows an alternately lazy and energetic river. Aside from Steamboat Springs itself, the valley has a number of worthy attractions. The best way to cover the most ground is simply to hop in your car, if you have one, and drive west along U.S. Highway 40, toward (and beyond, if you have time) Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
For a closer look at the valley, hit the Yampa Valley Core Trail, a non-motorized walking and biking trail that hugs that Yampa River for seven miles in and near downtown Steamboat Springs. There’s no entry fee and the trail is open year-round.
Yampa River Botanic Park, open May 1st through October 31st (conditions permitting), is another must-see. This six-acre former horse pasture is among the Rocky Mountain region’s most innovative botanical gardens, a lively mix of native wildflowers and unusual plants from similar climates around the world. The Green, a lawn contained within the park, hosts concerts, yoga, and live theater performances. Admission is always free.
4. Take a Gondola Ride
When the snow melts, Steamboat Ski Resort empties out – but doesn’t shut down completely. One of the top warm-season draws here is Steamboat Scenic Gondola Rides. For $22 per adult (adult-child duos are $27, and season pass holders ride free), you can ride the resort’s eight-person gondola up to the summit, where the Oasis Sun Deck offers stunning views of the Yampa River Valley and surrounding ranges. Arrive early in the season for amazing wildflower displays and glimpses of still-snowcapped peaks, or come toward the end of the season for an awesome foliage display. The gondola runs daily from June 12th through August 30th, weather permitting, and thereafter on weekends through the end of September.
5. Enjoy an Adults-Only (After Dark) Hot Spring Adventure
Privately operated Strawberry Hot Springs Park is a unique Steamboat Springs experience that draws on the area’s signature natural feature: geothermal springs that stay just above 100 degrees year round. The main attraction of this off-grid property is a beautifully landscaped series of geothermal pools – basically, a giant natural hot tub with multiple levels. Partial spa services, including massage, are available here as well.
Strawberry Hot Springs Park welcomes all ages during daylight hours (beginning at 10am, when the facility opens to the public). After dark, the tenor changes: minor children are prohibited, and clothing is optional. Daytime admission is $15 for adults and $8 for youths. Overnight accommodations (mostly rustic cabins) start at $55, though pricing is subject to change and availability can be limited. To save some money, consider camping at one of the many cheaper campsites nearby – single sites start as low as $12 in nearby Routt National Forest.
6. Feel the Rush at Fish Creek Falls
Fish Creek Falls is one of Colorado’s most popular waterfalls. Located in the Rabbit Ears Range near Steamboat Springs, this 280-foot cataract is easily accessible (including for handicapped individuals) from a Forest Service parking area. If you want to make a day of it, you can continue along the trail past the falls to Long Lake, a small, picturesque spot that’s much quieter.
If possible, visit in spring, when snowmelt turns the normally civilized falls into a raging force of nature. Also, remember to bring $5 for vehicle parking – though you can save the expense by hiking or biking in.
7. Visit a Working Ranch
Want a semi-authentic taste of the Old West? Visit Saddleback Ranch, an all-season working ranch near Steamboat Springs. In winter, Saddleback offers a host of family-friendly activities: snowmobile rides, sleigh rides, and snow tubing. During the warm season, visitors can ride horseback and participate in actual cattle drives. Some events include dinner too.
Saddleback Ranch’s activities can be pricey: For example, a cattle drive costs $110 per person, and an hour and a half of tubing costs $26. But, if it brings the family together, it may be worthwhile.
8. Strap on Your Skates
You don’t have to be an expert ice skater to enjoy yourself at Howelsen Ice Arena, Steamboat Springs’s Olympic-size municipal ice rink. Howelsen claims to be the only Colorado ice arena with bumper-cars-on-ice, which is as crazy and fun as it sounds. There’s also public open skating and pickup (“stick and pick”) hockey, plus scheduled events.
Skate rentals cost $2 to $4, depending on skate quality. Open skating costs $8 per adult, stick and puck hockey costs $10 per adult, bumper-cars-on-ice only costs $10, and bumper-cars-on-ice plus skating costs $17.
9. Learn How the West Was Won
For a less kinetic afternoon activity, visit a museum or two in Steamboat Springs or in its surrounding communities and learn about the region’s rich history. Tread of Pioneers Museum, a kid-friendly spot in Steamboat Springs, is a great place to start. Tread of Pioneers puts on a rotating slate of exhibits, mostly on local history and culture (including a look at northwestern Colorado’s early contributions to snowboarding), and has a permanent collection of interesting artifacts as well. Regular admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, and $1 for children under the age of 12.
If you’re up for a day trip, head to the small town of Craig, about 40 miles west of Steamboat Springs. There you’ll find the Museum of Northwest Colorado, a friendly outpost dedicated to preserving artifacts from the region’s early settlers. The museum claims to have “one of the largest cowboy gun/leather/spur collections ever on public display – anywhere!” Admission is free.
10. Meet a Free-Range Wild Horse Herd
If you’re really up for a day trip, head about 45 miles west of Craig, to Sand Wash Basin, which contains the Bureau of Land Management’s Sand Wash Herd Management Area. It’s a long drive from Steamboat Springs, but probably worth it – at least, if you like horses. Sand Wash is home to a large (400-plus) mustang herd that has lived in the area since the early 1970s, grazing on the un-fenced scrublands.
There aren’t any guarantees that you’ll actually encounter the herd, though sightings from management area roads are quite common. In any case, it’s free to enter and drive around. Just remember to keep your distance from the horses – they’re pretty, but skittish, and potentially dangerous if cornered. Also, the BLM advises against camping near any water sources on the property – doing so may spook the horses or contaminate their precious drinking water.
11. Discover Two-Wheeled Thrills
If you visit Steamboat in the warm months, you won’t experience Steamboat Ski Resort’s world-class alpine runs. But you can do the next best thing at Steamboat Bike Park: Slash your way down (and up, and across) some 50 miles of bikeable terrain accessible from the resort’s lift system. When the snow melts, it exposes a brand-new network of bike trails, which are much narrower, windier, and more scenic than most ski runs. There’s also a host of mountain bike paths and forest roads adjacent to the Bike Park property.
Keep in mind that this entire network presents risks not present on paved surfaces, including loose gravel and dirt, rocks, trees, and other obstacles, not to mention steep drop-offs. If you’re not comfortable on a bike, this isn’t the place to start. That said, Steamboat Bike Park does have some relatively gentle terrain that’s suitable for mountain biking novices. Adult day passes cost $38, which includes lift access.
How to Stretch Your Steamboat Springs Budget Further
1. Visit During the Shoulder Seasons
Like most Colorado ski towns, Steamboat’s most popular season is winter (December to early April), followed closely by summer (late June to early September). The in-between times, spring and fall, are known as the shoulder seasons. The shoulder seasons aren’t as conducive to warm- or cold-weather activities, but there’s still plenty to see and do – often at a significant discount to peak seasons.
For instance, the $179 April Double Dip pass offers unrestricted skiing and riding at Steamboat Ski Resort and Winter Park Resort, a separate resort closer to Denver, from April 1st through closing day (which, depending on conditions, can be well into April). That’s an incredible value when you consider that a peak-season, single-day adult lift ticket at Steamboat Ski Resort alone costs $149.
If cheap skiing isn’t a top priority, aim to visit in late September instead. Early fall in Steamboat is amazing – the weather is still warm, lodging in Steamboat Springs and attraction prices are off their highs, and the mountains come alive with brilliant fall colors.
2. Buy in Advance
Try to plan your trip, and the details of your itinerary, as far in advance as possible. Many popular Steamboat attractions, including the ski resort, offer nice discounts for early bookings. For instance, Steamboat Ski Resort discounts slashes lift ticket prices by up to 15% when you book at least seven days in advance.
3. Weigh Your Travel Options
Like many Colorado mountain towns, Steamboat Springs is fairly isolated. Though seclusion is key to Steamboat’s appeal, it also raises the cost of getting in and out.
Steamboat is about two and a half hours from central Denver by car, but winter weather and seasonal backups (particularly on winter weekends) can dramatically increase travel times and costs. Commercial airlines serve Steamboat via nearby Yampa Valley Airport, but the only year-round flights come from Denver International, and they can be pricey – $500 and up for winter and summer round-trips, $400 and up for shoulder season round-trips.
Depending on when you’re visiting and where you’re coming from, it could be cheaper to fly to Denver and rent a car. Also, you may consider traveling with friends to pool expenses such as gas and food on the road.
4. Check Social Coupons & Discount Websites
To find great lodging, attraction, and food deals that aren’t advertised elsewhere, check out online coupon websites and social deal providers such as Groupon and LivingSocial. These resources are particularly useful for finding deep discounts on high-end lodging and dining. For instance, a winter Groupon deal offered rooms at the Legacy Vacation Club Steamboat Springs, a woodsy property with shuttle access to Steamboat Springs Ski Resort, for as little as $56 per night, compared with a $79 regular rate – roughly 30% off.
5. Seek Off-Peak Discounts
Even during peak seasons, attractions and activities tend to be less expensive at off-peak times, such as weekdays. If you can align your schedule, try to avoid visiting on weekends, or at least busy holiday weekends, when prices are higher and lines longer across the board. Likewise, finagle your itinerary to hit popular attractions at less desirable times of day. For instance, a Steamboat Ski Resort night skiing adult lift ticket costs $37, compared with $149 for an all-day adult ticket.
6. Take Advantage of Senior/Student/Child Discounts
Most attractions offer discounts for seniors and children. Many extend these discounts to other groups, such as students and members of the military. If you’re buying tickets in advance, thoroughly scan the vendor’s website for information about these discounts, as they’re not always prominently displayed. Don’t assume that vendors don’t offer these discounts if they don’t mention them on their websites – always call ahead to confirm.
7. Leverage Membership Discounts
Membership in popular organizations often comes with financial perks, including discounts at popular attractions and retailers. For example, AAA offers special discounts at more than 160,000 locations worldwide through its Instant AAA Discounts feature. If you travel frequently, or simply shop often enough at participating merchants, the Instant Discounts feature alone is worth AAA’s annual membership dues (which typically start at $50, depending on region, plan level, and other factors). If you’re over age 50, AARP membership comes with a host of merchant, hotel, car rental, and other discounts.
You may have heard the saying: “Colorado is everyone’s second favorite state.” Once you’ve spent a few days breathing the Centennial State’s crisp air, walking its endless trails, or taking in its inimitable Western culture, you’ll struggle to disagree.
It’s almost a shame to limit a Colorado vacation to a single destination such as Steamboat. If you have the time and budgetary breathing space, consider stretching your itinerary to include other budget-friendly Colorado destinations in Steamboat’s general vicinity: Grand Lake, Grand Junction, Silverthorne, and even Denver itself. More destinations mean more memories – and more stories to tell the folks back home.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Steamboat Springs, Colorado?