TAOS, NEW MEXICO – When you head for New Mexico for a
ski or snowboard vacation, you know you’re in for a lot more than just
sliding down a mountain. From the moment your jet touches down in
Albuquerque, you are enveloped in history, culture, art, vineyards,
Southwest cuisine and a mystic that is unique to the American West.
More than 1,100 years ago, native people built their
adobe homes in what is now the bohemian hamlet of Taos. Over the years,
fur traders, trappers, miners, smugglers, explorers and ranchers left
their mark on the land. Much of their history is captured in the many
museums scattered around Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque.
Many travelers do not give much thought to New Mexico
when planning a winter jaunt. They have heard of Taos Ski Valley but are
mostly unaware of the other seven alpine resorts in the state. And the
southern locale means less snow falls here than in places like Utah and
Over the years, I have skied all but one of the New
Mexico resorts. Last spring, the lure of the land pulled me back for a
week of sliding at Taos Ski Valley, Red River, Ski Santa Fe and Angel
It was good to see not much has changed. The pace of
each day moves in a slow and relaxed fashion. It is very hard to find
even one high-speed chairlift. Lift lines are still short. And the 300
annual days of sunshine make it mandatory to slap on the sun block right
This is low-budget skiing and snowboarding in a big
mountain environment. The peaks top out between 10,000 and 12,000 feet,
and the high elevation base lodges insure adequate snow at the bottom of
the slopes. Adult lift tickets typically run between $55 and $70 with
many discount deals that lower those prices.
All of the alpine resorts, except for Ski Apache in
southern New Mexico, are clustered around Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque
so driving from resort to resort usually takes only an hour or so. Cross
county addicts will find three nordic resorts – Enchanted Forest, Chama
and Valles Caldera -- and Angel Fire has added 11 kilometers of cross
country trails to augment its downhill slopes.
Many ski resorts around the country are owned by large
corporations and have a button-down, business-like culture. New Mexico
is different because six of the eight downhill resorts are still owned
and operated by the families that started them years ago. It is not
unusual to learn that the guy who drove you to the slopes in a shuttle
bus is a part-owner of the resort.
The late legendary Ernie Blake opened Taos Ski Valley
in 1955 and today family members carry on the tradition and the
business. Two of his many grandchildren, Adriana and Hano, essentially
run the place.
The resort’s personality is framed by the first run
that you see when you hit the parking lot. It is a straight-down
double-diamond piece of history called Al’s Run, and it is littered with
moguls the size of Mini Coopers.
Lest that first impression mislead you, a sign at the
base advises, “Don’t Panic! You’re looking at only 1/30 of Taos Ski
Valley. We have many easy runs too.”
And that indeed is the case. At least one “green”
novice run cuts down from the top of each chairlift. Ten chairlifts
spread skiers and riders out among the 110 trails and runs. With a
vertical drop of 2,612 feet, Taos is the largest resort in the state.
Taos, like most of the resorts, has slope side
lodging. The Taos base village is a slice of Europe with a clutch of
Bavarian-style lodges and hotels headlined by the St. Bernard Lodge.
Taos created quite a splash about three years ago when
it lifted its long time ban on snowboarders. It was then one of only
four U.S. ski resorts that refused to let snowboarders on their slopes.
There were predictions that the large, loyal following
of the resort would flee when the snowboarders arrived. On the day the
ban was lifted, an elderly dude stood by the chairlifts holding a sign
that read, “Ernie Weeps.” The gent was spotted later that day in a pub
downing beers with his new snowboarder buddies.
I do not think snowboarders changed the character of
Taos. It has brought in more families and given the place a younger
clientele. About 20 percent of the customers now snowboard.
The Red River resort just north of Taos has long been
a mecca for snowboarders, skiers and other visitors who like an Old West
ambiance. The slopes tower over the town of Red River, an old mining
community that boasts some 20 hotels and motels. You can walk to the
slopes from almost any lodging establishment.
Red River is a favorite hangout for travelers from
Texas and Oklahoma. The ski resort first opened on Dec. 6, 1941. It was
open for only one day because it closed the next day when Pearl Harbor
An Oklahoma oilman visited Red River in 1959, liked
the look of the place and started building a lift system out of old,
discarded oil drilling equipment. Rather than erect conventional lift
towers, he brought in old oil derricks and they became the towers.
Red River has an even mix of novice, intermediate and
expert slopes that meander down into town over 1,600 feet of vertical.
The town is a hardy mix of 500 souls, down from the
15,000 who used to live here when the gold, silver and copper mines
thrived. It is a lively place with numerous bars and restaurants.
Bluegrass and country western music can be heard just around any corner.
On most Saturday nights, a torchlight parade winds its way down the
Heading south out of Red River, we were in Angel Fire
about an hour later. Angel Fire is a rather elegant real estate
development with the high-class, slope-side Lodge at Angel Fire Resort
and challenging 18-hole golf course.
Some of the 70 plus runs and trails are extremely long
and it felt like three to four miles before we hit the bottom. This is a
good-sized mountain with 2,077 vertical feet, three terrain parks and
Like most of the New Mexico resorts, Angel Fire skis
like a big league mountain but yet is designed mostly for families. So
it is fairly easily to keep track of your kids on the slopes.
When I visited, Angel Fire was in the process of
building a large spa open to guests and the general public. Some
visitors at our table talked about their flight into the small airport
at the resort which is handy but not large enough for commercial jets.
You sample a fair amount of Texas-style cuisine in New
Mexico as so many guests come from Texas. I remember something vividly
at Angel Fire called Frito Pie which was a tasty dish of chile, cheese,
onions, lettuce, tomatoes and Frito chips.
My final leg on the trip was a stop at Ski Santa Fe, a
quick, 20-minute drive from Santa Fe, the oldest capital city in North
America. It is about 400 years old and still retains much of the charm
that drew the original settlers here.
There is no lodging at the ski resort so visitors
usually bunk in the town which itself is at 7,000 feet elevation. Santa
Fe’s epicenter is the downtown Plaza with its mixture of enticing shops
Santa Fe is the third largest art market in the
country. More art is sold here than in any locale except New York City
and Los Angeles. You can find virtually any kind of chow you might be in
the mood for in the 100 plus restaurants in Santa Fe.
Some of the most memorable skiing for me was the tree
skiing off the top. Head up to the 12,000-foot summit on the Roadrunner
lift and cruise down the North Burn. The journey takes you through an
engaging forest where the trees are not too tight and even skiers and
riders of middling ability can have a blast navigating through the
In the past, it was a little difficult to get into a
large chunk of the mountain because the only access was a long, boring
traverse. But Ski Santa Fe recently erected a long triple chairlift
called the Millennium into that region and it opens up an array of
intermediate to advanced terrain.
Santa Fe offers a good mix of 73 runs for differing
abilities and also has a very popular freestyle terrain park called the
Bone Yard. The yard has a smattering of bump runs, some narrow chutes
and enough challenge to easily elevate your heart rate.
Some 90 percent of the slopes at Santa Fe can be
covered with the snow guns. The average snowfall is about 225 inches a
year which is about average for most of the state’s resorts.
On earlier trips I was especially impressed with Ski
Apache some three hours south of Albuquerque. This place gets adequate
snow usually but is so far south that even in the dead on winter, the
mercury usually climbs into the 30s.
The resort, which has 55 runs and 1,800 feet of
vertical, is owned and operated by the Mescalero Apache tribe. Many of
Geronimo’s descendants still live in the area.
Sipapu and Pajarito are two smaller resorts well worth
a one or two-day stop. And if you have time to squeeze in a few runs
before your plane takes off, stop at Sandia Peak on the outskirts of
Albuquerque. From the city, you can ride to the slopes on one of the
longest aerial tramways in the world, a 2.7 mile joy ride over several
# # #