From 5th to 3rd largest: Steamboat Resort planning first terrain expansion in more than 20 years

Molly Moriarty, a resident of Washington, D.C, reads a trail map at Steamboat Resort on Tuesday, March 10. The resort will offer 355 acres of new in-bound terrain next winter after announcing an expansion into the Pioneer Ridge area. Work is slated to begin after the resort closes in April.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Next winter, skiers and riders will have 355 more acres of in-bounds terrain to explore at Steamboat Resort. 

The expansion, announced in a news release Tuesday, March 10, marks the first time in more than 20 years that the ski area has extended the resort boundary. It will make Steamboat Resort the third-largest in Colorado, according to officials.  

The project will extend the northern boundary of the resort in an area known as Pioneer Ridge. The terrain has become a popular destination for backcountry skiers, many of whom use the resort’s chairlifts to reach the backcountry gates near the top of the Pony Express lift.

The expansion project will provide resort guests with a better range of skiable terrain and also will include measures to improve skier safety.

The terrain expansion is part of a $223 million capital investment from Alterra Mountain Co. to improve its 15 resorts in North America, comprising a total of 3,320 acres. Steamboat has several other improvement projects in the works, such as adding more chairs to Pony Express, sprucing up a restaurant in Thunderhead Lodge and renovating its employee housing at The Ponds.

Pioneer Ridge, currently, is part of the resort’s special use permit area under lease from the U.S. Forest Service, but it is not part of the operational boundary and, therefore, is not groomed or maintained. Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. President and COO Rob Perlman said expanding operations into the area meets a need that guests have long expressed for steeper, more advanced terrain within the resort’s boundaries.

In 2018, the Forest Service approved the expansion project following the completion of a 300-page environmental impact study, which evaluated a multitude of potential consequences from the expansion, ranging from recreation to wildlife.  

“We have a long-standing partnership with (Steamboat Resort),” said Aaron Voos, public affairs specialist with the Forest Service. “We encourage the use of National Forest land. We work with them to make sure it is all done in an appropriate way.”

Other improvement projects

• Add 25 new chairs to Pony Express to increase uphill capacity.
• Renovate Hazie’s restaurant in Thunderhead Lodge and adding a new menu.
• Upgrade snowmaking and grooming equipment.
• Renovate The Ponds, the resort’s employee housing complex.
• Explore renewable energy options and food waste diversion technology.

Effects on recreation

Between 50 to 500 skiers and riders access Pioneer Ridge each day during the winter season, according to the environmental impact study.  The area is more popular on powder days when people leave the resort boundary for a better chance at finding untouched stashes of snow.

Two of the most popular areas currently used for backcountry skiing, referred to as Golf Course Fields and Outer Outlaw, would become in-bounds skiing terrain under the expansion. This would displace an estimated 25 to 250 backcountry skiers who likely would travel further into more remote areas, such as Fish Creek Canyon, according to the impact study. 

Then there are the people who access Pioneer Ridge by accident. This year, multiple people have been rescued from the Pioneer Ridge area after unwittingly exiting the ski area boundary and getting into backcountry terrain. It is a problem the resort has dealt with in the past and one officials highlighted in the environmental impact study.

“Skiers inexperienced with the terrain and egress routes often find themselves hiking considerable distances to return to Steamboat’s inbounds terrain network, or in areas of large cliff bands that may be beyond their skiing ability level,” the study explained.

In this regard, extending the resort’s operational boundary to this area could improve guest safety. Part of the expansion project includes replacing the yurt at the top of Pony Express with a Steamboat Ski Patrol duty station, which will make it easier for patrollers to respond to emergencies and direct less-experienced guests away from Pioneer Ridge.

The proposed 355-acre expansion in the Pioneer Ridge area of Steamboat Resort.
U.S. Forest Service

Effects on wildlife

Of particular concern to wildlife activists is how the expansion project might damage natural habitat, specifically for moose, elk and raptors. Larry Desjardin, president of Keep Routt Wild, acknowledged his group has not done a detailed study of the Pioneer Ridge expansion, but he still has concerns.

Based on what he has learned of the project, Desjardin said efforts must be prioritized to mitigate impacts on wildlife, particularly during any construction.

After the resort closes in April, crews will cut down trees to construct trails and remove hazards, according to the environmental impact study. 

Desjardin worried what effects such work would have on raptors, which will abandon their nests if disturbed during their nesting season from May to July.

About 36 acres of suitable nesting habitat for raptors, namely hawks and owls, would be eliminated under the planned expansion, the study continues. Officials have found at least two nests in the expansion area that historically have been used by raptors. 

When it comes to elk, Desjardin emphasized Pioneer Ridge should be closed to summer recreation to protect local herds. 

“Otherwise, it is going to be another sacrifice of elk habitat,” he said, referring to a statewide issue of habitat destruction in the name of recreation expansion.

One bike trail already exists in Pioneer Ridge, according to Maren Franciosi, digital communications manager for Steamboat Resort. She said the resort has no plans to expand summer recreation in the area.

The environmental impact study evaluated a long list of species that could be affected by the expansion. While it acknowledged individuals from these species could face disturbances and displacement, the expansion should not pose a significant, long-term threat to wildlife, the study concludes. 

The study also describes measures and recommendations in place to protect species. For example, regulations would not allow any trees with active or inactive raptor nests to be removed according to the environmental impact study. Raptor nest surveys also would be conducted to evaluate future populations.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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