Friends in high places

In the groove ... "champagne powder" snow at Steamboat Springs.
In the groove ... "champagne powder" snow at Steamboat Springs. 

You don't need to follow the crowd when staying at Colorado's resorts, which offer some of the best skiing and boarding in the world, writes Scott Ellis.

It's a testament to just how much snow - how much "really, really good" snow - Colorado gets, that the moment we arrive someone actually apologises for the fact there's no fresh powder that day.

With an average annual snowfall of nearly nine metres here, literally everything is covered, and there's even about 30 centimetres of groomed recent falls on top, but sadly we're going to have to wait a couple of days for fresh dump.

Cross-country skiing at Crested Butte.
Cross-country skiing at Crested Butte. Photo: Getty Images

And he's not kidding.

Given we'd just been driving through a near white-out to get there, I'd assumed the stetson hat-wearing man holding the door at the Sheraton Steamboat hotel was apologising for the delay, but no, he's genuinely sad the snow is falling just short of the runs.

This is, after all, the resort that registered the term "champagne powder" to describe the ultra-dry snow that falls often in a season. It's so dry you can barely make a snowball with it and it is about the best snow on earth to ski or board.

On the chairlift at Crested Butte.
On the chairlift at Crested Butte. Photo: Getty Images

And they're justifiably proud of it.

The fact Steamboat Springs has about 1200 hectares of skiable terrain with 165 runs (the longest is 4.8 kilometres), all of which are open under a brilliant-blue sky - everything from gentle beginners' runs to rolling wide blues and the double-black diamond Christmas Tree Bowl - is almost incidental.

It's the champagne powder the locals like to offer and they are almost embarrassed on the rare days that it's not there.

Strolling in Steamboat Springs.
Strolling in Steamboat Springs. 

"There's snow due in 48 hours," he explains. It's perfectly all right, we assure. We can wait.

In the meantime, this mountain more than lives up to its reputation, with enormous runs (three in a morning, with only short pauses) and some of the best tree skiing in North America.

On day one we're offered a guide to show us around and it soon becomes obvious these guys are serious about snow. And seriously unaware of how the rest of the world skis.

"It's too crowded here, let's try somewhere else," we're told after encountering a queue with six people in it. "We've got an hour before lunch, enough time to squeeze one more run in." And again, nobody's kidding.

Unlike some of the better-known Colorado resorts such as Aspen or Vail, Steamboat is still, at heart, a town with a resort attached, less trafficked despite being easily as skiable. And that country feel seeps through the whole mountain.

After a day on the snow - interrupted by lunch at Hazie's, one of the few on-snow linen-tablecloth restaurants I've seen where nobody seems to mind us wandering in wearing ski boots and balaclavas - we head into town and find this is a place with a difference.

There's a genuine cowboy store that sells hats, belt buckles and a range of handbags with concealed pistol pouches for the fashionable woman who doesn't want to leave her revolver at home.

One of the local bridges has been officially named the James Brown Soul Centre of the Universe Bridge by locals with a sense of humour who decided it sounded better than Stock Bridge. Or there's the local playground, built near a sulphur spring on Lincoln Avenue, or as everyone in town calls it, Fart Park, for the obvious reason.

Steamboat prides itself on what it is and doesn't put on airs.

Cafe Diva is the perfect example. It's fine dining, no doubt, but the owner is more than happy to come and sit with you and chat about anything on the menu. Or just anything, really.

Even the local Strawberry Park Hot Springs - part of the system after which the area was named (explorers watching the steam chuffing from the springs were reminded of a riverboat) - is beautifully low key.

Open to visitors most days, it's warm, one of the most relaxing places I've ever been, especially with a Watsu water massage thrown in, but nobody seems to mind too much if you happen to carry a few beer cans to stash at the water's edge and at night the whole place becomes clothing optional. Nude snow beers? What's not to love?

All of which makes leaving, when we do, bitter-sweet.

The snow has arrived - just under 30 centimetres in a night - and the trees beg for one more run, but there's Crested Butte to explore six hours down the road and, in between, the chance to try something none of the hardcore skiers and boarders in our group have done despite decades of downhill - cross-country.

The destination is the Home Ranch in Clark, just 45 minutes from Steamboat and a nice reminder that a snow holiday doesn't have to involve crowds, queues and tickets for the lift.

This summertime dude ranch stays open through the winter months as the perfect retreat to do that rare alpine thing - relax.

Set in the middle of 1600 hectares of farmland, the ranch is covered in cross-country ski and snowshoe trails (from a half-hour to all-day treks), has a reasonable-size hill for tubing or sleds, paths for horse riding and that's about it.

The pace here is far slower than the average resort and after getting used to that, it's hard to imagine why Australians who travel halfway around the world to experience a true winter don't take more advantage of places such as this.

It's quiet - so quiet you can hear the horses in nearby fields snort and coyotes howl at night - and genuinely calming.

Accommodation is either at the main ranch or in small private outbuildings, each with its own hot tub and rustic charm. Each of the main lodge rooms has a name. I'm in Bonanza, on the ground floor (one of my colleagues is slightly miffed she's been placed in Lonesome Cow, but we're assured it's random).

And we're all just off the parlour where manager John Fisher and a few local musicians play for us, insisting we join in on the spoons. Yes, they played the spoons. And everybody loved it.

The next morning it's into cross-country and out on one of the 30 kilometres of cross-country loops for a couple of hours.

After decades of laughing at the skiers striding across the flat spots instead of sensibly riding the lifts with the rest of us, I suddenly realise why people do it.

Less than a half-hour in, there is no sound but the swish of the skis and the pad of the ranch dogs who have decided to tag along.

It's harder than it looks, but a lot of fun and something to which I will return. Finally, we move on to Crested Butte, long one of Colorado's undiscovered treasures.

The snow here is incredible and if it's possible, the crowds are actually smaller, but it's the home feel again that draws you in.

This is a mining town ("coal, not gold", a local explains), where one of the bars features a few bullet holes shot into the walls by none other than Butch Cassidy.

There are hotels and other five-star amenities at the edge of the runs, but it's the town - most of which looks as if it was built in the cowboy days, thanks to some great preservation work and a charter that makes sure nothing new is out of place - that is a standout.

There are no traffic lights, more than 30 bars, almost as many restaurants, and the locals mostly walk or cycle from place to place.

The bus, which is free, has as many skiers as those who live here doing their shopping.

"This is a town all year round," says a former professional snowboarder who's now the PR and communications manager at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Erica Reiter.

"There's a lot to do here in winter and we have some of the best skiing you'll find, but in summer the people who live here are still here. This is their home and they enjoy the visitors."

The mountain itself is impressive from a downhill perspective, with wide beginners' runs and a staggering range of steep runs for the advanced.

Of more than four square kilometres of skiable terrain, 1.8 kilometres is double-black rated.

The Headwall, for example, comes in at more than 50 degrees and the longest run is 4.2 kilometres.

It's why the mountain attracts serious skiers and snowboarders alike, why one of the other activities on offer is a large (and high) series of extreme sports-oriented ziplines, and why almost everyone is smiling.

That and the fact this is still, despite the plethora of choice, a largely underpopulated resort.

Colorado is, without doubt, a slick winter machine where skiers and boarders are treated to some of the best runs in the world in a relaxed, easy environment, but you should take the time to get off the groomed runs to explore the towns nearby and snow activities that don't need a lift, and meet the locals, who love this winter paradise.

"We like summer around here," the Clark store clerk says. "But it's like a kiss from your sister. It's a kiss, but it's not going to make your head spin or your toes curl up."

The writer was a guest of Colorado Ski Country USA.

 

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies daily to Los Angeles (LAX) from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. Return economy-class fares start from $1499. American Airlines flies to Denver, Colorado, from LAX, from $296.

Staying there

Sheraton Steamboat Resort at the base of the runs on Village Inn Court. From $US319 ($306) a night. sheraton.com/SteamboatSprings.

The Home Ranch, 30 kilometres north of Steamboat Springs, from $US490 a night. homeranch.com.

Crested Butte, Elevation Hotel and Spa, also at the base of the runs, on Gothic Road. From $US239 a night (prices exclude resort fees and taxes).

Having fun there

The Bridgestone Winter Driving School. Pick-up from Sheraton Steamboat Resort. Second Gear full-day class (5½ hours of driving/instruction) $US480. winterdrive.com.

Crested Butte Snowcat Driving Experience. Pick-up from hotel, one hour of on-snow driving $US199.

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