Snow Sports in Northern New Mexico | - December 28, 2008

Most winter recreationists know that northern New Mexico offers a breadth of opportunity for the snowboarder as well as skiers of all preferences. They know that it’s normal in our state for upwards of 300 inches of mountain snow to fall in a given winter, that this snow has a rare fluffy quality found nowhere else on earth, and that the chances of experiencing it beneath a dark blue sky are extremely high. They might not know, however, that two New Mexico mountains (Santa Fe and Taos) are among the oldest major ski areas in the west, or that all New Mexico mountains are offering some amazing promotions to get you out onto the snow.

Perhaps the latter is a stretch. Anyone with a pulse these days is aware that the national economy has its hand on the throat of just about every industry, and the ski/snowboard industry is no different. Ski mountains everywhere are falling all over themselves to come up with the most tantalizing deals, leveling the playing field for families and vacationers. How then does one choose? Same as always it turns out, by determining which mountain offers the best combination of the terrain you want for the type of fun you prefer at the best price. Oh, and there’s the snow to consider, who has it and who doesn’t. If the current trend continues (as of this writing, my yard is white), we in the southern Rockies will have it.

The following overview of northern New Mexico resorts is but a summary and is not intended to replace the required research. Each resort offers bulk and special age discounts, ski and boarding instruction, child care, lodging, dining, terrain, and a variety of après ski and summer activities. Their websites and information services all provide the details you will need.

Ski Santa Fe

When I was a teenager, heavy winter snowfalls in Santa Fe frequently came with a day or two off from school, the danger of slippery streets trumping the benefit of a day’s education. Safe and warm at home, the thinking might have gone; we would spend our respite getting ahead in our studies.

Right. In those days, there was no road more dangerous than the one to the Santa Fe Ski Basin (Ski Santa Fe’s former name), but we drove it anyway, as fast as we could in fact, lest the storm’s fresh powder be skied by someone else. Snowboarding hadn’t been invented yet, and many of the trees to the north of the teeth chattering Big Poma lift (replaced by the current Tesuque Peak Triple Chair) were still standing. I’m sure that powder skiing in those glades will always rank among my fondest memories.

The Ski Santa Fe of today is completely modernized, with four chairlifts serving the big mountain’s 69 runs (60% of which are beginner or intermediate), and three smaller lifts providing access to the easiest terrain at the bottom. Boarders love the Boneyard terrain park, and expert skiers and boarders can spend an entire day on the northern glades without a moment of boredom. One of my favorite things about this mountain is the view from the summit, being able to see the Jemez range to the west, Santa Fe, and Sandia Peak farther south. I love skiing the Big T,—the west-facing expanse that has become the signature image of our city—especially when catching a ride back up to the base is easy. And I love how I can ski half a day and do half a day of work back in town. Ski Santa Fe is nothing if not convenient.

Sipapu Ski Resort

A mere 200 acres, Sipapu is nevertheless a favorite of beginning and intermediate boarders and skiers. It is nestled in the canyon of the Rio del Pueblo and can be easily reached from either Santa Fe (1.5 hours) or Taos (40 minutes). Sipapu is not loaded with slopeside accommodations, but what it has in dining and lodging is more than adequate for its customers. Sipapu boasts New Mexico’s longest season and lift lines that are measured in seconds instead of minutes.

Angel Fire Resort

Angel Fire is located at the southeastern part of the Moreno Valley, within view of New Mexico’s highest peaks. Everyone who has gone to Angel Fire agrees that it offers every possible convenience to families who love the winter. It offers all grades of lodging, skiing for Mom and Dad, riding for the youngsters, 4 Nordic trails, plenty of dining options, and spectacular views in every direction. Angel Fire also offers discounts to active military personnel.

As a boarding destination, Angel Fire is without equal in New Mexico. Its Liberation Park was named North America’s Best Terrain Park by On the Snow in 2008 and offers a limitless range of freestyle opportunities for air geeks everywhere. My favorite Angel Fire season is the spring; the snow’s often slushy then, but things slide just fine. The sun’s always out, and if the mountain wears you out, there’s always the option of taking your fly rod down to the Cimarron River (a 20 minute drive) for some great brown trout fishing.

Red River Ski Area

This year marks Red River Ski Area’s 50th anniversary. The town of Red River, a former mining and trading hub and a retreat for flatlanders, is a great deal older. One thing for certain, this quaint little spot at the head of a narrow canyon has held a place in human hearts for many years indeed. With 1,600 vertical feet of skiing and boarding terrain for practitioners of all skill levels, Red River can easily tire out the whole family, lodge them comfortably, and feed them at a wonderful variety of restaurants without emptying the family coffers. And as with all northern New Mexico snow resorts, there isn’t a view at Red River that you can’t fall in love with.

Taos Ski Valley

I’ve heard it said that Taos has the best skiing in the world. Or was it the best skiers? Maybe I heard that it was the most challenging ski mountain or has the best snow. It is certainly New Mexico’s most famous ski—and as of 2008, snowboarding—destination, perhaps for its reputation as an expert’s mountain. The majority of its terrain, 51 percent to be exact, is rated for advanced skiers; this number, however, is misleading since it includes a great number of pitches that should be rated for skiers with a death wish. By virtue of the steepness of the runs at Taos, I imagine this level of difficulty holds true in the snowboarding world as well.

Taos boasts top notch ski school and child care programs as well as the finest of restaurants (some of the Valley’s chefs could fit in easily in the bistros of Paris or San Francisco). The variety of summer activities is growing more diverse and exciting every year.

All of this is just background, however, for Taos is above all a skier’s mountain: 1,294 acres; 2,612 vertical feet (3,274 if you include Kachina Peak, a walk-up, treeless field of champagne powder); average 305 inches of annual snow. A sunny morning in Taos after a night-long blizzard—to be one of the first people up and have a million sparkling smooth moguls staring you in the face—is when you know God exists.

Out of Bounds

Of the areas reviewed, Angel Fire has the most terrain available for Nordic skiing. This isn’t much for an entire state, but I would suggest that it shouldn’t matter, for you definitely don’t need a developed mountain to indulge your passion for cross country skiing or snowshoeing in New Mexico. I recommend that you buy a U.S. Forest Service map for the area that interests you; given the right snow conditions, service roads offer some nice grades for skiing and shoeing as well as access to trails. For smaller foot trails you should buy accompanying topo maps so you can study details regarding pitches you might not want to confront. No matter where you go, you should be up to date on your winter survival skills too, especially with regard to avalanches and hypothermia.

Right out of Ski Santa Fe is a nice wooded skiing trail to Nambe Lake. And the Jemez area west of Santa Fe is perfect for cross country snow travel. Flat and easy going terrain is easy to find out of the San Antonio and Redondo Campgrounds or at Las Conchas. It’s important to remember that the Jemez Mountains receive less snow than the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; they are best explored after a major storm.

Other pleasant adventures can be found on Hamilton Mesa above Jack’s Creek and Iron Gate Campgrounds near Cowles. Experienced skiers might want to try an overnight at the Mora Flats, which is also accessible from Iron Gate. There might be some dicey skiing spots as you drop into the meadow, perhaps reason to bring some backup snowshoes with you.

There are plenty of backcountry opportunities in the Taos area too, particularly off of Highway 518 above Penasco. This is the U.S. Hill area, and it is veined with some nice roads (Forest Roads 438, 439, 440, 442) that are covered with snow for most of the winter. Forest Road 437 in the Rio Chiquito drainage is also a good one, though for altitude and snow coverage reasons, it is best to access it off of Highway 64 (the highway from Taos to Angel Fire) at Garcia Park.

Roughing it Easy

Yurts are a great option for adventurers desiring an overnight winter wilderness experience without the cold and discomfort that come with tents and snow caves. Southwest Nordic Center operates four such yurts in the Cumbres Pass area, approximately 14 miles north of Chama in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. These structures are solidly built, include wood-burning stoves, and can sleep a sizable group in comfort. Southwest Nordic Center recently added a yurt in the Bull of the Woods meadow near Taos Ski Valley. Backwoods telemark skiers are sure to make good use of this yurt, as it offers easy access to Gold Hill and the ridge leading to Wheeler Peak. Spring is the best time to do a yurt trip, since the days are longer and warmer and the midnight cold less bitter. For this reason demand will be higher in the springtime, so make your reservations early.