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New Mexico - A Treasure of Ski Resorts

Bob Goligoski

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 Colorado.

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 Fire.

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 after breakfast.

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 was bombed.

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 slopes.

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 five chairlifts.

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 and galleries.

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 timber.

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 deep valleys.

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Bob Goligoski, a ski and travel writer based in Sunnyvale, CA, has visited more than 90 ski resorts around the world and has written stories for numerous publications including Ski Magazine, Ambassador, California Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He formerly worked as a ski columnist and reporter for the Mercury News and the St. Paul Dispatch for 18 years. bgoligoski@sandisk.com. (More about the writer.)

 

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