The splendid, snow-covered Rocky Mountains stretch southward from Canada and taper off in northern New Mexico. There, a trio of winter resorts offers unsurpassed variety in terms of style, terrain and clientele. Alpine-accented Taos Ski Valley attracts snow connoisseurs from around the country, while down-home Red River Ski Area and Angel Fire see a more regional crowd.
The three are strung along an 83-mile scenic loop around Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest mountain. The Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway is a popular summer drive, and it is no less spectacular in winter. Combined lift passes for all three have been marketed in the past, but skiers and riders weren’t enthusiastic. Still, it is possible for anyone to combine a winter getaway to two or all three on their own.
TAOS SKI VALLEY
This vest-pocket resort tucked in among the soaring Sangre de Cristo Mountains is usually described as “iconic,” “legendary” or “epic.” When “Skimeister” Ernie Blake read about Aspen and the American West, he hightailed it from the Alps to the United States.
After World War II, he was hired to manage two ski areas, Santa Fe Ski Basin and a sister resort in Glenwood Springs, Colo. Flying his Cessna between them, he began searching for a place to develop his own ski mountain. And in 1951, he spotted a long-abandoned silver mining town named Twining at 9,200 feet above sea level in an all-but-inaccessible basin that appeared blanketed in powder. He moved his wife and three young children to a trailer and set out to create Taos Ski Valley. His family has just entered into an agreement to sell it to Louis Bacon, a noted conservationist and long-time Taos area landowner.
Unlike today’s super-planned resorts, Taos grew organically, lift by lift, trail by trail, lodge by lodge. It has an international reputation both for challenge on the hill and the quirky charm of the tiny village at the base. Taos rates 51 percent of its terrain as “expert level,” 25 percent “intermediate” and 24 percent “beginner.” That includes a barely tilted beginner slope that was added a few years ago, because Ernie’s original vision of beginner terrain would scare the ski pants off most newbies today.
Abundant terrain on another face of the mountain and not visible from the base accommodates novices and intermediates. Up high are some of the steepest chutes, bowls, glades and snowfields in the Rockies — some accessible by lift, others requiring hiking.
Taos is one of the country’s premier places to learn to ski or to learn to ski better. Its traditional and still enormously popular Ski Weeks attract both regulars and first-time guests for six days of instruction. Not only do Taos Ski Weeks buff up technique, they are known for the social aspect that comes when people spend a week together riding lifts, polishing their technique and sharing stories at lunch or après-ski and making friends for a lifetime — occasionally kindling romances between people who love the ski life.
Much as the mountain meets contemporary expectations, the Blake family always required that changes had to pass the “what would Ernie do” test. Taos was famously one of the last skier-only resorts in the country, but since the end of the 2007-08 season, has welcomed snowboarders when the family realized that Ernie would embrace a new form of sliding on snow. These two winter sports are compatible after all.
When Taos Ski Valley was developed, Alpine-style buildings dominated ski country. Now, on-mountain accommodations are a mix of ski-in, ski-out condominiums, small bed-and-breakfasts and a handful of classic luxury hotels. The artsy town of Taos 2,600 feet lower in elevation also offers additional lodging options, including B&Bs, economical motels and the landmark Taos Inn on the Spanish-style plaza.
The Moreno Valley is an awesome 15-mile long, three-mile-wide, high alpine valley surrounded by soaring mountains. On one edge is Angel Fire, a family-friendly resort that is easy on the eyes, easy on the wallet and offers a lot of easy terrain. Its two high-speed quad chairlifts are the only ones in New Mexico (in addition to three conventional-speed doubles and a couple of moving carpets for little ones), making it number one in the state in terms of lift modernity.
Angel Fire’s ski terrain is a bit like an iceberg. The “tip” is the smaller portion visible from the base area, while more — much more — is on a second mountain behind and offset from the first but connected by trails. The frontside provides newbies and families with gentle, west-facing slopes and the incredible views. In addition to trails for downhill skiing and snowboarding, Angel Fire boasts a lovely little mountaintop trail system laced among the trees for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Guests ride a chairlift to these trails.
Most of the steeper stuff ranging from intermediate to advance terrain is concentrated on the second mountain. This includes the awesome Liberation Freestyle Park with a galaxy of rails, tabletops, jumps and other terrain features. Two new trails utilize summer mountain biking trails. With lighting on the lower frontside, including a second terrain park called Powder City, Angel Fire remains New Mexico’s only resort that is lit for night skiing and riding. And yes, there’s a tubing hill for rollicking fun.
There certainly are bigger mountains than the Red River Ski Area and slicker resorts than the old mining town of Red River, but nowhere else will you find a place that offers such casual, down-home fun. Neither the ski area nor the people who slide down its sweet slopes take themselves too seriously.
The lifts and trails start where the sidewalks end, so most properties are within a short walk from the slopes. With its popularity with visitors from Texas, Oklahoma and other places far from snowy mountains, Red River’s ski and snowboard instructors are whizzes at getting newbies started right, and those who started there tend to return year after year.
These once-a-season folks appreciate trails that tend to be on the mild side, catering to true beginners, tentative novices, confident intermediates and soon-to-be advanced skiers and riders. With moderate prices, including a kids-free policy (except during the Christmas-New Year holidays) and a rollicking, country-style night scene, Red River makes for a fine getaway spot.