Wednesday, April 2, 2014

New Mexico Ski Areas -- Change of plans

New Mexico has brought me several surprises, both good and bad, forcing me to change my travel plans.

The first pleasant surprise came when I first arrived in New Mexico, driving down from Colorado toward the town of Questa, driving on Colorado highway 159, which turns into New Mexico highway 522. At Rio Costilla Park, right next to the junction with highway 196, there was a large sign that said something about ski areas.  My car went by too fast, so I made a U-turn and came back. 

The sign lists most of the ski areas in New Mexico. Not all of them, just the closest ones.  "Pajarito", "Sandia",  and "Ski Apache" are not listed.   Still, how cute!  And how welcoming to skiers!   I have not seen such a sign on any of the other State borders I have crossed. 

My main purpose in visiting New Mexico this time was to ski at Angel Fire, which is one of the 12 Powder Alliance resorts.  Unfortunately, the motel manager in the town of Questa, where I spent the night, told me that Angel Fire and Red River have both closed for the season just the previous weekend.. Bummer!  I had checked the snow conditions before starting the trip, and seeing that there was enough snow, I just assumed that the ski areas would remain open. 

But, now I had to re-evaluate the whole situation.  I found out that the Arizona Snowbowl (my next destination) was also closed. All closed the previous weekend, around March 23.

Now that I have driven all the way to New Mexico, it seems a pity to just go home with nothing, so I checked and found out that several other ski areas are still open, so I made a change of plans.

The Sipapu ski area, just about 20 miles from Taos, boasts the longest winter season in New Mexico, but they are now open only on weekends, and it is only Monday night as I am making these plans.  I can't stick around New Mexico that long.  So, instead, I made the following plan: 

Tuesday (April 1) -- Ski Taos, N.M.
Wednesday (April 2) -- Ski the Santa Fe ski area
Thuirsday (April 3) -- Ski Apache  (near the town of Ruidoso)
Friday (april 4) -- Ski Sunrise Park (Arizona)
Saturday (April 5) - Ski China Peak (near Fresno, CA)
Sunday (April 6) -- Drive back home. .  

Yes, I know.  It's a disaster.  I don't get to ski Angel Fire (NM), or the Ariizona Snowbowl (AZ), or the Mountain High ski area (CA), because they are all closed.   I also decided to skip Sierra-at-Tahoe, mainly because I have already skied there several times before, and also because I can already see that I will be very tired by the end of the week. 

But, on the other hand, the adventure gets more interesting with the addition of new ski areas such as Santa Fe, Ski Apache, and Sunrise Park

I am writing this on Tuesday evening.  As it turns out, I didn't ski Taos. I made a decisio9n to skip it for a number of reasons: 

a) I was simply too tired to get up early.  I just had to sleep in a bit.
b) I had skied at Taos before, so there was no urgency to revisit it. 
c) I wanted to at least take a look at Red River and Angel Fire ski areas, both of which were on a road circling the mountains on the opposite side of Taos.

Red River and Angel Fire are both all-season resorts, but I arrived during the brief change-over from Winter to Summer mode.  The skiers are all gone, but the mountain bikers, the hikers, andr the fishermen have not arrived yet. 

Red River town and ski area came up very quickly after I left Questa.  The short ride was beautiful.  The road followed a river, appropriately named Red River, and the trees along its banks were spaced so wonderfully apart that it looked just like a park.  There were several campgrounds along the river.  A sign posted along the road said that this is one of the most beautiful areas of New Mexico, and I agree. 

Red River ski area was perfectly visible from the road.  It offers some surprisingly steep terrain, 1,600 vertical feet, 51 trails, 30% of them advanced, and served by 2 double chairs and 3 triple chairs.  

The slopes I saw from below, seemed to have enough snow to ski, but I guess they just didn't have enough guests to keep the lifts running.   The town itself has a definte Bavarian theme (just like Leavenworth, WA).  Many of the restaurants and shops have German names.  For example, I stopped at a market to get some food and drinks, and the place was called the "Markt" (German word for "Market").

At the bottom of one of the ski trails, there is an old Tucker sno-cat machine, which was apparently made in Oregon, maybe in Medford (though the letter "M" is missing). 

  Angel Fire is about 30 miles south of Red River.  It is also a resort town, but it feels very different.  It's not Bavarian, and it's not enclosed in a narrow canyon.  The town of Angel Fire is sprawling in an open plane, at the end of which rises the mountain with the ski area. 
From a distance, Angel Fire ski trails seemed mellow.  From close up, I was impressed by how very long their main chairlift is.  That lift takes you to the top of the mountain, from where you have a cluster of black diamond trails then followed by blue trails that take you all the way to the bottom. 

There is one more lift somewhere at the far end of the mountain, out of sight.  On top of that, there are a couple of shorter lifts serving beginner and lower intermediate terrain near  the base area. 

The big white slope that is most visible from the base area seems fairly sizable, but it turns out that this is only a very small corner of the ski area.  Most of the other trails are somewhat narrower but very long. The wide patch of white at the base was now showing some brown sports and the snow had melted from some parts of it.  But, according to a local I chatted up there, all this melting has happened within the last week.  He said: "What a difference from March 23, which was our last day of operations!"

The one thing I didn't like about Angel Fire is the same thing I don't like about many other ski areas as well.  They make you climb uphill a long ways carrying skis, breaking up a sweat before you even begin skiing.  The parking lots are on a gently sloping terrain.  The later you arrive, the longer uphill trek you will have.  And when you have finally walked uphill  the length of the whole parking lot, the terrain then gets steeper and you are faced with a wall of base area buildings towering above you.  You have to negotiate a relatively narrow path between them still going uphill, and then followed by several sets of stairs. 

Obviously, many others are displeased by this long climb, and parents with kids would love to be able to shuttle the kids up to an unloading area next to the last set of stairs.  But, no, Angel Fire doesn't permit dropping people off.  There is a sign on the approach road that says so. I am not sure why they don't allow this.  There seems to be plenty of space for cars to quickly unload their passengers and then turn around and drive back to the parking lot. Everyone has to endure the uphill trek and the stairs.The ones in the picture are just the last in a series of stairs.

But, overall, for my taste, both Red River and Angel Fire look like fun places to ski.  I would have loved to have skied them both. 

If you come to New Mexico, I would recommend that you spend a week and do the whole circular tour, starting with Santa Fe, Sipapu, Taos, Red River, and Angel Fire.  After skiing at Angel Fire, you can complete the circle by driving back to the town of Santa Fe. Just make sure you do it before the middle of March.

As for me, I am off to ski at Santa Fe tomorrow, and then Ski Apache the next day.  Ski Apache is farther south, near the town of Ruidoso, and it is not part of the above mentioned circle of ski areas. 

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