Emerald Mountain: The Wild Heart of Steamboat Springs

For visitors and locals, Emerald Mountain is an outdoor oasis in the heart of Steamboat Springs. Here's why.

Like New York’s Central Park, Emerald Mountain is an outdoor oasis in the heart of Steamboat Springs, a place where people can squeeze in a mountain bike ride during their lunch hour or wander as far as their snowshoes can carry them. But Emerald Mountain is more than just a trail network: It’s also the site of Howelsen Hill, the oldest continually operating ski area in Colorado and the spiritual foundation of this sports-loving city.

Steamboat Springs denizens have always enjoyed skiing. Homesteaders’ children, who attended the valley’s one-room schoolhouses, spent their daily recess on skis, racing one another down hills and across the pastures. But then the celebrated ski-jumper Carl Howelsen arrived and taught the Steamboat Springs settlers a whole new bag of tricks. “The Flying Norseman” had performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, amazing spectators with the jumping stunts he learned in his native Norway, and Yampa Valley locals were similarly dazzled by his daring when he arrived in 1913. He organized Steamboat’s first ski-jumping competition (which he himself won) and in 1915, he helped build the facility that would eventually bear his name: Howelsen Hill.

Howelsen Hill became the site of Steamboat Springs’ longest-running town tradition, the Winter Carnival. This annual ski-jumping competition pitted local farmboys against some of the nation’s best jumpers, who were eager to compete on Howelsen-built ramps in an attempt to break the standing world record. Before long, however, the homegrown talent matched that of the visitors, and Steamboat Springs became known as a crucible for America’s top skiers.

Gordon Wren, the first American ski jumper to break the 300-foot mark, placed second in combined jumping and fifth in special jumping at the 1948 Winter Games in St. Moritz. He then returned home to Howelsen Hill to coach the next generation of skiers, who competed in alpine as well as Nordic jumping events: Wallace “Buddy” Werner, along with his sister Gladys “Skeeter” Werner and brother Loris “Bugs” Werner, gained worldwide fame after impressive performances in major European downhill races.

More Olympians followed in their footsteps. And today, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club (which Howelsen founded in 1914) consists of more than 600 Steamboat youngsters who train on Howelsen Hill after school. The glow of electric lights glaring off Howelsen’s snowy slopes signals that another generation continues Steamboat’s sporting traditions. Kids still rocket off the hill’s five ski jumps. Only now, snowboarders, telemark skiers and freestyle aerialists join the downhillers and Nordic jumpers that first flourished here.

Winter Carnival has also grown more diverse. In 1939, Claudius Banks first astounded Carnival crowds by skiing down Howelsen Hill in a suit of glowing light bulbs. The “Lighted Man” tradition continues as his son, Jon Banks, annually follows in his father’s electrifying footsteps. And an assortment of street events now fills the weekend: Lincoln Avenue is closed to cars, snow is piled on the pavement, and townsfolk watch from the sidewalks as dads race on all fours, pulling kids on sleds behind them, and the Steamboat Springs Ski Band “marches” along on skis.

But for most of the year, the Howelsen Hill ski area and the larger mass of Emerald Mountain simply provide a wild refuge for residents craving an outdoor workout. They pass familiar faces as they hike, run, mountain bike or cross-country ski through Emerald’s aspen forests and wildflower meadows. Like a backyard shared by the entire town, Emerald offers a fast escape into the mountains where Steamboaters, past and present, love to play.

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