Vail Daily travel feature: A Steamboat Springs bucket list | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily travel feature: A Steamboat Springs bucket list

Caramie Schnell
cschnell@vaildaily.com

The thing about bucket lists is sometimes the exact moment you cross something off coincides with the addition of more must-experience items. Thus was the case with a girl's trip to Steamboat Springs at the end of June.

With its wide-open spaces and big-sky backdrop, Steamboat Springs reminds me of Montana. Likewise, with its ranching roots and laidback vibe, the town feels genuine in a way that ritzier Colorado ski towns lack.

As the story goes, early trappers in the area thought they heard the chugging sound of a steamboat that turned out to be a bubbling mineral spring, hence the name. Though I've visited the area a handful of times, I'd never visited Strawberry Hot Springs, which has held a place on my personal bucket list for more than a decade. Located just 15 minutes from downtown Steamboat Springs, the hot springs are a series of steaming pools surrounded by thick forest. With just the bright stars above, it feels a world away. Depending on which pool you're in, the water ranges from 102-104 degrees. There are two key things to remember: it's cash only and after sundown, clothing is optional. There aren't many lights — better for stargazing — so this isn't a big deal, unless it's a full moon, of course.

While there, I realized you can stay on site in one of a few covered wagons, a cabin or a train caboose replete with a kitchenette, gas fireplace, bathroom with shower and solar lights. Which brings me to my first bucket list addition: "Spend the night in the train caboose at Strawberry Hot Springs." There's something about the tiny house trend that speaks to me and this seems like the perfect way to test it out.

After a long soak in the springs, we headed back to town, stomachs rumbling. We stopped in at Mahogany Ridge Brewery & Grill (435 Lincoln Ave.; http://www.mahoganyridge steamboat.com) for the brewery's late night happy hour. Try the mahi mahi fish tacos, beer-battered fish topped with jicama slaw, chipotle aioli and fresh salsa. Next door, Fro-yo was out of chocolate, so we snagged a twist soft serve in a Dixie cup from the Sinclair gas station across the street for dessert.

Hike, eat, repeat

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The next morning, after fueling up on coffee, mini quiches and waffles at the Inn at Steamboat's well-appointed continental breakfast, we struck out for the Spring Creek Trail, a popular locals spot near downtown where we encountered as many dogs as humans but didn't spot the baby moose a trail runner told us she'd seen earlier.

The trail follows the creek, so running water provides the soundtrack to the hike through a lush green landscape set against blue sky. Everything felt extra vivid that morning. You couldn't help but feel grateful for summer in Colorado's mountains, and for this beautiful life.

After hiking a few miles, we headed back to Lincoln Avenue, where thousands of Mustangs and their proud owners converged for the annual Rocky Mountain Mustang Roundup. As carheads perused the "smokin' stags" — as we overheard one fellow refer to them — we checked out the farmer's market that takes place at 7th and Yampa Street every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. We sampled Palisade cherries and sweet peas, homemade salsa and chocolate truffles. The snacks whetted our appetite and we made our way to Aurum Food & Wine, a contemporary American restaurant where chef Chase Wilbanks, formerly of La Tour acclaim, serves up tasty seasonal fare. Don't skip what might be the salad of my summer: thick slices of heirloom tomatoes, housemade buratta cheese, fresh basil, balsamic reduction and flakes of Hawaiian sea salt, which intensified the already sweet tomatoes. Snag a seat on the creekside patio so you can watch as throngs of boaters float by on the Yampa, grins firmly stamped on their faces. This brings me to bucket list addition No. 2: Rent some tubes and float the Yampa through town, stopping off at Sunpie's Bistro (there's a place to park your tube, don't worry) for a deck-side hurricane and a po' boy.

Food tourism

From the tasty gyros we grabbed to-go from Skull Creek Greek (635 Lincoln Ave., http://www.skullcreekgreek.com) to munch on at Burgess Creek "beach" at the base of the ski area, to the Thai P-Nut Chicken grain bowl we had for lunch at Rootz Cafe (737 Lincoln Ave., http://www.rootzcafe.com) before we left town, I was quite impressed by Steamboat's dining scene. Last summer when I visited, I stopped in at Laundry Kitchen & Cocktails for a late dinner where I was immediately charmed by the vintage ambiance. The gastro-pub, housed in a century-old brick building, serves "elevated comfort food," an ubiquitous term, but fitting as well, with small plates such as their take on the "Cobb": romaine lettuce, pork belly, Point Reyes blue cheese and a deviled egg. It's imaginative, fun and, most importantly, tasty. I'll be stopping in at the eatery again the next time I visit. And I've got a list of other to-do's at the ready since the hours slipped by all too fast on this visit: ride the Howler Alpine Slide, stop in at the Yampa River Botanic Park and return to Strawberry Hot Springs for a soak and more star gazing.

Where to stay:

Inn at Steamboat, 3070 Columbine Dr. Located four blocks from the base of Steamboat Ski Area, this quiet boutique hotel has beautiful views of the South Valley, a heated outdoor pool and hot tub and a continental breakfast with a waffle bar, yogurt, quiche, bacon and more. Rooms (well-appointed with down duvets, comfy beds, mini refrigerators and more) start at $129 in the summer. Call 970-879-2600 or visit http://www.innatsteamboat.com.

What to do:

Visit Strawberry Hot Springs , located at 44200 County Road #36. Cost is $12 for adults during the week, $15 on the weekend, $7 for teens, $5 for kids. Cash or check only. Clothing optional after dark; no one under 18 allowed after sunset. Visit strawberry hotsprings.com.

Hike to either:

Fish Creek Falls. Open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. ($5 parking fee), there’s a great view of the waterfall from a wheelchair accessible overlook or take the dirt trail down to the base of the falls, cross a historical bridge, and continue on the fairly challenging trail that climbs to the top of the falls and eventually to Long Lake. Visit http://www.fs.usda.gov.

Or check out the Spring Creek Trail, a meandering, easy path filled with lots of smiling dogs and owners, bikers and trail runners. Parking for this 5.2 mile, multi-use trail is located at the intersection of East Maple Street and Amethyst Street. From Lincoln Avenue (Highway 40) go north on 3rd Street then take a right on Fish Creek Falls Road. Continue on 4 miles to the parking lot.

Let the kids or dogs splash in the Burgess Creek “beach.” The littles will love to dig in the sand and wade in the creek that runs along the mountain’s base at the ski area while you stage an impromptu picnic at the creek’s edge.

• Check out the Steamboat Farmers Market, which takes place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 19 at the intersection of 7th and Yampa Street, downtown. There’s live music from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Visit http://www.steamboatchamber.com.