By Cara Marrs
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Far off the hustle and bustle of I-70, nestled in the NW corner of Colorado, a mere 26 miles from the Wyoming border, lies the town of Steamboat Springs. Steamboat has its roots in true cowboy culture and still has strong ties to ranching, but what has emerged in the last several decades is a mecca for recreation. Steamboat has world class tree skiing on some of the lightest snow on earth, hundreds of miles of pristine trails for running, ski touring, and biking, and boasts one of the last free flowing wild tributaries in the Colorado river system. The Yampa River runs right through town and offers plenty of opportunity for fishing, kayaking, tubing, and rafting. Steamboat locals are barre none some of the friendliest around. I moved to Steamboat after attending Colorado State University, and with no plan other than to move into the mountains, spend as much time on the trails as possible, and ski every day, AKA ski bum. Twenty years later and a career in nutrition, a family, and thousands of days spent outside, I love it more now than the day I moved here. It’s truly a special place filled more importantly with special people! I hope I can share a little bit about running the beautiful trails of Steamboat.
In the last 20+ years, Steamboat has solidified itself as a great destination for running and racing. Multitudes of runners who seek beautiful and unspoiled mountain singletrack, rivers and creeks, wildflowers and towering aspen forests surely will not be disappointed. Wildlife sightings are frequent from every manner of small rodents to fox, elk, moose, black bears, coyote, and the occasional mountain lion sighting. Steamboat Springs is sandwiched between the Mt Zirkel Wilderness to the North, Flat Tops Wilderness to the West, and Sarvis Creek Wilderness to the South. It offers plenty of opportunity for solitude and wild beauty. Steamboat Springs also has a wonderful nationally known non profit running series, the Steamboat Springs Running Series. The series is comprised of 15 great races, which mostly are trail but a few on the road as well. The SSRS offers everything from road and trail 5K’s, middle distances, an ultra distance 50k, and 50 and 100 Milers at the Run Rabbit Run and Continental Divide Trail Runs. Running these races in your own backyard certainly is a treat. Most of the running in Steamboat will place you from 7,000ft to 10,000ft in elevation.
There are many opportunities for great running right from the heart of town and even more with a few scenic drives. While it is impossible to list all of the great running areas in Steamboat and Routt County as a whole, I’ll get you started with a few.
Emerald Mountain Trail System: Emerald Mountain and the surrounding trail system offers 4,000 acres of public land with many, many miles of beautiful trails. Emerald is plush with scrub oak, aspen trees, wildflowers, and smooth, runnable singletrack. You can find everything here from mellow to challenging. We have several races on these trails including the Stinger Marathon. Emerald Mountain is a great trail system right downtown starting from the base of the Howelsen Hill Ski Area (Howelsen Hill is the longest continuously operating ski area west of the Mississippi and a rich part of Steamboat’s heritage) that offers ample parking for your car or bike. You can also park on the backside and access trails there with a short 15 minute drive to Cow Creek. Emerald is a great place for anything from a 3 mile loop on the Bluffs Trail, great out and backs on Molly’s, MGM, and the beautiful winding Wild Rose. There also is a great longer loop utilizing the Ridge and Bell Trails that is 14 miles from the Cow Creek access, or about 20+ from the front side. You also can be ambitious and bang out that weekend long run and follow the Steamboat Stinger race course and run 26 miles, all on Emerald Mountain. Emerald is beautiful and wildflower lush in the summer, and sparkling golden in the fall with all of the aspen trees. The trails can get busy with mountain bikers at lunch and after work, and it can be hot in summer (for Steamboat). Except for spring runoffs, Emerald is dry with no water most of the year. There are bathrooms on the back side in the Ridge Trail Parking lot on Cow Creek and at the base at Howelsen.
Spring Creek Trail and Buff Pass: Spring Creek can be accessed right from downtown off of Maple Streets, or from an access off of 3rd. Either way this is a Steamboat Classic. Personally, I bet I have ran this trail easily at the very least 1500 times in the last 20 years. it’s a great go to and it’s beautiful. From December 1st to April 15th, Spring Creek is closed for winter wildlife habitat and only about 4 miles are open. After that, Spring Creek offers a great 10-11 mile run (5.5 up to Dry lake, and 5.5 down) with rolling uphill that crosses 15 bridges over beautiful bubbling Spring Creek. There is water almost the entire way on this gem of a trail, as well as wildflowers and towering aspens, and the creek and shade offer a welcome treat in the summer. The ever popular Spring Creek Memorial Trail Run and Run Rabbit Run 100 both use this trail as part of their courses. Spring Creek is great for a runnable 3 mile out and back, a 10 mile up and down, or a runnable 5 mile “ditch loop” (ask a local). From the top of Spring Creek and the Dry Lake parking lot there are a multitude of options if you want to go long. From Dry Lake run up Buff Pass Road for an additional 7 mile climb up to 10,000ft to Summit Lake, from there you can run into the Zirkel Wilderness by turning left, and head right and run to Long Lake (8-5 more miles, depending). Then you can run down to Fish Creek, over on the Mountain View Trail to the Ski Area, or east to the Divide Trail and Rabbit Ears Pass. The combinations are endless and will net you anywhere from 20-30 miles and beyond. The USFS and our Trails Alliance are actively working on more options on Buff Pass that will result in singletrack options from Dry Lake to Summit as well, including one just completed trail. Spring Creek is well used with hikers, dog lovers and runners, as well as cyclist, but I find that it’s never really crowded after the first 2 miles or so. I also should say that crowded is a relative term, as none of the trails are very crowded in Steamboat. Bear, Elk, fox, moose, and mountain lions have all been spotted on Spring Creek. This runner and her pacer ran into a bear cub in the dark at mile 70 ish during RRR once.
Fish Creek : Beautiful Fish Creek! If you haven’t visited this area of the gorgeous Fish Creek Falls, make a point to do so. The falls even was featured on the original Coors beer cans! You can hike down from the parking lot a half mile and see the falls. Fish Creek is a spectacular run with a nice steep and technical start. The first 2-2.5 miles of the trail is rocky, rooted and steep and can make that climb up to the upper falls seem much longer. Our Continental Divide Trail Run 16M and 50K start at Fish Creek. If you run one of those let me recommend conserving some energy during the initial climb up to the upper falls. The trail mellows out a bit after the second falls and is rolling, quiet singletrack all of the way up to Long Lake, a total of 6 miles. From Long Lake, you can run out to Dumont lake on Rabbit Ears (part of the RRR50M), head to the ski area on the Mountain View Trail, or head over to Summit lake and run down to Spring Creek. Those will all offer you long runs of 16-26 miles. Fish Creek is also great for a 5 mile out and back to the Upper or second falls or a 12 mile out and back to Long Lake. I somewhat frequently have seen bears in this area, but I’ve found that if you mind your own business they prefer to do the same. Opportunities abound for every manner of wildlife encounter, although most often they will remain unseen. The bottom of the trail up to the 2nd falls is the most heavily traveled part of the trail,so expect throngs of tourists. After that, you’ll find solitude up to Long Lake and beyond. Fish Creek is a fee pay area for parking and costs $5. There are bathrooms, a water fountain and several lookouts right from the parking area.
Mad Creek: This trail along with Spring Creek is often the first trail to dry out in the late spring and Mad Creek has the same wildlife closure during winter as Spring Creek, although the entire trail is closed here. Mad Creek is a gem of sagebrush, aspens, flowers, wide open valleys, the beautiful Mad Creek gorge and access to the amazing Mt Zirkel Wilderness. Runners have spotted bears in the area as well as many elk, and sometimes mountain lions, although you will probably not see them as much as they see you! This is also one of the few areas in Steamboat that has a few rattlesnakes, while nothing like the front range of Colorado, these snakes have been seen on the trails, especially in mid-late summer. Mad Creek is about a 7 mile drive from the intersection of Hwy 40 heading west and RCR 129. There is ample parking and bathrooms at the TH. Mad Creek offers a ton of opportunities from a great 6 mile loop from the parking lot, a 3-~5 mile out and back to the gate or bridge over the creek and a wonderful 15 mile loop that enters the wilderness boundary. You can also access Mt Zirkel Wilderness from Mad Creek and go for untold miles.
Bonus Runs with a drive:
Mt Zirkel Wilderness: Zirkel Circle – The Zirkel Wilderness sits to the far North of Steamboat and is a bit of an off the radar gem. The Circle is a must do classic, and it’s a gateway to soaring high Alpine lakes and jagged peaks, with magnificent wildflowers in summer. The Zirkel Circle is a loop that connects the Gilpin and Gold Creek Trails, #1161 and #1150. The trail gains about 2500 feet and is roughly 11-12 miles long. Access is from the Slovenia Trailhead at 8500 ft, and is approximately a 45 minute drive from Steamboat via Hwy 129. From the saddle connecting the two trails, there are grand views of Gilpin lake surrounded by jagged peaks. There are many more options to add on Mica Lake as well as other trails and peaks for longer excursions, although the Circle is perfect itself. I prefer to start ascending Gilpin and descend Gold Creek, this is a clockwise rotation.
Flat Tops Wilderness: Devil’s Causeway – The Flat Tops Wilderness sits to the southwest of Steamboat springs and is a minute drive from town. The area climbs to elevations of 12,000 ft and is a beautiful, flat top mesa or emerald green mountains, multitudes of lakes, beautiful wildflowers, golden aspens in fall and the famous Devil’s Causeway, a must do classic. The causeway itself is the 50 foot very rocky stretch of land bridge that narrows to 3-5 ft with sheer cliffs and drop offs on either side, not for those with a fear of heights. Not everyone chooses to cross the Causeway and it makes a great out and back to that point. It is about 3 miles from the TH at Stillwater Reservoir to the Causeway gaining about 1500 ft along the way, and is a great 6 mile round trip. If conditions are dry you can cross the causeway and continue on to the Chinese Wall Trail and Bear River Trail to make a 10.5 Mile loop back to the car. The most abundant Colorado Blue Columbines I have ever seen were on this trail years ago. It will take you about 1 hour to drive to the TH from Steamboat Springs but well worth it to say you crossed the Devil’s Causeway!
Where to pick up gear, maps and advice:
Twisted Trails Running Company: Our own local specialty running store, make sure to visit them! This is a great way to pick up running beta and trail clothing, hydration gear, nutrition products for your run, and running shoes.
Ski Haus: Ski Haus’s long time local and knowledgeable staff are great for information on local trails as well as maps for your adventures. Ski Haus also carries great outdoor clothing, shoes, and camping gear.
Steamboat has many too many great restaurants to list, but some of my picks for breakfast, lunch and a quick happy hour are as follows and most all are locally owned by long time Steamboat residents.
Freshie’s : Classic breakfast and lunch spot serving everything you need for your days run or adventures. Try the breakfast bowls, breakfast scrambles, salads, sandwiches and burgers, as well as their famous jumbo cinnamon rolls. Freshies is on the way into or out of town on Hwy 40 with great parking.
Rootz Café: Our local natural foods restaurant. Rootz uses mostly organic foods and offers delicious homemade juices, smoothies, and excellent lunch options. Try the Thai peanut bowl with kale and rice and your choice of chicken or tofu. Roots is in the heart of downtown in between 7th and 8th on Lincoln
Salt and Lime: Right in the middle of downtown, Salt and Lime offers delicious tacos, margaritas, a great happy hour and all manner of Mexican fare. Try the vegetales: roasted cauliflower, cashews salsa, queso fresca and a tempura fried avocado! Of course they also have fish tacos, bison and my husbands favorite the carne asada.
Paramount: If you are staying or running on the mountain stop by the Paramount. Everything is delicious at this breakfast and lunch spot and it’s all homemade. Try one of their salads or artisanal sandwiches and you must have their perfect homemade fries, this is a staple for apres ski with a bloody mary.
Brooklyns: Great place downtown to order a pie to go, delivery, or slip in for a hot slice. Mountain Tap Brewery: also downtown great beer, pizza, and atmosphere.
I hope that I have given you a nice overview of running in Steamboat Springs, we hope to see you this summer cruising the trails or at one of our races: Steamboat Springs Running Series
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