Ski New Mexico
During the Dog Days of Summer, Plan a Rocky Mountain ‘Snowcation’
When someone mentions skiing the Rocky Mountains, people often think of high-profile and pricey resort destinations known for catering to the rich and famous, such as Aspen, Colo., or Jackson Hole, Wyo.
I suggest you travel to the southern end of the majestic mountain range in New Mexico. You’ll find four ski resort destinations that offer all the height, vertical drops and impressive scenery of the northern venues at a fraction of the cost while also avoiding crowds — both in the resort destinations and on the slopes. The density factor is important to skiers at all levels, but especially for those at the beginner or intermediate levels who are already challenged by fear, inexperience and control issues.
At the start of six days of New Mexican ski experiences, Mike Cerletti, secretary of the state’s Tourism Department, addressed his state’s identity crisis.
“Either one has no conception of what the state has to offer or the wrong one,” he said.
On this particular media trip, our beginners’ group experienced four ski destinations, spending a full day on the slopes at each, with an overnight stay to get a feel for the accommodations and culinary options.
For all the resorts, Albuquerque, N.M., is your point of entry.
Travel an hour out of town to Santa Fe, N.M., and the nearby Ski Santa Fe. At 10,350 feet above sea level in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Ski Santa Fe offers one of the highest base elevations in America.
There is no need for the novice to be intimidated: Sixty percent of Ski Santa Fe’s 72 runs are at the green (easy) and blue (intermediate) levels.
On the day of my first ski lesson, about a foot of snowfall the night before created ideal conditions that ski enthusiasts live for — a top coating of dry, powdery snow that allows one to experience the sensation of floating down the hill.
Our ski instructor for the day was Michael Pullen. With more than 45 years of skiing experience, Pullen had the teaching skills to successfully coach me from a true beginner to intermediate level in the six hours he spent at my side.
Of course, there’s plenty of après ski time in a day, and Santa Fe offers an abundance of diversions when you’re not on the slopes. The city, now celebrating its 400th anniversary, was a cultural crossroads in its heyday and still embraces the American Indian, Spanish and Western American influences of its inhabitants, settlers and conquerors.
Accommodations in Santa Fe run the gamut, from five-star resort hotels to chain motels. Several are steeped in the city’s history, such as the traditional, adobe-style Inn and Spa at Loretto, built next to the famous Loretto Chapel. Or consider the 71-room Inn on the Alameda, in the heart of Old Santa Fe, within walking distance of the restaurants, art galleries, shops and historical structures that define the city’s unique character.
For a different experience, drive about two hours north, and you’ll skip back in time at the town of Red River, N.M. — a real Western town with one main street lined with shops, cafes and quaint museums. The Red River Ski Area is a family-owned operation run by the granddaughter and grandson of the original developer, who essentially built the ski area himself.
Red River accommodations offer value and a sense of what life was like back in the 1950s at the onset of the rapidly expanding ski industry. With 57 runs (70 percent of them at the green and blue levels) and a 1,600-foot vertical drop, Red River is a family destination staffed by congenial people and instructors — many of whom have been part of the Red River family for decades.
If one is looking for more of a resort atmosphere, Angel Fire is about a 45-minute spectacular drive through the Utes Valley.
The owners, a Dallas-based investment group, are doing a multimillion-dollar facilities upgrade and building a 27,000-square-foot summer country club house during this challenging economic period because they’re confident in the future of Angel Fire and committed to building a first-class destination.
Angel Fire boasts more than 74 runs, a vertical drop of 2,077 feet, seven lifts and a top-notch instruction staff. On my day there, I spent another six hours of one-on-one time and continued my ski training.
(Prior to this trip, my previous ski experience was of the water variety, where you’re taught to lean back as the boat pulls you. In snow skiing, you lean forward and allow gravity to do most of the work. Much easier said than done, as my DNA was fighting the downhill lean.)
The Angel Fire resort is under one roof, so you can park once and enjoy your vacation. On the winter weekend I visited, a three-day music festival was taking place under a heated, circus-like tent on the resort grounds. Angel Fire often has weekend special events, so a Web check would be most helpful in your planning.
Best known in the ski world is the last stop of my marathon Ski New Mexico tour — Taos Ski Valley. The resort was developed in 1954 by Ernie Blake, a German immigrant who, with his wife and fewer than a dozen good men, came to the area and found a tucked-away mountain valley. Over time, they would cut in 110 runs and build 13 lifts. Also run by a granddaughter and grandson, Taos runs are a challenge to expert skiers.
Upon entering, a sign says “Don’t Panic,” and the first view is of a black diamond (advanced level) drop that looks almost vertical. However, nearly half of the runs are green and blue, so fear not, beginner.
Styled after a Bavarian tour, everything at Taos Ski Valley is walkable from the condos. I would recommend staying in town to maximize the experience and enjoyment.
Of all the hills, Taos was most challenging to this beginning-intermediate skier. The teaching and resort staff there have assimilated a family-owned philosophy of customer service. Many of them work 12-hour days, seven days a week, during the 130 seasonal days of operation from Thanksgiving to the first Sunday in April.
Skiing New Mexico is fun and easy to navigate, and you can gain skiing experience at a tolerable budget level. So if you’d like to learn, polish up on what you already know, and have a vacation next winter that will exceed expectations, book New Mexico.
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