Crowd management: Ski like a local on a busy day at Steamboat Ski Area
Steamboat Springs — It’s not about whether “fun” is possible.
Waltz into Gondola Square at the base of Steamboat Ski Area at 10 a.m. any morning in the next week or two, and “fun” can most definitely still be had.
It’s about avoiding “frustrating,” and during one of the busiest weeks of the Steamboat Springs’ entire season, a good way to avoid “frustrating” is to avoid waltzing into Gondola Square at 10 a.m.
Navigating the ski mountain on a busy weekend is an art. With a bit of planning, a skier or snowboarder can find ways to avoid (most of) the lift lines, find a spot to eat lunch in a timely manner and, with a bit of luck, even end up all alone in a bit of untouched powder.
Go early in the morning right when the shop opens or go late in the evening right as it closes, but either way, you’ll be right in the middle of the rush trying to rent skis and snowboards. The slowest time for local shops is mid-day, so if you can work that into your schedule, it may save a bit of stress but cost half a day on the slopes.
The best way to save some time and hassle at local rental shops, according to Ski Haus’s Sandy Jenny, is to make reservations online. It only takes a few minutes, and while it won’t make a line in front of you vanish, it will expedite the process when its your turn.
Grabbing a bite
Four Points Lodge is the ski area’s most popular on-mountain lunch spot, and it’s obvious why. The view is amazing. It can make for a wait, though.
The cafeterias at Thunderhead and Rendezvous are more in-and-out type of dining experiences.
To really avoid the crowds, go for lunch either early or late. The “lunch rush” runs from about 11:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. Showing up at 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. is a great way to eat quickly, plus skiing when others are eating is a great way to avoid lines.
Picking the runs
This is what it’s all about. We’ve split tips up based on the difficulty level of the trail.
The most accessible beginner terrain is at the bottom, feeding toward gondola square. It’s also the busiest. Many lessons are taught in that area, plus it doubles as the way down the mountain, so nearly everyone will pass through at least once.
Rough Rider is a similarly gentle slope not too far away that gets a fraction of the attention.
“Once you get past those lower areas and have the ability to ride the chairlift, you can head over to Rough Rider,” said Allan Cox, a snowboard instructor at the resort. “It’s overlooked.”
To get there, ride all the way up Christie Peak, then follow Boulevard, take a right onto Giggle Gulch and a quick left onto Yoo Hoo. There’s a small Rough Rider lift — be aware, it’s not always running — to allow for plenty of practice, and even a bathroom. Extend runs by riding Beeline or Swinger back toward Giggle Gulch and take the Bashor chairlift back up for another loop.
Avoid: A trip down Why Not is a must-do for a beginning skier ready for a step up. It’s the only “green” way down from the top of the gondola, so it makes for a great accomplishment. Beware, though. The run is narrow through many sections and is popular among beginners. A few unfortunately-located falls could threaten to block the trail and make it difficult for a new skier or rider to squeeze by.
Intermediate skiers and riders tend to flock to the southside of the mountain, serviced by the Sundown Express and Sunshine Express lifts for good reason. There’s ample “blue” terrain.
Even on a crowded day, that’s still the way to go.
Tomahawk marks the resort’s southeastern boundary. It definitely draws a crowd but is wide enough it can handle that attention. Plus, there are four runs that break off from Tomahawk — Pup, Cub, Buckshot and Ramrod. Leave those to siphon others away and stick with Tomahawk. By the bottom half of the run, the crowds will have thinned substantially.
Be sure to bear left, too, and ride into the Baby Powder area, on the extreme southeast edge of the ski area and Tomahawk. It’s technically a separate run on the trail map even if it looks more like “wide spot on the trail” in person. Either way, it’s often forgotten.
“No adults go over there. They think it’s all for kids,” said Billy Kidd, Steamboat’s director of skiing. “If you’ve never skied powder before or are not that good in it and want bragging rights in the bar at night, go over there and take a run or two. You can go straight down, wave your poles and go, ‘Yaa hoo!’”
Flintlock, which runs roughly parallel to Tomahawk, can also be overlooked.
Avoid: Buddy’s Run is a great intermediate run off the top of the Storm Peak Express. It’s also the easiest intermediate run to access from that point, so it gets a lot of traffic — a whole lot of traffic.
If you’re comfortable riding anywhere on the mountain, a busy day is a great time to get comfortable riding the pony, or rather the Pony Express chairlift.
Pony sits down and behind Storm Peak Express. Many simply won’t ride by Storm Peak, plus there’s no beginner and little intermediate terrain at the top of Pony, so there’s rarely a line and little competition.
“Pony gets overlooked, and even more, skier’s right up there, where Royal Flush and Middle Rib are, gets overlooked,” Cox said.
You have to do a little work to get to Royal Flush and Middle Rib, some walking for snowboarders and using the poles for skiers. But that just means the weak will turn around.
Another expert run some forget is Lower Valley View, below the Christie Peak Express lift. The masses tend to opt for either Vogue or See Me as their preferred route to the bottom of the mountain. Lower Valley View — which doesn’t connect with Upper Valley View — is almost hidden to skier’s left of the top of the Christie Peak lift. There’s a long flat section at the top, but a great, steep and often groomed pitch beyond that.
Avoid: Shadows and Closets, expert runs filled with trees, are two of the runs that make Steamboat Springs such an iconic place to ski. Save them for a less crowded day.
Lifts to hit
In addition to Pony Express, the Bar U-E chairlift is often underutilized. It’s slow, but it’s a great way to get another lap on that side of the mountain without having to go all the way down to Storm Peak Express, which can get a line on busy days.
The Four Points lift is also often a quicker way to (nearly) the top if Storm Peak Express has drawn a crowd.
Heavenly Daze may be the most popular way down the ski mountain, but it may not be the best on a busy day. It can get very crowded and skied out by the afternoon. Try Vagabond, which also drops toward the base from the top of the gondola, or Concentration, an expert run in the same area.
Or, you don’t have to ski or snowboard down at all. You can ride the gondola down. It’s better to get off the mountain that way than ride down on exhausted legs, which could lead to an accident.
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