Trail of the Month: October 2008
Colorado's Yampa River Core Trail
Raked lawns and leaf piles, cluttered gutters and curbsides may signal the end of t-shirt weather and summertime activities in some parts of the country. But in Steamboat Springs, Colo., 6,728 feet above sea level, outdoor playfulness is a four-season sport, and the community's seven-mile Yampa River Core Trail funnels visitors to a year-round assortment of outdoors action to tease anyone's imagination. So with the arrival of autumn and falling temperatures, you can expect a change in only the type, not the level, of rail-trail use in Steamboat Springs.
Few pathways offer quite so tempting an invitation for visitors to linger and play. The city has landscaped much of the corridor with gardens, benches and plenty of picnic areas, and a dirt path runs along the trail as well—popular with runners. The paved trail also follows the Yampa River, and during high-water months in the spring and summer, the river churns with rapids, tubes, rafts and kayaks, and fisherman wade in along the banks. Hot air balloons surf across the sky all year (the city hosts a Hot Air Balloon Rodeo each July), and local soccer and softball fields buzz with cheers and whistles and clinking bats.
Then, as the first snowflakes flutter down the mountain slopes, Steamboat Springs bundles up eagerly for the ski season. Ben Carter, director of membership for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, grew up in Steamboat and considers the Yampa his "hometown trail." And make no mistake in the winter, he says, Steamboat is a ski town, through and through. Its nickname, after all, is "Ski Town U.S.A."
The first heavy snowfalls in October and November attract thousands of skiers to town, and Steamboat Springs is home to a renowned Olympic ski facility at Howelsen Hill, where trail users can watch live ski jumps just north of downtown. No other city produces more winter Olympians, in fact, with 20 competing in 2006 alone. While the city grades the pathway a few times during the season, there's usually plenty of snow cover on the concrete for the many locals who cross-country ski or snowshoe, or who simply crave a little romp in the powder, which the locals call "champagne powder" because it's so light, fluffy and dry.
Until ski season hits, however, trail lovers can enjoy plenty of shoe and tire activity on the pathway. If you begin at the southeastern trailhead near Mt. Warner, right in the heart of the ski resorts and hotels, you'll find the river on your left for the first few miles heading into downtown Steamboat Springs. You'll pass through big cottonwood groves and near fishing holes, and always with the forested Rockies sloping on the horizon. "If you think of a typical Colorado valley," Carter says, "you'd think of craggy peaks. That's not the case in Steamboat. There're definitely steep mountains here, but it's all forested, with aspens, blue spruce and lodgepole pines, very lush and green before the snow comes."
After the first couple miles, the trail meets up with the railroad tracks. Most of the Yampa's route is actually a rail-with-trail, as the corridor continues to service the area's coal industry, and a few trains run on the tracks each day. You won't have to contend with constant rail traffic, although the trail does pass over and under and tracks a few times.
The pathway soon leads right into the Yampa River Botanic Park, open from spring through the first significant snow, before heading by a complex of ball fields. In the summer, this stretch is often heavily used by families on their way to games, fishermen, birders and folks out for all kinds of exercise.
From there, the Yampa River Core Trail winds into downtown Steamboat Springs. "It's like an Old West town," Carter says. The extra-wide main street was originally designed to accommodate large cattle herds driving through, and you can still see many of the western brick buildings around town. Shoppers with an appetite for western gear, moreover, will find plenty of opportunities to stock up—and may even enjoy a stop at the rodeo grounds farther up the trail.
By the time you reach the end, you'll have seen and heard Steamboat Springs' personality unfold all around you. A perfect guide to the community, the Yampa River Core Trail let's you feel deep in the mountains yet safely at ease, out in the wild yet close to town. You'll get to experience a unique community that thrives today as a ski town, yet still proudly features its history of ranching and western culture. So whether you're visiting for a casual stroll, thinking about planting yourself on the riverbank for a day of fishing, or hoping to hop on a hot air balloon for a morning in the sky, the Yampa can suit almost anyone's interest or energy level.
And if you're worried about the weather turning a bit frosty on you, then pack your snow gear, because Steamboat Springs never closes down the fun for winter.
For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.