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, 3 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.

western horseback riding apparel

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 a beautiful rodeo grounds in their city park complex it’s so real!

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’s 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!

steamboat springs ranching

In the early 1900’s 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 of 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 was 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!

Ranch along Elk River Road Steamboat
An Expansive Ranch along Elk River Road

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.

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