Steamboat Named One of The 20 Best Small Towns To Visit by Smithsonian Magazine

Steamboat's big claim to fame is the dry light snow that creates "champagne powder," but something else is in the air: music. What other town this size has symphony and chamber orchestras, an opera and a world-class summer festival that brings first chairs from all over the country to perform in a smashing new concert hall at the base of a mountain?

The mountain is actually a whole range of them, runneled by the double-diamond trails of Steamboat Ski Area. For years the Strings Music Festival staged its summer concert series in a tent at the resort, but time took its toll on the canvas, and, on cool evenings musicians needed gloves to keep their fingers working. The Strings Music Pavilion, built of exposed timber with a bowstring-like truss ceiling and stunning Rocky Mountain views, opened in the summer of 2008. Since then, the festival has embraced country, jazz and bluegrass, added winter offerings at the pavilion and free summer concerts at the Yampa River Botanic Park. The ski area stages MusicFest, a wildly popular weeklong winter event with 40 bands, including American Aquarium, Midnight River Choir and the Turnpike Troubadours. A recent restoration of the 1926 Chief Theater downtown provides another place for music, as well as film, dance and drama.

"More and more, people plan their visits around who's playing in town," says MusicFest producer, founder and organizer John Dickson.*

And then there's the snow. The community has sent 79 athletes to the Winter Olympics since 1932, including half a dozen hometown skiers and snowboarders who went to Sochi earlier this year. Winter sports are a large part of the town's history, though skis were called Norwegian snowshoes 150 years ago, and tended back then to be worn when feeding cattle, delivering mail and going to school as the drifts piled up along wire ranch fences. But in 1913 Capt. Carl Howelsen came to town to demonstrate the derring-do that had made him a renowned Barnum & Bailey Circus performer. The "Flying Norseman" got a warm welcome, found a good hill just west of town and proceeded to build a wooden ski jump where he taught local kids how to fly. Howelsen Hill, now run by the city of Steamboat Springs, is the oldest continuously operating ski area in Colorado. It is also a summer concert venue.

Unlike some tony resort towns in the West, Steamboat holds onto its cowboy past as if its life depended on it: The rodeo arrives in summer. The town's homesteading, ranching and hot springs resort history is told at the Tread of Pioneers Museum in the historic center not far from the Yampa River, which runs from its source in the Flat Tops Wilderness. F.M. Light & Sons, a western outfitter, recommends western movies on its website.

Operating out of a historic train depot, the Steamboat Springs Arts Council mounts exhibitions and First Friday Artwalk. But to experience the town's strongest artistic suit, check out riverfront saloons and gastro-pubs like Ghost Ranch where bands drive folks onto the dance floor.

- SS

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