Skiing a “Freed” Taos

- December 30, 2011

"...a ski area in New Mexico that could actually give many bigger Colorado resorts a run for their money"

In stark contrast to the tie-die and smoke clouds of my previous trip for a bluegrass music festival (Northern New Mexico: The New Southern Colorado) Taos, when covered in snow, carries a much less open-minded stigma.  Having, until recently, been the last ski area in the Southwest to hold its doors closed to snowboarders, Taos has lent itself to major scrutiny from that side of the sport.  Mostly visible in the form of bumper stickers that read “Free Taos,” a collective feeling of  preclusion on the snowboard side has lead to a mindset that has painted a very specific picture of Taos to outsiders.

But let me start at the beginning...

An enigma of the ski areas of the Southwest, Taos is the one winter destination in New Mexico that feels like it migrated straight from Colorado.  Views of snowy peaks stretch in all directions, cornices hang precariously from the top of massive bowls and signs warning of the imminent avalanche danger could easily trick one into thinking they have driven much further for their ski vacation than they actually have.  In fact, after arriving at the top of the main lift I felt somewhat like Dorothy in Oz after being greeted by a sign informing me of what to do if I came across any explosives (used for avalanche control).  Spoiler Alert:  Don't touch 'em.

   “I don’t think we’re in New Mexico anymore…”

Fortunately for New Mexican skiers and snowboarders, Taos is a mere two hours from Santa Fe (three from Albuquerque).  The drive itself is no less awe-inspiring than the vistas atop Taos’s peak.  There is nothing like seeing the sun rise on the Taos Gorge as you emerge from the river valley, which hosts many great vineyards, small farms and river rafting companies.  Once in the town of Taos, the only road to the ski area takes you right through the middle of the village proper.  There is a paint color, called Taos Brown, which couldn’t better explain the color scheme of the area.  A mandate requires buildings within a certain distance from downtown to adorn their exteriors with the same color of adobe, an ode to the indigenous Taos pueblo.

Between the honest homage that the village center pays to its heritage, and the outlying parcels of carbon-conscious, solar-powered farmland that signals the last leg of the drive, it’s hard to imagine that the destination could be labeled by anyone as elitist or close-minded.

Things really start to get interesting when you enter the parking lot, though.  Walking to the ticket booth, I was beset on all sides by mock Bavarian architecture, which only enhanced the sense of outlandishness I felt staring at the careening white peaks in the background.

Kachina Peak


Once on the slopes, I was humbled to find that this ski area doesn’t just talk the talk.  Every nuance of the area’s “big resort” façade was backed up by runs that genuinely reminded me of a ski area that had been misplaced from its much more northern home. While offering the wide, mid-level blue and green cruisers you would expect from a vacation-friendly resort area, the experienced skier or boarder can easily find challenging terrain reminiscent of much bigger mountains.  The West Basin Ridge for example, along with its other-side-of-the-saddle peer, Highline Ridge, both boast terrain that is on par with some of the most film-friendly spots in the U.S. Narrow chutes, massive powder banks and the picturesque combination of half-buried trees and huge rock drops put Taos’s upper mountain ridges on this Snowman’s must do list.

Unfortunately, most of these technical areas aren’t easily accessible straight from the lifts.  A short hike (which is never THAT short when wearing full gear and carrying your skis or board through knee-high powder) is required to reach even the closest of these ridges.  For the extremely interested, a 45-minute hike from the top of Chair #2 will get you to Kachina Peak, which rests at 12, 481 feet above sea level, making it one of the highest peaks in the state.  From here, one can enjoy a large, powder-filled bowl that even hosts a run of its own named, quite appropriately, “Main Street.”

All in all, as a newbie to this ski area, I was impressed, though surprised, to see a ski area in New Mexico that could actually give many bigger Colorado resorts a run for their money.  Keeping in trend with my day, I was no less surprised to see that, in light of the area’s controversial opening to snowboarders only a few years ago, the slopes were not nearly as populated with single-stickers as one would have thought.  Judging by the offended sentiment I saw from fellow snowboarders in other areas about Taos’s unwillingness to open its slopes to boarders led me to expect a much greater ratio of boarders than I actually encountered.  When I asked another patron, a local, about this odd ratio, he explained that the local population has been skiing the mountain as a ski-only area for so long that they just prefer ski to board. 

An indicator of the ski to snowboard ratio


This was interesting to me for a number of reasons, most important being the simple fact that by default, the patron's answer described a somewhat uncommon belief in snow sports.  He, in fact, suggested that the patrons of this mountain, most of whom live year-round in the area’s namesake village, don’t necessarily prefer skis to a board for any specific reason.  Nor would most of them make a major distinction between the two.  With a mountain like this in your backyard, you wouldn’t need a distinction, simply a way to enjoy it. Whether that way is with two skis or one board, the people of Taos have defied a stigma that seems more existent in the rest of nation.  While skiers in the rest of New Mexico and Colorado were worried about which type of equipment would be allowed on the slopes, the die-hards--the people who relocated to a village in the middle of northern New Mexico simply to be closer to this mountain--have been enjoying it the whole time regardless of equipment.

So Bravo!  Bravo, I say to Taos.  If only a mountain with the magic of Taos existed in all of our towns, cities, and villages maybe we too, could put aside our differences, and enjoy the sport for what it really is.

So, whether you're on a board, rockin' a pair of skis or just sledding…