Celebrating Summer Festivals

Story and photos by Dan Leeth


Gas-fired burners roar, ground-crewmen release ropes and the colorful balloon lifts from the land. Morning currents nudge the hot-air envelope toward Bald Eagle Lake. Burners cool, and the balloon silently descends toward the water. The gondola soon breaches the surface, dunking the floor of the craft’s wicker basket into the wet.

The pilot reaches up. He twists the valve, burners ignite and the balloon once again lifts, its weight increased by the inches of water now sloshing in the basket’s bottom. Spectators cheer as liquid sheets down from the rising craft. They may have just witnessed the winning splash-and-dash dip in Steamboat Springs’ Hot Air Balloon Rodeo.

Like many Colorado ski towns, Steamboat Springs experiences a summer challenge. With lodgings built to house winter hordes, the town boasts more warm-weather beds than it has guests to fill them. Room rates drop. The resulting opportunity to experience caviar-quality hospitality at meat-and-potatoes prices lures many to the mountains in summer. For the rest, a little added push is sometimes needed. That’s one reason why resorts host summer festivals.

It started in 1949 with the Aspen Music Festival. Other resorts borrowed the melodic theme. Vail and Beaver Creek host philharmonic orchestras, it’s strings in Steamboat Springs, jazz at Snowmass and Winter Park, and any area with a banjo picker, it seems, sponsors a bluegrass bash.

While the hills may be alive with the sound of music, some of the lesser known festivals have chosen a different path. Instead of tunes, they celebrate balloons, art, food, beverages and more. Most, like the Balloon Rodeo, are unfussy weekend events that provide convenient excuses for slope-side stays.

Steamboat Springs Hot Air Balloon Rodeo

Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs Hot Air Balloon Rodeo

This free festival is scheduled for Saturday, July 10 and Sunday, July 11, 2010. Each morning, more than 40 balloons take to the air, filling the sky in a barrage of color. Although the spectacle can be seen from nearly anywhere in the town, it’s best enjoyed at the launch site. There, spectators can wander among the craft, talk to pilots and crew and, of course, be close to the splash-and-dash action. In NASCAR terms, it’s the equivalent of having a free pit pass.

Like cowboys saddling at sunrise, balloonists need to rise early. The launch field opens at 6 a.m. with inflation and liftoffs beginning an hour later. Fortunately, the local Starbucks opens a half-hour earlier, allowing spectators to grab a brew on their way to the Meadows parking lot off Mt. Werner Road, where free shuttles depart for the launch site.

Since it’s called a rodeo, there have to be some competitions. Besides the splash-and-dash, competitive events include a bean-bag bombing of a field target and float-by grab of prize envelopes stuck atop a 15-foot pole.

“We talked about having some cowboys come out and rope people down below,” Kara Givnish of the Steamboat Chamber says with a grin, “but we haven’t gotten that far yet. Maybe next year.”

When the balloons start landing, it’s time to head over to the west side of town for Art in the Park. Here, artists from around the country display and sell their creations. The event also features stage music, raptor demonstrations and booths vending an international array of food items.

Finally, for those wishing to add broncos to their balloon experience, Steamboat Springs holds Friday and Saturday evening pro rodeo events in town. Unlike the balloonists, competitors here don’t get their feet wet.

Contact the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association for event information and lodging.

Crested Butte Arts Festival

Crested Butte
Crested Butte Arts Festival

While art fairs may be common in Colorado, few offer the stunning backdrop of the Crested Butte Arts Festival. This year’s event runs July 31–August 1.

Located on the southern flanks of the Elk Range, the one-time coal community of Crested Butte exudes its mining-heritage charm with a downtown boulevard lined in Victorian storefronts. Police enforce a 15 mph speed limit, kids play along shady streets and residents commute on fat-tire town bicycles.

Three miles away lies the ski community of Mount Crested Butte. With summer slopes blanketed by grass, not snow, its hillside hotels offer unparalleled quiet. The base can seem so empty at times, guests may think they’ve stumbled onto the set of the History Channel’s “Life after People.” Fortunately, shuttle buses provide transportation down to the summer action.

Ranked as one of the top 100 events in the country by Art Fair SourceBook, the free Crested Butte Arts Festival fills 3½ blocks of Elk Avenue, the town’s main street. The nearly 200 successful artists, who represent a dozen different disciplines, were selected by a jury from a pool of over 600 applicants.

Mornings at the festival can be crowded as early-bird shoppers search for the artistic worm. By afternoon, the crowds thin, allowing the artists time to chat with shoppers.

“I don’t think folks realize what cool people these artists are,” laments the festival’s executive director Diana Ralston. “They’ve got a story to tell you and they’re happy to answer questions.”

In addition to the booths, the festival features art and cooking demonstrations, an art auction, an artsy work area for kids 2-12, an adult beverage tent and an entertainment stage where local musicians perform. Wine-sipping couples can enjoy tunes while trying to decide which painting they should buy to replace the velvet Elvis hanging at home.

Contact Crested Butte Arts Festival for information. Accommodations can be found in town and at the ski area.

Beaver Creek Wine and Spirits Festival

Beaver Creek
Corn tamales
at the Beaver Creek rodeo BBQ

For those preferring premium vittles and vintages, there’s the Wine and Spirits Festival held in Beaver Creek, arguably Colorado’s most upscale ski area.

President Gerald Ford was one of the resort’s first homeowners, and Dennis Kozlowski—the jailed Tyco CEO with the $6,000 shower curtain—is one of its most notorious. Hotels here include the luxurious Park Hyatt, Rock Resort’s boutique Osprey, Beaver Creek Lodge, and the grand Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch. In summer, all three become more laidback, uncrowded and wallet-friendly.

The 2010 Wine and Spirits Festival runs from August 19–21. Its pick-and-choose menu ranges from free seminars to $150 exclusive cooking classes. Kicking the event off is Thursday night’s guest-chef barbecue at the Beaver Creek Rodeo. Guests savor gourmet grub while bronco-bucked cowboys dine on dirt.

Friday brings a guided “Walk and Wine” hike across the ski area’s forested slopes, followed by a four-course luncheon, each plate serving as an excuse to uncork an appropriate vintage. Afternoon brings a “Mix it Up” cocktail seminar. The day ends with a wine-paired dinner and charity auction at one of Beaver Creek’s top restaurants.

On Saturday, there’s a cooking class with cocktails, wine seminar with appetizers and a free culinary arts demonstration with complimentary cocktails. The festival culminates with the “Best Of” food, wine and spirits tasting held in the famed Vilar Performing Arts Center. Only 175 tickets are sold for the evening event.

“We could make it bigger, but we don’t want to,” admits Tony O’Rourke, executive director of the Beaver Creek Resort Company. “We want people to enjoy a multitude of fabulous foods and great wines in a setting that’s not overwhelming.”

Laidback, uncrowded and far from underwhelming, Beaver Creek provides yet another ski-area venue where summer guests can experience caviar hospitality at potpie prices. Like most Colorado summer festivals, the Wine and Spirits event merely provides a tasty excuse to come sample it.

Contact Beaver Creek for more information.

Dan Leeth contributes regularly to EnCompass.

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