Ski area updates: What’s new at Steamboat Resort, Howelsen Hill and Bluebird Backcountry?
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Explore Steamboat magazine that was published Jan. 13, 2023.
Steamboat Springs is a bit off the beaten path compared to some other resort towns in Colorado, but there are still three ski areas nearby for skiers and riders to choose from.
Steamboat Resort and Howelsen Hill are a short drive away, while Bluebird Backcountry is no further than a quick trip over the pass.
With increasing demand at all three locations, each is undergoing renovations and expansion almost annually.
If you haven’t been to the base of Steamboat Resort in two years, you might not even recognize it.
The resort and its parent company Alterra kicked off a $200 million capital improvement project in 2021 and it has transformed the entire appearance of the base area as well as other parts of the on-mountain experience.
The summer of 2021 saw destruction of the old gondola building and the snowsports school in what is now called Steamboat Square. The demolition left a blank canvas for future work.
An escalator was built to provide a seamless entrance to the base area.
The new arrival experience was complemented by art installations with images from Steamboat’s history that entertained and educated guests while taking attention from
Meanwhile, on the hill, crews cleared trees to make way for the Greenhorn Ranch learning area, a terrain-based learning center near the Thunderhead Express lift.
A place for kids
Happy Camp debuted in the winter of 2021, a place where the youngest visitors to Steamboat Resort, those 1-4, can spend time and make memories.
An ice rink named after Gladys “Skeeter” Werner, the resort’s first ski school director, is the centerpiece of the new Steamboat Square.
Steamboat Square has a new stage in the same location of the last one, but the new one has been reconfigured. Guests will see the mountain behind whatever band they are listening to and watching. And when the stage isn’t being used by a performer, it will be open for other uses.
A new gondola
The Wild Blue gondola cars debuted in mid-December and the first leg opened on Christmas Eve.
Eventually, the gondola will be the longest in North America and the fastest 10-person gondola in the country. The lower leg takes skiers and riders from the base to Greenhorn Ranch, but in the winter of 2023-24, the second leg will extend to Sunshine Peak.
When complete, the gondola will travel 3.16 miles in 13 minutes, increasing base capacity from 6,000 people per hour to 10,000 people per hour.
The new gondola terminal resulted in the shifting of the Christie Peak Express base terminal, and the removal of the Outlaw Mountain Coaster and the Preview lift.
Work on The Range Food and Drink Hall extended into the winter. When complete, it will be home to four different dining options including Twister Tacos, Sunshine Bowl, Pioneer Pies and the Why Not Sandwich Shop as well as two bars, one on each level.
The second floor will be a bar and lounge, complete with indoor and outdoor seating to keep people cozy in all weather.
Signs of more to come
On the slopes, people might notice a wide path cut through the trees between Greenhorn Ranch and Sunshine Peak.
Helicopters were clearing trees for much of the summer to make room for the second leg of the Wild Blue Gondola and the Pioneer Ridge chairlift, both expected to open in the 2023-24 season.
Crews will work on the third phase of the massive project in the summer of 2023.
Longest in North America
The upper leg of the Wild Blue Gondola is expected to open sometime in the 2023-24 season.
A northern expansion will add 650 acres of expert and advanced terrain, making Steamboat Resort the second largest ski resort in Colorado. A chairlift servicing the terrain will open sometime in the winter of 2023-24.
More snow on Sunshine
With a new gondola servicing Sunshine, there will be a higher need for snow in the area. So, the capital improvements project will conclude by bringing enhanced snowmaking capabilities to Sunshine Peak, ensuring some of the most popular terrain is available by the holiday rush.
Sliding through the snow
Tubing is back! A lift was installed in the fall of 2022 and the new amenity debuted in December.
The lift will carry people and their tubes up the slope, covered from the elements around them. Skiers and snowboarders will take a separate route down the mountain, leaving tubers free to enjoy a quick ride down the hill.
A free option for sledding can be found at the rodeo grounds, where city staff pile snow for family-friendly tobogganing.
A smoother ride
In 2021, Howelsen Hill got a new triple chairlift that is faster than its predecessor that had 49 chairs and graced the slopes since 1988.
The new Barrows lift was shifted slightly closer to the lodge, so the trajectory is on more stable ground, and guests unload about three feet higher up the hill.
A new snackbar, The Outrun, provides guests at Howelsen with salty and sweet options, as well as happy hour spirits.
Some guests might notice a new year-round ski jump, an HS8 (hill size eight) located near the bunny hill magic carpet. It allows those just getting into ski jumping to practice through the summer, strengthening the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club program.
Less than 30 miles east of Steamboat Springs is the newest and perhaps the strangest ski resort in Colorado: Bluebird Backcountry.
The liftless resort has 1,200 acres of avalanche-managed and patrolled terrain on Bear Mountain including 28 runs and 11 skin tracks.
All terrain is ungroomed, so a powder day hits different at Bluebird. About half the terrain is considered “black”, a quarter is considered “blue” or intermediate, with about 15% considered “green” and 15% considered “double black” or extreme.
Bluebird is accessible by most cars, with a wide open parking lot that allows the most dedicated of skiers and riders to stay overnight. The heated base lodge sits at 8,600 feet and has equipment rentals, hot food, fire pits, bathrooms and more.
A short skin away from the base area is the mid-mountain warming hut known as The Perch. It is home base for ski patrol and first aid and is a great place to warm up, use the restroom and eat a crazy amount of bacon.
Spend the night
There’s no need to seek shelter elsewhere if you’re looking for back-to-back days at Bluebird. There are plenty of options for on-site sleeping. Car camping costs $25 and a hostel houses friendly visitors for $59, but Bluebird has more elevated options as well that were introduced in 2022.
Brown Bear Cabins are just over $100 a night and fit two, and there are two dome choices, with some at the base and some skin-up selections on the slopes.
A safe space
Since its inception in 2019, Bluebird has been a major proponent of backcountry and avalanche safety. All guests are required to carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe, but don’t worry, they are available for rent.
Bluebird also offers classes for skiers of all abilities and ages ranging from backcountry basics, avalanche education, refresher courses and advanced courses.
The avalanche-managed terrain is not only a great place to learn from cool instructors, but it’s a safe place to get comfortable with backcountry adventuring.
Shelby Reardon is the assistant editor at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach her, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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