It’s hard to stand out in a state like Colorado. I mean we have 58 mountains over 14,000 feet, numerous jaw-dropping alpine lakes, and three national parks; we even have sand dunes and an endless number of cute mountain towns. However, Steamboat Springs has found a way to stand out…with a cowboy hat. I started with horseback riding in Steamboat Springs, and it ended up being the gateway to the town’s unique western culture.
I got in touch with my inner cowboy in Steamboat Springs through its history, food, shops, art, ranches, and rodeo grounds! These are the things (in addition to the horseback riding) that make Steamboat stand out as Colorado’s cowboy mountain town.
Steamboat’s western culture is no gimmick, it’s very real. As I walked around town, I passed numerous men, women, and children in cowboy hats and boots. These were real ranchers, not tourists. It’s a town that has beautiful rodeo grounds in its city park complex it’s so real!
Table of Contents
Steamboat’s Western History
I heard it said more than once, “Steamboat was a ranch town before it was a ski town.” But I kept wondering…why did ranchers flock to the Yampa Valley?
It’s About the Grass
I learned that it was the landscape that brought ranchers here. It’s wide open – you can’t help but notice this as you descend Rabbit Ears Pass with the expansive, green Yampa Valley below. The grass in this valley is particularly conducive to livestock putting on weight. In fact, there are a number of present-day ranchers that ship cattle here from places like Texas, just for the summer. The weight gain that they get off of the grass here made it worth the trucking costs.
Basically – the cattle here thrive thanks to the big buffet of grass!
In the early 1900s ranching was the primary industry in the town/region and the railroad started operating in 1909 making it one of the largest cattle shipping centers in the West. I was told that the ranchers used to use skis to get around in the winter because their pointy-toed cowboy boots were horrible for the snow. Cowboys and skis were a marriage of necessity, helping turn Steamboat into a ski town.
Horseback Riding Steamboat Springs – Your Jumping Off Point
If you want to get a taste of the west in Steamboat, the best thing you can do is hop on a horse. The ranches are full of cattle, but that has also created a horse riding culture in the area. The ranches operate all year long. I’ve only been riding in the summer, but I hope to one day go experience winter riding and the 30+ feet of snow that Steamboat gets!
Many of the horse ranches are located just outside of town off of CR 129 (Elk River Road). As you drive along, you will clearly see a landscape of wide-open space, green fields, and beautiful ranch buildings.
Even if you aren’t into horseback riding, I highly recommend driving out Elk River Road past Clark. It’s a beautiful drive and you can’t help but see why this area is so special. Plus, you know it will stay special because much of this area has been put in a conservation easement where it is protected and kept as ranch land or open space forever, thereby keeping the culture here strong and unique.
Del Triangle 3 Horseback Rides
I had the opportunity to ride Scooter, one of the two alpha horses of the herd. The big black horse was a bit intimidating at first – Scooter was much bigger than the other horses. I got on him and settled into the stirrups. I’m always a little nervous on horses after getting bucked off once.
I was sitting on Scooter when the nearby young 3-year-old mustang reared up and loudly whinnied as one of the ranch guides attempted to get on it. I tensed up getting ready for Scooter to get spooked and take off. However, Scooter just stood there as calm as anything – not even phased. I knew I was in good hands with Scooter after that.
We road for 2 hours through Aspens, wildflowers, up and down hills, we even saw elk and took in the stunning mountain views. I love horseback riding; the smell of leather, the sound of the saddle, the gentle rocking back and forth, and bonding with your horse – it doesn’t get much better than that! It’ll put you in that cowboy state of mind. It’s really a ‘must-do’ activity in Steamboat.
Meet an Iconic Steamboat Cowboy
Not only did I get to do a 2 hour horseback ride through wildflower-covered mountains, but I also had the pleasure of meeting Ray Heid, the ranch owner, and well-known local cowboy. In fact, if you ride at Del Triangle 3, you will likely meet the 83-year-old Ray as he’s always working moving horses around or interacting with the guests, or selling his book, Man Behind the Duster.
Ray's life stories entertain, and as an old man with authentic hard working country charm, he has reached legendary status in Steamboat as he continues to make a living riding horses and skiing for pleasure.
In fact, he’s sort of the iconic model (he might even be considered a supermodel!) for Steamboat’s western culture – he does photo shoots all the time of him on horseback riding through the hills or snow. He’s a world-class skier and a horseman – he’s the type of guy you want to sit around a campfire with and listen to his stories.
“Not many people get to wake up every morning wanting to do what they do for a living every day. I know, it is not only what I do for a living, it is what I do to live. If I was not riding and skiing for my livelihood, I would be spending everything I had to ride and ski.”—Ray Heid
Do a daily ride at Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch
Steamboat Springs Ranches for a Longer Rides – Vista Verde
If a half-day ride isn’t long enough in the saddle, then you can also find ranches that offer week-long stays. I also had the lucky fortune of spending time at one of the most well-known Colorado ranches, Vista Verde. Vista Verde is not your typical Colorado Dude Ranch – they describe themselves as a ‘luxury western all-inclusive experience’. They offer a high degree of personalized service; they basically ooze Western hospitality.
I went there to improve my horseback riding skills even further, and I was able to really ‘connect with my horse’, Jake, and became more comfortable with riding in general. You can read all about my experience at the ranch and my improved horse riding skills here.
Vista Verde is much more than horseback riding, it’s the complete ranch experience where everything is included…even the daily fresh cookies.
Get the complete western ranch experience at Vista Verde Ranch
Dress Like a Cowboy or Cowgirl
Whether you are horseback riding in Steamboat Springs, staying at a ranch, going to the rodeo, eating a steak, or just walking around town, you can dress the part and wear some of that western heritage the region offers.
FM Light and Sons
You will be drawn into FM Light & Sons as if it were a magnet pulling you in thanks to their 100 old yellow and black signs on the various highways leading to Steamboat. The signs are certainly an iconic piece of Steamboat’s western heritage as well as making the store a bit of a tourist attraction!
When you walk into FM Light & Sons, you are walking into history. Started in 1905 as a retail clothing store serving the small settlement and ranches of Steamboat, it is still operating out of THE SAME STOREFRONT today! And the store is still in the original family, in the 5th generation of ownership.
“A family’s heritage is a precious and fleeting thing. This heritage needs to be tended to like any other valuable heirloom: as much a treasure as the physical reminders and collectibles that we pass from one generation to the next.”–Annabeth Light Lockhart – 3rd generation owner of FM Light & Sons
FM Light & Sons could be a great case study in early capitalism in the US. They started as a suit retailer and then created a mobile operation where they took samples out to the ranches in their ‘branded’ truck for the ranch hands to see and order. They even took their truck out to the railroad workers to sell them work boots! Frank Light had a way with business and clearly, that was passed down through the generations.
Try it on!
I stopped in to see the store as well as play a little ‘dress up’ (every girl’s favorite thing to do!). This is the place to come in and try on boots, hats, belts, and anything else your heart desires! I learned the difference between summer and winter cowboy hats, and how they can be shaped, and I could feel the difference in quality between a beaver or rabbit hat. I found a lovely straw black hat with a little bling on it that I was fond of.
To complete the look Heather, the assistant manager, took me back to the never-ending boot wall to try on different boots; I had no idea there were so many different kinds of boots. I tried working boots, dressy boots, riding boots, and more. She taught me that cowboy boots fit differently than regular shoes, and I must admit – they felt really comfortable! I also learned about all of the different ‘implements’ you can use to get the snug boots on and off.
While you are there getting in touch with your inner cowboy, don’t be surprised when you see local ranchers come in and get a hat shaped or look for the latest styles. FM Light & Sons isn’t just a place where tourists shop – it’s serving the entire ranching community.
If you want to stand out in a crowd, then check out the newest store in town Steamboat Hatter. They give a modern western look to the classic cowboy hats (think Carrie Underwood instead of Johnny Cash). Here you can customize your hat any way you’d like, and they are all made by hand.
I stopped in and worked with Kay to custom design a hat for me. Kay is a metalworking and stained glass artist and uses those skills to help her design one-of-a-kind hats.
Not only are there different shapes, and hat materials (rabbit or beaver), but each band is made with different leather, feather, and jeweled accents!
You can do a fully custom hat, or you can take one of the hats they’ve already made and make customizations to it. I chose to do the latter because that way I could walk out of the store with my new hat.
I chose a hat that I liked, but then worked with Kay to custom fit it to my head. She also changed the shape of the top of the hat, gave it a ‘worn’ look, changed the band to colors and textures that I wanted, and then added a slight bend to the front of the brim.
It was so amazing to work with Kay and watch her work with the materials, as well as steam and reshape the hat.
Looking at the before and after pictures, it doesn’t even look like the same hat!
The owners, Kay and Sam, just opened up their workshop space and storefront in Steamboat in 2020. You can always see their work on their website and they currently have a display at the Standard Gallery too.
Coleman’s Haberdashery Leathergoods
How about a bison leather tote that also holds your cowboy hat? Coleman’s Haberdashery has that and many more western inspired leather goods.
“We wanted something that was iconic western heritage, mixed with a kind of a contemporary like mountain lifestyle,” explained Vince – creator and owner of Coleman’s Haberdashery.
Coleman’s specializes in all-bison leather accessories. Sustainability is important to Coleman’s as they source bison locally from Colorado and use the byproducts in the food industry. Vince chose bison for its durability, it’s 30% to 40% greater in strength than cowhide.
A Nod to the Old West
He started off with wallets that were more durable and functional for mountain town living and then integrated women’s accessories and totes. He uses the term haberdashery as a little tip of the hat to the Western days when the haberdashery (men’s accessory shop) was actually here in the Western United States.
Vince learned his craft by reading up on it and working with older leather workers who specialized in saddles in the region. Sadly, there has been a big decline in this type of work, but hopefully, people like Vince will bring this trade back to the forefront. He does everything by hand; everything is cut by hand, punched by hand stitched by hand. He even took out a wallet and showed me how he does the hand stitching!
They finish all of their products with a branding iron; burning a beautiful image of Steamboat’s Mount Werner into each piece no matter how big or small. It reminded me that the word ‘branding’ in marketing terms, comes from western culture!
They also do really beautiful and inventive satchels, clutches, wallets, key chains, jewelry, valet trays, and passport holders! Considering there was a line at the ‘iPad register’ the entire time I was talking to him, I’m pretty sure he’s successfully bringing back the beauty of handmade leather products to the region.
Vince is building a new workshop and storefront in Steamboat – but until that’s ready – check his work out at the Saturday Farmer’s Market or on his website
Steamboat Pro Rodeo
You can trace the roots of the Steamboat rodeo back to 1904. In those days, they would have people or wagons from the arena. Later, they made the arena with cars. Fast forward to the present day and I’m standing in the middle of a beautiful small town rodeo arena with a Colorado mountain backdrop.
There’s a complex set of red and blue gates surrounding it and a big covered grandstand on one side with an announcing booth on the other. That’s where John Shipley is normally stationed – behind the microphone announcing the rodeo and amping up the crowd. I was able to get a personal tour with John around the grounds during my visit.
Steamboat became a part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) in 1988 and has been running a summer rodeo series since then.
This Isn’t His First Rodeo
John doesn’t just have to have a good announcing voice, but he also has to do a ton of research into each competitor and piece of livestock to provide background to the audience and get people excited. I got the feeling that he was the conductor of the orchestra in a way, but he didn’t really have a score to follow since bulls and broncos aren’t predictable – so he has to do a lot of ad-libbing as a conductor.
You can tell how much he loves his job and the rodeo. I get the feeling that it’s his second home. “I’m delighted to be just a little small part of keeping the tradition alive. I mean, 117 years of anything’s a long time,” he said with a smile.
The 2 hours I spent with John walking around the grounds and learning about the intricacies of running a rodeo were fascinating to me. I absolutely love learning how things work and going behind the scenes of the rodeo industry. It was so fascinating that I was pretty sad I didn’t get to see it all in action. The logistics of how they simply prepare and move the stock around in the chutes is mind-boggling alone! I personally think they should offer a regular behind-the-scenes tour for curious people like me.
Steamboat Rodeo Starts Up Again
The rodeo has a later than normal start date this year and will kick off in all of its western glory on the fourth of July weekend. There’s been a fourth of July rodeo in Steamboat for 117 years. Last year (2020) was the first time they ever went ‘dark’. So that makes this rodeo season that opens on the weekend of the fourth of July 2021 even more special. The livestock, cowboys, and John are more ready than ever to put on a show this year!
Tickets run $20 to $25 for a full night of entertainment; BBQ, live music, rodeo, kid’s events, and a huge dose of Steamboat’s western culture.
Learn more about the rodeo events and schedule at their website.
Get tickets for the opening July weekend! If you can’t go to the summer rodeo, then check out the Cowboy Downhill event in the winter…it’s one of a kind and just another thing that oozes western culture!
Ranch-Focused Food and Dining in Steamboat Springs
Surrounded by ranch land and farms can only mean one thing…the food in Steamboat Springs is incredible. In fact, it’s the best mountain town restaurant I’ve been to in Colorado. If you want to explore Steamboat’s western and farming culture through food (and who doesn’t?!), then check out these options.
This 125+-year-old barn is home to Steamboat’s longest-running dinner tradition. If you are hankering for trying some world-class beef – then make a reservation at the Ore House! The barn started as a homestead in 1889 and some of the memorabilia in the restaurant came from the original operating cattle ranch. Plus – they feed you like you are a starving ranch hand; including bread and cinnamon rolls (yes, you read that right), salad, and potato with each entry. I had the prime rib and it was cooked to medium rare perfection.
One of the reasons I was excited about coming back to Steamboat Springs was to go back to this restaurant. Laundry specializes in smoking and curing natural foods and utilizing locally grown ingredients. This is probably why it is a favorite among the locals. This is a ‘sharing restaurant’ with mouth-watering small dishes that you really won’t want to share!
They also specialize in infusing liquors creating incredible flavors like tequila with peach, raspberry, and red pepper. It’s like the bartender is a mad scientist coming up with wild concoctions in these big gallon jars you’ll find all over the bar. If you can swing it – show up for a happy hour – they have great deals on cocktails and meat/cheese platters!
Yampa Valley Kitchen
If you want a breakfast to remember, head to Yampa Valley Kitchen. This is also located in a historic home over 100 years old (I see a theme here in Steamboat!). They take pride in their mission to use organic, sustainable ingredients sourced from local, regional, and Colorado-based producers. They don’t cut corners…everything is sustainable – and because of that their menu changes frequently.
Don’t miss the fun specialty lattes – they were so many different choices it was hard to choose. I decided to go with an Indian flavor that had turmeric and oat milk. Chai tea – move on over…this is my new favorite spicy latte!
I had the Gravlax on rye with sourdough rye bread, yuzu pickles, pickled onion, radish, dill, salmon, and cream cheese – it was fresh and delicious. In fact, I fell in love with the sourdough rye so hard that I asked them where they get their bread and she said it was only 2 blocks away at Smell That Bread. After breakfast I walked those two blocks and bought myself a loaf to take home…now that’s local!
Summer Farmer’s Market
To get a real feel for just how many local farmers and artists there are in this town, check out the Saturday Farmer’s Market. You can talk to the local farmers and butchers as well as meet artists and have prepared foods. They hold this popular market between 9 and 2 every Saturday on Yampa Street. It runs from June to September.
Go to Meat School
This is one of the most unique things I’ve heard of when it comes to local western culture and food. Laura the Butcher has a Meatbar and Meatskool. She practices and teaches the traditional methods of animal preparation, harvesting, nose-to-tail butchery, and the traditional Italian art of curing meat.
Meatball is her charcuterie bar offering assorted meats and cheeses. And MeatSkool is youth and adult education on various meat topics like how to make sausage and break down a full chicken, learning cuts of meat, and how to do nose-to-tail butchery. See all of her classes here.
I sadly didn’t get to experience her classes myself, but I was so excited about this cool concept in meat education that I had to include this! It’s something I definitely plan on doing on my next trip to Steamboat!
Western Focused Galleries
Finally, if you feel like taking home a piece of the west, then be sure to wander into the multiple western focused galleries in Steamboat. From photography to sculpture to paintings – you’ll find those beautiful ranch lands and cowboys depicted in galleries like Jace Romick Gallery, Steamboat Art Museum, and Wildhorse Gallery.
However, my favorite gallery was a relative newcomer to Steamboat. Standard Gallery and Wine Bar was a cute spot with a more contemporary collection of western art and sculpture. And yes, this gallery is also a wine bar (which also could be why it was my favorite).
I suggest you wander in there in the evening and meet bubbly Gretchen who will likely be pouring wine and talking art. She will get you to try wines you’ve never heard of before, and she may even sell you a custom hat from Steamboat Hatter that is also on display! You can even walk around with wine in hand and admire the art. I loved the laid-back atmosphere here, which totally represents the laid-back vibe of the west! Her passion for wine, vermouth, and art were infectious.
A Complete Western Experience
What started with a horseback ride in Steamboat, ended in an entire education about this unique Colorado mountain town. I went completely down the rabbit hole until I was wearing a cowboy hat and boots walking around town! And after talking to so many locals like Ray, Vince, Heather, and John – it just solidified for me how authentic and unpretentious Steamboat is.
I’m convinced – Steamboat’s western heritage is the real deal and there is no other town in Colorado like it. You can go horseback riding in all of the Colorado mountain towns, but you can’t get the full Western experience like you can in Steamboat Springs!
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I was a guest of the Steamboat Chamber of Commerce and this content is sponsored. However, all opinions expressed here are my own.