New Mexico offers powder snow, sunshine galore, and bargain prices – along with heritage and gastronomy. Why ski anywhere else, says Irene Middleman Thomas
New Mexico’s nickname is the ‘Land of Enchantment’. Indeed, this is an enchanting place – rich in history, natural beauty, and a myriad of cultures melding into a mix so unlike any other place in the world. No wonder some Americans still don’t quite ‘get’ that New Mexico is one of the 50 states – it is in a class of its own. Any time of year is marvelous here, but winter attracts skiers and boarders flocking into New Mexico for its more than seven meters of snow annually, and that’s soft, powder snow on 255 meter and peaks!
This state is wildly diverse, ranging from desert to high mountain to plains, gorgeous scenery— which changes from red earth canyons to piñon-covered hills to snowcapped peaks. This state inspired Georgia O’Keefe and countless other artists, photographers, and authors, past and present. If and when you tire of skiing, you can take in still-active Native American pueblos and Anasazi Indian archaeological sites, which dot the state. Villages throughout northern New Mexico are home to direct descendants of 16th-century Spanish explorers, and you easily might hear an ancient dialect of that Don Quixote-era Spanish, or the lilting tones of Native American tongues, while strolling down the street.
You can visit such fascinating small cities like Las Cruces, home to the Chile Pepper Institute (you won’t believe the varieties here!) succulent New Mexican Southwestern cuisine, and Spaceport America, the world’s first spaceport built to host private enterprise, intended to be the launch-pad of the global commercial spaceflight industry. The US$209 million project, designed, built and operated by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, has stunning architecture and is home to the world’s first commercial passenger spaceline company, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
Or take in Santa Fe, a 400-year-old, a truly charming small city with virtually all adobe architecture, oodles of art galleries, even more, bistros and restaurants and chic, pricey shops, along with gorgeous boutique inns with exquisite interiors. Santa Fe was founded between 1607 and 1610, making it the second oldest city as well as the highest and oldest capital in the U.S. It is a world-class tourist destination, drawing more than one million visitors each year. In 2005, Santa Fe became the first U.S. city to be chosen by UNESCO as a Creative City, one of only nine cities in the world to hold this designation. You just might see a celebrity or two – they live here and visit often. Just 16 miles from the historic plaza, world-class skiing is found at Ski Santa Fe, one of the oldest and highest ski areas in the U.S., beginning at 263 meters high in the Sangre de Cristo Range of the Southern Rockies, reaching up to over 1000 meters, affording incredible panoramic views.
Taos is a lovely town, a smaller, more down-to-earth version of Santa Fe, adorned with Adobe, tile and other Spanish and Indian-influenced architecture. For those off-ski days, take in various museums such as the Kit Carson Museum, Hacienda de los Martinez, Blumenschein Home & Museum, Taos Art Museum, Millicent Rogers and several others, including a small exhibit at the Hotel La Fonda de Taos of D.H. Lawrence’s erotic artwork. Or take a tour of the Taos Pueblo www.taospueblo.com, a self-guided or guided walking tour of the Taos Historic District and Plaza, or simply stroll, gaze and enjoy – this town is a gem. Wine lovers should be sure visit in January for a sampling of local chefs and vintners. The Taos Winter Wine Festival features outstanding regional wines.
New Mexico offers eight major ski resorts, six of which are still family-owned and operated – unlike many of the corporate-owned, mega-resorts, found elsewhere in the United States. Compared to them, New Mexico offers bargain rates. You’ll find award-winning ski schools, a wide variety of trails, easy access and no crowds (and 300 days of sunshine annually!)– yet prices for lift tickets, accommodations, rentals, lessons, and dining are way below that of other states. The resorts all offer multi-day discounts and age discounts (kids ski free at many resorts,) detailed on each resort’s website. Adult lift tickets average US$55 a day, compared to about US$80 in other states.
New Mexico features the country’s southernmost ski area, Ski Apache, offering delightful warm-weather skiing. Ski Apache is owned and operated, along with the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino, by the Mescalero Apache Tribe of Native Americans. Located outside the town of Ruidoso, Ski Apache sits at 3,657 meters high. Ski Apache has 55 trails, 11 lifts and offers a terrain park for snowboarders. Snowboarders are welcome on every part of the mountain.
In Northern New Mexico, you can visit Angel Fire Resort, Taos Ski Valley, Ski Santa Fe and Red River, all within easy (one to three-hour drive) access of Albuquerque International Airport, or you can consider driving from Denver (from five to seven hours.) Albuquerque is an hour-long flight from Denver, which has direct flights from London on British Airways. Make your home base there in Albuquerque, a delightful, non-touristy city that sports a historical Old Town area replete with independent shops, a quirky Rattlesnake Museum, an old Spanish plaza and excellent New Mexican cuisine (think green chile sauce on just about everything, blue corn enchiladas, margaritas and pulled pork tamales – and if you’re not familiar with them, trust me, you’ll love them all.) Or, drive an hour up to Santa Fe, described above.
Angel Fire Resort’s summit measures at 3,254metres high, with over 223 skiable hectares. This family favorite resort is known for unspoiled, uncrowded trails for all abilities. It has two ski-and-ride freestyle parks, over 75 runs, and an unusually large gladed tree skiing area. A plus is the well-lit bunny beginner slope for night-time practice! Indeed, OnTheSnow.com rates Angel Fire as a top terrain park in North America. There are three cross-country ski trails, with one available for any cross-country ski level.
Red River is a very informal, down-to-earth ski town which still sports various historical sites dating from its old mining town days. The ski area is right in the center of town, just a short walk from most lodges. Red River enjoys an average of six or so meters of snow each year and plenty of sun. Mixed terrain includes a ski-through replica of a mining camp and two terrain parks. Mount Wheeler is New Mexico’s highest peak – measuring 4,013metres high.
Ski Sante Fe: located just 20 minutes outside the city, Ski Sante Fe has 72 runs, with 27 open only to skiers. It is one of the highest ski areas in the United States. The New Millennium triple chairlift takes expert and intermediate snow enthusiasts to 3,680 meters high. They offer a certified ski school for beginners as well as other activities for children, including the Chipmunk Corner and Adventure Land. Chairlifts are open in autumn before the snow falls, providing an awe-inspiring view of the New Mexico mountains in fall colour.
Taos Ski Valley offers runs for both skiers and snowboarders. With 110 trails and 13 lifts, Taos has something for skiers of all experience levels. Taos offers a ski school for beginners or tubing (sledding on an inner tube.) For days spent off the slopes, visit the nearby Taos adobe pueblo or the Kit Carson Museum for an enticing taste of New Mexico culture. The biggest and oldest of New Mexico’s family-run resorts, it is only US$1 roundtrip to take the shuttle to and from the town of Taos (26 miles each way.)
Taos Ski Valley is legendary for its challenging expert drops. Only the extreme skiers venture to the Ridges on 3,804-meter-high Kachina Peak, bordering the Wheeler Wilderness Area. In fact, these runs are so rugged that getting to the top requires a 30-minute hike. Throughout the mountain, expert runs are divided into one-black-diamond or two, with two predominating. Even the beginner and intermediate trails seem a step more difficult than on other slopes. The rugged mountain leaves little allowance for wide beginner trails, and drops from the trail are common. Beginners just need to be a bit more careful than usual – it’s worth it!