Steamboat Lake Adventure

This destination offers great RV camping opportunities, fishing, hiking and more just a few hours over the Divide from Denver.

By Scott Willoughby

It’s fair to say that Colorado State Park rangers know a little something about the great outdoors. Ask those Rocky Mountain rangers their favorite among the state’s 42 parks to visit and the answer is as clear as Colorado’s cobalt skies on a sunny summer day: Steamboat Lake. The 1,055-acre lake, which sits at the base of historic Hahn’s Peak and is less than 30 miles from the resort town of Steamboat Springs, offers an entire menu of Colorado-style outdoor adventure in a bite-sized package perfectly suited to a weekend RV escape.

Travel to this mountain paradise is easy in an RV and once you’re there, the 2,800-acre park (just a few miles from the Continental Divide) delivers the ideal combination of recreation and relaxation with camping, fishing, boating, hiking, biking and wildlife watching, right at your doorstep.

This adventure starts in Denver and the three-and-a-half-hour drive (180 miles) passes through the heart of the Rockies, crossing much of the terrain that makes Colorado a must-see destination for every American. Surrounded by towering peaks, majestic rivers, untamed forests and even a smattering of natural hot springs, the trip culminates at the scenic lakeside destination that serves as the perfect place to park your RV and soak in the view from 8,100 feet. Nearby Pearl Lake State Park, just a few miles south, offers RV visitors an even more quiet and secluded escape spread across 170 acres with access to more than 100 miles of trails in the surrounding Routt National Forest just outside your door.

1

Denver

Starting in Denver is easy even if you don’t own an RV (RVers coming from the west can pick up the trail at Silverthorne). Ample rental locations around the Denver area make it easy for you to try RVing and you’ll be surprised at how comfortable RV camping can be. Kids love RVing, too, because they can spread out, grab a snack or use the bathroom without having to stop. For those flying in, the trip to Steamboat Lake gets off to a simple and scenic start with your arrival at one of the most architecturally captivating air terminals in the nation, Denver International Airport (DIA). Pick up the RV of your choice at one of the nearby rental agencies and aim for the Rocky Mountain skyline looming to the west on Interstate 70. Make sure to reserve your unit in advance to ensure you get the size and style that best fits your family’s needs.

2

Lookout Mountain
/ Genesee Park

Buffalo
Just off I-70 enroute to Steamboat Lake you'll pass the buffalo herd at Genesee (Exit 253). There is easy off/on exiting here and a great photo op. Darren Baker/Shutterstock.com

The first sign that you’ve arrived in the Wild West is revealed just 20 miles outside the city limits, where a herd of buffalo roam Denver’s first and largest mountain park, Genesee (Exit 253). Buffalo and elk herds were reestablished in the 2,413-acre park in 1914 and remain visible for viewing from I-70 or up close in the park throughout much of the year. History buffs will want to exit three miles earlier at Lookout Mountain, the site where William “Buffalo Bill” Cody chose to be buried overlooking the Great Plains from above the city of Golden. The accompanying Buffalo Bill Museum attracts more than 400,000 annual visitors eager to learn more about the fabled showman and the shaggy beasts that made him a fixture in Western lore.

3

Idaho Springs / Dumont

If you’re eager to get the “adventure” portion of your journey underway, be sure to pull over in the gold rush boomtown of Idaho Springs and clip a climbing harness onto one of the zip lines strung high above the roaring rapids of Clear Creek. Launch towers visible from the highway reach up to 65 feet high and extend for nearly a mile. You can even combine the adventure with a whitewater-rafting trip down the river below.

The downtown district of Idaho Springs is on the National Register of Historic Places and visitors can explore museums, a working mine, a pioneer cemetery and other glimpses into Colorado’s mining history. It’s also home to Beau Jo’s “Colorado Style” Pizza, a legendary hangout for local outdoor adventurers since 1973. If you miss your stop or haven’t worked up a big enough appetite for one of these massive mountain pies, don’t worry. There’s another one in Steamboat Springs.

4

Silverthorne

The Western Slope begins when you pass the sign marking the Continental Divide about halfway through the Dwight D. Eisenhower Tunnel and it makes itself obvious with the long grade down to the town of Silverthorne. Turn north here, onto Highway 9, and follow the contours of the beautiful Blue River Valley away from the nearby ski resorts of Keystone, Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin.

First, though, consider a stop at the Silverthorne Factory Outlets for a discount-shopping spree in a multiplex of more than 70 name-brand stores. If shopping isn’t your thing, it’s just as easy to pedal the surrounding network of paved rec paths or pull in for a quick fly-fishing lesson with the guides at Cutthroat Anglers on the banks of the Blue. The pull is equally strong toward the towering peaks of the Gore Range just west of town, where several hiking trails wind toward the pristine Eagles Nest Wilderness.

Opened 12 years ago by Johnson and Wales Culinary School graduate Ben Reil, the Blue Moon, in Silverthorne’s Summit Place Shopping Center, is a local favorite for pastries, coffee and hanging out. Try one of their delicious desserts or pick up a picnic lunch to eat riverside at the hidden gorge below the dam at Green Mountain Reservoir, on your left about 20 miles out of town.

5

Rabbit Ears Pass

After linking up with Highway 40 at Kremmling, ramble west over Rabbit Ears Pass. With the wildflowers blooming in summer months, the two-hour round-trip hike to the Rabbit Ears rock formation atop the pass is worth the walk if you have some time. In September, the golden shimmer of glowing aspens is all the more impressive. From the parking area on Forest Service Road 291, it’s just a 20-mile downhill coast to Steamboat Springs.

Rabbit Ears Pass
There is a great day hike at Rabbit Ears Pass. Even if you just stop for a picnic, the high-country scenery here is spectacular. Photo By Corey Kopischke
6

Steamboat Springs

Lights on Lincoln
Steamboat Lake is only 10 miles up the road from Steamboat Springs, CO. In summer, Steamboat comes alive with concerts, outdoor dining and a great farmer's market. Photo By Corey Kopischke

The best spot to stock up on provisions for the weekend is the charming resort town of Steamboat Springs, known worldwide as “Ski Town, USA.” Grab some grub from the local grocery or spend a Saturday morning strolling the Farmer’s Market along Seventh Street between Lincoln Avenue and Yampa Street, in the vibrant downtown.

The market features more than 100 venders every Saturday throughout the summer, highlighted by live music, food booths, arts and crafts kiosks and more. For a quicker food fix, pick up a sandwich to go at Backcountry Delicatessen and wash it down with a growler of beer (town favorite “The Amputator”) at Butcherknife Brewing Co. on your left as you head out of town on Elk River Road (Highway 129). And be sure to stop for ice cream served on the deck of the quaint Clark Store just before arriving at Steamboat Lake.

Destination

Steamboat Lake

The crown jewel of the journey is Steamboat Lake State Park, just to the left off Elk River Road, where 188 campsites await alongside one of only three Gold Medal trout fishing lakes in the entire state. Nestled between three mountain peaks and surrounded by National Forest, the scenery is a primary attraction in itself. But the opportunity to land a trophy rainbow, cutthroat or brown trout sweetens the deal.

Sunrise Vista Campground and Dutch Hill Campground both offer easy access to the Steamboat Lake Marina, full camper services and one of the lake’s three boat ramps. Both electric and non-electric sites are available and able to accommodate RVs of almost any size, some along the shore and some in the trees.

Nearby Pearl Lake, at the base of Farwell Mountain, provides an additional 36 non-electric campsites in a lush and peaceful forest setting with enhanced views from the Watchable Wildlife Viewing Deck. Ten camper cabins are also available for rent at Steamboat Lake.

A third hidden gem is Hahn’s Peak Lake, located just to the north, which is not part of the Colorado State Parks system but offers non-electric campsites in the Routt National Forest alongside the solitude of the wake-restricted lake.

Things to Do

As one of the most beautiful mountain parks in Colorado, Steamboat Lake is recognized among the top places to camp, fish and hike anywhere in the Rocky Mountains year-round. In summer months, water sports are the main attraction at the lake. In September and October, leaf peepers will enjoy miles of mountainside ablaze in the golden glow of the surrounding aspen forest as elk bugle in the distance. Ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are the primary winter activities, qualifying the park as a true year-round destination complete with 14 electrical campsites available for winter visitors.

Boating

About half of Steamboat Lake is zoned for wake boating, water-skiing and jet-skiing, although some coves and inlets are restricted to wakeless boating to preserve the fishing and paddling opportunities. There’s plenty of room for sailing when the wind picks up in the afternoon as well.

A cool fireworks show over the lake every July 3 is best viewed from the water by boat. The marina can accommodate you with pontoon boat rentals along with kayaks, canoes, paddleboats and fishing boats. Paddle up to the sandy swim beach at Dutch Hill in late summer, when water temps rise to the mid-70s.

Fishing

Earning Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s “Gold Medal” fishing designation is no easy feat, and Steamboat Lake is one of just three lakes in the state with enough big trout to pull it off. The season is year-round, even when the lake is iced over in winter, so there’s never a bad time to wet a line. Serious anglers can search the coves for big rainbows while kids will enjoy casting a bobber from the fishing pier at Sage Flats.

The smaller, 169-acre Pearl Lake also offers excellent fishing opportunities with special regulations on motors, bait and fish limits preserving the serenity and quality of the experience.

Hiking

The 1.1-mile Tombstone Nature Trail at Steamboat Lake State Park is one of the best short trails in Colorado. The loop begins and ends at Placer Cove Day Use Area with great views of Steamboat Lake and highlights of the area's natural and cultural history. Two other trails within the park, Willow Creek Trail connecting the Marina to Sage Flats and the Poverty Bar Trail connecting to Willow Creek Trail via Forest Service Road 409, are also worth exploring, but the fun really begins outside the park boundaries in the surrounding National Forest.

For a true test, consider the steep, two-mile hike to the 10,839-foot summit of Hahn’s Peak. The last scramble up the scree field is a challenge, but the reward includes 360-degree views from the old fire watchtower at the top. Just be sure to avoid the exposed summit when bad weather threatens.

Biking

A knobby-tired mountain bike is the two-wheeler of choice around here, and more than 7 miles of trails are open to biking within Steamboat Lake State Park. Many more miles of fat tire terrain are available in the Routt National Forest, or consider the lift-served downhill options at the Steamboat Springs ski area about 30 miles east of the park.

biking
The area surrounding Steamboat Lake offers miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. Photo By Corey Kopischke

Geocache

There are several geocaches in the park. Here are the coordinates for one of them: N 40° 48.748 W 106° 57.658

Wildlife

Wildlife Steamboat
This part of Colorado abounds with wildlife. Right around Labor Day you can begin to hear elk bugling in the surrounding hills as the rut begins. iStock.com/bridge99

You’ll share the outdoors with all kinds of critters at Steamboat Lake, including mule deer and red foxes regularly seen in the park. Occasionally even black bear and mountain lion sightings are reported, but those are rare. More common encounters include beavers, muskrats, long-tailed weasels, American martens and squirrels. Along the shoreline you can find tiger salamanders, frogs and docile western garter snakes, nothing poisonous but great fun for young explorers.

Birding

bald-eagle
More than 200 species of birds have been spotted around the Steamboat Lake area including majestic bald eagles. Look for them on the southwest side of the lake. iStock.com/jtstewartphoto

Half a dozen pairs of Sandhill Cranes return to nest in the marshes of the lake every spring and ospreys nesting in the Placer Cove area can be seen daily. Bald eagles often hang out around the southwest side of the lake, too. All told, more than 200 species of birds have been spotted in the park, including great blue herons, western screech owls, brilliantly colored bluebirds and a variety of woodpeckers. An assortment of ducks, geese and shorebirds also make their way along the Pacific Flyway to the lake.

Head to Hahns Peak Roadhouse

The local color comes to life on weekends at this restaurant and juke joint with plenty of RV parking. When you get tired of your own cooking, stop in for a hearty breakfast burrito or a Rocky Mountain trout dinner. Live blues, rock, country or bluegrass music hits the stage every Saturday night.

Not to be outdone, the Hahn’s Peak Cafe just up the road specializes in tasty homemade food, delicious drinks and a friendly atmosphere with a regular lineup of live music as well. Try the pork green chile or one of the to-die-for desserts baked fresh daily, but heed the warning sign on the door: “If you’re in a hurry, you’re in the wrong place.”

Cowboy Up

cowboys Photo By Corey Kopischke

Steamboat’s ongoing Pro Rodeo Series is another great entertainment option with rodeo action every Friday and Saturday night at 7:30. From bronc busting to bull riding, this award-winning outdoor rodeo has it all. The Calf and Ram Scrambles are a fun way for kids up to age 12 to take part in the big show as they try to grab the ribbon tied to a calf or lamb’s tail.

Soak in Steamboat Springs

This authentic Western town was named by early settlers who thought the gurgling hot springs sounded like a steamboat. Those same hot springs remain an attraction for locals and visitors alike. Both the Old Town Hot Springs in town at Third Street and Lincoln Ave. and the more rustic Strawberry Park Hot Springs seven miles north on Routt County Road 36 are good options. Just be aware that Strawberry Park is clothing optional after dark.

Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs derives it's name from the thermal pools the area is famous for. Taking time to enjoy the warm waters at a local spa is a great way to spend an afternoon. Photo By Noah Wetzel

Fish Creek Falls

Before heading home, be sure to make the easy walk up the paved trail to the falls in Steamboat. Perfect for families, the interpretive trail splits for views from the top and bottom of the lower falls and includes a more adventurous option of three miles on Forest Service Trail 1102 to the scenic upper falls. A full six miles (one way) lands you at Long Lake. From downtown Steamboat, head north on Third Street and turn right onto Fish Creek Falls Road. Follow the road for about three miles until it dead-ends. A day-use parking fee is required.

Extend your trip

It’s no secret that Colorado is an RVer’s wonderland, and the alternative route back to Denver on Highway 40 is a great way to see even more of what the Centennial State has to offer. Rather than backtracking south down Highway 9 at Kremmling, simply continue east on Highway 40 over Berthoud Pass until you rejoin Interstate 70 at Empire. The drive is only about 20 minutes longer, but you may want to linger to take in some of these spectacular sites.

Click to view the gallery

Hot Sulphur Springs

The therapeutic pools at Hot Sulphur Springs have been open to visitors for more than 140 years and used by the Ute Indians long before that. Nestled on the banks of the Colorado River only 18 miles east of Kremmling, the 21 mineral pools are mostly outdoors with terrific views of the river valley and Byers Canyon to the west. There is ample RV parking and even a few free campsites along the river for self-contained units. Break out your fly rod and fish for rainbows and brown trout in the nearby Gold Medal section of the Colorado River.
34 miles (abourt 45 minutes ride)

Rocky Mountain National Park

The western entrance to RMNP, just north of Granby, lacks the commercial chaos of its eastern counterpart, but not the scenic splendor. From Granby, follow the Colorado River to its headwaters and continue up Trail Ridge Road, one of the highest paved roads in America, to view the world from the top of the Rockies at 12,183 feet. Elk greet visitors throughout the route while massive moose munch greenery closer to the park entrance. Set aside a half day for the drive, longer if possible. Driving all the way through lands you at Estes Park, a bustling gateway with many attractions of its own, including the Stanley Hotel, inspiration for Stephen King’s classic, “The Shining.”
54 miles (1 hour 7 minutes)

Winter Park

The ski resort at Winter Park is another great spot for fun dining and shopping with a wide array of outdoor entertainment options. Ride the lifts — summer and winter — for mountaintop views or lunch at the Sunspot Restaurant. Or rent a downhill mountain bike and test yourself on the resort’s renowned Trestle Bike Park, one of the top-rated bike parks in the nation. There’s more good fishing on the Fraser River and easily accessible hiking trails from town, the ski area or at the summit of Berthoud Pass just about 10 miles farther down the road.
72 miles fro Blue Mountain (1 hour and 30 minutes)