In Steamboat Springs, if you make the acquaintance of a local or two, you just as surely can say you know the entire town. You won’t find seven degrees of separation here, because in this Colorado ski resort with an old Western flair, there are no strangers—only neighbors. And that means if you know somebody, then you just about know everybody.
I discovered this about five minutes into my first visit to Downtown Steamboat, when I walked into Cowboys and Indians, a store whose name was all too enticing to pass up. Filled with artifacts old and new from across the Southwest—obsidian knives with deer-antler handles, moccasins covered in ornate beading, belt buckles bigger than my fist, and boots for rough ranch hands and glamorous cowgirls alike— the store delivered all I had hoped.
Behind the glass counter filled with silver and turquoise jewelry, a young woman with a name tag that read “Callie” was quick to share her connection to the cowboy side of Steamboat Springs’ history. “I’m fifth generation,” she told me, referencing her family’s sizable ranch not far from the center of town. “Has anyone told you about the Yampa Valley Curse?” I raised an eyebrow at the foreboding name, but Callie assured me this was a friendly phenomenon. “People love it here, and even when they leave, they just can’t seem to stay away,” she said. “I mean, I left for college but it wasn’t long before I came right back.”
THE YAMPAH VALLEY CURSE (AND BLESSING)
I’d soon discover that the history of Steamboat Springs runs deep, and its locals (all 13,000 or so of them) are like links in a chain—connected both to the town’s past and to each other. But first, a bit about that illustrious past: The name Steamboat Springs is a slice of historic trivia in and of itself, coined in the early 1800s by French trappers who mistook the hissing of the area’s natural mineral springs for the sound of a steamboat’s engine. Like most of Colorado and the West, the land was later settled by homesteaders, and by the early 1900s ranching had become a thriving industry. Skiing on the area’s six peaks, meanwhile, dates as far back as the 1910s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s—when the town trademarked the nickname “Ski Town USA”—that Steamboat Springs became the champagne powder paradise it is today.
Even now, Steamboat Springs’ dual identities of cowboy boom town and ski resort simultaneously thrive. The slopes are some of the best in the country—86 percent of the area’s 3,000 acres of trails are for intermediate and advanced athletes— yet the style is as laidback and downhome as it gets. Unlike Vail or Aspen, you won’t find Chanel or Gucci here, but you will find BAP (the local mountain apparel shop) and F.M. Light & Sons (a Western outfitter on Lincoln Avenue for more than a century). And lately, it seems this easygoing lifestyle is more attractive than ever: In 2021, Steamboat Springs was named the fourth most expensive small town in America. Plenty of that can be traced to the area’s limited real estate inventory—so much land remains in the hands of just a few generational owners— but locals also attribute it to Steamboat’s newly established affiliation with the prestigious Ikon Pass, which gives powder hounds access to the best ski resorts across America.
Still, almost nothing about today’s Steamboat Springs seems to exist without some reference to the past, and as Callie sent me on my way with a list full of other locals to meet (plus a turquoise bracelet and a pair of silver-toed boots), I couldn’t help but feel I had one foot firmly placed in the old Wild West—and my next stop would only solidify that feeling more.
LOCAL LEGENDS & DOWN-HOME DESIGN
A few blocks from Cowboys and Indians, on 11th Street, the tiny workshop at Steamboat Hatter was crammed with fur felt molds, leather strips, and feathers galore. Partners in business (and in life) Kay McKenzie and Sam Daniels were having a busy day at their millinery, with clients popping in to get their heads measured for custom designs, regulars visiting to add new flourishes to their hats, and family members stopping by to ask what time they’d be coming by for dinner that night.
The duo opened their atelier in June 2021, yet their methods are as old as the cattleman’s hat itself. “We really love Western culture and we wanted to make hats the traditional way,” McKenzie told me as she fastened a hat sizer onto my head. The challenge of replicating antiquated methods for modern customers had clearly proven wildly successful after just a few months: I was told the turnaround for my custom gray Western hat and bison leather band would be three months. But after seeing the care with which this couple had evolved a historic craft into something current and relevant (and still totally authentic), I was certain the wait would be well worth it.
Daniels and McKenzie sent me next to the Standard, a wine bar and art gallery where I found a handful of locals sipping Pinot Noir amid the striking landscape photography of local artist Dustin Posiak-Trider. From there, I crossed Lincoln Avenue to another newcomer, RD Home, a recently opened, women-owned design store and coffee shop with an eclectic collection of housewares ranging from vintage Slim Aarons ski photographs to handcrafted ceramics and vibrant pillows. Next, I was sent to Lime & Salt—not only for the mouthwatering tacos, but to check out RD’s redesign of the stylish Mexican joint, which featured graphic paintings, colorful patchwork armchairs, and a long bar covered in handmade tiles.
On my way there, I stopped at two more recommendations I’d picked up along the way: Pine Moon Fine Art, a gallery co-owned by a collective of 13 local artists (all women); and Adorn, another new and locally-owned shop—this one devoted to showcasing ethically produced designs from around the world—where I perused textiles from Turkey, beaded jewelry from Tanzania, and leather handbags from Thailand. Next, a visit to F.M. Light and Sons was all but obligatory. The giant horse statue outside practically beckoned me into the shop full of dungarees and flannel. It also brought to mind a story Callie told me about her grandfather and other venerable locals who still rode into town on horseback every now and then. “The last time he did it was a few years back,” she said with a smile.
APRÉS TABLES & A FOND FAREWELL
As the sun began to set, my stomach began to growl. Luckily, Steamboat Springs has a lively après scene—no matter the time of year—and restaurants like the riverside Aurum and clubby Double Diamonds are among the most popular. Hankering for a little more of Steamboat history, I opted for a visit to Laundry Kitchen & Cocktails, where, after dining on wagyu ribeye with beets and blue cheese fondue, I followed general manager JJ Johnson to the back of the house, where historic photos of the century old building in its former life as a laundry were on display. “See how they all have their hands behind their backs?” he asked me, a tad spookily. “It’s because they had burn marks—and even missing fingers—from working the machinery.” I had come to expect this kind of storytelling after several days in Steamboat Springs, as each new friend I made and each new spot visited became another link in the chain, the whole of which tells the long tale of this Colorado ski town.
The next morning, as I drove out of town, F.M. Light & Sons’ famous rusty roadside signs whirred past one after another, touting Levi’s jeans and Dan Post boots, and urging me to make a U-turn back to Steamboat—and I nearly did. But while I resisted the temptation to return, something told me I’d be back soon enough. Maybe it was because, by then, I felt like I knew just about everybody in town. Or maybe it was that old Yampa Valley Curse.