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Action and Traction in Steamboat Springs

Winter driving school at Bridgestone Driving Academy

by Steve Siler

Love to ski? You're not alone. But when it comes to getting up to the slopes, well, sometimes its best to leave the driving to someone else. Let us introduce to you a fun way to both get your ski on, and build winter driving confidence that can help you and your family get to your favorite resort town in tact. It all happens on your next trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado for a day of beauty, a day of skiing and a day (or two) of driving at the Bridgestone Winter Driving Academy.

Now, those of you who have ever strapped a pair of long, skinny planks to your sole know that Steamboat Springs is a Mecca for those who can't get enough of the white stuff. To get to Steamboat, you most likely will have to fly through Denver or Salt Lake City and then connect on a smaller plane (on either prop planes or jets, but you never know which) to Hayden, which is about a 30 minute drive from Steamboat. On your flight, make sure you request a window seat, as the views of the mountains are truly spectacular. In fact, bring binoculars and be on guard to spot various forms of wildlife in its natural habitat upon your descent into Hayden (we did, and we rewarded with the sight of a bald eagle surveying the territory below). At other points during our time there, we saw various birds of prey, deer of all ages and even a silver fox puppy kicking it by the side of the road.

After landing in Hayden, the best way to get to Steamboat is by airport shuttle, which is provided by Storm Mountain Express, (970.879.1963…$46 per adult round trip, children cost half). Make sure as you pack that whatever you take with you can handle the cold; our luggage was thrown into a wind-shielded-but-outdoors-nonetheless rack on top of the van in order to make room for passengers. Also, bring a small chamois if you can to wipe down the fog-prone windows as the only thing more beautiful than the flight in is the van ride in.

Sheraton Steamboat Resort

Where to stay: without a doubt, the Sheraton Steamboat Resort and Conference Center (2200 Village Inn Ct., 970-879-2220). This 317-room, eight-story hotel is a true ski-in facility located at the base of Mt. Werner in the Steamboat Springs Ski Area and an integral part of the Gondola Square shopping area. It offers parking for cars, trucks and even snowmobiles. The hotel is an approachable mix of high-class hotel and kick-off-your-shoes ski lodge, and plays host to a Starbucks as well as more than a dozen gift shops selling everything from fine crystal to designer scarves. Service is first rate, from the bell desk to the front desk to the in-room dining. And while all rooms have balconies, and none suffer from a bad view of the Steamboat Springs ski area or the surrounding hillsides, we recommend requesting a high, south-facing room. This will position you to catch a view of the valley that will take your breath away every time you look out, particularly at sunrise. It'll also give you a chance to survey the conditions as you decide if this will be your day of beauty, or the day you hit the slopes.

Situated such, food is abundant, with many reasonably priced restaurants within walking distance. Try the best taquitos this side of Mexico a half block down at La Montana, or get a fabulous side of ribs the same distance the other way at The Butcher Shop. Or just stay inside and eat some wonderful French Onion Soup and watch novice skiers eat powder as they make their maiden runs down the bunny slopes at the Sheraton's own "Sevens" restaurant.

Spa services

If you decide that it's your day of beauty, by all means sleep in before making your way to the Starbucks for a soothing cup of cocoa on your way down to the spa. The Sol Day Spa located right inside the Sheraton is probably the best in town, offering a comprehensive array of facial treatments, manicures, pedicures, body wraps, baths, stone reflexology and of course, relaxing massages. Pick one, or do a package of two or more treatments. Either way, you will come out feeling fabulous and smelling rosy. Prices are about average for luxury hotel spas, ranging from $35 for a manicure, $65 and up for a massage to anywhere between $190 and $390 for packages, some of which could take an entire torturous day to get through. Oh, however could one survive?

As a cheaper alternative, there are several natural hot springs in the vicinity, one located right in town and the infamous Strawberry Park hot spring, located about seven miles away and not for the shy (clothing is optional). The concierge will know more about how best to get to the springs, whether you have a vehicle of your own or need a lift.

Fun in the snow

If you decide to ski or snowboard that day, you can head right out the door to the slopes with the lift ticket you had arranged with the hotel to be waiting for you at check-in, or if you didn't plan so far ahead or need to rent equipment, just head down to Steamboat Ski and Sport, located right inside the Sheraton, where you'll be greeted by a friendly group of outfitters ready to get you suited up and on your skis or snowboards, as well as hold them for free at night should you add a second snow day to your trip. Lift tickets are reasonable, ranging from $53 per day based on a five-day pass during "value season (early January to mid February)", to $74 for a single day during peak season. And get this: kids ski free with each paid adult! Add to it United Air Lines' Kids Fly Free program and you have yourself a family vacation on the cheap!

The mountain itself is actually a six-mountain range, boasting 25 lifts, 164 trails, with a 3,600-foot vertical drop and almost 3,000 acres of land covered in Steamboat's trademark "Champagne powder" which is said to have 70% less moisture content than average snow. Whether you're a beginner or a pro, you are guaranteed a great time in this soft powder. It is generally open from late November to early April, but you'll want to check conditions as you plan by logging on to for more information, as well as complete route and trail maps.

Steamboat Snowmobile Tours

Now, if you're not a skier, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the pristine mountains of Steamboat Springs. Our favorite is to take a snowmobiling tour at Steamboat Snowmobile Tours just a little ways outside of town up in Rabbit Ears and Flat Tops Scenic By-way. Didn't bring a car? No problem. Like many of groups in Steamboat that cater to outsiders, they offer shuttle service from the hotel. Expect to pay about $90 for a two-hour tour, plus $5 goggle rental. They provide the pants and helmets. Worth every penny, as you will experience breathtaking views and big riding thrills as you traverse the elaborate network of trails and wide open meadows on acres upon acres of privately owned land.

The fun part

While your time will be well spent doing any of the above activities, the best reason to hit Steamboat in the winter is actually not to ski, but to learn a bit about how to stay alive on the roads every time the weather turns from sunny and dry to white and icy. This would be the day that you spend at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School at the Center for Driving Science at Steamboat Springs.

Half- or full-day programs geared toward safety and vehicle control ("First Gear" and "Second Gear") are offered for drivers of all ages and skill levels. Experienced drivers who want to take their skills to the next level are offered one or two day programs that discuss advanced driving techniques, including European rally racing techniques ("Third Gear," "Fourth Gear" and "Fifth Gear"). Unless you're an automotive testing engineer, military transportation specialist, stunt driver or secret service agent, First and Second Gear are what we recommend. Everyone is encouraged to start in "First Gear," so to speak.

Bridgestone Winter Driving School

Whichever program you choose, your day starts in a classroom setting, where instructors discuss the driving dynamics, emphasizing how driving on snow and ice differs from the same task on dry surfaces. As the school features the new Bridgestone Blizzak tire, some time is spent discussing the importance of swapping out summer tires for real winter tires as soon as the weather starts to turn. The myth of all season tires being for all seasons is also covered; if you live in snowy climes, the softer riding "AS" tires have a hard time digging into the snow and the ice the way winter tires can. This we found out first hand by driving them all-season tires back to back with the Blizzaks, sliding all over the course. Then there is some "chalk talk" on the shuttle up to the course, which is actually carved out of packed snow every year a few miles from downtown on privately owned farm land (that obviously cannot be used for farming). At the course, you'll come face to face with the course's many turns, designed as they are to feature different radii, slope and friction surfaces. You load into an assortment of Toyota products (when we were there, the school featured the Scion tC, the Toyota Camry, 4Runner SUV and Tundra pickup.

Emphasis is placed on personal instruction, so while you're on the road, you will have radio-to-radio contact with instructors, who watch your every move from their perches all around the course. In the advanced classes, students might also have an instructor in the car with them coaching them on what "line" to take as well speed considerations. Also, just as the weather changes, so do the course conditions (which makes things interesting for the both the students and the instructors). early in the day usually offers the best traction; as the day goes on, the course gets icy.

Center for Driving Science at Steamboat Springs

Sound scary? Only at first. The course is lined with snow banks, which aren't exactly soft, but they aren't brick walls either. We took a car or two into the banks, but no one lost life or limb. But everyone gained valuable skills, confidence, and knowledge regarding the task of winter driving and the importance of proper tires. The most important lesson we learned? Adjust your speed. Slow down. When traction is limited, your steering, braking and everything else is reduced to a mere fraction of what you are used to, and you'll need all the time you can get to react and control you vehicle (especially SUVs). As for the rest? Well, you'll just have to take the courses and find out. You'll be much better for it.

Naturally, when the snow melts, the course goes away. So call 1-800-WHY-SKID for more information on class schedules.


Sheraton Steamboat Resort and Conference Center
2200 Village Inn Ct., 970-879-2220

Storm Mountain Express