The aspirations of New Mexico’s summit-seeking skiers and the good graces of the Sangre de Cristos’ snow gods have never been more in sync. A new chairlift to the top of one of skiing’s most iconic peaks—combined with a veritable frozen fire hose of a snow forecast for the Southwest—have placed Taos Ski Valley smack in the national ski spotlight.
Brand-new for the 2014–2015 season, the Kachina Peak Lift will summit at 12,450 feet, making it one of the highest chairlifts in North America and increasing Taos Mountain’s renowned advanced and expert lift-served terrain by 50 percent. That the chair is debuting during an El Niño year, when copious amounts of snow typically blast New Mexico, had many skiers predicting that this will be an epic winter.
“I can’t think of anything closer to heaven than having the stars align like that,” said George Brooks, executive director of Ski New Mexico, which promotes skiing and snowboarding at the Land of Enchantment’s wildly diverse offering of ski areas and resorts. “The new Kachina Chair is going to open up a ton of terrain for a lot of people, providing access to some legendary skiing that for decades you could only reach after a long hike.”
Kachina Peak is one of the crown jewels among North American ski summits. But until this season, the only way to reach it was via a difficult, sweaty, 45-minute bootpack. The new three-person chair will lift riders 1,100 feet in just five minutes and will give Taos a thigh-burning vertical drop of 3,250 feet.
The chance to be among the first to ski off the chair, especially in deep snow, has set the U.S. ski scene abuzz. Says Dean Cummings, an Alaskan heli-ski company owner and former World Extreme Skiing Champion who cut his first tracks in New Mexico, “Taos was already world-class, but now they put a lift right to the top of the rock. That’s going to make for a pretty impressive new trail map.”
Cummings thinks the ability to ski consecutive laps down the powdered face of Main Street or the snow-filled fjords of the K Chutes will result in more experts working the summit, which should drastically open up the rest of the mountain for everyone else. He adds that for local purists who still want to earn their turns, the majority of the Highline Ridge and the West Basin will still be accessible solely on foot. As will the new Wild West Glades, which include 32 fresh acres of steep tree shots.
“I think it’s all a huge improvement,” Cummings said. “I can’t wait to come home to New Mexico and ski it.”
A NEW ERA
Of course, the Kachina Peak Lift and Wild West Glades aren’t the only thing “new” at Taos. Founded in 1955 by Ernie and Rhoda Blake, Taos remained family-owned until last December, when billionaire conservationist Louis Bacon purchased the resort.
Bacon has owned property in Taos Ski Valley since 1996 and collaborated with the Blake family on their vision for base-area redevelopment, on-mountain improvements, and the Village Master Plan. When the Blake family decided to sell Taos, Bacon was the first person they approached.
Since he purchased the area, several previously pending modifications have begun in earnest. Along with the new chair, Taos also began improvements on the main lodge, built a new skier drop-off area, and constructed a walkway with stores and services that line the path to the base area and lifts. According to Taos Ski Valley vice president Chris Stagg, it’s all the first stage of a long-term investment plan for the resort.
“The new ownership has given us the opportunity to improve on the mountain and also to modernize the village, including adding new restaurants and more attractive retail space,” said Stagg. “While the on-mountain experience at Taos has always been world-class, what we saw in the village wasn’t as good, other than the impressive experience at the St. Bernard. Things just weren’t as connected as they could be, and we are now in a positionto make some changes where the consumer is really going to benefit.”
Stagg said the goal is to create a more vibrant village for families and “a wider range of skier,” which may eventually include a new hotel at the main base. Higher up the hill, Taos also purchased the Bavarian Lodge & Restaurant, the European-style ski retreat at the base of Chair 4, which Stagg said will certainly begin to receive more traffic because of its proximity to the Kachina Peak Lift. Stagg is quick to add that the emphasis on improving on-and off-hill amenities will not affect the friendly vibe and welcoming ambience of Taos.
“From the long history of the Blakes to the new ownership of Louis Bacon, there has always been a strong commitment to providing a quality experience,” Stagg said. “We still have the same employees, who work here because they love Taos so much. And we still have the same great ski school, which is renowned for its customer focus.”
To that end, the famed Ernie Blake Snowsports School is introducing a new Mountain Guide program to connect guests with the valley’s top ambassadors, who will take them to off-the-map runs and share some of the ski area’s local lore and secret stashes.
“We want to promote the idea that by skiing here with an expert guide, you might ski a lot of spots you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed,” Stagg said. “The other thing to do with an instructor is get on a lift at 8 a.m. and have the mountain all to yourself.”
NEED TO KNOW
Here's your preseason highlight reel of many of the new ski and snowboard features in New Mexico this winter-and timeless amenities, too.
ANGEL FIRE RESORT
OPENS December 12
STATS Avg. snowfall: 158”
Base elevation: 8,600’
Peak elevation: 10,677’
Vertical drop: 2,077’
WHAT’S NEW The Railyard, a terrain park featuring boxes, rails, and jumps aimed at novice riders who want to try out their tricks before attempting the more advanced terrain parks.
MUST DO Get the Parenting Pass, which allows parents to take turns skiing while the other cares for little ones who are too young to hit the slopes.
TIMELESS ELEMENT The world-famous Shovel Races (February 6–8) are the Grand Prix of high-speed hindquarter hauling. Cash prizes and annual bragging rights fuel the on-snow stoke. (575) 377- 6401; angelfireresort.com
OPENS December 15
STATS Avg. snowfall: 130”
Base elevation: 8,400’
Peak elevation: 9,100’
Vertical drop: 700’
WHAT’S NEW The Lifthouse Restaurant at the area has been completely remodeled and outfitted with a wood-fired pizza oven.
MUST DO Book a room at the Victorian grand hotel, the Lodge at Cloudcroft, and reserve a table at the hotel’s elegant Rebecca’s.
TIMELESS ELEMENT Stepping back in time in the town of Cloudcroft, a unique mountain community with friendly people and easy access to the outdoors. (575) 682-2333; skicloudcroft.net
PAJARITO MOUNTAIN SKI AREA
The Locals’ Secret
OPENS Early December
STATS Avg. snowfall: 103”
Base elevation: 9,200’
Peak elevation: 10,400’
Vertical drop: 1,200’
WHAT’S NEW Now under the same management as that of Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, Pajarito will be open daily for the 2014–15 season. (Previously, it was open only on weekends and federal holidays.) This means more chances than ever to experience the place National Geographic named one of the 2013 “Best Secret Ski Towns.”
MUST DO Ski the “Fab Four” mogul runs—Nuther Mother, Sidewinder, Breathless, and Precious—which are known for having the best fall line in the state.
TIMELESS ELEMENT The chance to celebrate the deep history of the region, from the centuries-old Puebloan ruins of Bandelier National Monument to the Bradbury Science Museum, which documents the history of the Manhattan Project. (505) 662-5725; skipajarito.com
RED RIVER SKI AREA
OPENS November 26
STATS Avg. snowfall: 214”
Base elevation: 8,750’
Peak elevation: 10,350’ Vertical drop: 1,600’
WHAT’S NEW Big improvements to what was already the biggest snowmaking system in the region mean that in case El Niño shows up a little bit late, Red River will still have an early start.
MUST DO The Snow Coach Dinner Tour. Catch Red River’s Snow Coach to the summit for a steak or salmon meal at the Tip Restaurant. Tours begin nightly at 5:30 and 7:15. TIMELESS ELEMENT Ski through 100-plus-year-old aspens and enjoy panoramic views at the Moon-Star Mining Camp. (575) 754- 2223; redriverskiarea.com
SANDIA PEAK SKI & TRAMWAY
The Day Tripper
OPENS December 25
STATS Avg. snowfall: 118”
Base elevation: 8,678’
Peak elevation: 10,378’
Vertical drop: 1,700’
WHAT’S NEW You can’t beat the easy access to skiing at Sandia Peak, just 25 minutes from the Albuquerque Sunport. But even non-skiers will want to check out the brand-new upper tram terminal, which features more open space, easy access to new ski lockers, and, of course, spectacular views and dining at the High Finance Restaurant.
MUST DO It’s hard to imagine a better place to learn to ski and snowboard. Sandia has great instructors, proven learning programs, and the opportunity to enjoy a pleasant green run all the way from the top.
TIMELESS ELEMENT The view into the Cíbola National Forest and Estancia Valley is so breath- taking you might forget there’s a major metropolitan area on the other side of the peak. (505) 242- 9052; sandiapeak.com
SIPAPU SKI & SUMMER RESORT
OPENS November 15
STATS Avg. snowfall: 190”
Base elevation: 8,200’
Peak elevation: 9,255’
Vertical drop: 1,055’
WHAT’S NEW Improvements to Gamble Trees—some of the best tree skiing in New Mexico—will allow more intermediates to experience the joy of touring through the woods. Sipapu also installed a new magic carpet lift.
MUST DO Enjoy the delicious Sipaburger, with green chile, cheese, and bacon, at the Riverside Café.
TIMELESS ELEMENT The February Fun Fest, February 14–16, kicks off with the much-anticipated Sipapu Cardboard Derby and a two-story snow castle with slides and stairs that lasts long after the event. (800) 587-2240; sipapunm.com
OPENS November 27 (weather permitting)
STATS Avg. snowfall: 180”
Base elevation: 9,600’
Peak elevation: 11,500’
Vertical drop: 1,900’
WHAT’S NEW Ski Apache’s $15-million, 8-person Apache Arrow Gondola can get you to the top of the mountain in 8 min- utes. But a brand-new mile-long zipline—which is scheduled to run this winter—will take you downhill a lot quicker than that!
MUST DO Enjoy those gondola views, with Sierra Blanca to your left and the surreal beauty of White Sands in the distance off the back side of the peak.
TIMELESS ELEMENT This is a sacred region for the Mescalero Apache, who own and operate the ski area, as well as the nearby Inn of the Mountain Gods, which is home to several of the tribe’s artifacts. (575) 464-3600; skiapache.com
SKI SANTA FE
The Ski Area Different
OPENS November 27 (weather permitting)
STATS Avg. snowfall: 225”
Base elevation: 10,350’
Peak elevation: 12,075’
Vertical drop: 1,725’
WHAT’S NEW La Casa Lodge was officially unveiled last season, with 12,000 square feet of rental and retail space on the first floor and a spacious dining area on the second floor, where you can enjoy one of skiing’s best breakfast burritos before you hit the lifts.
MUST DO Have a cold margarita and warm bowl of green chile stew on Totemoff’s sun-drenched deck.
TIMELESS ELEMENT Take the Tesuque Peak triple to the top of Gay Way, a wide-open blue run that drops into such a spectacular view of the city of Santa Fe that you feel as if you are skiing off the edge of the earth. (505) 982-4429; skisantafe.com
TAOS SKI VALLEY
OPENS Nov. 27 (ltd.); Dec. 11
STATS Avg. snowfall: 305”
Base elevation: 9,200’
Peak elevation: 12,450’
Vertical drop: 3,250’
WHAT’S NEW The Kachina Peak
Lift, covering 1,100 vertical feet in just five minutes, and increasing Taos Ski Valley’s expert lift-served terrain by 50 percent.
MUST DO Eat a slopeside lunch at St. Bernard Hotel, enjoying an elegant mix of European and New Mexican cuisine, conviviality, and impeccable service.
TIMELESS ELEMENT Ski Longhorn, a seemingly endless avenue of steep pitches and Volkswagen-size bumps. (575)776-2291; skitaos.org
ENCHANTED FOREST CROSS-COUNTRY SKI AREA
Vales of Trails
OPENS November 14 (weather permitting)
The area boasts 33 km of groomed trails for ski touring, 15 km of snowshoe trails, and 5 km of dog-friendly trails.
WHAT’S NEW The Midway Warming Yurt, installed last season, is a great place to take a lunch break.
MUST DO If you’re feeling fit, the Wheeler Peak/Gold Hill/Upper Valley View trip is epic. TIMELESS ELEMENT Being on a perfectly groomed trail while in the wilderness.
(575) 754-6112; enchantedforestxc.com