Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs is the oldest ski area still used in Colorado and one of the few sites for international ski jumping in the United States. Built in 1915 by skiing pioneer Carl Howelsen (1877–1955) and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, the small ski area has served as the training ground for nearly 100 Olympic skiers. It is owned by the city and recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Skiing began in Steamboat Springs as a way for people to get around in snowy winters. In 1914, however, skiing became recreation when Carl Howelsen (born as Karl Hovelsen in Norway) organized Steamboat’s first Winter Carnival. Held on Woodchuck Hill (now the site of Colorado Mountain College) in February, the Winter Carnival featured the town’s first competitive skiing events—a ski jumping competition and cross-country ski races. The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club was founded to plan and promote the carnival. It was the first winter sports club in the West and the first in the Rocky Mountains to join the National Ski Association.
For its second year, the Winter Carnival moved to a hill just southwest of downtown. The Steamboat Springs Company owned the hill and had just developed it into Elk Park, a wild-game area. Howelsen chose the site because its steep terrain made it good for ski jumping. Under his direction, the Winter Carnival Committee started to clear timber from Elk Park in December 1914. Soon a wooden scaffold and takeoff were in place, and Howelsen made the first ski jump there on February 6, 1915. After a few more modifications, the area officially opened later that month for the second Winter Carnival.
In its early years, the ski area was known to locals as “Big Hill,” “A Hill,” or “Big H.” During the fourth Winter Carnival, in 1917, the ski area was renamed in honor of Howelsen. All the elk were removed from the park by 1920.
Howelsen Hill has been primarily associated with ski jumping since it opened, though it offers a variety of skiing terrain. The area has hosted jumping championships at a variety of levels, including several national championships. The national ski jumping record was set there for the first time in 1916 and for the last time in 1980.
Howelsen Hill has been modified continuously since 1914 to maintain the ski area and keep the ski jumps safe. Town volunteers did most of the engineering and construction work until the 1950s, clearing vegetation, building jumps, developing drainage systems, and installing lifts. The first amenities at Howelsen Hill were a 150-seat grandstand, a toboggan slide, and a skating rink, all built in 1920. Later in the 1920s, Howelsen Hill added its first Alpine slalom hill to complement its existing ski jump and Nordic trails.
More improvements came in the 1930s, including some construction that used Works Progress Administration funds in 1935–36. A spotlight mounted on a building in town made Howelsen Hill one of the first ski areas to introduce night skiing in 1937. That year the city of Steamboat Springs assumed ownership of the ski area.
In 1934 a boat tow originally used for carting construction materials up the mountain was used for the first time as a ski lift. Skiers who previously had to hike to the top of the ridge carrying their skis could now ride up in a boat-like sled that seated eight and was pulled by a winch powered by the engine and transmission of a Ford Model T. In 1937 an electric motor replaced the Model T engine, and the tow began to use two sleds that each seated ten people and their skis. A rope tow was added in 1945, and a year later the base lodge was finished.
Howelsen Hill hosted the National Ski Jumping Championships for the first time in 1946. This spurred a four-year effort to improve the ski area. In 1948 the hill added a new T-bar to take skiers all the way to the top of Emerald Mountain, about 1,000 feet above Howelsen Hill. Like most Howelsen Hill improvements up to that time, the T-bar was assembled and installed by locals. The T-bar operated for only six years, however, before mechanical failures caused the portion from the top of Howelsen Hill to Emerald Mountain to be dismantled.
With recreational skiers flocking to the large resort that opened across town at Storm Mountain in 1963, Howelsen Hill continued as a small ski area that attracted primarily locals and ski jumpers.
The Olympics and After
In the early 1970s, when it looked as if Denver would host the 1976 Winter Olympics, the Denver Olympic Committee announced that the Nordic skiing events would be held at Howelsen Hill, which would receive $100,000 to improve its facilities before the games. But the Winter Olympics proved controversial in Colorado. In May 1972, the ninety-meter jump at Howelsen Hill burned in a suspected arson by people opposed to local participation in the Olympics. In November, Colorado voters rejected funding for the Olympics, causing Denver to withdraw as host.
After Howelsen Hill lost a ski jump and its potential Olympic funding, Steamboat Springs resident and Denver Olympic Committee member John Fetcher led an effort to build a new, international-regulation Nordic jump facility at the ski area. The facility, which cost $1.1 million, was funded by donations from residents and from the Kettering, Gates, Adolph Coors, and Bonnie Belle Foundations. The complex was dedicated in January 1978, when Howelsen Hill hosted the North American Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined Championships.
Howelsen Hill has seen ongoing maintenance and renovation since the 1980s. An Olympic-size ice rink was installed at the base of the hill in 1986, and the area has become a year-round sports park with summer biking, hiking, and equestrian trails, a rodeo arena, ball fields, bike and skate parks, and basketball, tennis, and volleyball courts. In 2010 Howelsen Hill received $900,000 from Great Outdoors Colorado lottery funds to upgrade lighting and install a year-round K38 ski jump.
Howelsen Hill is still home to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and is so close to downtown that locals can ski on their lunch breaks. The ski area now encompasses about thirty acres, with sixteen Alpine trails and thirteen miles of Nordic trails in addition to the jump complex.