Epicenter: Steamboat Springs, Colorado

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"The 'boat" is riding an epic wave of singletrack spurred by the perfect storm of trail development.

Steamboat Springs looks and feels like no other Colorado mountain town. For starters, the sky is bigger: Because it’s located in a broad valley instead of a narrow box canyon, the town enjoys lingering sunsets and glorious views of amber-colored alpenglow on 10,568-foot Mt. Werner (the summit of the Steamboat ski resort).

Even its highest peaks sit below treeline, so you won’t see the bare, jagged balds that are typical of other regions of Colorado. These mountains are rounded and green—but they rise 3,600 feet above the Yampa River valley, so climbs and descents can be epic.

And its remote location (in Colorado’s northwest corner, 150 miles from Denver) has helped Steamboat Springs maintain its unique character and culture. Cattle and sheep ranching, rather than mining, attracted this valley’s earliest settlers, and that neighborly cow-town character lives on in this tight-knit community of 12,000—even if many of those residents now spend more time riding bikes than horses.

You can still watch rodeos every summer weekend, and you’ll spy plenty of work-worn pickups and cowboy hats. But these days, owning a mountain bike is practically a requirement for claiming “local” status in Steamboat, where people’s passion for cycling has created one of the largest, most accessible trail networks in the state.

Steamboat springs sunset

Sunsets in Steamboat rarely disappoint. Photo: Noah Wetzel

You can find extremely technical, derailleur-smashing trails around Steamboat, but they’re far outnumbered by buttery-smooth ribbons of dirt that wind through aspen glades, fragrant spruce forests and open meadows.

Those cruisey trails appeal to beginners and intermediates—you’ll see many more retirees and kids riding here than in most bike destinations—but they also facilitate the kind of day-long epics that experts adore. “It’s hard to do high-mileage rides when the terrain is all tech, all the time,” says local resident Jon Cariveau, marketing manager for Moots, which builds titanium road, ‘cross and mountain bikes in Steamboat Springs. “But here, you can totally do 50-milers.”

“We’ve got miles and miles of flowy trail that emulate a great ski or snowboard downhill,” says Jack Trautman, the president of Routt County Riders, local IMBA chapter. “You’re not getting beat up, you’re not focused on big drop-offs. You just get this feeling of floating.”

The catch? You need big lungs. Most rides start with a steep, sustained climb—and keep ascending heavenward after that. But recent trail-building efforts have created some easier options (like the new Bluffs Loop on Emerald Mountain) and turned a few notorious elevator shafts into more approachable grades (the re-routed Sunshine Trail is better than ever).

A rider climbs a trail through an aspen forest

A rider climbs Stairway to Heaven on Emerald Mountain. Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

Cross-country riding remains the region’s mainstay, but lift-served trails are catching up. Although the Steamboat ski area didn’t fully embrace downhill mountain biking until recently, it made up for lost time by hiring Gravity Logic (the masterminds behind Whistler’s famed bike park) to build out more than 50 miles of beginner, intermediate and expert flow trails, all served by the Silver Bullet gondola.

“The last few years have seen a big-time increase to the gravity scene,” says local rider Nate Bird, sales manager for Honey Stinger, a sport-food company headquartered in Steamboat Springs. “It’s brought a new segment of cyclists into the mix, riders that didn’t think Steamboat had much for them.”

And many rides are located so close to town that you can leave your car parked. Sure, the North Routt trailheads (like Pearl Lake and Diamond Park) require a drive. Some people choose to motor up to the growing network of singletrack near Buffalo Pass (indefatigable cyclists ride from town). But the Spring Creek Trail and the vast cross-country network on Emerald Mountain are accessible sans car from downtown Steamboat Springs. From there, the paved Yampa Valley Core Trail links to additional routes on the Steamboat ski area, four miles up valley.

It Takes a Village

‘Boaters love biking so much, they voted to fund it with public dollars. Three years ago, locals passed the 2A ballot measure that devotes lodging tax proceeds to the construction of new trails. That earmarked about $5.1 million for 46 new trail projects within 30 miles of Steamboat Springs. “It says a lot about our community and its values,” says Bird.

Already, 2A funding has created meandering uphills on Emerald Mountain: Wild Rose averages a 3 percent grade, and Morning Gloria’s 4.2 miles include 35 switchbacks. Flowy downhill routes like NPR (which stands for No Pedaling Required) loaded with tabletop jumps and bermed corners have also sprung up thanks to 2A funding. The next phase, which began in fall 2016 with the construction of Flash of Gold starting near Dry Lake Campground, will create roughly 40 miles of singletrack on Buffalo Pass, on the Routt National Forest 8 miles northeast of town.

Kent Foster, the local USFS Ranger, shows riders a map of the trail system planned for Buffalo Pass, a project funded with 2A dollars.

Kent Foster, the local USFS Ranger, shows riders a map of the trail system planned for Buffalo Pass, a project funded with 2A dollars. Photo: David Epperson / Steamboat Bike Town

But 2A funds can’t be used for trail maintenance—only new construction—so the nonprofit Yampa Valley Community Foundation has stepped forward to create an endowment to support existing routes. “We’re taking a long-term approach to trail development,” says Trautman. An approach that, in part, helped convince the Forest Service to get on board with major trail projects.

That’s because there’s more than just bike-crazy individuals in Steamboat: A number of notable cycling and outdoor companies also help make two-wheeled travel an integral part of the local economy and culture. Moots Cycles and its crew of die-hard bike devotees builds exquisite titanium frames right here in town. Its founder, Kent Erikson (who invented cycling’s first rear-suspension design, the YBB) stayed in Steamboat after he parted with Moots, and his workshop also makes titanium frames for custom-bike buyers. Erikson is one of two Steamboat inductees in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame; the other is cycling photographer David Epperson.

Then there’s Honey Stinger, Smartwool, Point 6 (a Merino sock company founded by Peter and Patty Duke after they launched and left Smartwool), and Big Agnes (bikepackers’ favorite tent company). All employ people who are passionate about human-powered sport. And by sponsoring races, footing the bill for bike-to-work events and organizing cycling-themed company retreats, these companies play a big role in fueling the local spoke-stoke.

—Ride—

Emerald Mountain

With two trailheads located in town (at the stables behind the rodeo arena and on Blackmere Drive) Emerald Mountain is where locals log lunch-hour and after-work rides. But linking these short, interconnecting segments can easily create a half-day ride, especially if you include the Ridge and Beall trails on Emerald’s back side. Trails range from buffed-out clay raceways to root-strewn hill contours, and scenery is surprisingly good, given the proximity to town: Glowing aspen groves, hushed conifers and grassy meadows make it hard to keep your camera stowed.

To sample some of the latest and greatest, be sure to climb Morning Gloria's mellow switchbacks and descend the bermy, jump-strewn goodness that is NPR.

a rider catches air off a jump on NPR trail

A local trail ambassador catches some air on one of NPR's numerous tabletobs. Photo: David Epperson / Steamboat Bike Town

North Routt

For more technical riding, true solitude and alpine vistas, head to North Routt and hit Scotts Run (AKA Hinman Creek Trail), South Fork, and the other cross-country trails located off Seedhouse Road. Given the backcountry nature of these trails, you'll likely have to navigate occasional deadfall, especially in the early season. Adventurous riders undeterred by this footnote will be handsomely rewarded with healthy servings of the aforementioned solitude and stellar riding.



Rabbit Ears Pass

Locals’ rite of summer is riding the Divide, a 25-mile IMBA Epic that links Rabbit Ears Pass to the Steamboat ski area (and finishes with a gleeful, 3,600-foot descent) via a portion of the Continental Divide Trail. Pedal through lush alpine meadows, pass stunning lakes and watch out for moose near Mountain View Trail segment. When it's time to burn the thousands of feet you gained in the car on the way up, pick your poison: Descend through the bike park for a more manicured experience or opt for Fish Creek Falls if natural, chunky tech is more your style.

Left: Wildflowers abound on Mountain View (Leslie Kehmeier photo) | Right: Rocky tech on Fish Creek Falls (Riley Seebeck photo)

Buffalo Pass

Flash of Gold Trail did not earn its name by mistake—this 5.2-mile route meanders almost exclusively through vast aspen groves that explode into color come autumn. Not visiting in the fall? Vibrant spring wildflowers and robust summer plumage (think: head-high ferns) should suffice. The trail's new school construction, which features bermed corners and plenty of flow, makes it a hoot to ride in either direction. Flash of Gold will soon give access to the 40+ miles of singletrack planned for Buffalo Pass in the coming years.



Bike Parks

Got groms? Take ‘em to one of Steamboat’s three community bike parks: the BMX track at the base of Howelsen Hill, the pump track in Ski Time Square and the Bear River Bike Park off Lagoon Court.

With over 2,000 feet of vertical and 50 miles of trail, the Steamboat Bike Park (at the ski resort) has more than enough terrain to keep riders of all abilities enthused for a full day of gravity shredding. Take a warm-up cruise down Tenderfoot before sampling the nearly endless berms and jumps on Rustler's Ridge. Those seeking steep, old school grar should look no further than the hill's signature downhill track, Rawhide. Although the resort emphasizes lift-served trails, there are sweet cross-country rides, too: Climb to Thunderhead via the new Pioneer Trail, then tack on Sunshine Trail or descend via Moonlight and Valley View.

A downhill mountain biker catches air along Rustlers Ridge

Rustler's Ridge is 4.1 miles of nonstop berms and tabletops. Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

—The Best—

Eat & Drink

Of the several new brewpubs that have opened recently, Mountain Tap is the standout: Its brewer is a diehard cyclist (and nationally-known beer guru), its wood-fired food is delicious and its outdoor patio sits right across the Yampa River from Emerald Mountain’s trail network.

Back Door Grill is the place for done-right burgers, with toppings ranging from classic to crazy.

At the base of the Steamboat Bike Park, hit The Paramount for jaw-stretching breakfast sandwiches, gourmet Reubens and cocktails anytime.

Repair 

Proof that bike geeks don’t have to be bike snobs, Orange Peel Bicycle Service doesn’t mess around with other sports. It’s all cycling, all the time—so its peeps are a gold mine of information, and they’re equally dedicated to helping dirtbags and upper-crusties.

Skilled in the subtleties of bike fit, suspension settings and dropper-post quirks, the wrenches at Ski Haus are among the best bike-minds in town.

Traveling to Steamboat via Denver? Pop into REI's Colorado Flagship in downtown Denver or the Dillon store, located just off I-70 en route to the 'boat.

Stay

The Steamboat Campground (a full-service KOA) is campers’ only in-town option. But you can find dispersed camping and U.S. Forest Service campgrounds at Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass (both a 30-minute drive from downtown). Mountain bikers’ best home base is Dry Lake Campground (8 sites, $10/night, non-reservable), located near the Spring Creek Trail and an expanding network of singletrack being built with 2A funding.

The newly-renovated Sheraton Steamboat Resort offers spiffy rooms, a rooftop hot tub (for guests in the towers portion of the property) and easy access to the gondola (a 50-foot walk from the lobby). Plus, Burgess Creek runs right beside the hotel: Settle into its Adirondack chairs to sip a post-ride beer, or take the kids to the sandy Burgess Creek beach and swimming hole.

Soak

Old Town Hot Springs (downtown) and Strawberry Park Hot Springs (30 minutes from Steamboat) are worthy pit stops. But a lesser-known option is the “Hobo Hot Springs,” an unofficial soaking spot located on the east bank of the Yampa River—at Dr. Rich Weiss Park—upstream of the Rabbit Ears Motel.

 

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