That’s the short and sweet, but there’s a lot more to dive into to determine which one of these legendary ski towns is the right fit for your trip. While there are loads of similarities, we guarantee the differences will help you determine which ski vacation is better for you this year.
This comprehensive guide will tell you everything you need to know.
Steamboat Springs was a land originally held by the Yampatika tribe of Utes prior to 1874, before trappers came to settle the land. Steamboat was incorporated in 1900 and connected by railroad in 1909. As more people settled here, the area’s favorite pastime became a draw for tourists and the ski resort came to fruition in 1963. Today, Steamboat has over 13,000 full-time residents.
Breckenridge was settled by gold prospectors during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of the early 19th century. It was officially established in 1859 with just a few settlers and named for one of the gold mining leaders, Thomas Breckenridge. Today the historic town is home to over 4,000 residents and remains a staple tourist destination for skiers and non-skiers in the United States.
Best Village & Lifestyle: Steamboat Springs
Some travelers who’ve experienced both of these gorgeous Colorado towns say that they have a similar small town feel. But the majority agree with us in differentiating the two – where Breckenridge has more national chains and busier dining and shopping areas, Steamboat Springs maintains a more historical and natural atmosphere with lots of local charm.
While Breckenridge has an overall focus on the joys of skiing, eating and sleeping, Steamboat Springs places more emphasis on the small town experience and relaxation during your ski vacation. Though Breckenridge is often thought of as a cheaper option, Steamboat can be even more cost-effective depending on your choice in lodging.
Steamboat Springs got it’s unique name when the trappers who came through to settle the land thought they heard a steamboat chugging down the river. They soon realized that the sound was coming from the natural hot springs, which Steamboat Springs is widely known for and proud of.
These two hot springs are open to the public and are a must-do when visiting Steamboat. The larger of the two is Old Town Hot Springs which is right in the middle of town. Strawberry Park Hot Springs is located a little outside of town and has cabins and camping areas available for reservation.
Keeping on trend with the “water is life” theme of Steamboat, guests will also enjoy the views of Yampa River which flows through the center of town, along with little creeks that branch off in several places.
The historic downtown and mountain village areas are fairly close together but will require transportation to go back and forth. Thankfully, the city offers a free bus service that runs nearly all hours of the day, making your experience that much happier. Downtown Steamboat stays true to it’s western nature with expansive walkways and charming architecture, while the mountain village is more in line with typical ski resort areas.
Breckenridge is a little less than two hours away from the Denver International Airport, so it stays fairly busy with tourists as well as locals – especially on the weekends and holidays. It’s rare that Breckenridge has a truly slow season since even the summertime can ramp up. The village and slopes can get crowded, but it’s all part of the fun in this hopping ski town.
One winning factor about the town itself is the charming city streets lined with Victorian-era buildings. The historic district is one of the prettiest areas, despite also being busy throughout the year. The unique surroundings will help you feel like you’re in a real town as opposed to the resort style ski towns like Vail and Beaver Creek.
Most of the amenities in Breckenridge, including dining, shopping and accommodations come in a wide range of environments and price levels. Breck offers everything from high-end experiences to cheaper, casual places that allow all kinds of travelers to participate in the fun. You’ve got a sea of options and you really don’t have to think twice about whether or not you’ll find something that fits your budget.
The general lifestyle of Breckenridge is pretty lively and fun, with residents who enjoy satire (as displayed in many of their events) and tourists who come to have a good time. The cool thing about Breck is that it is a real municipality where full-time residents live, work, and play all year long. This creates a sense of comradery among the locals and the visitors together.
Best Accommodations: Draw
Steamboat Springs has a large variety of rentals, vacation resorts and hotels to choose from when booking a place to stay on your trip. Many locals rent out their homes and condominiums, while the hotel and hostel market is also very strong here. We’ll place the focus on hotels and traditional lodging in this post.
Steamboat Grand is one of the most popular choices in lodging in Steamboat Springs, near the mountain base not too far from the slopes. It’s got a large pool with two hot tubs and an excellent view of the mountain. The facilities and rooms are fairly spacious and economically priced at about $175 in the slow season and upwards of $600 per night in peak season.
The Bristol Hotel is another great choice, situated right in the center of town. Those looking for an easier time walking to the shops and restaurants will love this location, though you may have to shuttle or drive to ski. It’s a modestly quaint accommodation with renovated rooms with modern amenities and priced affordably. Summer rates are about $100 per night, while Winter rates go up to around $200 per night.
Antlers is a condominium building that has beautiful rooms to rent. It’s got spacious common areas, decent amenities and gorgeous views of the mountainside. Antlers is located right at the base of Steamboat Ski Resort and 3, 4 and 5 bedroom layouts with ski-in/ski-out access. The cost is typically as low as $320 in the Summer and nearly double during peak ski season.
Breckenridge has a wide range of different accommodations which can suit very low budgets up to very high budgets. It’s most ideal for those looking to save a buck by crashing with a group in one rental location, or for families seeking a deal on great hotel rooms in an action-packed city. For the most part, you can expect to find decent options across the board in Breck.
Crystal Peak Lodge is one of the top signature properties on location for about $300 per night in the summer and up to $800 during ski season. It’s located at the base of Peak 7 with ski-in, ski-out benefits in a beautiful alpine lodge setting. Visitors love the stone fireplaces, private balconies and full kitchens a this Western-inspired condominium.
Mountain Thunder Lodge is another beautiful retreat, hidden in the woods near Breck’s historic area. It will cost $400 per night in the summer, and up to $700 per night in ski season. Mountain Thunder has a more secluded feel, with it’s secluded forest ambience and townhome garages. It also has a ski-in/”gondola-out” feature, and a free shuttle to Historic Main Street.
River Mountain Lodge signature property is ideally situated on the banks of the Blue River and is right in the middle of the action. It’s a short walk from the Main Street of Breckenridge, but free transportation is offered and you’ll save money at $200 per night in the summer and around $400 per night during ski season. In the lobby, you’ll also find a lounge and bar, and outside they have a fitness center, pool and hot tubs.
Best Snow: Breckenridge
Snowfall can vary drastically from year to year so we are basing our estimates on historical averages. The main differences in snowfall and weather will usually be crucial during the opening ski season months of November and December, as well as the ending months of March and April. Breckenridge tends to be more consistent and reliable overall.
Breckenridge will typically get about 366″ of annual snowfall, plus Breckenridge has a higher summit elevation of 12,988ft. This results in mostly better conditions when compared to Steamboat, since Steamboat can have more hit or miss conditions throughout the ski season.
Breck can blow snow across 600 acres on days when natural snowfall fails to occur. In addition to this, it’s considered one of the sunniest resorts in Colorado. Despite the sun, the cold temperatures keep the snow for a long period of time, giving Breck one of the longest ski seasons of the year often lasting through the end of April.
Steamboat Springs is known to have dicey weather that is not always consistent. Some report having excellent snowfall while on vacation in peak season, while others complain the snowpack was light and unfavorable. Overall, Steamboat has a historical average of about 275″. Some years are as high as 380″, while others are as low as 174″.
Thankfully, some of the poorest conditions can be minimized by Steamboat’s snow blowing capabilities. These can cover 375 acres of their 169 total runs, which pails in comparison to Breckenridge’s 600 acres.
Best Terrain: Breckenridge
Breckenridge is pretty on par with Steamboat’s offerings. Both have almost 3,000 skiable acres, but Breck claims the longest run in the state of Colorado at 3.5 miles long. Along with this, Breck may appeal more to expert skiers with multiple terrain parks that feature halfpipes, varying rails, jump lines and boxes.
Plus there’s 1,000 acres of bowls. Overall, Breck boasts 187 different trails that all athletic levels can experience. So no matter your ability level, you’ll have plenty of fun at Breckenridge. The downside will simply be the number of guests in attendance on the days you choose to visit.
Whether you’re looking for long corduroy groomers, glades, or terrain parks, you’ve got plenty of options at Breckenridge. The large network gondola system can get you to each part of the resort – but be well-advised to read the maps in order to stay on course since the resort is huge.
Beginners will have the easiest time on Peak 9, where they have a designated area for learning and ski school. However, this is also the busiest areas of the park. Intermediate and advanced skiers will enjoy the many suitable runs for all levels of skiers, including a 3,398 vertical drop, a 22′ superpipe and 187 different trails to experience.
Steamboat Springs isn’t just known for it’s storied hot springs – residents commonly refer to their home as “Ski Town USA”. The legendary mountains offer approximately 3,000 acres for skiing during the day and at night (which is a huge plus).
What makes Steamboat really special when compared to other resorts is the historical roots of their recreation. Howelson Hill is a popular destination for skiers around the world. This famous park is the longest running ski area in Colorado and is the largest ski jumping complex in North America. It’s been used to train over 100 USA Olympians, but anyone has access to these epic jumps.
At Steamboat Resort the adventurous can find their fun in the many tree trails throughout the terrain. It’s almost encouraged that you try it at least once while you’re here since there are so many trails to access. This helps to make up for the lack of terrain parks and bowls, as Steamboat sits under the treeline at just 6,732″ elevation. The summit tops out at 10,570″.
In the coming years, however, the city of Steamboat is investing $200m into renovations on the mountain, which include an apres ski plaza, additional lodging, dining and shopping, new lift systems and terrain parks, as well as a ski beach and an ice rink. The construction is due to be completed by 2024.
In the meantime, guests can enjoy Mavericks Superpipe and Steamboat terrain park which features rails, sliders, rainbows, mailboxes, mini-mav, barrels and a smaller pipe. Most of the trails are geared towards intermediate and advanced skiers, with approximately 14% left for the beginners.
Best for Beginners: Steamboat
Steamboat Springs is going to win most of the family-oriented categories since it’s less busy and more easy-going than Breckenridge. Steamboat has an excellent ski school that is sectioned into so many different categories, you can pinpoint the exact class for your ability level.
Pricing is going to be a bit steeper than Breckenridge, but you’ll get better attention from your ski instructors. Private lessons are the most expensive, coming to $1299 for a full day, while group and child lessons range from $279 – $319 for the day. Lift tickets are an additional purchase of $99.
A huge plus for parents or grandparents whose kids don’t require lessons is Steamboat’s “Kids Ski Free” program. This allows children ages 12 and under to ski the same number of days are their guardian for free, which can give you more one-on-one time if you are taking the role of ski instructor.
As mentioned before, the resort only has about 14% of the trails designated to beginners, but the trails that are available are very fun and easy breezy for those who are just starting out.
Breckenridge’s Peak 9 has been dubbed the best for beginners, with flatter runs and plenty of variety down the mountain. It’s loaded with greens, so beginners won’t get bored skiing the exact same trail with every trip up the chairlift.
The wide variety of terrain means that Breckenridge gives you plenty of room to grow over the course of your trip. As soon as you’re ready to move on from the mildest green runs, there are a ton of easy-intermediate to bridge the gap between true greens to true blues.
However, Breck is the busiest ski resort in Colorado, so the slopes are almost guaranteed to be filled with people which can make the runs a little more intimidating for beginners. Also, they only estimate about 13% of the total runs are well-suited for beginners. Lessons start at $126 for adults and $200 for children. You’ll get premium access to ski lifts and discounts on lift tickets and rentals.
Best Apres Ski & Nightlife: Breckenridge
Breckenridge’s apres ski is ideal for the partier and socialite, but even if you aren’t one of these there are so many apres options to choose from, Breck is always going to rank #1 for nightlife. A good representation of Breck’s liveliness comes every year during the town’s famous Ullr Fest. It’s essentially a giant party celebrating the Norse god of snow.
There are several on-mountain offerings available to ski right into as you end the day. On-mountain favorites include Robbie’s Tavern for curated wines and local beer and Coppertop for beautiful views and live music. Peak 9 is home to several popular hangouts, like Cabin Juice Elevated Eatery and Bar, featuring hand-crafted cocktails on the daily.
In town, you can get comfy at Rocky Mountain Underground’s backyard beer garden, or try the local apres hot spot, Quandary Grille – a steak house with 12 beers regularly on tap and great dinner specials to go with them. Breckenridge Distillery and Breckenridge Brewery, among a vast number of lively pubs and sophisticated bars, are also great options.
P.S. – If nightlife and partying is important to you, we also have a full guide to Breck vs Vail. That comparison might be even more up your alley!
Steamboat Springs is not quite as lively, but has a few great places to hang your hat at the end of the day. As a matter of fact, it’s this laidback, cool and comfortable atmosphere that makes Steamboat the #3 apres ski destination in North America.
Slopeside Grill is one of the top-rated favorites of locals and visitors alike. You can enter with your boots still on, dig into a delicious burger or wrap with fries and order up a round of draft beers for the whole crew. It’s located at the base of the mountain and often has a large crowd accumulated after the ski day.
T Bar is another jam-packed crowd-pleaser, which has beautiful views of the mountain and plenty of food and beverages to go around. Their food is a little more upscale, with varying dishes like chicken thighs and mashed potatoes, ahi tuna salads and more, while offering drink specials for apres ski.
If you desire a fancier experience at the end of your ski day, head to The Laundry in town. Their menu offers small plates and charcuterie alongside half-priced straight pours for Happy Hour. Their dinner and dessert menu can be quite pricey, but makes an extra special experience.
Best Weather: Breckenridge
Breckenridge has a high altitude and favorable weather most of the year. Summer weather brings average highs of 70°F and average lows around 35°F to this popular Colorado town. Occasional rainshowers with approach throughout these warmer months, but the storms will usually trail off before sunset within the day.
Steamboat Springs only averages about 5-7 days of rain each month of the Summer, so you’re not very likely to get wet or rained out of your outdoor plans. The high can reach 80°F during the day and hover around 40°F at night, so a light jacket and shorts should be part of your packing plans.
Best Summer Activities: Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs Yampa River which runs through town is a sight to behold in the Summertime. Water sports abound while residents and vacationers both indulge in the Summer sunshine through rafting, tubing, kayaking and even fishing along the river banks. Hiking and biking are also excellent pastimes during these long Summer days. Fish Creek Falls is one trail that’s highly recommended to take when you’re there.
The glorious hot springs are open year-round and serve as a great spot for relaxation after a week of adventurous outdoor activity. It would be a grievous mistake to forget your swimsuit when traveling to Steamboat Springs!
The Yampa River is the main attraction in town, allowing folks to swim, float and fish on the water. It flows right through the center of town and serves as the gorgeous backdrop to live music in the Summertime, along with great dining and happy hour on the riverbanks.
Breckenridge has many different offerings throughout the summer that any outdoor enthusiast would love. From hiking and biking trails, to fly-fishing on Blue River and white water rafting, this mountain town has something for everybody to enjoy. Hiking is a local favorite and Flower Haven at Upper Straight Creek is a popular trail to take for viewing wildflowers in full bloom. Breckenridge also has miles of waterfall trails that are definitely worth the hike.
Golfing is another great past-time and Breck has the only Jack Nicklaus designed 27-hole course in the world. Exploring the town’s history and taking a ghost tour are also among Breckenridge’s fun daily activities for visitors. Boating, paddle boarding and kayaking are available on Breck’s lakes and rivers.
Another great suggestion for adventurous families is to try Epic Discovery at Breckenridge Resort. Summertime allows visitors to scale the naked mountain on ropes courses and ziplines. There’s even a mountain coaster and alpine slides during the warm months. Visitors can access Epic Discovery via the BreckConnect gondola that runs straight from town.
Best Events: Breckenridge
Breckenridge is well-known for their satirical events that are sprinkled throughout the year. The most anticipated event of the Winter season is a 10 day tribute to Ullr, the Norse god who controls the weather. Ullr Festival is marked with highly detailed snow sculpture competitions and other activities that will leave residents and visitors rolling on the floor laughing to kick off the ski season.
Another big event is the annual Film Festival celebrating the art of filmmaking. The event features many renowned and up-and-coming directors, producers and actors in the summertime and has been going on for over 40 years now.
Breck’s Fourth of July Parade is a local tradition that tourists will also greatly enjoy. Live music, fireworks, art festivals and family fun are all a part of the celebration on this patriotic holiday.
Lastly, Breck hosts the annual Kingdom Days, which is a satirical celebration of the town’s past in the form of games and races. Breck is the self-proclaimed “kingdom” of Colorado, since it wasn’t officially incorporated as a US town until 1936.
Steamboat Springs has a handful of fun events that happen each year, inviting travelers to join in while they visit. One of the most well-known events is the Winter Carnival which takes place at the end of the year.
The celebration recognizes Carl Howelsen who moved to Steamboat from Norway in 1913 and establish the Howelsen Hill. Surrounding the festival are ski races, dog sledding and ski jumping at the Howelsen Ski Area. At the end of each night the town puts on a light show which you can see on Mount Werner and Howelsen Hill.
In the Summer, Steamboat holds the annual Yampa River Festival. The highlight of the festival is the kayak rodeo that allows participants from all over the world to compete. In addition to the rodeo, there’s an upstream river slalom race, as well as the Crazy River Dog Contest where dogs race to retrieve sticks thrown into the river rapids.
The Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo is another annual event taking place each Summer. The rodeo is a celebration and recognition of Steamboat’s ranching community and occurs every Friday and Saturday night.
Breckenridge comes out on top in our side-by side-comparison here, winning in the categories of Best Snow, Terrain, Nightlife, Weather and Events. If these are important to you, Breckenridge will almost certainly be the better choice. However, it comes with the understanding that you’ll often find yourself waiting in line and fighting the crowds to get on the slopes, get into restaurants and experience other activities around town.
Steamboat, on the other hand, is a perfect choice for those who want to mix relaxation into their ski trip. Not only does Steamboat have multiple ski areas in close proximity to each other, it also has thriving Main Street and Ski Village areas and three different hot springs to enjoy. If you are bringing the whole family for a trip and don’t mind the drive from the Denver International Airport, Steamboat Springs makes a lovely vacation choice.