There are two kinds of people in the world—those that like hot springs, and those who haven’t been to Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Nestled in an idyllic aspen-sheltered canyon above Steamboat Springs, Strawberry Park has been attracting soakers to its steamy waters for decades. And I’ve yet to meet a single person who has visited Strawberry Park and decided they don’t want to go back.
Ask ten random locals to name a good family hiking trail with easy access from downtown Steamboat Springs and the most common answer you’re likely to get is the Fish Creek Falls. The Fish Creek Falls Trail has a little of everything, from a paved overlook trail complete with sheltered picnic areas and developed restroom facilities, to a slightly more strenuous trek that switchbacks above Lower Fish Creek Falls and travels for 5 miles up past Upper Fish Creek Falls to the scenic Long Lake.
So you’ve spent a couple of days fly fishing the Yampa River in downtown Steamboat Springs and you’re looking for an excursion somewhere a little off the beaten path. Here are some options for you that are close to town, but offer a quieter and more secluded fly fishing experience than the trout playground of the town stretch.
The Elk River
The Elk River is a major tributary of the Yampa River and offers a variety of fishing opportunities from the roadside pockets of public water along Routt County Road 129 to wild, untamed stretches of river among the pine trees and narrow gorges along Seedhouse Road. The Elk is a favorite getaway for Steamboat locals because of the easy access, beautiful setting, and fun fishing. For a quick taste, try the Christina State Wildlife area just 7 miles north of Steamboat Springs along RCR 129.
Below the dam at Stagecoach Reservoir, the Yampa River flows through a stunningly beautiful canyon where huge trout congregate in large pools and shallow riffles. This is the major leagues of fly fishing here in the Steamboat area, with finicky trout that like small scuds, tiny midges, and other delicate bugs. But if you can find the right recipe, you’re sure to catch the fish of a lifetime.
If you’re looking for a truly unique fly fishing experience, hire one of the outstanding professional fly fishing guides through Steamboat Fly Fisher, Bucking Rainbow, or Straightline Sports, and go fish some of the outstanding private waters that are available through these fine outfitters. Whether it’s a guided float trip through the “hog heaven” of the lower Yampa between Steamboat and Milner, or a trip upstream to the ranches and ponds along the Elk River or the Yampa River above town, these outfitters have dozens of unique private water options. Not only will you get to fish water that isn’t open to the public, but you’ll have the guidance of some of the best anglers in the region.
Alpine Lakes and Streams
Personally, I prefer getting away from the usual locations and fishing cold, clear streams that require a little effort and get me away from the crowds, and the easily-spooked fish that come with them. You’ll need to do your research, because these waters aren’t in any guide book, and aren’t often fished by the public. Try Big Creek, Mad Creek, King Solomon Creek, or Trout Creek for isolated small stream fishing with plenty of small, wild, and feisty trout.
One of the most unique attributes of Steamboat Springs is the fact that you can catch a world-class rainbow or brown trout right in the heart of downtown. Just grab a rod, walk to the river, and start fishing. It’s that easy. No maps, access fees (fishing license is required), private guides or long drives required. Of course, you can always hire a guide—and we’ve got some famous ones here in Steamboat—but if a quick fishing fix is on your Steamboat bucket list, then just mosey on down to the river, find a hole, and start casting.
In the last twenty years, the City of Steamboat Springs, along with fly-fishing clubs, local citizens, and Colorado Parks & Wildlife, has done massive habitat improvement projects on the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs and, as a result, has created one of the greatest “urban” fisheries in the state of Colorado. Just steps from the bars, restaurants, and shopping of downtown Steamboat, an angler can catch and release rainbow trout approaching 20 inches. And if streamer fishing is your thing, you may dredge up a brown trout that exceeds that magical 20-inch mark.
Right about this time of year as summer wanes into its second half, the river is low enough for easy wading. I like to fish the stretch of river between Rich Weiss Park and Fifth Street Bridge. Large check dams and scattered boulders hide deep and dark pools where large trout live. And the dense foliage along the banks provides for some solitude in an otherwise busy stretch of stream. It’s on this stretch that I like to break out my biggest and ugliest streamers, because the brown trout of the Yampa River are voracious meat eaters. And as they say, big fish like big flies.
If you’re looking for fishing glory, fish the holes in the river directly behind Yampa Avenue between Fifth and Ninth streets, where diners gather on the riverside patios of Sunpies, Aurum, Sake2U, and Sweet Pea restaurants. But you better know what you’re doing, because you’ll hear it from the peanut gallery if you don’t. Reeling in a big, homegrown trout on this stretch is a blast, and hearing the hoots and hollers from the spectators along the banks makes it all that much sweeter.
The first time I took a stand up paddleboard down the Yampa River I made a few instant realizations.
First, this SUP thing is much easier to learn than it looks. Unlike standing up on a surfboard—which for me required hours of practice in hot sun, icy cold water, and relentless, pounding surf—standing up on the paddleboard didn’t take more than one try, and shortly I was working my way across stream to play in the smaller waves hidden in the slack water behind boulders. This is because most stand-up paddleboards are wide and thick – meaning better stability and a smoother learning curve. That could be the reason behind the SUP craze here in Colorado.
Another thing I noticed right away: the views of the river while standing up on a paddleboard are much better than sitting down in a kayak or raft. Although I’ve floated the Yampa countless times, the new view I got while standing up on my way down the river made this float down the Yampa seem almost like my first time.
Finally, I wondered why somebody hadn’t thought of this before. It really took us until the 21st century for somebody to figure out that it might be fun to take a surfboard-like object and paddle it downstream? I’m not sure why it took us so long, but I am sure that there’s no going back now. Stand-up paddleboarding is here to stay and based on its rapid growth, it may soon be the most popular form of recreation on rivers across the West.
If you want to try stand-up paddleboarding for the first time, I highly recommend giving the pros a call. Steamboat Paddleboard Adventures and Bodhi SUP are both highly respected and professional paddleboarding operations based here in Steamboat that not only offer gear rentals, but a wide variety of classes and adventure trips for visitors and locals alike.
Steamboat Paddleboard Adventures has two locations, one in Steamboat Springs and another at the Clark Store north of town. Stop by on your way up to Steamboat or Pearl Lakes and pick up a board (or three) for you and the family and explore the stunning scenery the human-powered, stand-up way.
Summer marks beginning of another famous time of year in the Yampa Valley – river season. The Yampa River flows through Steamboat Springs on its 250-mile journey from the Flat Tops Wilderness Area to its junction with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. On its way west, it provides outstanding paddling, including, rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and other boating recreation opportunities.
And the summer months are high season for floating through town on your boat of choice. The Yampa River is a wild river, meaning that its flows still follow a natural hydrograph. In spring, the river runs high as a winters worth of snow melts and flows downhill. In the summer the levels become steadier, and by fall the river is only ankle-deep in places and can be easily crossed on foot.
Throughout the course of a summer season, all types of non-motorized watercraft can be seen floating down the Yampa. Whether it’s the large inflatable rafts running the swollen springtime flows, or kayakers surfing the waves and holes of the town stretch, or the tubes and paddleboards that are more common in the lower flows of late summer, the Yampa hosts them all. For me, I prefer the excitement and camaraderie you get when paddling a raft down the river during the springs months when the river is swollen with snowmelt. The tubing season that begins as the flows ebb is perfect for a fun day in the sun with friends and family.
If you’ve never run the Yampa River before, I’d suggest booking a trip with a local outfitter to get a taste of our unique river and to avoid the sometimes complicated logistics and gear required to running a trip on your own. Blue Sky West and Bucking Rainbow are outfitting companies that run rafting trips on the Yampa (along with other rivers nearby), and Backdoor Sports and One Stop Ski Shop can hook you up with everything you need for a family tubing adventure.
There aren’t many places left where you can experience a wild river as it flows right through a gorgeous mountain town. But in Steamboat Springs you can. Whether it’s kayaking, rafting, tubing, or paddleboarding, the wild Yampa River accommodates it all.
Did you know that in Ski Town USA we ski all year, even in August? Well, it’s true. Because with two fantastic lakes close to town, waterskiing, wakeboarding and all manner of watersports are activities that many of us here in Steamboat enjoy in summertime to give us just a little bit of that skiing fix.
Stagecoach Reservoir at Stagecoach State Park offers a fantastic lake experience just minutes from Steamboat Springs. Situated in a wide valley abutting the Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area, Stagecoach Lake is a favorite of Steamboat locals for its easy access, wide-open views, and exceptional conditions for waterskiing, wakesurfing, or other boating sports. The marina on the north shore of the lake offers both pontoon and fishing boat rentals. The marina has added championship wakeboard boat rentals to their list of services as well.
North of town is an entirely different lake—Steamboat Lake at Steamboat Lake State Park. Steamboat Lake is an exceptionally beautiful mountain lake. Located at 8,100 feet above sea level and surrounded by the Elkhead and Zirkel Mountains, visitors to Steamboat Lake are awed by the 360-degree views. In the spring and early summer months, when snow still caps the iconic Hahns Peak, Steamboat Lake is one of the most dramatic waterskiing and wakeboarding locations in Colorado.
A unique feature of Steamboat Lake is the quaint lakeside cabins available for rent through the Steamboat Lake Marina. Although small in appearance, these simple cabins sleep up to six people and have the necessary amenities of refrigerators and electric heat. This is a great place to come with the family as you can get that camping feel with some of the comforts of home – not to mention the fact that right outside your cabin door is one of the premiere lake destinations in northern Colorado.
Although many people come to Steamboat and Stagecoach lakes to fish, camp, picnic, or swim, the real attraction to these lakes is the opportunity they provide to enjoy motorized boating recreation in exceptionally beautiful Rocky Mountain landscapes. Whether you bring your own watercraft, or rent one onsite, you’ll find what you’re looking for at Steamboat Lake and Stagecoach State Parks just outside of Steamboat Springs.