Las Cruces may not be a skiing mecca, but the slopes of the nation’s southernmost mountain nearing 12,000 feet in elevation — Sierra Blanca Peak near Ruidoso — lie just over two hours away, where the excellent Ski Apache resort awaits.
And, with a few days available, the ski areas of Central and Northern New Mexico also become doable drive destinations for those seeking to quench their on-snow thirsts.
However, this is no ordinary ski season, with COVID-19 scrambling the scene. Most ski areas will operate on an advance-ticket purchase basis, and will have other restrictions and policies in place, so be sure to review conditions and requirements before heading to the slopes.
One of only a few ski areas in the nation owned and operated by an Indian tribe, this area offers some surprisingly good skiing and snowboarding in an average year and excellent possibilities in a wet winter. It is home to the state’s only gondola lift, which provides quick and weatherproof access to the summit, plus a handful of chairlifts to ensure short or no lift lines.
This ski area, which seems an impossibility amidst the Chihuahuan Desert of South-Central New Mexico, was launched in 1961 as Sierra Blanca Ski Resort by oil magnate Robert O. Anderson and general manager Kingsbury Pitcher. In 1962 the state’s first, and only, gondola was added to the area’s original three Poma lifts, attracting a phenomenal 25,000 skiers in its second year of operations. In 1963, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, whose original homelands encompassed the region, bought the operation, becoming the nation’s first tribe to own a ski area. In 1984 the area’s name was changed to Ski Apache.
The distinctive Modernistic-style main lodge was designed by the award-winning architect Victor Lundy, with its soaring wooden columns echoing the surrounding tall pines.
On a good year from its high point, you can stand on top of five feet or more of snow and look west and down some 7,000 feet to sparkling White Sands National Park, where horny toads dart about yucca and cactus. The greatest vertical displacement in the state offers magnificent views of mountain ranges marching south toward Mexico, and eastward onto the Great Plains.
In the summer of 2012, a massive fire roared through the ski area, destroying its original gondola and two other chairs (all since replaced), plus killing large tracts of pines. The ski area is slowly clearing the dead and down wood, which will eventually open up significant new skiing terrain.
The area has a preponderance of beginner and intermediate runs, but also abundant terrain for expert skiers, and even some excellent tree skiing when conditions allow.
With no development in the base area, other than a basic lodge with a cafeteria and bar, all visitors stay, dine, and pursue other activities in the town of Ruidoso, which has a huge number of lodging options, restaurants, small shops, and other amenities.
The other close ski area to Las Cruces is the tiny but fun Ski Cloudcroft, located two miles from the town of Cloudcroft. It has just a 700-foot vertical drop and often suffers from little to no snow. But in a good winter, it is a great place for beginner and intermediate skiers, and those looking just to play in the snow on its inner tubing hill, which has a snowmaking system. The tiny area offers rentals, a day lodge, and three lifts. Details: skicloudcroft.net, Facebook, or 575-682-2333.
The next closest ski area to Southern New Mexico is Sandia Peak, just east of Albuquerque. Reached via the spectacular Sandia Peak Tramway or by car, it is a great quick escape from city life, with a substantial vertical drop, a nice mix of terrain, and a top-notch restaurant and lounge named Ten 3 at the summit. Details: sandiapeak.com.
Ski Santa Fe
Some 15 miles from the Santa Fe Plaza, and 3,500 feet higher, sits Ski Santa Fe, a remarkably good ski area largely overlooked by national media and patrons. But that’s fine with locals, who love its normally excellent snow, ensured by its summit elevation of 12,075 feet, and its fine mix of slopes ranging from wide cruisers and challenging mogul runs to the state’s best tree and glade skiing. Its outdoor decks will serve hot food and drink this winter, and its ski school will hold students to groups of four, providing excellent personal instruction. A bonus here is getting to enjoy the amenities of the town of Santa Fe, appealing to skiers and non-skiers. Details: skisantafe.com. Los Alamos is home to old-school Pajarito Mountain. A great choice during peak holiday periods, or for powder hunting after its weekly multiday closures, Pajarito consists mostly of beginner and intermediate terrain. But it also boasts some of the state’s toughest bump runs — its so-called “Fab Five” of Nuther, Mother, Sidewinder, Breathless, and Precious. Details: skipajarito.com.
Moving north, one next encounters Sipapu, the area that outperforms its diminutive size. It is popular with families due to its low prices, especially its combined stay and ski packages, easy-going vibe, preponderance of beginner and intermediate slopes, and good terrain park. But in a good winter it also has some thrilling, if shortish, tree skiing patches and steep pitches for experts. Details: sipapunm.com.
Taos Ski Valley
Lying far to the north is the gem of New Mexico skiing and snowboarding, world-class Taos Ski Valley (TSV). While renowned for its steeps — indeed, over half its terrain is ranked expert and beyond — its large size also includes a terrific assortment of intermediate and beginner runs. Its lung-burning Kachina Peak Chair, for experts only, tops out at 12,450 feet! Adjoining the state’s highest summit, Wheeler Peak, TSV provides jaw-dropping vistas of snow-clad peaks and distant ranges and basins. Founded by Europeans, it also has a special character and vibe, with visitors and staff from all over the world coming back year after year. Details: skitaos.com.
Angel Fire Resort
Near Taos is Angel Fire Resort, with an abundance of finely groomed and long, easy-going intermediate and beginner runs. It’s also home to the state’s best terrain parks and only night-skiing (and tubing) operation. Details: skiangelfire.com. Perched just below the Colorado border is Red River, one of the most economical choices for a family outing. With lifts departing right from town, it’s also walkable; you can park the car and forget that base area hassle. Its runs cater to beginners and intermediates, though it does have pockets for the experts and a good terrain park.
So, is it time for a road trip?
Written by Daniel Gibson • Photos courtesy
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2021
Posted by LasCruces.com