MY DAUGHTER, WILLA, STANDS ON her tippy-toes, looking west from The Lodge at Cloudcroft’s copper-topped tower. From this 9,000-foot perch, light from the setting sun gets caught in dust over White Sands National Park, creating an orange glow in the Tularosa Basin below. But like most preschoolers, she’s more interested in reclimbing the narrow staircase.
As Willa scampers to the lounge, I read the names carved into the tower’s 112-year-old wood, including the signatures of Judy Garland and Clark Gable protected in a simple glass frame. Hollywood figures have enjoyed this view since the 1930s, when hotel mogul Conrad Hilton managed the property. But The Lodge at Cloudcroft seems just as well suited for families of more ordinary stock.
We rolled into town this morning, dirty from a night of camping off Bailey Canyon Road, about three miles from town in the Lincoln National Forest, and yet the resort staff asked no questions about Willa’s muddy shoes, the Frisbee her dad tossed to her on the back lawn while I checked in, or my campfire-scented hoodie. Hours later and still not clean, we requested access to the historic tower and received the key with no strings—only an old brass doorknob—attached.
“Families come here to get cool and not do anything—not be on your phone, not be entertained,” says Matt Willett, who owns High Altitude outdoor shop and has kids of his own.
From up here, we can look southeast into the Sacramento Mountains or gaze down on the grid of narrow streets lined with cabins passed down through primarily Texan families over generations. Without a place of our own, our favorite one to visit sits at Fox and Wren streets, sheltered from view by a tangle of trellises and a patchwork of plants. Known as Shady Pines, the lot plays host to chamber music performances benefiting Cloudcroft Municipal Schools’ music programs as well as concerts by touring bands. Plus, on certain days of the year, Shady Pines opens to the public for garden strolls. Willa loves picking mint and meeting the resident fairies in this dreamland.
Downstairs, I pause at a historic photo of The Lodge, which the Alamogordo Improvement Company built in 1911 after Cloudcroft’s original log lodge burned down two years prior. While a renovation that began in 2021 enlarged and updated the rooms, a replacement of its copper roof this past summer makes the place shine on the outside, too.
The Lodge golf-course staff doubles as construction workers in the offseason, and they have given the now-larger north-wing rooms new fixtures, remodeled bathrooms, and dark wood furniture that matches the hallway wainscoting. Rebecca’s restaurant and the St. Andrew’s Bar also received more indoor space for guests but retained near floor-to-ceiling windows and some patio space. Next on the to-do list: turning a second-floor mezzanine into a reading nook and remodeling the second guest quarters legendarily haunted by the ghost of Rebecca, a housekeeper who met a violent fate in one of the rooms when her lover allegedly discovered her with another man.
With the updated surroundings, new general manager Scott Duplechain has elevated service standards to meet resort-guest expectations, too. He points out the bar that once belonged to Al Capone and alludes to Prohibition-era activities rumored to have occurred in the basement’s Trestle Room. He describes the balancing act of preserving The Lodge’s sentimental and historic value while bringing the main lodge, retreat house, pavilion, and the state’s first golf course into the current century. “I’m reluctant to update the honeymoon suite,” he says, “because 40- and 50-year wedding-anniversary stays are common.”
CLOUDCROFT LEANS INTO ITS QUAINT LODGING history and embraces its less than two square miles of humble family cabins surrounded by mixed conifer forest. The village’s fourth- and fifth-generation locals are working toward Cloudcroft’s family-friendly future with a calendar of events and a new designation as the Christmas Capital of New Mexico. The Old West meets shabby chic in Cloudcroft’s main shopping and business district centered around Burro Avenue. Plus, with an ever-growing trail system and an affordable ski area, Cloudcroft is coming into its own as an outdoors hub.
The nomadic Mescalero Apache people inhabited this alpine locale for hundreds of years before white settlers arrived in the Sacramento Mountains. Located in the heart of their historic homeland, the 463,000-acre reservation was established in 1873 by executive order of President Ulysses S. Grant.
“My mom’s family came here on wagons,” says Cressie Brown’s seven-year-old son during our visit to her Burro Avenue market and gift shop. In 1884, Brown’s ancestors homesteaded in Mayhill, 17 miles east of what is now Cloudcroft. When the matriarch’s spouse died, she stayed put, as did her seven children and their descendants, including Brown, who has owned and operated Mountain Magic for 20 years.
It’s a common story. Even residents not born and raised in the Sacramento Mountains might have grown up making family trips from West Texas to the cooler clime.
When El Paso became a transportation hub in the late 1800s, the construction of new rail lines sparked demand for area timber, which necessitated yet another railroad—and more lumber and railroad ties—to bring to market. By 1900, a railroad connected El Paso to Cloudcroft, which was already recognized as an appealing vacation destination. In keeping with the day’s resort tradition, the railroad ran excursion trains every weekend and built a pavilion to accommodate summer visitors, who tended to be wealthy El Paso women and children. As the oldest building still standing in the village, The Lodge at Cloudcroft’s Pavilion has served as a group retreat since 1899.
At the Sacramento Mountains Historical Museum and Pioneer Village, I learned that Cloudcroft was recognized early on as a healthy climate for our youngest citizens. The Cloudcroft Baby Sanatorium operated between 1911 and 1934, treating children who suffered from heatstroke and dehydration in the days before air conditioning and food refrigeration. The original patient log, on display at the museum, proved a resource when the village organized a reunion in 1999.
While the medical facility no longer stands, the museum maintains salvaged cottages, a one-room schoolhouse, and a fully functional blacksmith shop on its two-and-a-half acres. I notice a 1972 Southern Pacific caboose parked in front of the original Mountain Park train depot and, laying in a field, a tire and pulley that once comprised Cloudcroft’s first ski lift. Back when this homemade tow rope was in use, villagers skied at Chautauqua Canyon instead of Pumphouse Canyon, where New Mexico’s southernmost New Mexican tubing and ski hill operates today.
Willa hasn’t tried skiing yet but plans to when she’s five. Cloud Nine Ski School director Rick Bonnell, who hit the slopes at Ski Cloudcroft on opening day in 1963, gave us an overview last winter of his teaching techniques and equipment, like the carpeted indoor ramp that introduces newbies to the sport.
“Most of our visitors are families and have never seen snow,” says Michael Adams, co-owner of the ski area. “Ski Cloudcroft is still one of the cheapest places to learn to ski.” A $97 package includes your lift ticket, equipment, and two-hours of instruction.
One double chairlift, a handheld tow, and a conveyor lift provide speedy trips up the mountain, which rarely sees crowds. “February is usually the best month,” Adams says. “You can ski more vertical feet in a day here than in Ruidoso.”
Ski Cloudcroft supplements its natural snowfall with blown snow and added the state’s longest summer tubing hill for warmer months and years. Considering the 42-inch height requirement for summer tubers, Willa needs another year to grow before experiencing the 460 feet of downhill thrills.
Instead, we coaxed her along the 2.2-mile Osha Trail, thankful to the New Mexico Rails-to-Trails Association for building in milestones. After just a quarter mile, Willa had a snack on a bench overlooking the Mexican Canyon Trestle—the curving six-story-tall structure that once supported the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railway tracks. A half mile in, at an intersection with the Pines Trail looping back toward town, we distracted ourselves in forts made of ponderosa poles leaning against standing trees. Ducking into one, I caught my ponytail in bark, but Willa walked tall around the central tree, leaving before I even untangled myself. At the next fort, two kids chased each other out and made way for Willa, who rushed in more swiftly than she’d moved on the trail.
The promise of a close-up view of the trestles might better motivate Willa—or any small child—to hike. The Cloud-Climbing Trestle Trail gets hikers to the trestles in less than one mile, so I noted that option for next time. New Mexico Rails-to-Trails Association’s new connector trails bridge gaps in Cloudcroft’s network of hiking, biking, and equestrian pathways, so from the Trestle Recreation Area on the village edge, a visitor could complete a loop as long as eight miles.
“Almost every trail up here is a multiuse trail, and everything is based around old railroad beds,” says High Altitude owner Willett, a New Mexico Rails-to-Trails Association board member. “If you live anywhere around here, it’s all desert, so people jump at the opportunity to run at high altitude and ride in the shade.”
WE SEND MY HUSBAND, BRENT, TO STAND IN THE famously long line at Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue. Over on Burro Avenue, Willa fills a drawstring bag with polished rocks at Burro St. Trading Post, licks her lips at the frosted treats on display at Eight the Cake, and plucks tiny bites from every sample bowl at Noisy Water Winery. Together, we lunch on smoked turkey, ribs, and sour-cream potato salad on the Otero County Electric Cooperative’s public patio. At Cloudcroft Brewing afterward, even Willa downs a small batch brew—a cup of root beer made on-site.
Cloudcroft also serves up unmatched Christmas cheer, even declaring itself the Christmas Capital of New Mexico. “I was continually hearing people say, ‘Every day feels like a holiday in Cloudcroft,’ ” says Chamber of Commerce President Karen Sonnenfelt. “When you add in the scenic beauty and that down-home vintage feeling, it all made sense.”
Sonnenfelt mentions that Santa and Mrs. Claus, under the pseudonyms Karl and Laura Campbell, even take a break from the North Pole for a retreat at The Cabins at Cloudcroft in the offseason and appear each winter to grant young guests’ Christmas wishes.
Filled with the holiday spirit, I suggested we look for them. Scanning the porches of each knotty pine guest cabin for a red-clad couple, Willa clutched the catalog featuring the unicorn-printed coat of her dreams.
Finally, Santa’s unmistakable white beard showed from the open door of Cabin 1. Then Mrs. Claus, leading with a plate of cookies, emerged from the rustic abode. Willa tried wrapping herself around my leg, unsure, but eventually accepted a cookie and the gift of a snuggly reindeer.
Santa teared up sharing stories of children whose gratitude and belief overwhelmed him. He promised to be back in the Land of Enchantment for Cloudcroft’s Christmas Parade. Mrs. Claus revealed the jolly old elf’s plans to stop by Santaland and perhaps the Vintage Christmas Village, too.
“We’re here all the time,” says Laura, who makes sure the cabin guests have complimentary wood for their first fire, cookies, and coffee. “If we’re not, we’ll leave a note saying where we went.”
After all the excitement, we returned to The Lodge, where my daughter finally experienced the Governor’s Suite’s deep Roman tub. Then I read her bedtime stories and sent my husband to The Lodge’s St. Andrew’s Bar, where he chatted with the hotel manager, who was doubling as a mixologist. He returned with a whiskey cocktail for each of us, and with Willa asleep, we relaxed in front of the dormant fireplace. Taking my first sip, I imagined the flicker of a wood-burning flame and made my first holiday wish: a winter trip to Cloudcroft.
As a child, Jennifer C. Olson ice-skated for the first time in Cloudcroft. She looks forward to lacing up figure skates in New Mexico’s Christmas Capital again—this time with her hockey-playing husband and, of course, Willa.
ON CLOUD NINE
Elevate your visit with these great stops.
Eat. Pair a latte from the Black Bear Coffee Shop with a breakfast burrito or slice of pie from Burro Street Bakery. Visit Cloudcroft Brewing for the wood-fired pizza; stay for the live music. For the record, Ski Cloudcroft is home to Cloudcroft’s original wood-fired pizza. Get lunch from Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue. Spend happy hour with a charcuterie board at Noisy Water Winery. Dress up for dinner at Rebecca’s at The Lodge at Cloudcroft. Hit the town of High Rolls, just a few miles down the road, in harvest season, and buy fruit at Cadwallader Mountain Farms’s self-serve roadside stand or indulge in pie and fudge at the Old Apple Barn.
Stay. While The Lodge at Cloudcroft offers a resort experience and venue space, The Cabins at Cloudcroft provide privacy and full kitchens. The Grand Cloudcroft Hotel opened on James Canyon Highway this fall. With heavy timber accents and a two-story stone chimney rising from its lobby, the hotel’s live-edge juniper reception desk and breakfast bar look suspiciously similar to Cloudcroft Brewing’s bar. Jim Maynard, an owner of both, built each himself, while his daughter designed the buildings and his son-in-law built them.
Play. Go snow tubing and downhill skiing at Ski Cloudcroft. Skate at the James Sewell Ice Rink in Zenith Park, which also boasts a playground, nine-basket disc golf course, new dog park, and pavilion, where Cloudcroft Light Opera Company puts on melodramas quarterly. Connect with the village’s past on the two Cloudcroft Walking Tours of historic sites. Drive to Sunspot Solar Observatory, where the visitor center museum is open every day. After your tee time at The Lodge Golf Course, play 18 holes on the top-rated Cloudcroft Community Mountain Disc Golf Course.
Shop. Let the rustic displays in Burro Avenue storefronts draw you in. Mountain Magic curates a selection of gifts and antiques, while The Elk Shed offers handcrafted accessories and local art. Get the skinny on fat-tire fun at High Altitude, which offers mountain-bike rentals and a shuttle service.
Holiday. The Christmas Market is held November 24–25 in the school gym with Santaland taking over the pavilion in Zenith Park on both November 25 and December 16. The Community Tree Lighting starts at 5 p.m. on December 2, while the Christmas Parade is on December 9. That evening, the Burro Avenue stores stay open late and serve treats along the boardwalk. The Vintage Christmas Village opens December 9 and 16 at the Sacramento Mountains Historical Museum and Pioneer Village.
Mark your calendar. Annual events include May Fair, May 25–26; Beerfest, June 22–23; July Jamboree, July 13–14; Art & Wine in the Tall Pines, August 2–4; Lumberjack Day, September 21; and Oktoberfest, October 4–5.