Steamboat Into Stellar Skiing

Home to many Olympians, 'Ski Town U.S.A.' offers the very best slopes and apres-ski amenities.
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Searching for a shot of winter Olympic spirit? A genuine dose of Steamboat Springs, Colo., might be the perfect solution. With March's notorious big snows yet to come (and snowfall already surpassing the 334-inch average), the skiing in Steamboat is epic.

Don't let Steamboat's rustic ranch ambiance fool you: This is "Ski Town U.S.A.," home to more winter Olympians than any other town in North America -- that's 69 athletes in 16 winter games. Steamboat sent 20 hometown skiers, snowboarders and ski jumpers plus four coaches to Torino, including Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane in Nordic combined, Travis Mayer in freestyle moguls and Alan Alborn in ski jumping -- the only American to advance in that event.

With the Olympics winding down, Steamboat will continue reveling in the 27 feet of famously light and fluffy "champagne powder" snow it's already received this year.

Set in a wide, high mountain valley in the Rocky Mountains, Steamboat Springs is dominated by picturesque working ranches and 10,658-foot Mt. Werner, site of the sprawling 2,965-acre Steamboat Ski Area.

Named for three-time Olympian and local cowboy Buddy Werner, the mountain offers more than 3,600 vertical feet of aspens, pines and wide-open glades. Steamboat's terrain caters to powder hounds, yet easily accommodates those who prefer groomers. Dip into the revered Shadows or Closets for unparalleled tree-skiing that feels bottomless. Or visit the gentle glades with outstanding vistas off the top of the Sunshine lift for a solid stash of intermediate slopes.

For big air, check out the daunting Mavericks Superpipe, North America's longest half pipe, and the adjacent terrain park. Lift tickets cost $74 per day -- and kids ski free with a five or more day lift ticket.

For a taste of the backcountry (at $359 per day), spend a ski day off-piste with

Steamboat Powder Cats. This is the kind of snow that ski dreams and ski movies are made of -- even Warren Miller has filmed skiers here.

Custom state of the art snowcats deliver small groups of skiers to prime slopes on Buffalo Pass, then expert backcountry guides steer skiers and riders down some of deepest untracked snow in the Rockies. Grins are unavoidable, even when you have to break for lunch -- a decadent spread in a remote and toasty log cabin.

Strawberry Park Hot Springs

Even if you don't ski, take in the vast wild and open landscape that envelopes Steamboat. Early morning hot air balloon rides, with peculiar "box winds" that keep balloon flights inside the Yampa Valley and an inversion that surprisingly makes it warm, are a memorable adventure.

A winter horseback ride with Ray Heid at

Del's Triangle 3 Ranch ($65 for a two-hour ride) is one of the finest ways to get the lay of the land -- not only is the scenery stupendous, but it's hard to beat six generations of trailside tales. After all, Heid grew up riding horses and racing skis with more than a handful of Steamboat Olympians.

No matter which peak you ski (or horse you ride), weary legs eventually beg to come down.

Slopeside Grill, a lively ski-in bar at the base of the ski area, has tasty post-ski beers and pub grub, while especially good sushi and fine sake can be found right next door at Saketumi. A short walk away in Ski Time Square, margaritas at Dos Amigos (try the venerable "Chicarita") are potent and delicious, and the Tugboat's nightlife is legendary.

Steamboat's ultimate apres-ski diversion, however, is a dip in the

Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Sweet Pea Tours provides door-to-spring transportation for a languorous outdoor soak in world-famous natural springs nestled deep in the forest ($32 per person, including admission).

Steam rises from rustic earth-bottomed pools, while a frigid creek that cools the fiery spring waters lures adventurous soakers to test their polar bear endurance. Massages are available in a nearby stone cottage.

For sustenance and shopping, head to Steamboat's historic downtown. It's a three-mile trip from the ski area, and the frequent bus is free. The wide main street once hosted some of the nation's largest cattle drives, but during these Olympic weeks it's home for the Community Cauldron, a towering flame that burns nightly in honor of local athletes.

Winona's legendary cinnamon rolls are not to be missed for breakfast, and lofty sandwiches from Backcountry Provisions are divine for lunch. Shop at

F.M. Light & Sons, a century-old Western-wear store, or peruse Off the Beaten Path, a quaint independent bookstore with delicious coffee and snacks to boot.

At dusk, watch daring young Olympic hopefuls launch off the 90-meter ski jump on Howelsen Hill, Colorado's oldest operating ski area and the backdrop to downtown Steamboat.

Steamboat's dining options are plentiful and always jeans-casual. Juicy steaks and Western ambiance are ever-popular at the

Old West Steakhouse, where you can even dine inside an old whiskey barrel. Riggio's serves exceptional Italian fare. Café Diva offers decadent New American cuisine. And La Montana's Southwestern menu is scrumptious. After dinner, saunter into The Smokehouse for a frosty beer, a peanut-shell-strewn floor and some creative taxidermy, or meander down to Mahogany Ridge Brewery for a tasty microbrew and live music.

Steamboat Springs is a snowy three-hour drive from Denver, so flying into this destination resort is ideal this time of year. Nonstop jet flights from Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Denver, Houston, Newark, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City land daily at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, located a quick 22 miles west of Steamboat Springs. Alpine Taxi runs convenient door-to-door shuttles for $46 per person, round trip.

Steamboat Grand Hotel

Rabbit Ears Motel, with its iconic neon pink bunny at the end of main street, has hotel rooms from $99, while a cozy room at the Steamboat Bed and Breakfast, located in a downtown Victorian house, starts at $149 per night. At the ski area base, deluxe hotel rooms at the

Steamboat Grand Hotel start at $233 per night, with suites and condominiums available as well.

Even if you don't ski like an Olympian, in Steamboat you can ski with one: 1964 Olympic medalist Billy Kidd is happy to take a run with you at 1 p.m. from the top of the gondola most days. True to his town, just look for his cowboy hat.

Jennie Lay writes about energy, the environment, land conservation and travel destinations all over the globe from her home in Steamboat Springs , Colo. Her stories appear in High Country News, Ski Magazine, Scuba Diving Magazine and various newspapers around the West. She spends her free time telemark skiing, hiking and performing with a local West African dance troupe.