Santa Fe and Taos are famous for their arts scenes, but the surrounding slopes make a scenic ski escape for bunny-slopers to black-diamond daredevils.
It starts with a soft chant somewhere up on the dark, snow-covered ski slope. “TOOORCH-light…. TOOORCH-light....”
Pink road flares glow against the Red River Ski Area’s black-diamond run. A long line of skiers and snowboarders – some adult instructors, some children barely tall enough to sip from a drinking fountain – start to weave their way down a short black-diamond that ends at the Red River lift house. They wave the flares like firework sparklers, and an expectant crowd is gathered at the rail of the lift house saloon.
The traditional torchlight “parade” at this family-owned ski resort may seem a bit campy, but it underscores the uniqueness of New Mexico’s skiing opportunities. While we Valley dwellers have our own snowplay traditions at Flagstaff’s Snowbowl and Sunrise Ski Resort in the White Mountains, ski resorts in north-central New Mexico are offering some attractive new options for families, friends, casual skiers and downhill daredevils that are worth a serious look as the ski season approaches.
Angel Fire Resort
This 45-year-old ski resort sits two hours from historic downtown Santa Fe at a base elevation of 8,600 feet. With a summit at 10,677 feet, that’s almost a half-mile drop along runs mostly suited for intermediate skiers. The mountain offers glade skiing (tight, thinly wooded areas between runs that technical skiers enjoy), two freestyle parks and three cross-country trails of varying degrees of difficulty. Crews can make enough snow to cover half of the runs.
Start at the lower lodge and take the Chile Express high-speed quad lift to the summit – well, almost the summit. This lift drops skiers about 600 feet short of the true top, but it has other features that the summit lift does not – namely, a bar and grill, a small open-aired chapel (so you can pray for your backside to survive) and excellent opportunities to photograph the sweeping view of the valley below.
Exit the lift, go left and try Hallelujah (green), Hully Gully (blue) or Hells Bells (black). Speedsters will love the Nitro run – an arrow-straight black-diamond that zips from the top down to a green so skiers can ease off the gas as they approach the lift.
The ski season is loaded with quirky events. In late January, the resort hosts its “Big Ol’ Texas” weekend with music, food and poker tournaments. Last February, the resort hosted the Travel Channel’s world-championship of shovel racing, a 1,200-foot skid down a groomed track at speeds of up to 60 mph. And then there’s Mardi Gras, which draws one of Angel Fire’s top client bases: Southerners. Evidence of the resort’s weeklong festivities is in the treetops, where colorful beads dangle after being tossed by skiers riding the chairlift to the top. (Mardi Gras is scheduled for the third week in February next year.)
The most recent addition to this corporate-owned ski resort is Angel Fire Resort Country Club, which offers a more upscale option to the resort’s lodge. The original facility was gutted and renovated for $16 million in May 2010 and now features a modern, timber-and-stone lodge with views of Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico’s tallest peak, and panoramic vistas of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains surrounding Angel Fire. Store that pricey pinot noir in the club’s 2,200-bottle private wine cellar, hit the slopes, then come back for a dip in the club’s indoor swimming pool before heading upstairs to Elements for a fine-dining experience in its private wine room.
Ski Santa Fe
One of the ancillary benefits of living in the artistic and cultural hub of Santa Fe, famed for its charming historic center, is having a solid all-around ski area in the backyard. Located just 16 miles from town, this family-oriented powder paradise features a new high-speed chairlift that zips skiers up to the 12,075-foot summit, as well as The Boneyard, a freestyle terrain park.
Warm up with an easy cruise along Broadway (blue, then green), and stay to the right to catch the Millennium chairlift to the summit, which offers jaw-dropping views on the ascent. Exit the chair and bank left onto Sunset (blue), tapping into other blue- and black-diamond runs on the way down while weaving past snow-covered boulders and gliding through powdered glades.
After returning to the Millennium lift, opt for the adjacent Tesuque Peak chairlift. At the top, turn right and head down Gay Way. It’s the mountain’s can’t-miss run, says Ski Santa Fe snowsports school director Bill Gould. “It’s a beautiful wide boulevard from the top that has fantastic views and great snow.”
Ski Santa Fe operators have carved a new black-diamond trail into the mountain called Richard’s Run, which drops from 11,000-foot-high alpine glades into several blue runs. They have also revived the “Beats on the Basin” event, which features musical acts playing inside the mid-mountain facilities between January 21 and March 24. Winterfest will offer various ski-related events, art galleries and more from January 27 through February 5. New construction is adding 6,000 square feet of space to the chalet’s retail, rental and food areas, but the work won’t be completed until the 2012-13 ski season, says Ski Santa Fe spokeswoman Debi Owen.
This family-oriented ski resort is one of the great hidden gems of the New Mexico snow scene. Previously a mining boomtown that went bust in the 1930s, Red River evolved into a winter retreat with a Main Street feel that National Geographic Adventure declared one of the best places to live in 2010.
Though less vertical and situated at a lower elevation than nearby Taos Ski Valley (see next entry) and its Olympic-caliber runs, Red River offers a better mix of beginner and intermediate skiing (about 70 percent of the mountain, compared to 49 percent at Taos) with three terrain parks for various levels of expertise. Its chairlift drops skiers off in the middle of town, within a short walk from its cowboy-style steakhouse and watering holes.
From the lift house, take the Red Chair to the top and turn left toward a series of blues to shake hands with the mountain. After the introduction, head toward the middle of the mountain and drop into Broadway – where Red River hosts ski races – or Downtown for pleasantly challenging runs with some space to spread out and carve. Once acclimated, try the mountain’s Cat Skinner, Powder Keg or Miners Alley runs. All are black-diamond-rated, so make sure you’re paying attention.
This winter, Red River is reviving its old winter carnival event on the weekend of January 14. It features live music, snow sculpture contests and ski races in town and at the mountain. If winter solitude without the work is your thing, consider a two-hour snowmobile tour of the mountain ($70 for a single driver, $50 for a passenger).
Taos Ski Valley
Olympic skiers train here, and in the 2007-2008 ski season, Taos Ski Valley finally ended years of debate and allowed snowboarders access to the slopes (yes, there is a terrain park). It wasn’t easy, but then again, neither is the mountain: About 51 percent of the peak is rated for expert skiers, followed by 25 percent for intermediate skiers (for some folks, Taos’ “intermediate” runs would be considered black-diamond). This also accounts for why Taos has one of the best ski schools in the country.
The ski resort has a rich history of family ownership that dates back to 1954. Its skiable space covers 1,294 acres, and the highest lift tickles an altitude of 12,000 feet. Taos Ski Valley is famous for its steep runs, harrowing glades, narrow chutes and mogul fields, which are more conducive to group outings of experts. Resort operators have the ability to cover all of the beginner and intermediate runs with manmade snow.
Events include wine tastings, beer festivals, competitions and music festivals. Don’t miss the annual pond-skimming contest at the end of the ski season, in which participants ski or board across ice-cold pond water in the vain hope of making it to the other side. (Spoiler: They never do.)
From the main lift at the resort, head up Lift No. 1 to the junction of the Whitefeather (green) and Porcupine (blue) ski runs for a leisurely warm-up. Once you’ve got your ski legs, don’t dawdle by ogling the vertical ridges. Instead, hop over to Blitz and run the black-diamond shoot down into Lower Stauffenberg (blue) for a trip along the foot of these beautifully steep slopes.
This winter, adrenaline junkies can go Mach 2 with their hair on fire on Ernie’s, a new double-black diamond with a 1,400-foot-long vertical drop, varied pitches and no trees. Recently, the base area got a makeover to make it more accessible and offer better mountain views to watch the hotshots cruise to victory (or get ski patrolled out).
Tired of long waits for a whiff of northern Arizona snow? Then try these destinations. With pleasant or challenging skiing, quirky events and killer outdoor scenery, even the worst day on the mountain is just this close to heaven.
Angel Fire Resort
10 Miller Lane, Angel Fire,
Average annual snowfall: 210 inches
Ski season: Dec. 16-March 27
Lift tickets (half/full day): $48-$64 adults, $42-$54 teens, $36-$44 kids 7 to 12, $47 active duty military, free for kids 6 and under and seniors 70 and older, $24 for night skiing, $12 with day pass
Deals: $326 for two nights in the lodge and four one-day lift tickets
Red River Ski Area
400 Pioneer Road, Red River
Average annual snowfall: 218 inches
Ski season: Nov. 24-March 23
Lift tickets (half/full day): $49-$64 adults, $44-$58 teens, $36-$49 kids 4 to 12 and seniors 64 to 69
Deals: $35 lift tickets for college students with valid ID Jan. 1-15; half-price lift tickets on weekends in early December; 25 percent off lift tickets in January when skiing three days or more; discounts for families and military personnel
Ski Santa Fe
2209 Brothers Road, Santa Fe
Average annual snowfall: 225 inches
Ski season: Nov. 25-April 3
Lift tickets (half/full day): $48-$63 adults, $48 for teens, $43 kids 12 and under and seniors 62 to 71
Deals: Package-deal passes are available, with discounts greatest if purchased before Nov. 21.
Taos Ski Valley
State Highway 150 and Firehouse Road, Taos
Average annual snowfall: 305 inches
Ski season: Nov. 25-April 3
Lift tickets (half/full day): $60-$75 adults, $45-$65 teens, $35-$45 kids 7 to 12, $45-$65 seniors 65 to 69
Deals: Discounted lift tickets Nov. 24-Dec. 16 and March 26-April 8; buy a Taos Card ($20-$30) and receive $17 off a lift ticket during regular season, a seventh day of skiing for free and discounts on food, rentals and lessons.
Ski New Mexico: 505-858-2422, skinewmexico.com
New Mexico Tourism Department: 505-827-7400, newmexico.org
Santa Fe Convention & Visitors Bureau: santafe.org