Out West: Enchanted in New Mexico
A Weekend Ski Road Trip Through Santa Fe and Taos.
Ice Coast Magazine exists to celebrate Northeast skiing, but any serious effort to cover ski culture on this side of the continent must take into account the big mountains that lure devoted skiers and riders to their powdery heights each season. Out West is a series that will explore Western skiing from an East Coast pilgrim’s point-of-view. We’ll highlight our favorite mountains on the other side of the Mississippi, with a focus on suggested road trips, must-visit eateries and watering holes, and tips on finding and navigating the sorts of gnarly terrain we don’t often encounter in the East.
Santa Fe is an unlikely ski destination.
For most, the country’s oldest state capital conjures images of ancient pueblos, adobe homes, turquoise jewelry, and New Mexican food slathered in green chile. Mention the desert city to most East Coasters, and the idea of skiing there elicits raised eyebrows and questions like “It snows in New Mexico?”
Most skiers and riders have probably at least heard of Taos Ski Valley, which often makes the list of ski areas with the rowdiest expert terrain. But few outside of New Mexico are aware that ten ski areas call the state home – eight of them within a two-hour drive of Santa Fe. And with Taos now featured on both the Ikon and the Mountain Collective passes this season, it’s easier than ever for Easterners to venture southwest to the “Land of Enchantment” (a high bar for a state motto, yes, but New Mexico delivers).
Armed with our multi-mountain passes, I joined my friends Kyle and Julia for a quick weekend Santa Fe ski jaunt. Our plan: fly in late Friday night, hit Ski Santa Fe Saturday, then a short drive north to Taos on Sunday, before a red-eye flight back out of Albuquerque late Sunday night.
Ski Santa Fe is a local ski area practically unknown to non-locals, though it sits just fifteen miles northeast of downtown. On Saturday morning, in the midst of a persistent snowfall that would ultimately drop ten inches of fluffy, dry powder on the mountains, we made the journey up the twisty Route 475 to a ski area that ranks among the nation’s highest in elevation. The mountainscape that flanked the access road was a pastiche of light brown adobe and dark desert shrubs and cacti, all dressed in several inches of white snow that glowed in the dim morning light. It was a panorama that couldn’t have felt further away from home, where hardwoods, spruces, and firs are the backdrop to colonial and Victorian New England architecture.
The drive involved a seemingly infinite series of hairpin turns, and the lack of road salt treatments (can’t risk the salination of Southwest high desert watersheds) meant the entire 3,000-foot climb was a two-hands-on-the-wheel, white-knuckle adventure in winter driving. If we assigned trail ratings to access roads, this one would be a double black diamond.
It was slow going, but we arrived safely, booted up, and headed to Lift 1, a fixed-grip quad that accesses a myriad of beginner trails as well as the routes that lead to Ski Santa Fe’s three upper-mountain lifts. We skied down to Lift 3, another fixed-grip quad, which we rode to the 12,053-foot summit. Renowned for its summit vistas of the surrounding mountains and of the valley below, the peak was socked in today due to the storm, but we couldn’t complain as we made swooping turns through ankle-deep powder down Gay Way, a blue trail that descends along the alpine ridge above the tree line below.
Then it was over to Lift 7, another fixed-grip quad (sensing a pattern here?), that goes up the ski area’s highest peak at 12,075 feet. Kyle and I ventured into Sunset Glade, a steep and open glade that dropped through the massive trunks of a forest of towering spruce trees, where the snow had accumulated above our boots, making for some sweet powder turns through the dancing shadows of the canopy above. We reconvened with Julia a few hundred feet below and headed to the far-left side of the trail map where a trio of blue trails—Alpine, Lobo and Camp Robber—snake down a gentle slope, flanked on all sides by rolling, wide-open glades through shorter evergreens. We all agreed that they were among the best low-angle glades we’d ever skied. We took a few more laps through this area, weaving in and out of the trails and glades, and just enjoying the hell out of this corner of the mountain.
With each lap descending over 1,500 vertical feet, this “small” ski area felt anything but small, and when the powder (and elevation) had us feeling the burn, we headed down to the main base for lunch. We feasted, for shockingly reasonable lodge prices, on New Mexico staples like Frito pie and green chile stew—a pleasant departure from chicken fingers, burgers, and the other usual suspects.
After lunch, I met up with Stephen Trask, Ski Santa Fe’s Marketing Director, for a local’s tour of the mountain. I chased behind him as we fired down the steep bumps of Fall Line and through the dense trees in T-Bird Glade and Tequila Sunrise Glade, slashing through the still-mounting soft snow. I did my best to keep up, and followed Stephen back to the base of Chair 7, impressed by what this under-the-radar mountain had to offer.
“It’s not the steepest mountain, but we have lots of cliffs and chutes to satisfy experts,” Trask said on the lift between runs. I was more than satisfied, and after a few more runs with Julia and Kyle – including some surprise cliffs and a final run to the base through a labyrinth of beginner carnage (presumably Texans given the abundance of jeans) – we packed up and headed back down the winding access road into downtown Santa Fe to check out what Trask referred to as the “country’s largest après scene.”
Founded as the capital of a Spanish colony in 1610, Santa Fe wears every inch of its history on its sleeve. Even with over 200 restaurants and a variety of different shops, almost all of the architecture is imbued with the design of the pueblos of the region’s original natives, and we strolled downtown soaking in this uniquely American town. We started the evening at Gruet, a local winery with roots in Champagne who are renowned for, you guessed it, their sparkling wines. Then it was on to the Pink Adobe, where the local-cuisine theme continued with chile rellenos, enchiladas, and tamales, all smothered in New Mexico’s signature green and red hatch chiles (or “Christmas,” as it’s known locally).
All in all, it was an enchanted Santa Fe day, and after dinner we piled back into the car for the drive north on an eerily empty Route 68 toward Taos. The sand used by New Mexico’s D.O.T. to mitigate ice on the roads dyed the roads a creepy blood-red tinge, set afire by our headlights in the midst of the vast sea of dark desert.
After ninety minutes we arrived at our destination, The Hotel Luna Mystica; a cluster of 1950s trailers in the midst of the high desert plain west of Taos that have been converted into luxury hotel rooms. While a two-person trailer turned out to be a bit cramped for three people, we appreciated the hotel’s quirky charm (as well as its convenient location just next door to Taos Mesa Brewing, where we capped the evening with a few pints and some live rock music by a local indie band).
We awoke Sunday to a stunning, almost lunar vista. Chrome trailers in the foreground of a vast snow-covered desert landscape with towering silver mountains on the horizon. We drove towards the mountains, stopping en route at Abe’s Cocina in the postage-stamp town of Arroyo Seco for breakfast burritos, and headed up the canyon road to Taos Ski Valley. Tucked into a series of valleys flanked by glacial cirques and densely wooded, craggy peaks, the ski resort is hidden from sight until the moment you arrive. And when the resort finally does reveal itself, the first slope you see is the intimidating “Al’s Run,” one of the country’s most infamous bump runs—consider it the Southwest’s answer to Outer Limits at Killington. From the angle at which you approach the resort’s parking lot, Al’s Run appears impossibly steep – to the extent that you wonder how it even holds snow.
Fortunately for beginners and intermediates, a ride up Lift 5 (surprisingly, for a luxury resort, the only express chair) leads to a variety of green and blue trails that curve gently through the resort’s three valleys. The three of us opened the day with a lap down Porcupine, connecting to White Feather, which combined to form a wonderful warm-up lap with views of the canyon below. Afterwards, Kyle and I set out to explore the resort’s famous steeps, beginning with Al’s Run. While it certainly has its share of steep pitches, the plentiful and predictable soft snow made the trail much more fun than daunting. Compared to the often deep, rutted, at-times-crusty moguls of Outer Limits, it was a walk in the park.
The same can’t be said for the double-diamond trails found atop Taos’ famed “West Basin Ridge.” A short, but surprisingly challenging, hike from the top of Lift 2 (even a small hike is challenging for flatlanders at 12,000 feet) leads to a fork in the bootpacked road. Head left and you’ll find “Highline Ridge,” home to a series of steep, alpine chutes and bowls like Juarez and Niño’s Heroes. If you’re accustomed to very steep terrain and deep snow, these are more fun than challenging, with plenty of room for whatever sized turns you prefer and low consequences when the snow is deep. West Basin Ridge, however, is home to some of the tightest, steepest chutes I have ever encountered—all littered with blind turns and cliffs that range in size from “Hey that was kinda fun” to “Oh my god we’re going to die!”
And if you’re expecting detailed signage, forget it. The only sign placed by patrol on the entire face of the mountain said something to the tune of, “Warning: Cliffs and natural hazards EVERYWHERE. Please don’t get yourself killed.” Within the wide and vaguely defined spectrum of double black diamonds in this country, this is true expert terrain, with some of it even classifying as extreme.
We traversed cautiously down the ridgeline, browsing the different trail entrances, aiming to find something challenging and technical without committing to a death-defying line from a Candide Thovex edit. We ultimately chose Saint Bernard, a roughly 45-degree chute about ten feet wide that drops between a series of rock outcroppings and tall evergreens that gripped tenaciously to the precarious, seemingly-vertical slope beneath them. I hop-turned down the chute, developing a nice rhythm after the first few turns as my fear was progressively displaced by confidence. Kyle followed in suit, slashing tight turns that sent sluff crashing past me into the valley beneath us. It was the type of line that makes you feel accomplished, and also the type that earns you a beer, so we worked our way across the resort to reconvene with Julia for lunch.
On the far south end of the resort (left side of the map) we found The Bavarian, a traditionally-styled German beer hall famed as one of the top slopeside restaurants in North America. On the deck outside, Kyle and I enjoyed a round of traditional German lagers underneath the falling snow while we scanned the slopes waiting for Julia to arrive. Once she did, we grabbed a table inside where we were blown away by the aesthetic of the restaurant. From the roaring fire places, ale horns and fur mats to the delicious spaetzle, sausage, pretzels and goulash, The Bavarian is like someone broke off a piece of the Alps and tucked it into the mountains of northern New Mexico.
After lunch, we took a few more runs with Julia and explored the resort’s array of groomers and low-angle bump runs. Our favorites, such as Lower Stauffenberg and Firelefanz, were on the far right side of the map and accessed by Lift 8, which is also where we found the smallest crowds.
Once Julia called it a day, Kyle and I ventured into the the steep, open trees of Pollux and Castor, and then explored frontside steeps like Inferno and Rhoda’s. The off-piste trails were still a bit rocky, but anyone comfortable with such steep, technical trails is likely well acquainted with rocky terrain (especially given the shallower bases at home).
At the end of the day, we all met up at the Saint Bernard Hotel, another slopeside restaurant (and hotel) pulled straight from the Swiss Alps and plopped right above Taos’ main base area. We skipped the fondue and opted for boozy hot chocolates by the copper-domed fireplace, where we warmed our bones ahead of our journey back to the airport. During ski trips I typically spend as much time on the slopes as possible, but at Taos I found myself enjoying the slopeside amenities just as much—and that’s not a knock at all against the skiing.
Then it was back into our rental, and back on the road south to Albuquerque. After a farewell meal at Santa Fe’s James-Beard-Award-winning restaurant, Café Pasqual’s, where we indulged in expertly prepared local dishes like adobo-braised pork shoulder and green chile enchiladas, we returned to the airport for our red-eye flight back to New York. With the fabled steeps of Taos and the renowned cuisine of Santa Fe, our expectations for New Mexico were very high. Still, they were blown away by our actual experience. The skiing was world-class, the food was distinctive and delicious, and even our bizarre trailer park hotel added to what was a unique and memorable experience, in one of the country’s most surprising ski destinations.
It was all much more than we’d hoped for, and more than should have fit into one weekend.