| By Snowsports Journalist Daniel Gibson |
Ghostly Ski Areas — Ski Rio |
Ever wonder what becomes of ski areas that cease operations? New Mexico has a handful of so-called “ghost ski areas” and I recently stumbled across a fantastic short video about one of them, Ski Rio.
Ski Rio was located in the Sangre de Cristos very close to the Colorado border, near the town of Amalia. It operated from 1982–
1990, and again from 1995–2000, and was a substantial endeavor, with two triple chairs and a double, a significant 2,150-foot vertical drop and a summit elevation of 11,650 feet. There were three small hotels, a nice base lodge with massive stone fireplace, and numerous condos. Its terrain featured mostly beginner and intermediate runs, but there were some short, steeper pitches, and the finest aspen tree skiing in the state. It averaged 210 inches of snowfall, but I recall several visits where lack of snow was an issue, and with a lowish base elevation, the one and only time I’ve been rained on at a New Mexico ski area.
On private land, it was opened by the Rio Costilla Cattlemen and Land Association, who sold operational rights to a private developer in 1984. Perhaps due to its isolated location, proximity to far-better known ski areas at Taos and Red River, skimpy snowfall, lack of nightlife, or mismanagement, it always seemed to struggle, and one night in January 2000 it was locked up and never re-opened. Clean sheets were left on beds, food in the kitchen refrigerators, and the rental shop fully stocked with vintage Burton snowboards, skinny skis, and rear-entry ski boots.
Memories of the ski area were stoked by the November 2020 release of the film The Ghost Ski Resorts: Ski Rio. Financed by Black Crows ski manufacturing company, the French production was produced by Camille Jaccoux and Julian Regnier, with principal cinematography by Cameron Sylvestre of Nomadik Motion, and editing by Nokolai Schirmer. The crew plans to produce a series on abandoned ski areas, and if this one is any indication of what’s to come, I’ll be tuning in to each one’s release.
It’s a short film, just over eight minutes, but feels like a much longer work, packed with terrific visuals, characters like caretaker Joe
Musich, and backstory. Some terrific aerial footage was provided by Taos’ own Chris Dahl-Bredine, who has made a career shooting striking stills and video from his powered ultralite air vehicle. It also has some luscious footage of two lucky skiers enjoying some sweet powder runs on the empty slopes after skinning up.
The lodges still stand but the chairs are gone, and the association says it wants to let the area revert to its natural state, according to the film. But with the increased interest in backcountry, self-powered skiing, and snowboarding on the rise, perhaps Ski Rio has a future as a natural state ski outing, like Bluebird Backcountry in Colorado. For now, access is forbidden, but the skiing looks as good as it did in its heyday.
The film can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msN3T-Dv1gs.
The comments about the film are almost as entertaining and informative as the video. So far 153 notes have been posted, so the film obviously struck a nerve.
Charles Nelson writes, “I was a junior ski patroller at Rio in the late 1990s after I quit racing at Taos and started snowboarding. It was a really cozy place to get out without crowds but had next to no amenities. Blast from the past with fantastic edits. Thanks for jogging the memories.”
Gillaume Golsong states, “Eerily beautiful and sad all in one film. Excellent work from Back Crows and the team who worked on this. Bravo!”
Mark Romero recalls, “I was a kid in 1996–97 when my mother worked at Ski Rio and we’d stay at the Silver Tree condos. First time I saw snowboarding was there and I’ve been in love with it ever since. Today I’m a lift attendant in Colorado. Great childhood memories; thanks mom and dad!”
Someone tagged Best Life & Beyond, reports, “I lived in Questa and Red River in the mid-90s and was part of a very small contingent of New Mexico snowboarders at the time. I literally had to beg Red River management to let me build the first snowboard park there. Rio was a welcome alternative for us as they catered to snowboarders when others didn’t. It’s so bizarre to see it so ghost-towny.”
Rick H. writes, “I skied there more times than I can count in the ‘80s. We would drive all night from Huntsville, Texas, and ski all day for four days, and drive back home. We did that as many as four times a year. Hey, it’s only 856 miles one way! There were (usually) no crowds; it was like having your own ski area, but that is not a sustainable business model.”
Bill Herbert, who worked there for a while, noted at the end of a longer post about the operations of the resort, “I wish it wasn’t such a doomed ski field. Great mountain when the snow is deep. And jobs around the area are scarce, so Amalia and the surrounding towns could really use it.”
Hear, hear! New Mexico has a handful of other “ghost” ski areas, which I’ll explore in a future column.
CUCHARA TO BE REBORN?
Coincidentally (see above), news of a Cuchara revival is floating around. The ski area was located 27 miles southwest of Walsenburg, Colorado, off La Veta Pass, not far from the New Mexico border and close to the beautiful Spanish Peaks. Jokingly referred to as “the Vail of Texas,” it first opened as Panadero Resort in 1981, but was plagued by bankruptcy issues and was shuttered in 2000. In 2017 a local foundation reopened the area for sledding and cross country skiing, and it is now overseen by Huerfano County for summer and winter recreation as Cuchara Mountain Park with the aid of the nonprofit Panadero Ski Corp. They hope to soon get a chair spinning again (three remain in place) with a 400-foot vertical drop to serve 56 acres of the former resort, and are looking into reopening the chair to the summit at 10,800 feet. With a low base and summit, snowmaking issues are also a major challenge facing its revival. But hope springs eternal!
Daniel Gibson is the author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, web sites, and magazines including Powder, Ski and Wintersport Business. His first day on wooden skis with wooden edges came at age 6 in 1960 on a snowy day at the former Santa Fe Ski Basin. He can be reached at [email protected] or via www.DanielBGibson.com.This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead