Low snow? No problem. Steamboat stands at the top of the pack of resorts in snow-starved Colorado
February 11, 2018
David Van Winkle knows exactly how stingy Mother Nature has been with the snow this season.
The leader of Steamboat Springs' fleet of snowplows keeps meticulous records of the city's fleet, and he even keeps track of how much volcanic rock is put down for traction control each winter.
In an average year, about 2,199 tons of scoria are deployed to help vehicles get traction on icy and snowpacked roads.
As of Tuesday, the city had put down just 700 tons, or less than a third of what the city would put down during an "average" snow year.
On average, city plows clear the streets 55 times per season.
This year, they've gone out about 26 times.
"We've done about half of what we usually do," he said Tuesday.
The low snow isn't all bad, however.
City workers have taken advantage of the time they're not spending time plowing snow.
A list of deferred maintenance projects are being tackled.
Mechanics have been able to help other city departments keep their vehicles in tip top shape.
And Van Winkle says the city shop is the cleanest it's ever been.
Lodging and business leaders also are seeing some interesting results despite a relative lack of snow.
There's no panic in the voices of property managers when they reflect on the season so far.
December tax revenue still grew in Steamboat despite a slow start to the snow flurries.
And relatively speaking, Steamboat is faring better than other resorts in Colorado that are even more snow-starved than the Yampa Valley.
In late January, a national newspaper gave a shout out to Steamboat and Breckenridge as the two places vacationers should consider in Colorado if they are looking for snow.
Vehicle traffic entering Steamboat in December was up, according to CDOT traffic counters.
And combination of snow guns, activities that don't depend on snow and a weather pattern that has given Steamboat more tastes of winter than its rival ski resorts in Colorado are keeping Ski Town USA upbeat heading into the spring.
It could be worse.
Much, much worse.
Steamboat now has 100 percent of its terrain open, including its expert terrain, but other resorts to the south haven't been as lucky.
Snowmass and Telluride hadn't hit the 75-percent terrain mark as of Wednesday,
And, after getting nine whole feet less snow than it did last year at this time in early February, Powderhorn Resort near Grand Junction had to scale back its operations to just three days per week Feb. 4.
The conditions in neighboring ski resorts have even spurred some visitors loyal to resorts like Aspen and Park City to try Steamboat for the first time.
"We've had guests in Steamboat that have started their journeys in Vail and Copper on the I-70 corridor and have switched coming over here," Resort Lodging company president Blair McNamara said. "We have actual testaments to that with people saying they started on the I-70 corridor, but they came over to Steamboat and made the reservation because we had better snow."
McNamara also attributed successes this season to stronger bookings from group events.
Reservation specialists in Steamboat also have a marketing tool to try to lure more guests to Northwest Colorado.
As of Thursday, Steamboat had received 40 inches more snow than Vail.
And only Loveland, Winter Park and Breckenridge posted higher snow totals than Steamboat for the season so far.
A stubborn ridge
The snow woes in southern and central Colorado can be blamed on a ridge of high pressure that has persisted in the western United States.
It's this ridge that has moved the path of the storms to favor resorts in places such as Jackson, Wyoming.
Luckily, National Weather Service meteorologist Ben Moyer said Steamboat has snuck into the southern periphery of the storm track and has gotten enough tastes of winter to remain in the top tier of Colorado's snow totals this season.
A furious snow storm arrived just in time for Christmas.
"The overall pattern this winter has favored northern Colorado," Moyer said. "The storm track has been up there, and there's been very little passing south."
Moyer explained the geography between Steamboat and the resorts on I-70 includes mountain ranges that have a tendency to suck moisture away from the competing resort areas.
When USA Today reported on Colorado's dire snowpack conditions in late January, there was a big caveat in the report.
"Resorts in southern Colorado — Telluride, Purgatory — as well as those in central Colorado — Aspen and Copper Mountain, among others — have been particularly snow-challenged," the paper reported. "Ski resorts in Arizona and New Mexico, such as Taos, have fared even worse.
"But Colorado isn't totally bereft of snow," USA Today continued. "Steamboat, which resides further north in the state, as well as Winter Park and Breckenridge have squeezed decent amounts of snowfall from the systems that have passed through. Skiers going to Colorado soon should look to these areas first."
Record February, questionable March
Even lodging properties that rely more on the influx of traffic from Denverites and Front Rangers seeking fresh powder aren't bitter about the season so far.
"We had a really good January, and it looks like we're going to have a record February," Holiday Inn owner Scott Marr said.
The city is still a few weeks away from learning how lodging properties as a whole performed in January.
Sales tax revenue reports will be one form of a report card.
Marr attributed his rosy outlook for February lodging on a relatively new event in the city that goes on with or without snow: WinterWonderGrass Festival.
Last year the festival featured more than 25 bluegrass artists and reportedly drew visitors from more than 40 different states.
The event also was thought to have helped Steamboat Springs Transit see its biggest ridership on a single day in history.
But after February, all bets are off.
McNamara said March is the big question mark in the lodging community for the rest of the season.
He wondered how recent natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey in Houston, wildfires in California and snowstorms in the south would affect the spring break bookings.
"Does everyone put March on pause?," McNamara wondered. "March right now is our million-dollar question."