Hot damn, Aspen! This is the real West. Dadgum, Vail! This is cowboy country.

Steamboat Srpings, a cowtown for more than 104 years, still retains much of its western heritage. Just take a walk down Lincoln Avenue any evening. Those cowboy hats you see are sitting on the heads of working cowboys. And all those pickups with their ubiquitous gun racks and jack-up chassis are used daily on the range surronding this 5,000-population small town.

This is not the place for the urban cowboys of Vail or the urbane cowboys of Aspen. This is a place where the annual Fourth of July rodeo is the biggest show in town and where the annual Friday night rodeos throughout the summer help local cowboys pay their prodigious bar bills in the local taverns. Howdy, pardner.

But Steamboat, like all major Colorado ski areas, is changing. Condominium fever has caught on here, changing the silhouette forever. Although downtown has changed little, and will change little under present zoning codes, the slopes surronding the wide, reaching Yampa Valley are pock-marked with construction projects. This summer, a $20-milion expansion by Sheraton will add a seven-story tower and new convention facilities to the already existing hotel and shopping arcade at the foot of Mt. Warner, the primary ski area in the town.

Stands of aspens and Douglas fir are making way for the instant Bavarian-look condominiums that house residnts from such typically German settlements as Califormia and Texas and Illinois.

"Thousands more are 'discovering' Steamboat every season," says Rolly Wahl, editor of Steamboat Springs magazine. "Our various walks of life are taking on the appearance of people-movers in a modern airport. For better or worse, after more than a century of small-town anonymity, Steamboat Springs has become visible."

Most of that visibility is due to the LTV Co. of Dallas. In 1963, developers of the multi-national company came into town, found a lovely slope called Storm Mountain, renamed it Mt. Warner in honor of native son Buddy Warner (one of America's great ski instructors), and the town has never been the same. Today, Steamboat offers 62 ski runs, with 16 lifts on 700 acres of skiable snow. With a capacity of nearly 19,000 skiers daily, the area last year had 630,000 skiers on its slopes. Not the largest numbers in the state (Vail had over a million) but not exactly minor league, either.

Steamboat's ski growth is limited somewhat -- at least for the moment -- because of its relative lack of facilities. In the entire town all the hotels (Sheraton, Best Western Holiday Inn) and all the condominiums offer less than 9,000 beds. With the addition of the new Sheraton tower at the foot of Mt. Warner and the continued condominum craze, the shortage will be alleviated somewhat, but not enough to pull the maximum potential of the mountain. Steamboat is too far (about 160 miles over sometimes marginal roads) from Denver to draw many day skiers, so its potential is totally dependent on the housing situation.

Like most of the major Colordo resorts, it is packed in the winter. That's why you should go to Steamboat -- and the other Colorado ski resorts -- in the summer and fall.

In the summer you can walk down Lincoln Avenue and not be knocked off the sidewalk by swinging skis. In summer you can stroll into a honky-tonk like the Clock Tower bar and hear a Ray Wylie Hubbard song being sung above the babble of drinkers. In summer you can get a last-minute reservation at a fine restaurant like the Brandywine (steak and fish), the Gallery, (continental), the Cove (Chinese) or La Trattoria (Italian) and dine as you watch the sun blister the hills with its last rays. In summer you can also rent a superb one-bedroom condominium at a place like Storm Meadows for $45 a night, a unit that will cost you $102 this winter.

And that's not the only reason for coming to Steamboat in the summer or fall. There is muchmore to do in the summer than in the winter, when most everyone skis and most everyone bores you with stories about the great runs they made that afternon as you sit down for a pleasant drink around the fire.

You can even have a fire in the summer and fall here. The night temperature usually drops into the 40s and the crackling fire adds to the romance of summer in the Rockies. In the winter it only thaws you out.