Hop in the car and hightail it to New Mexico – a world-class ski town is closer to the Valley than you think.
All of New Mexico seems to have that small-town, everyone-knows-everyone feel – and if you don’t believe it, there goes perhaps the most famous New Mexican of them all, former governor and presidential candidate Gary Johnson, executing impeccable two-plank downhill form on a nearby slope.
“Oh, sure, you see him here all the time during ski season,” my guide tells me from a restaurant deck overlooking the main chairlifts at Taos Ski Valley, an intoxicatingly tucked-away resort village in New Mexico’s spectacular Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Evidently, the Libertarian’s futile 2016 campaign for the land’s highest office didn’t sour him on a good race, because the man is flying.
It’s my first ski trip to Taos, and with it comes a tingle of discovery – that heady electrical charge of finding and enjoying something cool that you were more or less clueless about beforehand. So begins my new friendship with this insular, offbeat place, hand-built by a German-Swiss war refugee, enhanced by a billionaire conservationist and, by the way, the highest-elevation municipality in the U.S. at 9,207 feet – an unlikely alpine contraption of just 69 year-round souls.
It’s also surprisingly accessible for Arizonans. The resort is just an 80-minute flight from the Valley, followed by a shuttle ride from nearby Santa Fe, or an eight-hour drive door-to-door, which is about twice the time it takes to get to Sunrise Park Resort in Arizona’s White Mountains.
Twice as far, but at least twice the experience, my inner Arizonan is almost sorry to admit.
My travel companion – namely, my 5-year-old son – and I opt for the eight-hour drive option, and roll into the resort mid-evening for a quickie one-day, two-night stay. Located 70 miles north of Santa Fe on the southernmost tail of the Rocky Mountains, Taos Ski Valley should not be confused with Taos proper, the funky Southwestern art colony and historical pueblo at the foot of the mountain, where many of the ski resort’s seasonal workers live.
The boy and I check into The Blake (116 Sutton Pl., 888-569-1756, skitaos.com/lodging/blake), a new, elaborately eco-friendly, 80-room boutique hotel with ski-in/ski-out accessibility to the slopes. It also represents the crown jewel in a $300 million series of improvements undertaken by New York hedge fund king Louis Bacon, who purchased the resort from the heirs of resort founder Ernie Blake in 2013.
The impressive menagerie of alpine artifacts, vintage photographs and original art pieces that fill the hotel’s Arts and Crafts-inspired hallways help tell the story of the resort, which the indefatigable Blake – an émigré who worked for U.S. intelligence during World War II, interrogating Nazi POWs – started as a one-slope, J-lift operation out of an 11-foot camper in 1955. The resort – and, indeed, the town – continued to grow in that fashion, a building here, a new lift there, for six fitful decades until the ownership change.
It’s certainly one of the most compelling ski-resort backstories I’ve heard, and puts me squarely in the mood for some downhill cruising in the morning. But, first, gotta lose the 5-year-old.
Nothing melts a parent’s heart quite like the sight of a bundled-up munchkin in winter – all scarf and down outerwear, ready to attack the slopes. After breakfast at 192 at The Blake – the hotel’s gastropub-like on-site restaurant – we collect our ski rentals and head down to the Taos Ski Valley Children’s Center, an impressive, state-of-the-art instructional campus that represents the resort’s other signature improvement. Lessons for children 3 years and up are available in half- and full-day blocks ($150/$185) or for a full week ($960).
It’s essentially day care, of course, but the best kind of day care – the kind that teaches your kid something useful. I watch my boy step into his bindings for his tentative gliding wedge and take my leave.
One of the selling points of the 1,200-acre ski facility – besides its 300 days a year of sunshine, which sounds counterproductive to its mission, but whatever – are its high percentage of expert runs: around 50 percent, they say. That’s great for all you black diamond junkies, but it’s not my jam. I like to ingest my mogul-less, blue- and green-rated slopes in long, slow, sweeping arcs, thank you very much, and TSV has plenty of those, too – including Honeysuckle, a languorous mile-long run from the top of Lift 2 that deposits you at the doorstep of the functionally named The Bavarian Restaurant on the resort’s remote east side, at the base of its highest mountain, Kachina Peak (12,481 feet).
Shameful confession time: On ski trips, I like to put in maybe three hours of actual skiing, then hit the lodge and soothe my aching muscles with adult beverages of some breed, then maybe another run or two, and that’s it. It’s why I never made the Olympics, and also why The Bavarian is so right for me, with its wide, bright, sunbaked deck, and large steins of mid-palate German pilsners. The name makes it sound like an afterthought hot dog eatery, but the high-calorie Teutonic menu includes such surprisingly nuanced classics as spätzle in cream sauce with a chorus of perfect, snap-skin Bavarian sausages, and grilled sea bass over truffled potatoes with daikon. It’s one of the three best ski-slope restaurants I’ve been to – which sounds offhanded but isn’t. The place is legitimately great, and is also a working B&B, with a handful of lettable rooms upstairs. Next time.
“If you like crowds, don’t come to Taos,” someone tells me is a saw around here, alluding to the resort’s lightly trafficked slopes – it averaged around 250,000 annual “skier days” compared to around 2 million for the big Colorado resorts.
After a couple more semi-private runs, I pop into a fascinating lumber relic called the Hotel St. Bernard (112 Sutton Pl., 575-776-2251, stbernardtaos.com), a ski-in pensione and dining hall at the bottom of the main lift that looks like it was transported here from a Ricola commercial – all dirndl paintings and candle arches. It was founded five decades ago by a Swiss fellow named Jean Meyer, but the dominant presence in the hotel on this day is a septuagenarian Taos fixture named Max Killinger, who once ran the ski school and became the de facto patriarch of the resort after Blake’s passing in 1989.
Killinger pours something strong and clear from a dusty bottle he keeps in the dining hall, and who am I to demur? “European charm in the Southwest,” I believe is one of the TSV taglines. Prost.
As late afternoon comes, I glide down to the ski school and watch my little guy execute a pretty solid snowplow stop, then clomp over to the wee conveyor belt lift for his last run. “They don’t call it snowplow, Daddy – it’s pizza or french fries,” he tells me, elaborating by making the appropriate shapes with his skis. I admit inwardly that “pizza” is a far better mnemonic than “snowplow” for a 5-year-old. The industry has come a long way since I was a lad.
We stow the skis and hop in the gondola for the ride back to the hotel, and enjoy the first eerie suggestion of the evening’s “alpenglow” – a penumbra of reddish light that outlines the mountains in this region just before sunrise or after sunset, and likely gave them the name Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”).
An Arizonan knows a good sunset when he sees it. The skiing, we can always use help with.
Flying to Taos
American Airlines runs daily nonstops to Santa Fe ($165+ roundtrip) and Taos Ski Valley runs shuttles to the resort from the airport ($110 roundtrip). Visit skitaos.com/discover-taos/getting-here for more info.
Spring in Taos
Can’t make it this winter? Come spring, look for the “Alpine mat”: a natural quilt of brilliantly colored flowers, like stonecup and forget-me-nots, sustained by the 13,000-foot elevation at nearby Wheeler Peak.
3 Things to Do in Taos Pueblo
No trip to Taos would be complete without… a trip to Taos? Here’s a trio of things to do in the resort’s parent town.
La Cueva Café
For a delicious blast of chile-centric New Mexico cooking, be sure to hit this beloved micro-diner in downtown Taos, where mole enchiladas and rellenos rule. One caveat: no liquor license.
135 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, 575-758-7001, lacuevacafe.com
Historic Taos Inn
Funky and fantastic, this art-driven flop offers a bit of history to go with its acclaimed on-site restaurant, Doc Martin’s, and convenient location downtown.
125 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 844-276-8598, taosinn.com
Find high-end folk art, furnishings and gifts at this downtown curio shop, including a large selection of Día de Los Muertos items.
107 Bent St., 575-758-3377