After our torrid pace of daily hiking and wildlife watching for nearly two full weeks at Rocky Mountain National Park, we headed to Steamboat Springs for some rest and relaxation and to take care of life tasks.
Unfortunately, our reservation at Green Ridge Campground ended on a Saturday, which meant we were pulling into the area on a weekend night hoping to secure a spot at one of the first-come, first-serve campgrounds in the Routt National Forest just east of town. Predictably, this did not work out well. Thanks to Campendium, we had a backup: dispersed camping in the national forest across the street from the campground we wanted. This worked out fine for one night when we were in a pinch, but it reminded us of the reasons why we seldom boondock. The forest road was deeply rutted and potentially dangerous to our low-hanging undercarriage, it was hard to decide where to park and how to orient ourselves in the absence of any demarcation of campsites, and we were constantly wondering whether an annoying person or group would show up and set up camp right next to us.
Fortunately the campground we wanted, Meadows Campground, cleared out almost completely on Sunday, so we had our choice of sites. We set up here for a long stay of 12 nights, and like many national forest campgrounds it was practically a steal at $10 per night. Of course, with that low price comes very little in the way of services. Other than nicely spaced out campsites with picnic tables and fire rings, this campground offers only a dumpster and vault toilets — not even potable water. We came prepared with a full tank of fresh water plus about 10 extra gallons in our portable water containers, along with empty waste tanks, and picked a site with plenty of open sky so we could generate our own solar power. Thanks to employing water conservation measures we use when boondocking, we were able to go the full 13 days between dump station visits (with a brief one-night sojourn in town).
Our bargain-priced campground was quiet during the week, close to some decent hiking, and only a 15-20 minute drive from Steamboat Springs. When not visiting town or hiking, we used this low-key camping site as an excuse to grill almost daily and eat great food, read a ridiculous number of books, and work on the ever-present chore of planning our future travels. The biggest downside: flies. Most days the flies were so common it made it very annoying to sit outside for any extended period of time. I don’t know if this is a seasonal issue or a location issue (our site was close to the vault toilet, and the entire campground is surrounded by streams and marshes) but it was definitely a bummer. Weirdly, we found the mosquitoes to be relatively manageable, since they were few and far between, and moved with a zeppelin-like speed so it was easy to kill them as they drifted toward our tender exposed flesh. One challenge of living a life so connected to the outdoors is that we are very connected to the outdoors and this has a huge influence on our overall experience.
Steamboat Springs was a pleasant surprise for us. We came to town in search of groceries, a laundromat, and haircuts, and we easily found all those things. We also found a bustling little town with a great vibe and outstanding public amenities.
One of the biggest assets of the town is the Yampa River Core Trail, a 7.5 mile long paved path that hugs the sides of the Yampa River as it winds through town. The trail crosses the river several times on wide wooden bridges, affording nice views of the river and giving access to the amenities on both sides of the river. The destinations that are directly adjacent to the trail include the river itself, the Yampa River Botanic Park (more on that below), Emerald Park (soccer and baseball fields), Howelsen Park (municipal owned winter park with multiple ski jumps, luge track, nordic ski trails, and an ice rink), the city’s rodeo grounds, and the historic downtown area. We’ve seen similar riverside trails in other towns (Missoula, Durango, and Pagosa Springs come to mind) but the one in Steamboat Springs is the best one we’ve seen yet in terms of length, quality of the surface, scenery, and quality of interesting destinations reachable via the trail. The people of Steamboat Springs have obviously figured this out, because the trail was heavily used every time we set foot on it. All the other public amenities like the sports fields and the river (where tubing is a summer tradition) were also packed with residents on the weekends.
The number of apparently thriving small businesses in the downtown area makes it obvious that Steamboat is a popular travel destination. In addition to countless places that rent/sell/repair bikes, tubes, and ski equipment, we saw plenty of specialty shops: several bakeries, a store devoted exclusively to selling socks, multiple fine art galleries, a jewelry store with a variety of gorgeous artistic pieces on display, a store devoted exclusively to selling hats, and — a truly rare animal — an independent book store. The many restaurants in town cover every possible style of cuisine and run the price gamut from affordable taco shops to pricey fine dining. Even though Steamboat is a pretty small town of just 12,000 permanent residents, the overall vibe here is of activity (there’s a sport or three for every season!), vitality, and growth, which was a really nice change from the struggling small communities we’ve seen so often in our travels through rural America.
One of the highlights of our time in Steamboat was a night away from the Airstream. I had a certificate for a free weekend night at a Hilton property that was expiring in early August, so we decided to use it up by booking a stay at the brand new Homewood Suites in Steamboat Springs. This would give us the chance to remind ourselves what normal sticks-and-bricks living is like, and find out just how many showers two people can take in a 16 hour period when faced with a HUGE (well, normal-sized) bathroom. We observed with glee that our hotel room was at least four times as large as our current home that roams, including a giant fully-stocked kitchen area with a full size refrigerator and a dishwasher. Of course, because I am a total weirdo my favorite thing about the room was the fact that the art in the bathroom was a photo of an outhouse.
After seeing the dishwasher in our hotel room, we had the fleeting thought that we should drive back to the Airstream and retrieve all our dishes and cookware, in order to give them their first truly hot, sanitizing wash in 18 months. But that sounded like a lot of work. Instead, we spent the afternoon strolling on the Yampa River Core Trail, watching people floating down the river on inflatable tubes, glancing at a busy street fair, sitting outside and tasting the wares at the very appealing Mountain Tap Brewery, and relaxing in the hot tub at the hotel. We topped off our evening by getting takeout pizza from The Corner Slice to enjoy at the hotel, and spent the morning watching the British Open golf tournament and enjoying our free breakfast. Heavenly!
Yampa River Botanic Park
Because there is a botanical garden in Steamboat Springs, we predictably made time to visit. This was despite the fact that I wasn’t expecting too much from the Yampa River Botanic Park. I mean, how much should one really expect from a botanical garden that is only open half the year, sits on a measly six acres, and is run entirely by volunteers? Well, we were blown away by this little jewel of a garden.
Somehow the designers have managed to fit forty different gardens into the tiny space, and those gardens are absolutely packed with a variety of different plants. There are thousands of identifying markers, but there were so many new species that there was no way I could even begin to remember all the plants we were seeing. During our visit in the height of summer the garden was blanketed in color, but what really stood out was the sweet smell that pervaded the entire park. Until someone invents scratch and sniff internet, blog readers will just have to trust me that the scent of all those mountain flowers concentrated in one place was overwhelming and indescribably pleasant.
The Yampa River Botanic Park prides itself on being one of the few botanical gardens devoted to high altitude gardening, and no doubt that makes it unique. I was even more impressed by the very high quality of a garden that sits on public land, is operated by volunteers, and is free to visit. This is a true community asset and one that nicely reflects the ambiance of Steamboat Springs. We loved it so much we visited several times during our stay.
And of course more hiking
We obviously couldn’t spend nearly two weeks in the area without exploring several different hiking options. The hikes closest to our campground were in the vicinity of Rabbit Ears Pass, and several were reportedly great snowshoe trails in winter. The unmarked, uneven paths were not particularly appealing in summer, so we gave up on those pretty quickly. The one that did make the cut near our campsite was the hike up to the peak of the Rabbit Ears. We question whether the person who named the unusual rocks had ever seen a rabbit, but the rocks are certainly a distinctive landmark. The hike up to the peak was unusual in that it was along a forest service road, not a narrow single track, but as a road it was really only suitable for ATVs or possibly rugged Jeeps. The hike through fields of wildflowers was lovely, the views were pretty impressive from the summit, and we were proud of ourselves for reaching a summit that sits at over 10,500 feet of elevation.
On another day, we ventured to Fish Creek Falls and worked our way up the trail toward the upper falls, though we turned around short of the destination. The extremely steep and rocky ascent wasn’t fun, and we dreaded the return trip down the trail if we got too tired on the way up. The area around the falls was extremely busy, as befits one of the most popular hikes in town, but naturally the crowds thinned out as we ascended the steep trail to the upper falls. Overall, our best hiking experiences were the relatively level but long walks along the Yampa River Core Trail along the Yampa River in Steamboat.
Next: We start a strange zig-zag around Colorado by returning to the southern portion of the state, but there is a method to our madness.