Downtown Steamboat Springs is home to a city park you may have never heard of — unless, of course, Steamboat is your home, too. On a recent Sunday morning, its frozen parking lot was starting to fill up, both with cars and a steady stream of bundled-up families, many with tiny kids in puffy jackets being led by their gloved hands toward ski slopes caked with fluffy snow.
Around here, locals call this the “town-hall meeting” or “Sunday meeting,” joked Emily Hines, a spokesperson with the city. Officially, however, it’s called Ski Free Sunday, and it’s offered every week of the season at Howelsen Hill Ski Area.
While Steamboat is synonymous with its famed, world-class resort of the same name, little Howelsen Hill has its own cachet: It’s known as North America’s oldest continuously operating ski area, open since 1915.
But for many people, its biggest draw is the free lift tickets. They were offered for select Sundays in the past, but now it’s an all-season-long thing. Hines explained they hope to get more people familiar with Howelsen Hill.
“We also wanted to make skiing and snowboarding accessible,” she said. “We are in an area, in a time now, when it’s incredibly expensive to ski, so to be able to allow people to come down here, ski for free, learn the sport, that’s really important for us.”
Two-year-old Colby Jane will one day definitely take the city up on its offer, but on that Sunday looked completely content to ride the slopes from the comfort of her mom’s hiking backpack.
Her toddler “loves it,” Jaime Keiser said.
“You know, Howelsen Hill is pretty special for the community,” she continued. “We get to bring our kids here and teach them how to ski. There’s hot cocoa inside. We’re really close to the car when the meltdowns happen.”
For Keiser, it means a lot that Howelsen Hill is still one of those “mom-and-pop ski areas.”
Recent Steamboat transplant Rakhat Ashymov described the free days as “amazing.”
He was waiting with his 8-year-old son in the short line for one of the ski area’s few lifts. He couldn’t think of anywhere else that offers something like this.
“I think it’s just kind of a Steamboat way of welcoming,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what socio-economic status.”
It also doesn’t matter if you live here or are just visiting, like Bostonian Erica Kahn. She and her friend had hit the big resort the day before, but they were enjoying the laid-back vibe — and few lift lines — at Howelsen. And what really pushed them to get on the mountain was that they got to try it out for free.
“Usually, you pay an arm and a leg to go skiing, but this is really cool,” Kahn said, getting ready to try a black run that she was surprised the hill had. “So, thank you, the town of Steamboat.”
While everyone can come to Ski Free Sundays, it seemed most of the people there were local residents, like 3-and-a-half-year-old Cruz Walcher.
“I went up that one!” he said, pointing at the ski area’s main lift. “I went up the biggest one!”
His grandfather, Dennis Walcher, understands Cruz’s excitement to get back on the lift. He learned to ski when he was 4 in Aspen.
“That’s what it’s all about living in Colorado,” he said, adding that these free days are so important. “You need the locals to have a ski area, you know.”
And Howelsen Hill is the kind of place that converts local residents into local skiers and snowboarders. Carlos Reyes was learning how to snowboard from his coworker. His first time on a board was “hard and good,” he said, smiling.
“I fell a lot of times today,” he said, nearly in a laugh. “Like, 10 or more.”
But when asked if he was going to come back, he did not hesitate. “Yeah, next weekend. Every weekend.”
That’s the kind of thing Howelsen’s founder would love to hear, said Hines, the ski area’s spokesperson. She explained how when Norwegian ski jumper Karl Hovelsen came to Steamboat more than a century ago, he got the notion to build giant ski jumps there. It was a totally different time, back when skiing was scrappy, before lift tickets or advanced gear.
“Back then, he would just strap a couple of wooden skis on his feet and go,” Hines said.
Hovelsen probably had no idea this would become an Olympic training spot — or such a beloved community resource.
“Nowadays, it’s definitely different,” Hines said. “But I think that’s one of the unique things here at Howelsen Hill. It sort of captures that nostalgia and that unique history of a bygone era.”
It’s a history that comes most alive on winter Sundays — this season through March 26.
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