WHEN ERIC SCHALLER GREETS me for a day on the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area slopes, the ski patroller welcomes me to “the land of no-lift mazes.” True to his word, not only do we ski directly up to every chairlift, but when we turn our tips onto each of the Fab Four—the ski area’s notorious string of double black diamond mogul runs—there’s no crowd to be found there, either.
Some of the rollovers, where the slope drops off abruptly, are so steep that finding the next turn relies on guesswork and quick responses. That morning, fresh powder had lightly reset the surface after a generous winter of snow, leaving me free to plan my turns around bumps, not the exposed rocks or trees of lesser precipitation years. He steers me toward another lap on the Mother Lift, where a sign cautions “This is NOT!!! a beginner chair,” that leads to plenty of “steeps worthy of shredding,” as he calls them.
I follow as he zips downhill, popping off jumps and zinging between trees on a mountain he has memorized as well as most people know their home’s floor plan. He credits this lift, and this terrain, with pushing him to be a better skier.
Schaller grew up in Los Alamos. He learned the sport on this hill, joined the youth ski patrol as a teenager, and set off on some of his first backpacking trips from the back door of his parents’ house. Even decades into exploring these mountains and canyons, he tells me, their beauty can still startle him. He’d traveled to the backside of the mountain a couple of weeks earlier and stumbled onto new backcountry ski lines and a view east to Santa Fe that he’d never encountered before.
“The Jemez Mountains and my hometown blew my mind,” he says. “Like a lot of New Mexico, the terrain is such that there’s always more to it than you think—always—and what that means is there’s always something new to discover.”
Pajarito’s 44 ski trails cut down the slopes of the super volcano at the heart of the Jemez Mountains. “So there’s just vistas galore,” Schaller says. We tour among high points with views that sweep over the length of cloud-wrapped peaks far across the Río Grande Valley or peer into the Valles Caldera National Preserve and its snowy center and curving rim.
Los Alamos’s legacy is often linked to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, a story that entranced moviegoers this past summer. But the town’s origin as a secret city on a hill—with windy, steep roads to access it—bred a do-it-yourself vibe, as isolated scientists looking to entertain themselves and their families developed local options for amusement. That meant building an ice rink, gathering local musicians into a symphony, and, yes, cutting ski runs for an area owned and operated by a local club for decades. Circumstances have changed in recent years, as has ownership of the ski area, but a few dedicated volunteers still build on that tradition.
LOS ALAMOS SKI CLUB STARTED AT SAWYER’S Hill with a single tow rope in December 1944 and was frequented by the likes of Oppenheimer and his fellow physicists Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi. The club moved uphill to what’s now Pajarito Mountain Ski Area in 1957.
“Pajarito was born of an incredible volunteer spirit,” Schaller explains as we catch another one of the six chairlifts slung across a ridgeline laced with 50 percent intermediate, 20 percent beginner, and 30 percent difficult terrain.
The ski patrol is still staffed with volunteers, as it has been for nearly 70 years. Mountain lore has it that chain saws were the primary tool, with just a few explosives used on stubborn stumps as volunteers felled trees to open the runs.
“It’s a good mountain,” Schaller explains. “It was made by ski bums.”
Los Alamos Ski Club owned and operated Pajarito and ran the mountain as a nonprofit for decades. But volunteers struggled to keep up with the growing maintenance costs and the vagaries of climate change. Variable snowfall made seasons, and lift-ticket income, unpredictable. The 2011 Las Conchas Fire burned the ski area’s fringes—a few blackened trees remain around the edges—and damaged chairlifts, demanding expensive repairs.
The club sold the ski area to Mountain Capital Partners in 2014. The first objective was to improve snowmaking, including a 10 million-gallon, snowmelt-fed storage pond in 2015 aimed at making for a predictable opening day. This summer also saw new seat pads on the Mother Lift, some remodeling in ski school buildings and bathrooms, and new kids’ equipment in the rental shop.
The independent streak and history are still visible. Black-and-white photos and old ski area maps hang on the deck and inside the lodge. Antique wooden skis, signs recognizing volunteers, and photos of previous generations of ski patrol also adorn the walls.
While I pop into the lodge to warm up, a trio of people pause at one photo to point out faces they recognize. Tom Long, the ski area’s former general manager, was the one out running the grooming machine at 3 a.m.
LONG ISN’T THE ONLY LATE-NIGHT GROOMER in town.
As the sun flushes the sky over the peaks to shades of rose and the distant lights of Santa Fe and Truchas emerge, Clay Moseley heads out on the trails. This evening, he’s not off to ski, but to reset the surface of cross-country skiing trails around Cañada Bonita that, in the best of snow years, can cover 18 kilometers.
“In the evening, it looks like a Christmas tree out on our trails because people are out with headlamps at 7:30 at night,” says Moseley, president of the Southwest Nordic Ski Club. “It’s pitch dark, but you never feel alone.”
The town of Los Alamos sits on mesas made of ash flows running off the sides of that ancient volcano. Climbing higher up the crater is like driving north to a colder climate, Moseley explains. “You have these islands in the sky, places that suddenly go from desert to mountains,” he says.
If the snow is carefully tended, those high points allow for a sport more commonly found in Scandinavia than one performed while looking out at the desert along the Río Grande. In warmer months, Nordic Ski Club volunteers rake brush, cut downed trees, patch washouts, and even break the tops off emerging boulders. These days, they also lay mulch to help smooth the base so skiing is possible even with just a few inches of snow.
Other towns broadcast their outdoor access, but Los Alamos has been more demure about the outdoor playgrounds just 15 minutes from town, says Dina Pesenson, Moseley’s wife and Southwest Nordic Ski Club secretary. “Bend, Oregon, is famous for access to the outdoors, and you’re driving at least 45 minutes to get to their trails,” she says. “Here, you can go over a lunch break—it’s insane, and it’s free.”
Tucked deep into the shady canyon under the Omega Bridge, Los Alamos County runs the state’s only NHL-regulation-size outdoor rink. The rink is home to New Mexico’s largest youth hockey association (which covers some of the costs of its ice time by contributing volunteer work hours each fall). Spinning around the rink pairs well with a hike up the canyon to Los Alamos Reservoir, where tiger salamanders can be spotted in the water during the summer.
AFTER DARK, THE CRISP, COLD WINTER AIR makes for clear skies and particularly sharp star viewing, says Kristen O’Hara, director of interpretation for the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) at Los Alamos Nature Center, which hosts star talks even in the winter months.
“The mission of PEEC is to connect not just Los Alamos but other communities to the mesas, mountains, canyons, and skies around us,” she says. That includes showing people that winter isn’t just a season for cozy cups of cocoa around the fire.
The sun sets before 5:30 p.m. from November through January, but that means full moons rise sooner in the evening. To enjoy those magical hours of moonlight soaking through the aspens and pines, PEEC leads evening snowshoeing outings, timed around the lunar cycle and usually held on a family-friendly Friday night.
Often, those outings mean tromping around in the Jemez Mountains, heading high again to access deeper snowpack. By day, hikers and snowshoers scan the snow for the dimpled tracks of deer, raccoon, and even mountain lions and bobcats, and search for still-active squirrels, raptors, and other overwintering birds. The blanket of white shifts from the buzz and hum of summer months to one that lets these year-round residents shine.
“Winter is so much more quiet,” O’Hara says. “The life that is out there, you get to witness so much more.”
Eat. At the ski hill, Pajarito Mountain Cafe serves burgers and wraps. Snag a bagel sandwich, panini, or salad to take with you to the woods from Ruby K’s Bagel Cafe or a boxed lunch from White Rock favorite Pig + Fig Cafe. The mom-and-pop operation at Café Sushi keeps limited hours and few tables, but plates some stunningly tasty sushi. Went hard and need a hearty pick-me-up? Try Boese Bros Brewpub.
Drink. Power up with Wolf and Mermaid Enchanted Roasters, the local roaster with a café at Central Park Square in downtown Los Alamos. Dive into the recovery drink of choice at Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op, where taps rotate a selection of seasonal options from locally sourced ingredients near the well-appointed houses—which included bathtubs rather than just showers—of Manhattan Project scientists.
Play. Volunteer musicians have been serenading Los Alamos residents since 1945. The tradition continues with the Los Alamos Symphony Orchestra, which typically performs a spring, fall, and holiday concert. Los Alamos Little Theatre dates to the 1940s, and its latest production, The Play That Goes Wrong, opens in January.
Stay. The North Road Inn’s cozy suites come with a full breakfast of freshly cooked eggs, pancakes, or French toast for fueling up for your day’s adventures. Book a room or lean into the winter wonderland theme with a cabin at Pueblo Canyon Inn and Gardens. The hardiest travelers can head to the Juniper Family Campground in Bandelier National Monument to camp among ponderosa pines, with sites for tents or RVs.
Explore. Use Pajarito Environmental Education Center’s trails app to sift among dozens of routes throughout the county, Bandelier National Monument, and the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Dig into the history of the Manhattan Project, the World War II–era mission to build the first atomic weapon, and Los Alamos National Laboratory’s decades of work since then at the Bradbury Science Museum. The SALA event center has been screening new and classic movies in the revitalized Reel Deal Theater, with plans to reinvent the venue as a community hub, event space, and immersive experience.