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Ski Areas in Northern New Mexico: Natural Beauty & Skiing

Five Great Ski Resorts in the Land of Enchantment

Red_River_Backside“Skiing in New Mexico?” That was the common response when I told friends I was taking a ski trip to the Land of Enchantment. After a pause, the ski buffs recalled Taos Ski Valley, but none of them realized that the state’s elevation and rugged terrain compensate for its southern latitude to provide a setting for memorable snow sports.

What’s more, its Southwest setting provides a backdrop for a distinctive escape from the everyday, punctuated by fresh New Mexican cuisine, with the regional favorite, the green chile, front and center. Burritos lovers will be especially pleased with the abundance of breakfast burritos, a hefty meal to begin a day of physical activity. Beer aficionados will notice that many of the restaurants offer more than just the standard bland macrobrews, with bold microbrews common, frequently from nearby Santa Fe Brewery.

My recent trip to New Mexico featured five ski areas: Taos Ski Valley, Angel Fire Resort, Red River, Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area, and Ski Santa Fe. It had been a few years since my last ski trip, so I found myself sticking to—and thus reporting on—the beginner slopes.

Ski Santa Fe slope and viewThe first four of the five ski areas I visited—all but Ski Santa Fe—are clustered around the Enchanted Circle, an 80-mile road with the state’s tallest mountain, 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, at its center. It whirls deliriously through passes and alpine forests, overlooking valleys and mesas, with boulders and scrub and sage dotting the way.  

Unlike the impersonal commercial ski resorts, the northern New Mexico ski areas I visited were homier, in all the right ways. They were comfortable and unassuming but well tended—especially where it matters most, on the slopes. Many of the areas are family owned, supported by the history and pride that comes from knowing your name is tied to a business. In these family-run resorts, the passion for the sport is apparent, too—picture a kid whose first skis are bronzed instead of her baby shoes, who has snow in her blood, and who hears snow reports at dinner instead of stock reports and you’ll begin to picture the current owners and operators of Taos Ski Valley and Red River. Even the seasoned instructors here embody the passion of those who have made their sport their livelihood.

The entire state boasts more than 400 trails for Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding. Distinctive New Mexico features create excellent conditions for winter sports: high temperatures in January reaching the 40s during the day, particularly in the “lower” elevations; plenty of sunshine and deep blue skies; high, rugged mountain ranges; 200 inches of snowfall a year; and low humidity. In addition, the slopes and lifts are less crowded than those at many of the better-known resorts, and lift ticket and rental prices are lower.

 

Red River’s Family Friendly Skiing and Mountain Town

Red River Ski Area summitRed River’s slopes rise above a friendly, quiet little town. Many of the hotels and restaurants are within walking distance of the two main lifts. Beginners, intermediates and expert skiers will find slopes they can enjoy, in fairly equal balance. Red River’s close attention to the science and technology of snowmaking and grooming create superior conditions—be sure to hit the slopes early to take full advantage of each morning’s unadulterated fun.

Red River prides itself on being one of the most family friendly ski areas in the U.S.  Both on the slopes and in town, children are welcome, included, and safe. The Backside at Red River is a feast of beginner trails for all ages, winding through aspen groves—a breathtaking sight, especially when seen against a rich blue New Mexican sky. Also on The Backside are the “Animals in the Forest” hunt, Moonstar Mining Camp, and other fun kid-centered spots.

Red River Ski Tip RestaurantRed River has a 10,350-foot summit, dropping 1,600 feet, with seven lifts and 57 runs. The Ski Tip Restaurant at the summit offers a filling lunch served cafeteria style, with options for beer and wine. Not optional is the stunning mountain view.

At the bottom is the family-friendly Lift House Bar & Grill. Like other area bars, the Lift House includes microbrews on its menu. The Life House also features the shot-ski, a long, old-fashioned ski inset with five shot glasses, to be “shot” simultaneously by five après-ski partiers. Like many other casual options in the area, the grill serves green chile stew, a northern New Mexico staple.

The Enchanted Forest, Dedicated to Cross Country Skiing and Snowshoeing

Cross-country skiers will find an area designed just for them, The Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area, nestled in Bobcat Pass. The Enchanted Forest has more than 18 miles of trails maintained for cross-country skiing, featuring mountain views of Wheeler and Latir peaks. The area is also open to snowshoeing, one of the fastest-growing winter sports.

Enchanted Forest has equipment rental for all ages. The gentler slopes and slower speeds of cross country can be comforting to a beginner, and the aerobic benefits are healthful for all. They also offer beginner snowshoer tours, dog trails, and rental Yurts.

Angel Fire: Alpine Ski, Cross-Country Ski, Snowboard, and Other Winter Sports

Angel Fire ski resort slopesThe beginner trails at Angel Fire were my favorite of the four Alpine areas, with a 3.2-mile run. Headin’ Home meanders down the edge of the ski area boundary, but not at the edge of a cliff. Its wide trail gave plenty of space for easy turns, perfect elevation for comfortable speeds, and few drop-offs to bother the faint of heart. There are runs for every level, with half of the total being rated for intermediates and a quarter each for beginners and advanced.

Angel Fire also offers cross-country skiing at the summit of the mountain, with views of Wheeler Peak. The 13-mile trail system featuring skating as well as single track. (Skating was unavailable in 2010-2011, but is scheduled to be back in action for the 2011-2012 season. Angel Fire also plans to have a cross country trail open next season down on the resort’s golf course.) The area provides skiing for all abilities on nine separate trails, including a 1.6-mile beginner trail, a 3.8-mile intermediate trail and a 6.1-mile expert trail.

Angel Fire beautyFor the adrenaline junkies, Angel Fire has two freestyle terrain parks, Lowrider and Liberation Park, of short rails, fun boxes, jumps and rollers, and a half-pipe, as well as glade skiing. OnTheSnow.com rates Angel Fire Resort as a top terrain park in North America. A three-lane tubing park is also available, for when you’re ready to forget about control and just go with gravity.

Angel Fire’s summit is 10,677 feet, dropping 2,077 feet. It has seven lifts and 74 trails, for 550 skiable acres. Angel Fire is a resort in name and in atmosphere, with lodging and dining situated comfortably just below the ski area. The newly renovated Country Club, open to guests as well as members, offers fine dining as well as a pool and fitness facilities.

Taos Ski Valley, Legendary, Challenging Ski Slopes

Taos viewTaos Ski Valley is legendary for its challenging expert drops—“slopes” would be a misnomer. Here, a typical expert skier may feel humbled, for only the extreme skiers venture to the Ridges on 12,481-foot-high Kachina Peak, bordering the Wheeler Wilderness Area. In fact, these runs are so rugged that getting to the top requires a 30-minute hike. Throughout the mountain, expert runs are divided into one-black-diamond or two, with two predominating.

Even the beginner and intermediate trails seem a step more difficult than on other slopes. The rugged mountain leaves little allowance for wide beginner trails, and drops from the trail seem omnipresent. However, any confident but careful beginner can navigate and enjoy the trails, with only a bit of elevated heart rate. I noticed that many experienced skiers made use of the beginner trails as well—perhaps classifying the green lines as “easy intermediate.”

Taos kids lessonsTaos is a well-maintained full-service resort, with plenty of lodging and dining within easy walking distance. I ate great during my stay at Taos, and not just because my pounding heart had worked up my appetite. New Mexican green chiles were, of course in abundance here, especially at the Stray Dog Cantina—the best northern New Mexican food I had on my trip. Hungry skiers find flame roasted, Christmas-style red & green chiles, chile rellenos, burgers, and breakfast burritos, plus locally brewed draft beer and quality Margaritas. Live music and a dance floor at The Martini Tree Bar offered après-ski entertainment for the hardy, those who were still dancing after a day on the challenging slopes, and a good selection of beer and other adult beverages. At the top of the mountain—after a drive that seems long given the icy conditions during which we made the trip—is a German restaurant that plays upon the Bavarian style of the resort in its décor, food, and beer.

Rhoda’s Restaurant at Taos was named for the founder’s wife, an active participant in establishing the resort and still a feisty Western woman. Besides a soup-and-sandwich lunch menu, Rhoda’s Restaurant serves up a quality fine-dining dinner menu created by a promising young chef.

The stats at Taos tell more of the story of this challenging mountain. For the daredevil double-diamond skiers, Kachina Peak rises to 12,481 feet and drops 3,274 feet. The rest of us can travel to the top of the highest lift at 11,819 feet and ski down 2,612 feet. Taos has 110 trails, half of which are expert, and a quarter each devoted to beginners and intermediates.

Ski Santa Fe, Extra-High-Elevation Skiing 

Ski Santa Fe Adventure Land Bear CaveSki Santa Fe is among the highest ski areas in the United States—its base is situated at 10,350 feet and The New Millennium triple chairlift takes expert and intermediate snow enthusiasts to 12,075 feet. The resort’s altitude was even apparent in the wildlife: singing in a tree outside the cafeteria window was a stellar jay, a bird associated with alpine forests.

The ski area was kid friendly, with a Chipmunk Corner Children’s Center and a Children’s Adventure Land loop off of the Lower Broadway Trail. They have a freestyle terrain park, dubbed “The Bone Yard.” There are 73 trails dropping 1,725 vertical feet on 660 acres, with 40% for experts, 40% for intermediates, and only 20% for beginners. The easiest slopes were appropriate, but at points were narrow, a tad steep, or close to a bit of a drop.

Unlike the other areas, Ski Santa Fe is neither a resort nor near a town. It offers cafeteria-style meals at the base, with long dining tables to transport you back to school days, and Totemoff’s Bar & Grill halfway up the mountain. However, it’s only 16 miles northeast of historic Santa Fe, New Mexico, with its many choices for great lodging, dining, art, and culture.

Planning Your Ski Trip to New Mexico 

Angel Fire Ski Resort valley viewA winter trip to northern New Mexico’s Land of Enchantment will please the serious skier and the determined tourist. Browse the Ski New Mexico web site for information on all of the resorts, snow reports, package deals, family value tables, and more.

Taos Ski Valley, Angel Fire Resort, Red River, Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area, and Ski Santa Fe offer a variety of winter pursuits in addition to skiing and snowboarding. Other local ski areas include Sandia Peak, Pajarito Mountain, Ski Apache, and Sipapu (also on the Enchanted Circle). Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are also available at Valles Caldera National Preserve, but without amenities of resorts and other ski areas.

The ski season in these high-elevation New Mexico areas extends through the end of March. Lowlanders should remember that the high altitude will leave them more breathless and can cause some adjustment issues. To avoid this problem, remember to drink plenty of fluids, especially water, juices, and sports drinks, before and during the travels. Be careful with alcohol, which not only contributes to dehydration but, at these heights, its effects are exacerbated. If you aren’t accustomed to aerobic activity or have heart issues, take it easy the first couple of days.

 

 
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