It was (and still is) an amazing snow season, one of those you can tell tall stories about to your grandkids surrounding the fireplace. But the crown of the worst storm of the many definitely goes to the one that dropped a blanket of white from Aspen to Chicago. It marked the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in Colorado, with some of the worst winter winds recorded.
What a better day to do a road trip? I collected my friends in Vail Valley, from which you can drive directly to Steamboat without going over the famously finicky Rabbit’s Ear’s Pass, and we decided to have a good time in the blizzard. To be fair to us, it wasn’t exactly that we planned to be in a blizzard: we simply had heard there was a storm system coming, the season was ending, and we wanted to all go to Steamboat. Changing the day invariably meant the trip was going to fall apart, so Bomb Cyclone it was.
First, the drive. We left relatively early, around 8a. On a normal day, that would have gotten us into Steamboat (the resort) around 9:30a. That wasn’t to be. I wasn’t driving (since I don’t drink and hence am the Eternally Designated Driver on the way back) but I could feel how the magnificent car was at times lost. The roads were worse than slick, they were treacherous.
To get to Steamboat from Vail, you take I70 to Wolcott, where you briefly join US6 (which parallels I70 much of the way). Then you take CO 131 North until you hit US40 (the main route from Denver) just before town. Unlike the US40 route, that requires navigating the perils of Rabbit’s Ear’s Pass, CO 131 is fairly flat and navigable. Some of it is in valleys that protect you from the snow, and until you get to the plain of the Grouse Creek views are not expansive.
It is clear that US40 is the main entrance to town and the Denver crowd the money maker for the resort. The poor two-lane CO131 gives way to something approaching freeway standards and you quickly get into the main drag to the resort, Mt Werner Road (Mt Werner obviously being the main summit).
I checked parking online before we left, so I knew there was a small free lot near the base, another one farther down, and a shuttle lot even farther away. My homies didn’t want to shuttle in and the close lot was already full at 10:30, the miserable time we made it into the resort. So we parked at the gondola lot, right by the shops. The covered parking was gone, the rooftop was empty. Price was $30, and you pay via an app.
From the lot to the gondola was an easy stroll, comparable to what you’d do in Vail from the Village Parking structure. The place looked more modern than most resorts, who try to go for the Old World Feel. We quickly found the entrance to the gondola and stood in line. Thankfully, that area was covered and enclosed. While the blizzard was starting to heat up outside (or is it, cool down?), we were chatting merrily in the warm enclosure. The lift line moved very fast, thanks to an impressively zippy lift. You could see the cabin accelerate and it felt like you could easily feel nauseous just looking at it.
The gondola looked like it was heading into the sky, but the ride was short. We got dropped off at Thunderhead Lodge with skies that were dark and snow-laden, but still calm. Where to go? The fog said anywhere, and the masses were moving about in all directions. The snow was soft and fluffy, too good to be true (but it is that kind of season).
I had already checked the map at home and asked regulars where I should go. The latter had all enthusiastically said, “The Chutes!” That was a little disappointing to me, since “The Chutes” implied there was only one area that had them. (True, as it turns out.)
The mountain, as I read the map, faced mostly West, with Mount Werner closing and topping the runs on the East side. Much of the advanced terrain – lots of it, in fact, was in a wedge to the East of the summit, including the three chutes. Three express lifts served much of the advanced terrain, with a few helper lifts aiding and abetting. There were three large sections in the South and West that handled intermediate terrain. But the map was notably sparse in the green department (14% of total trails, according to OnTheSnow).
We started out on the lift of the day (measured by weather, not by fun), Storm Peak Express. I kept thinking “Storm King” in my mind, but that’s a lift in Copper. To get to Storm Peak from the gondola, just take the bowl to the left, the one ahead. You’ll eventually end up at a flat area with a big lift on the right, after you passed an express lift to the left (Burgess Creek) and a slow on to the right (Four Points).
Storm Peak is many things, but most notably it’s fast. On this day it was also mostly empty, scaring people away with either name or reputation. We tried a bunch of runs on its side, making more and more wide departures from the lift line, and had plenty fun. As mentioned, the snow was superb, lots of fun to be had.
We got bored and tried to find the chutes. Nay, “The Chutes.” Turns out to get to them you either hike uphill, or you go down Morningside Bowl and up the lift by that name. I am not sure which is worse: the bowl is mostly flat, the lift insanely slow and long.
The chutes themselves, on the other side of Morningside lift, were fun, if short. After the hit the bottom of the chutes, fun runs continue going down the hill until you return to one of the lifts. In that, they are better than the chutes at Vail or Telluride, where the fun is equally short (longer in Telluride), but they invariably end in a flat track. Personally, I wouldn’t highlight them as the best feature of the resort and I would focus more on the varied terrain with steep sections everywhere. In fact, if you don’t mind skipping the chutes themselves, you can get to the lower part of their runs by taking Crow Track out of Storm Peak.
Much of the remaining time we spent on the Northernmost lift, Pony Express. Its bottom is just beyond Storm Peak, while the top is on its own face of the mountain.
Pony Express had a strangely different vibe than Storm Peak. The crowd was more rough and tumble, the types that shoot out of the woods right into your shins without so much as apologizing. The runs were fun, especially in the fresh powder. This section of the mountain, so far removed from everywhere else, had kept the freshies deeper than anywhere else we visited. Stickers on the lift, strangely put out by the resort itself, advised to counter the expansion of Pony Express in the name of… something.
Pony would certainly be my pick on a crowded day, just like East River was (for the same reason) in Crested Butte. The runs were laid out well, with the only thing perplexing being that the farthest run was called “Middle Rib.” It’s easy to switch back and forth between Pony and Storm Peak, so we did that a couple of times.
On one of the switches, the storm intensified suddenly. It was barely possible to poke around on the open runs and we decided to go for an early (11:30) lunch. We picked the nearest spot, Four Points Lodge. It is possibly named after the lift, Four Points, a short and slow parallel to Storm Peak.
The lodge was crowded because of the weather and disappointing in its food selection. The quality of the food was pretty decent, though, and prices were much, much lower than at Vail Resort (where the food quality is generally poor IMHO).
After quick lunch, we went back to the same, trying out new terrain. Then my buddies felt like apres and headed back, while I decided to explore on my own. From the runs Shadow and Closets (the latter a variation of the Windows preferred by many other resorts, including Keystone, Breckenridge, and Vail), you hit the bottom of Sundown Express, the last of the “black” express lifts in Steamboat. Most of the terrain accessible from this lift is gladed and fun, although the snow was already abused by the time I hit it and not as much fun as the deep powder off Pony Express. Maybe it would be wise to hit Sundown at sun-up, first tracking-it.
By 3:30 I was done, too, and started heading back. Once you get used to the layout, it’s easy to orient yourself and I quickly was at the top of the gondola. From there, I took Valley View, the only black run down, and while it was not particularly challenging, it offered the most amazing views of Steamboat Springs, the resort, and the valley in which both lie.
From there to the obligatory t-shirt shop, where I had to pick up a phone charger because mine died on mountain. I found my friends at Timber & Torch, and we had a fun time eating and drinking and people watching. The resort clearly banks on sunshine, since a lot of the seating for all major establishments is outside. The vibe, in general, was friendly and busy.
We packed our gear and drove off, with yours truly on the driver’s seat. The drive back was horrifying: the winds had blown drift all over the highway, while the snow of the day had covered the last foot of the fences on the side that had been sticking out in the morning. We drove past fields of perfect white, where only once in a while you could see a single fence post sticking out, almost drowning in the ocean of fluffy.
It was a scary drive. For much of the straight part, the drifts were so bad on our side of the highway, we had to drive on the opposing side, hoping nobody was stupid enough not to drive with their headlights on. Luckily, nobody was as dumb as we were and drove in the Bomb Cyclone.
It so came to pass that, eventually, we landed back in Vail. Nerves frazzled, coats wet, and eyes wide open.
Steamboat is a great mountain, especially for skiers somewhere between intermediate and advanced. I will love going back, and can’t wait for the next season!