Howelsen Hill experiences increased usage during pandemic season

The slopes of Howelsen Hill Ski Area were pretty empty Thursday morning after the downtown Steamboat Springs ski area officially ended its season last weekend. The ski area, however, will continue grooming through this week as members of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club continue to train there. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In a year when businesses have struggled and cities have seen a decrease in tax revenue, Howelsen Hill Ski Area has a seen its usage sky rocket.

As of Jan. 21, Howelsen Hill had seen a 99.5% increase in season pass purchases and a 65% increase in day ticket sales. Staff at the city-owned ski area said they have not run numbers for the end of the season to definitively determine if 2020-21 was their busiest year yet, but they think it might be.

“It’s too soon to call with numbers, but it does seem like we saw more members of the public this year than ever before,” said Ski and Rodeo Supervisor Robbie Shine.

Shine said Howelsen’s successful season could be attributed to several factors, but its affordability at $35 per day and free on Sundays could be major reasons.

“When you come up to a ski area, and you pay $35 for a ticket versus paying $200 for a ticket (at Steamboat Resort), there’s no stress if you don’t get enough runs in or if someone gets hurt or a kid gets upset,” Shine said. “Skiing should be fun, and it shouldn’t be a stressful sport where you have to try and cram everything in.”

Due to COVID-19 mitigation protocols, Howelsen staff implemented a reservation system for the weekly Ski Free Sundays, but Howelsen Hill and Rodeo Manager Brad Setter said staff members were almost always able to give everyone a chance to ski on Sundays, even those who did not make a reservation.

“We had a super successful year with that this year,” Setter said. “The reservation system really worked out well for us. People are looking for something to do, and we’ve definitely benefited from that.”

As Steamboat continued to see visitors looking for a COVID-19-safe getaway, Setter said many people who may not have previously known about Howelsen Hill were drawn to it while exploring downtown and noticing the sledding hill or ice skating rink.

“We’ve definitely done things to put foot traffic down at Howelsen Park,” Setter said. “I think that’s made us a little more visible to our out-of-towners who may not know that Howelsen even exists.”

Setter also said Howelsen tends to have a “close niche” of local families who are teaching kids to ski or looking for an affordable and easy option in addition to the ski area being the site of daily practices for Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club athletes.

“Kids grow up skiing at Howelsen after school, and I think that’s an important part of the niche we fill and the reason we have such a strong relationship with the community,” Setter said. “Our niche is very different from Ski Corp. They provide a big experience whereas we provide a lower-cost alternative and a smaller option.”

SSWSC Executive Director Sarah Floyd described Howelsen Hill as a “gem to the community.” She said local children grow up with sentimental memories skiing and snowboarding there.

“It’s safe, and it’s community-based and kids grow up here,” Floyd said. “Families enjoy their time here in a very low stress, fun way.”

Howelsen staff have closed bidding on chairs from the Barrows Chairlift in preparation for installing the new chairlift this summer, which Shine said is a welcome change.

“It feels great to let it go,” Shine said. “That thing is ancient. It’s over 50 years old; it’s hard to maintain. We’re just ready to welcome the 21st century.”

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