Skiers will discover plenty of highs in the peaks, powder, and green chile cheeseburgers.
The air is thin and dry at 11,500 feet on a mid-February morning. The clouds have parted, the sun is shining, and 6 inches of fresh powder blanket the double-black runs off Taos Ski Valley’s Highline Ridge near Taos, New Mexico.
“There are no friends on a powder day,” the old saying goes. Still, a hard-charging local is patiently waiting for me to follow him down Tresckow, a tree run stashed with snow. But first I turn 360 degrees to soak in the 100-mile view. The arid Rio Grande Valley spans the west while 13,167-foot Wheeler Peak, the tallest in New Mexico, rises to the southeast. Before I drop in, I silently thank the snow gods that I live in a state that is an unsung mecca of skiing.
That doesn’t mean all of New Mexico’s eight alpine areas require boot packing to double–black-diamond runs. From Ski Apache, the southernmost ski area in the United States, owned by the Mescalero Apache Tribe, to Red River, a family-owned mountain rising out of a historic mining town, there is a style of schussing here to match every skier and snowboarder profile.
New Mexico goes way beyond having just mountains with snow. It also has the heady combination of sunshine, Southwestern eats, and a melting-pot American Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo culture. Where else in the country will you find a green chile cheeseburger served at the base of almost every mountain and have après ski access to hot springs where Natives have been soaking for centuries?
Here’s a sampling of the ski ambience that only New Mexico offers: hearty, organic Southwest breakfasts; vistas that include sand dunes and cacti; and après-ski Silver Coin margaritas.
Southeastern New Mexico has always been my blind spot. I’ve spent little time there and am mystified by how such a vast, arid, wide-open space could hide the Sierra Blanca, a range that contains a ski area with 11 lifts and 55 runs—and tops out at 11,500 feet. About 200 miles southeast of Albuquerque, in cornmeal-colored, cactus-filled scrubland and black volcanic country known as the Valley of Fires, you’ll find a much larger and fiercer mountain than expected. In fact, it requires guts just to get to Ski Apache. The only way up is via a twisty, precipitous 12-mile road marked with yellow wild horses warning signs. This is truly skiing in the Wild West.
Ski Apache may not have the most difficult terrain in New Mexico, but it has enough challenges to keep skiing interesting for a long weekend, from the variable snow conditions in Apache Bowl to the black-diamond bump run known as Terrible.
Also keeping things interesting is the Apache Wind Rider ZipTour, one of the longest zip lines in the world, where you can James Bond your way down 8,900 feet at speeds of more than 65 mph. 575-464-3600; skiapache.com.
Ski Santa Fe
About 213 miles north of Ski Apache, I gawked under bluebird skies from the top of 12,053-foot Gayway, an epic cruiser run at Ski Santa Fe that has massive views to Sandia Peak in the south and the Jemez Mountains in the west.
This ski area, which sits 18 miles northeast of Santa Fe, is the city’s best-kept secret, with two “magic carpet” conveyor lifts for beginners and huckable cliff bands for experts. The grooming crew here is one of the best in the Southwest, so if you catch the first chair up, you’re guaranteed to find a perfectly crenulated cruiser, if not fresh powder. Either way, the sensation going down is nothing short of flying. 505-982-4429; skisantafe.com.
Taos Ski Valley
Most ski areas in New Mexico started as family-run labors of love. The legendary Ernie Blake, who fled Germany in the 1930s, and his wife, Rhoda, started Taos Ski Valley in 1955 while living out of a camper with their kids at the base of the mountain. The Blake family sold the ski resort in 2013 to Louis Bacon, a billionaire conservationist. Bacon’s upgrades have been slow and methodical. His Kachina Peak lift—which, topping out at 12,481 feet, is one of the highest in North America and provides 50 percent more lift access to black terrain—has received little resistance from old-school locals. The Blake Hotel, a 65-room hotel at the base, opened in 2017. 575-776-2291; skitaos.org.
Red River Ski Area
One operation beloved by families, largely because it has been run by the same family for more than three decades, is Red River Ski Area, which rises to 10,350 feet above the funky gold, silver, and copper mining town of Red River, 37 miles north of Taos. As one now-local expat from Connecticut, who started skiing here with her family more than 20 years ago, describes it, “Red River is like never-never land.”
To me it looks more like winter camp for Southerners. Almost all of Red River’s clientele come from Texas and Oklahoma. In addition to the sweeping, well-groomed cruisers, a beginner aspen glade that contains an authentically reconstructed mining cabin, and a Thursday-night Beer League that crowns race winners at a different bar every week, Red River guests can expect an almost constant stream of wacky celebrations such as Mardi Gras in the Mountains. The five-day party, largely attended by Louisianans, has Cajun bands, a Mardi Gras ball, and as many strings of colorful beads as you can fit over your helmet. 575-754-2223; redriverskiarea.com.
Pajarito Mountain Ski Area
Once a club for Los Alamos National Laboratory employees and town locals, Pajarito Mountain Ski Area is perhaps the only mountain in North America that requires passing through a security checkpoint before turning up the precipitous 4-mile mountain road, one of two entrance routes, to reach the 9,200-foot base on the eastern edge of the Jemez Mountains.
The mountain still feels like a private enclave of Telemark skiers who prefer wool sweaters to advanced technical gear. The celebrated runs here are the famed Fab Four, a succession of double–black-diamond bump runs—Nuther Muther, Sidewinder, Breathless, and Precious—to the skier’s right, off the refreshingly old-school, bright-blue double lift that locals call Mother.
My legs turned to jelly after skiing these runs in succession, so I parked my aching body in the late-afternoon sun streaming into the chalet to sip a New Mexico–brewed Peñasco Porter while listening to the Craig Martin Experience, a seven-piece jazz band comprised of off-duty Los Alamos rocket scientists. The surreal scene was a fitting end to an epic New Mexico ski-trip odyssey. 505-662-5725; skipajarito.com.