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Powder paradise at Steamboat Springs: Recreational opportunities abound in mountain community

A skier drops into one of the 165 trails at Steamboat Ski Resort earlier this month in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren1 / 4
A pair of snowboarders take a break atop the 10,384-foot Sunshine Peak at Steamboat Ski Resort. Sunshine is one of six peaks at the resort. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren2 / 4
A waitress tends to a table at Creekside Cafe & Grill, a small downtown restaurant big on taste with homestyle American and Mexican breakfast cuisine. Pioneer Photos/Eric Stromgren3 / 4
Trees glisten in the cold after a snowstorm at Steamboat Ski Resort. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren4 / 4

Steamboat Springs is much more than world-class winter recreation destination to Caio Cesolini.

"Steamboat is a lot like Bemidji, in a sense," Cesolini said. "We have nice people out here just like there are nice people in Bemidji. Steamboat is more than just a town -- it's a real community."

Tucked away on the western slope of the Colorado Rocky Mountains about 200 miles west of Denver, the ranching community of Steamboat Springs maintains a welcoming identity and a relaxed atmosphere to those craving the area's unique brand of winter activities.

Cesolini, who owns Aqua Well Drilling in Bemidji, visited Steamboat Springs as a tourist 23 years ago. He leaves Bemidji every November for his winter home in Steamboat Springs, where he has worked as a ski instructor at Steamboat Ski Resort since 1991.

"We came out on a ski trip in 1987 and we just liked the town and the mountain so much that we kept coming back," Cesolini said. "It's a great place for kids, the downtown is safe and it's a real safe mountain. We get a lot of snow, nice weather and there's no real avalanche danger."

Cesolini's children Tony, Jenna, Joe and Caio all share his passion for skiing and the mountain lifestyle. Tony raced for the Colorado University ski team on a scholarship and Jenna has competed in European events.

All of his children honed their skills in the "champagne powder" at Steamboat Ski Resort, which receives on average of 318 inches - and more than 400 inches the last two years - of the trademarked snowfall.

Because the snow falls so frequently in the winter months, snowplow crews work to clear the streets on a near 24-hour cycle in the city with a population of nearly 10,000.

Steamboat's light, dry, fluffy and airy brand of snow is claimed to be unique to the area. When the snow falls, it globs on the trees in a picturesque setting fit for an alpine postcard.

The scenery is an added bonus for the real adventure found at the resort and in the backcountry.

The primary draw to Steamboat - also known as Ski Town U.S.A. - is the deep powder downhill skiing and snowboarding. Bursting in and out of chest deep powder is commonplace during the peak season at Steamboat. Even at lower elevations, the knee-deep powder on the runs between the trees provides a thrill.

Similar types of snow are a less frequent occurence in other Rocky Mountain ski areas, and that's what makes Steamboat Springs a unique draw in the winter.

Opened in 1963, Steamboat Ski Resort covers 2,965 acres of terrain and 165 trails across six mountain peaks. The tallest peak is Mount Werner, which looms almost 4,000 feet over the city at an elevation of 10,568 feet.

There is a variety of trails for every skill level, from the gently rolling runs near the base for beginners to the extreme steep terrain at the peaks for the more advanced. The longest run is the beginner trail 'Why Not,' which winds 3 miles down to the base.

The lift lines are short at Steamboat, and it was rare to wait more than a few minutes to catch a chair back up to one of the peaks. It is a contrast to other Colorado resorts like Breckenridge, where it is not uncommon to wait 10 minutes or more for a lift during peak season.

Downtown Steamboat Springs - elevation 6,372 feet - is a laid-back yet vibrant area with a variety of independent small shops and restaurants.

Places like The Tap House Sports Grille and the Creek Side Cafe & Grill are unassuming gems.

In a basement setting with large screen televisions, The Tap House prides itself on meaty chicken wings, but has quality American fare to satisfy any appetite.

Creek Side is nestled on the edge of the Yampa River and features nine different varieties of eggs Benedict. But, the authentic southwestern takes on breakfast food make their down-home menu memorable. Locals enjoy the overstuffed breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, homemade potatoes, black beans, two cheeses and homemade green chili wrapped inside a large chipotle tortilla.

The Rendezvous Saddle on the Ski Resort puts a unique twist on its Rendezvous Burger: a half-pounder topped with guacamole.

Creek Side and the Rendezvous show that those willing to venture into Steamboat's homestyle take on Mexican-inspired creations will be pleasantly surprised with flavor, not spice. Jalapeno, beans, sour cream and guacamole can be found or added to just about any dish in Steamboat Springs.

The town strives to be environmentally progressive and conscious. There are recycling stations throughout the city, the resort is working toward a zero-waste initiative and the public transportation service runs on hybrid buses. The public transportation service in Steamboat Springs is free, but friendly locals driving by will pick up waiting riders for a ride to the resort.

"It's really amazing, because out here I can go on a tank of gas for about three weeks," Cesolini said. "In Bemidji, I'm going through a tank of gas about every other day."

The independent spirit of downtown Steamboat Springs spreads through the region with smaller operations that can give more personal experiences.

One of those businesses is Vista Verde, an all-inclusive year-round ranch resort that blends some of the best activities the area has to offer with a family atmosphere. The base rates are reasonable and includes lodging, meals, activities, equipment, transportation to the city and recreation guides.

And a Steamboat Springs visit would not be complete without a trip to one of the area's legendary hot springs: Strawberry Park Hot Springs is home to a soothing 104-degree mineral water pool. Locals feel the small $10 fee to enter the pool is acceptable to avoid congestion found in free public pools.

It is hard to argue with that claim while sitting inside the springs, gazing above the thick steam, over the silhouetted snow-covered alpine trees and into the starry night sky.

Steamboat Springs is also home to a number of USA Winter Olympic qualifying events including the cross country trials and ski jump trials, so the area was buzzing in anticipation of Febuary's games in Vancouver.

"It's my favorite place," Cesolini said. "I've skied across north America and Europe. Other places like Jackson Hole (Wyoming) have bigger mountains, but it just isn't as much fun. You walk around here and the downtown is so friendly.

"It's easy to love this town."