John’s Note: This is the second post in my series about Colorado, the place I call home (you can check out the first post here: Dispatches from Telluride). Though I spend a lot of time talking about the places I travel to in the US and abroad, the truth of the matter is that the travel doesn’t stop when I’m home. That’s why I’m working with Mountain Reservations to bring you one new destination from the Centennial State each month.
Thadump thadump thadump – the sound of my heartbeat gets louder with each step, so loud that I’m certain the older mustachioed man in front of me can hear it thumping against my rib cage with each step up the long staircase. But despite its quickening pace, I continue to climb step after step until I reach the top, staring 300 feet down one of the largest ski jumps in the United States.
I timidly peer over the ledge; it looks a lot steeper from the top of the mountain. With the well worn wood creaking beneath my feet, I shuffle closer to the ledge. I breathe deep, hold steady, tighten my grip….and fire the shutter on my camera.
Unlike many who make the journey up to the top of Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs, I’m most certainly NOT here to launch myself off a snow-and-ice covered ramp into the Colorado sky. There isn’t even a snowflake to be found on this sunny autumn afternoon. Instead, I’m here to take in the sweeping views of the valley from one of Steamboat’s most cherished icons.
Howelsen Hill is the oldest continuously operated ski resort in the state of Colorado. With only one chair lift, a seemingly paltry (by Colorado standards) 440 feet of vertical drop, and only a handful of alpine ski runs, Howelsen is often lost in the shadow of the much larger and glitzier Steamboat Springs Ski Resort just across the valley. But the importance of Howelsen Hill isn’t measured in runs or vertical feet.
The Hill has become an icon of the city, a living piece of history that dates back to Steamboat Springs’ days as a rugged mountain town where skiing was the only way to get around in the winter. Open since 1915, Howelsen has been the playground and training ground for generations of Steamboat Springs locals and visitors alike. 79 Olympians have honed their skills on Howelsen before taking on the world’s best.
Aside from the signature jumps, top athletes flock to Howelsen to train on the cross country ski trails, snowshoe through the wilderness, cut steep turns on alpine runs, and show off their tricks in the terrain park.
But when future Olympians aren’t defying death, the hill is open to curious visitors eager to get a glimpse for themselves. The best vantage point in town is from the top of Howelsen Hill, accessed via a short ride up the old chair lift – a symbol of Colorado’s simple skiing past before the days of high-speed quad lifts and heated gondolas.
From the top of the lift, it’s only a short walk over to the main attraction – the Olympic-sized ski jump. Staring down the jump on a sunny day without snow or skis still makes for a thrilling experience. From here, the entire town of Steamboat Springs is visible.
For those looking to get a taste of hurdling down the mountain (without the airtime), Howelson offers tamer alternatives. In the summertime, dueling alpine slides snake down the hill, while tubing becomes the preferred method of sliding once the snow starts to fall.
As I take in the commanding view from the top of the legendary ski jump, I can feel the nerves of the thousands of ski jumpers who have stood in this spot before me. Even without the snow, without the flashbulbs and bright lights, and without the impending fear of launching into the thin Colorado air, the experience is still enough to take my breath away – if only for a moment.