Steamboat Springs

No town that I can think of announces itself more grandly than Steamboat Springs. I am not referring to the roadside signs for the local western store that begin to tease you 50 miles away at Kremling. It's the approach over Rabbit Ears Pass.

Nearing the end of the three-hour drive from Denver, you ascend the pass at 9 ,600 feet and suddenly look down on a broad velvety-green valley that appears to stretch forever. It's the Yampa Valley of northern Colorado, but it might as well be some lush and mythical vale in the Himalayas.

''Steamboat Springs, I'm home,'' I heard myself say. And soon I was.

One look at the town and its surroundings and you're reminded that despite its other allures, chiefly wintertime skiing and summer adventuring, Steamboat Springs is a cowboy town more than anything else. Indeed all summer long and into September, Steamboat will play on its cowboy heritage with a festival called ''The Way It Wuz Days.'' There are high-country horse races, Indian cultural exhibits, weekly rodeos at the local grounds, western stomping street dances, and ordinary all-American events like bike races, celebrity golf tournaments, and marathon runs - all of it culminating with the Routt County Fair at nearby Hayden Sept. 9-12.

Try as it may to keep up with the Aspens and Vails as a polished year-round Rockies resort, Steamboat still has mud on its cowboy boots, thank goodness. It was only the other week that the town finally got its first quiche and croissant parlor, a pretty little place with a sandblasted brick wall and a river running by the window that is called the In Season. Steamboat eating normally runs more to buffalo burgers and barbecued beef.

On Lincoln, the main drag through town, there are three western stores - the F. M. Light of the roadside promotions, Harwigs across the street, and a new place called Cowboys Mercantile, where on a recent Saturday morning, while waiting for a festival parade to start, I got a quick lesson in rope throwing.

I was picking through the boots, saddles, and shirts when a cowboy named Ralph Anderson walked in and asked for a heeler rope. He selected two of the coiled ropes, walked out of the store, and began flinging one and then the other against a signpost: comparison shopping.

''Just lookin' for the right feel,'' he said. ''You need a hard rope. Here, try it.'' He talked me through the motions, but truth to tell, it might have taken me a week to hit the broad side of Cowboys Mercantile.

Another way to learn cowboy tricks is to stay at one of a cluster of guest ranches 20 miles north of town. If nothing else, the ride out that way will introduce you to a valley, the Elk River, that is as pretty and flower-bright as the Yampa. Near the end of the valley is the Home Ranch, only three years old but already gaining a reputation for its winter skiing as much as its summer riding programs.

Ken Jones, just in his early 30s but with half a lifetime of guest ranching under his belt, has built a handsome rambling spruce-log lodge with a green metal roof and repeated the theme in five cabins scattered through the aspen groves, each with a hot tub on its deck. Ken and his wife, Sharon, and their three wranglers keep 35 horses and 11 llamas, furry, friendly creatures used for pack trips into the wilderness.

At the Home Ranch you are not a pampered dude. Guests learn not only to ride properly, but to saddle their horses. For $585 a week you get total lodging, riding, and eating. Jody Calhoun's kitchen is more than a notch above the chuck house variety. Grilled halibut with steamed broccoli may be on the dinner table.

Just around the bend and up Seedhouse Road is the Vista Verde, eight smartly done cabins strung out along a hillside with a view across a broad hay meadow to a spiky stand of lodgepole pines. Frank and Winton Brophy, latter-day pioneers who trekked west from suburban New York, keep 52 horses and 170 beef cattle, which guests may be asked to help round up and move from pasture to pasture. The core of the ranch is the cozy log lodge, where you take meals at long tables and sit in on sing-a-longs led by local musical talent.

On a bright but nippy June morning, I went out on a trail ride with Mr. Brophy and two of his old college classmates. Snow still lay in clumps, but the delicate, yellow glacier lilies were out and so was the skunkweed, resembling huge unfolding artichokes. Unlimited riding is included in the weekly $575 fare at Vista Verde - and so is a day of white-water rafting.

A ranch of a different color is the Glen Eden, perhaps the poshest of the lot - with commodious town houses, swimming pool, hot tubs, riding, and tennis. And there is space galore all summer at the many condos and the expanding Sheraton at the Mt. Werner ski area just outside town, at rates far below winter levels.

There are many ways to pass a Steamboat Springs summer day: white-water rafting on the upper Colorado or the North Platte with Colorado Adventures Inc., kayaking on the Yampa River in the heart of town, hiking up beyond Fish Creek Falls (a gorgeous but steeply inclined trail that the locals somehow ascend on an annual summer run of 12 miles!), tennis, golf, biking, and sailing.

My last view of Steamboat Springs was almost as good as the first - from a huge and colorful hot-air balloon piloted by Mike Bauwens of Balloon the Rockies. You have to go up by 7 a.m. before the thermals become active, but it's well worth the lost sleep. Mr. Bauwens charges $100 a person for an hour ride, but this summer he is offering $20 rides for 15 minutes, enough time to appreciate the Yampa Valley.

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