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  • Dylan Anderson

Howelsen Hill's Ski Free Sunday was bigger than ever this year

In its first year, tubing generated revenue despite just 40% of reservations being utilized, indicating room for growth.

Ski Free Sunday at Howelsen Hill saw more people than ever before this season, with nearly 15,000 people getting to North America’s oldest continuously operating ski area for the unbeatable deal.


Nearly 10% of those people showed up on the final day of the season for the Return of Rat Lake Pond Skim, which was the busiest day at Howelsen for the 2022-23 ski season.

“We had over 1,400 people get tickets from us (and) there was a lot more people there,” Steamboat Springs’ Recreation Supervisor for Ski and Golf Hayley Powell said of closing day at Howelsen.


About 41% of all Ski Free Sunday users live within the city limits of Steamboat Springs and another nearly 9% came from Hayden and Craig, according to data collected at the ticket office each Sunday. Another 26% of skiers came from other parts of Colorado and 24% came from out of state. There was even 129 people that didn’t live in the United States that took advantage of Ski Free Sunday.


Paid skiing saw highs as well, with about 22,360 daily lift tickets being sold for a total of nearly $214,000 in revenue. That is about four and a half times more than daily ticket revenue from the 2018-19 season.


Season pass sales were up this past year as well, with more than 1,500 being sold and another 800 being given out complimentary for Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Coaches, city staff, those serving on city boards and commissions, and those people’s families. Revenue from season passes exceeded $282,000 this past season, which is two and a half times higher than the 2018-19 season.


Steamboat’s new venture at Howelsen — tubing — generated revenue for the city in what Howelsen Hill and Rodeo Manager Brad Setter called a “really strong first season.” With only 40% of total reservations available being utilized as the city set up this new program, Setter indicated there is a lot of room for growth.


Tubing was available for a total of 96 days this past season and saw 10,620 reservations. This generated just shy of $320,000 in revenue and cost the city about $168,000 to operate. About 30% of all the tubing revenue came in the holiday weeks of Christmas and New Years, Setter said.


“Those first two holiday weeks were huge,” Setter said, adding that things dropped off in late January before going up again around President’s Day. “We’ll target those weeks for some specials next year.”


In its work session on Tuesday, City Council members indicated that they wanted to continue to invest in Howelsen Hill and work toward reducing the subsidy it receives from the city’s general fund.


In the short term, council members were very supportive of continued improvements to the Poma Lift, telling city staff that they should buy two of every extra part needed to ensure it keeps lifting for decades to come. Council also showed support for improving space for staff at Howelsen and installing a primitive restroom at the summit, though the latter of those was less of a priority.


Council favored improving the experience at the base of the hill over adding concessions at the top of Howelsen, were somewhat mixed on the idea of making improvements to allow for events like weddings and were supportive of exploring transitioning slope lighting to LEDs.


Council members were also open to exploring other revenue-generating opportunities at Howelsen, with Council President Robin Crossan noting that as expenses increase, they may need to pull back on certain things. In her comments, Crossan directly pointed to the addition of the Brown Ranch to the city and its impact on the Parks and Recreation Department’s budget.


(Of the $355 million in capital costs currently projected at Brown Ranch, $170 million of that is projected for parks, trails, a new parks maintenance facility and open space.)


“The whole process with Brown Ranch could thin us to the point where we have to make some really tough decisions for our community,” Crossan said. “We’re not there yet, hopefully, we don’t get there, but I think it’s something that needs to be right now in the back of our minds, but eventually the forefront of our minds.”


Top Photo Caption: Closing day at Howelsen Hill saw more than 1,400 people come out, the largest day for Ski Free Sunday of the entire season. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)

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