Howelsen Hill has a legendary history
Steamboat Springs — Jeff Nelson, Howelsen Hill’s skier services supervisor, likes to refer to the downtown park and ski area as the Jewel of the City.
“It’s our most heavily used city park,” Nelson said.
Maybe because Howelsen and the area that surrounds it is much more than a park. The complex includes 25 kilometers of cross country skiing, a halfpipe and 15 downhill trails covering 440 vertical feet. It’s also home to three world-class ski jumps.
“Every discipline on snow is available at Howelsen,” Nelson said. “There isn’t anything on skis or a board that you can’t do over there.”
The ski area’s location, just a short walk from the heart of downtown, also makes it a popular lunchtime stop for locals looking for something to do for an hour instead of eating.
“We are very popular with the nooners,” Nelson said.
In fact, it’s the area’s popularity with the locals that has made it one of the town’s most valuable assets. In the winter it is the home of the famed Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, but Nelson said it’s also popular with recreational Alpine and Nordic skiers as well as people who like to snowshoe.
The hill is small in stature, but its history is enormous.
It has given birth to 54 Olympic skiers, snowboarders and jumpers forever connecting the hill in the center of Steamboat Springs to the winter games.
For Gary Crawford, one of the Olympic stars who grew up in the shadow of the hill, Howelsen was simply a great place to hang out with friends when the school day came to an end. It was a practice his father, Marvin Crawford, passed on to him.
“My dad used to head over to Howelsen when he got out of school,” Crawford said. “It was the place to be when he was growing up, and it was the place to be when I was growing up.”
Crawford said the appearance of the hill has changed slightly since he was a child. These days a newer Poma-lift and chairlift shuttles skiers to the top of the hill. The lodge has undergone a major facelift and there are a few more acres for skiers to discover. A halfpipe and a mogul run have been added.
But Crawford thinks the hill’s presence in the community has remained pretty much unchanged since the first trees were cleared back in 1914.
These days young children still rush to the hill when the school bell rings to pursue fresh powder tracks set by people like Gordon Wren, Marvin Crawford, and the entire Werner family.
They have also been touched and are driven by Olympic medal winners such as Nelson Carmichael, Shannon Dunn, and Travis Mayer.
Howelsen Hill is one of the oldest ski areas in Colorado. The first amenities were built for the 1920 Winter Carnival and included a 150-seat heated grandstand, a toboggan slide, and a skating rink that was lighted at night.
The first lift was a boat tow, which opened in January of 1938, and operated on Sunday afternoons. It was erected between the jumping hills and the slalom course in approximately the same area where the Poma stands today.
The ski area became one of the first to offer night skiing in 1937, when a spotlight across the river was used to illuminate the slopes after the sun went down.
In 1971, the International Olympic Committee announced that Howelsen Hill would host the 1976 Olympic cross country, biathlon and Nordic combined competitions.
But the 1976 Olympic Games were surrounded by controversy both in Steamboat and Denver.
In May of 1972 the 90-meter jumps at Howelsen burned. The cause of the fire was never pinpointed, but many locals like Crawford think the fire was a political statement by groups protesting the Olympics.
The dream of bringing the Winter Olympics to Steamboat was further damaged when voters in Colorado opposed a referendum to use state funds to stage the Olympics.
For Crawford, who was a senior in high school, the news was devastating. His own dreams of competing in his hometown had disappeared, along with the chance to jump on the big hill at Howelsen for several years while the jump was rebuilt.
A few years after Steamboat’s big jump burned, a new jump was erected in its place. Crawford still has fond memories of sitting at the top of the jump for the first time and viewing downtown Steamboat Springs.
He can still recall the feeling in his stomach as he pushed off and took in the awe-inspiring view.
“Once I stopped at the bottom I was ready to rush back up and take another jump. This wouldn’t be Ski Town USA without Howelsen. It’s a very special place.”
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