There is a species of lizard in Central America that walks on water. Called the Jesus Lizard, it can race across a surface of water without sinking, a feat that inspired its divine nickname. I thought about this crafty little reptile while I myself walked on water – a white sea of fresh Rocky Mountain snow outside Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Of course, the levitating ability of the snowshoe – allowing us bipeds to walk across oceans of flakes so light and fluffy that we’d otherwise sink like cinder-blocks – isn’t magic. But it’s worth remembering where we’d be (and wouldn’t) without snowshoes.
Without them, a snowfield looks as impassable as a swamp. A peaceful winter landscape wearing a new veil of snow seems teasing and out-of-reach. An attempted stroll through it leaves you exhausted, soaked and waist-deep, all before you’ve left sight of the parking lot.
But last month, with these inexpensive little inventions strapped to my feet, I felt light as a Jesus Lizard as I crossed over new snow on my way to Fish Creek Falls, a destination just minutes away from the famous hot springs and ski slopes of Steamboat Springs.
Snowshoe enthusiasts and beginners alike will enjoy Fish Creek Falls. From the trailhead you can take a short path down to the creek, 100 feet below, studded with rocks and topped by smooth, rounded tufts of snow. Or take the high road – an equally short jaunt up to a rewarding vista. From there you can see the creek in a state of freefall, tumbling down a narrow, craggy chute behind a tattered white curtain of snow and ice. Below you, the creek ripples its way downhill toward the town of Steamboat.
If you’re looking for more distance and exercise, just take the footbridge over the creek and follow the trail up the far hillside. The ascent is steep, but begins to flatten out about 1500 vertical feet later as you escape the valley. You can continue on for five miles towards Long Lake, catching the upper falls on the way.
Either way, you’ll appreciate the free pass your snowshoes grant you to the light, dry powder the area is famous for. Of course, the best time to go is after a new blanket of snow (or during!). Besides finding a serene winter landscape, you might find you have the place to yourself – new snow usually has the masses lining up at the resort for $74-lift tickets and hikers waiting at home for others to clear the trails.
Venture out then and you’ll pass through dense stands of white Aspen, camouflaged but for patches of black bark that dapple their trunks. You’ll walk through tunnels with ceilings of densely layered branches, ending in clearings with views out to distant slopes painted in watercolors of white, beige and green. You’ll hear the muffled whoomp of powder compacting under your snowshoes. And if you stop for a second and stretch your ears, you’ll hear little but the continuous trickle of ice water carried on the breeze.
On a trip like this you’re virtually guaranteed an experience no other winter sport can deliver in full – scenery, solitude, wilderness, peace and quiet and solid exercise, requiring minimal gear, preparation and cost. (And did I mention, no lift lines?)
Fish Creek Falls is just four miles from town, but an even closer place to hit the snow is Howelsen Hill. It’s not as scenic as Fish Creek, but it’s a short walk from the downtown and has a network of well-mapped trails shared by cross-country skiers.
Finally, as much as I’ve raved about the snowshoeing in Steamboat Springs, I’d be holding back if I didn’t mention the reward that lies at the end of another nearby trail. About six miles from downtown, a two-to-three-mile path follows a creek to a destination you won’t soon want to leave (or get out of) – a series of pools carved from the creek, heated by 150-degree water gushing from natural mineral hot springs.
Certainly, snowshoeing is more about the journey than the destination, but if you happen to find yourself at the end of this path to nirvana, you’d be forgiven for kicking your snowshoes off and spending some time soaking amongst the snow-laden trees.
Whichever trail you choose, you’re in for an uplifting experience. We may not ever develop the Jesus Lizard’s ability to walk on water, but with snowshoes we can do the next best thing. To lakes, waterfalls, Aspen groves or hot springs, strap on a pair and see where they take you.
You can access the Fish Creek Falls area from downtown Steamboat Springs – just take 3rd Street one block to Fish Creek Falls Road/County Road 32 and follow for four miles. There is a small charge to park in the upper parking lot; the lower one is free.
To get to Strawberry Park Hot Springs take Elk River Rd. (Hwy 129) about six miles from town to the Mad Creek Parking Area. It’s a 100-yard walk to the trailhead and a two-to-three-mile walk to the springs. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for teens and $3 for kids.