Two crooked lines of little skiers sidestep slowly to the start gate, race jitters evident among some, the quiet confidence of “just another race” exuding from others. The youngest racers go first, toddlers bundled in bright parkas and gumball helmets steering their way through the gates in stuttering snowplows. They’re so cute, no one cares if they miss a gate—or three.
It’s Friday morning at Steamboat’s annual Winter Carnival, where the Soda Pop Slalom is getting under way. The race for kids 11 and under, held on the Stampede trail, is a rite of passage for Steamboat’s local race-trained youth and a chance for visiting groms to try their hand at slalom racing. That includes my own little skiers—seven-year-old Cole and six-year-old Jake, both of whom (I’m repeatedly told) prefer the halfpipe to the gates.
When I left them in their respective age-grouped queues and skied down to watch them at the base, I had no idea what to expect. Happily, each boy easily navigates the course and beams as he collects his prize bag at the finish. But make no mistake. It is clear to any spectator that some of these kids, even as young as four and five, have been doing this for a while. Well, of course they have. This is Steamboat, the town that has cranked out more winter Olympians than any other town in North America. And apparently it’s contagious: “I want to be a ski racer,” Cole tells me later at lunch. “That was so fun.”
At other resorts, four- and five-year-olds are riding Magic Carpets and getting the hang of the wedge. At Steamboat, they’re running gates and looking for face shots in the trees. Why? Because Steamboat—and its large and dedicated local ski community—is Cowboy Colorado. Looking for cruisey corduroy and caviar bars? Head south. The skiing here is Colorado- rugged, and there’s plenty of it. Just don’t get upset when you’re sprayed by an eight-year-old’s twin tips.
On the weekend of our visit it has been snowing for a few days, and the forecast calls for more during our stay. Daily totals of eight inches are the norm, and morning lines for the gondola twist tightly through the maze.
We know exactly where we’re headed. With a pleasant name that belies its intensity, Morningside Park is on the far northwestern edge of the resort. Despite the powder weekend and the crowds at the base, there’s barely a soul skiing here. This backside pod boasts great snow and short, rippin’ lines with lots of perfectly spaced trees, plus its own lift for easy lapping. We satiate our tree hunger and make our way back to the front side.
So much for giving our quads a break. The terrain off the Storm Peak and Pony Express lifts is quintessential Steamboat— ungroomed, powder-laden, pitchy trails that bounce you around like a bucking bronco. Every time we slide into the liftline, which is never more than 10 people deep, we’re out of breath—from exertion and laughter.
We break for lunch at the new Four Points Lodge, which opened in December. One step inside, and damn...if this is the new face of Steamboat, she sure is pretty. The beautiful native-stone and reclaimed- wood lodge crushes the old Four Points hut, formerly a place to pick up a Honey Stinger and a Gatorade. High ceilings with custom chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling windows, solid oak dining tables, and a sprawling fireplace crowned with a hand-carved wooden deer head make a good impression. The crowd at the bar is three people deep (so this is where everyone is), but the Bloody Marys look so good, we belly up anyway.
Four Points is the first new lodge on the mountain in more than a decade. “The resort recognized that the Storm Peak area was missing a space where skiers and riders could sit down to lunch and take a break,” says Loryn Kasten, the resort’s director of public relations. Skiers praise the design, the ambience, and especially the food and drink, Kasten says, with favorites being the chicken pot pie, elk chili, and those fabulous Bloody Marys. “A dedication to using the freshest ingredients and creating made-to-order items will ultimately elevate the culinary experience across the entire resort,” she says.
Down the road, the town of Steamboat Springs seems to be aiming for the same goal, with a handful of upscale restaurants debuting in the past year, including E3 Chophouse and Aurum Food + Wine. Western charm, however, is something this town has always had in buckets. From shops with character such as the incomparable F.M. Light & Sons to the funky kitchenware at Chez Nous, it’s a well-rounded ski vacation that’s served up daily here. But unlike so many other resort towns, Steamboat feels comfortably lived in.
Indeed, it’s the locals who make this town hum. Take the Winter Carnival. You may think it’s an event put on for visitors, but you’d be wrong. The folks behind the Steamboat Winter Sports Club, a local institution that funnels hundreds of kids through its ski programs every winter, have made the carnival into a standout event, and they couldn’t have done it without support from the towns.
The SWSC has produced 88 Olympians and counting. You see its instructors at the resort every Saturday coaching tiny skiers proudly sporting SWSC vests. And you see what they grow into at events like this one, held at Howelsen Hill on the penultimate evening of the 101st Winter Carnival.
SWSC teams in each of the six disciplines (alpine, nordic jumping, freestyle, cross- country, snowboard, and telemark) strut their stuff under Howelsen’s lights. Kids as young as five fly off the jumps, torches in hand, to the wild cheering of hundreds of spectators. Anywhere else, it would be unreal. In Steamboat, it’s how they roll.
“Wow, Mom, that kid is my age!” says my six-year-old. “I want to do that.”
I now understand why so many Olympians hail from Steamboat Springs. In the eyes of a child, is there any better inspiration than this?