A FISHERMAN STANDS ON Grindstone Lake’s shore, casting lines into the blue-green water as I hike under ponderosa pines and through Gambel oak on a trail ringing the lake. It’s an early spring afternoon. A vulture tilts overhead, flashing the cream-colored undersides of its wings as they tip against the breeze. From a high point, I consider my options: 18 miles of hiking and biking trails web through the woods around me.
Though it’s within the usual bounds of ski season, snow has vanished from even the highest points around Ruidoso. Ski Apache, the nearby resort owned and operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe, ran for a shortened 2021–22 season that ended weeks before my arrival. Winters are shrinking all across the Rocky Mountains, bringing warmer temperatures and less snow, creating wider shoulder-seasons in spring and fall that are primed for hiking and biking. The day’s weather has left me comfortable in a windbreaker, and instead of craving two planks under my feet, I’m wishing I had brought my mountain bike. I can imagine riding here not just on blustery spring days, but also on autumn afternoons, when the sun warms your shoulders while you roll past golden oak leaves, and dusk drops temps enough to enjoy pedaling into town for a dark beer from the Hidden Tap.
Locals have worked for years to make sure visitors like me don’t feel they’re missing out, even if winters aren’t what they used to be. Both the tribe and the town are diversifying options to connect visitors with nature in the Sacramento Mountains that ring the town. Some of those efforts started at Grindstone Lake, which hasn’t always been so lovely as it is this afternoon.
“Before, it was just a parking lot for trash that blew in,” Mayor Lynn Crawford says.
Several years ago, in an effort to branch out from winter tourism, the village started to look at its summer assets, including whether the reservoir at Grindstone could be more than a drinking water source. The town teamed with the International Mountain Bicycling Association to design and build a trail beginning around 2014, a partnership that also led to installing downhill biking paths at Cedar Creek. In 2019, town councilors approved major investments in the lake’s warm-weather amenities.
Enough trails have now been built to host the Wild West Mountain Bike Festival at Grindstone Lake, October 15–16, which includes six-hour endurance and 40-mile marathon options on trails that weave and swing downhill. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, a concessionaire rents kayaks and paddleboats to launch from three new docks, and fishing poles to cast for trout as large as 24 inches. There’s also a water park with slides, trampolines, and “wiggle bridges” that float on the lake. Thousands of people visit on summer days—enough that the town began requiring parking reservations. But Grindstone was just the start of a string of projects, and after years of talking and planning, those visions are taking form, even after a devastating wildfire this spring.
“Take a deep seat and a faraway look,” Crawford says. “We’re on our way. It’s not just dreaming anymore.”
RUIDOSO’S CHAMBER OF COMMERCE IDENTIFIED skiing as a priority industry in the 1950s. The week after the ski area opened as Sierra Blanca Ski Resort in December 1961, visitors began sliding in. The second winter saw 25,000 skiers—almost four times the town’s current population. The ski area was deemed a stunning success and has been an economic anchor for decades. Facing changes in management at Ski Apache, as it was renamed in the 1984–85 winter season, a few slim snow years, and the prospect of massive wildfires that could destroy the entire ski area, Crawford says, town leaders began to wonder, What if we lose Ski Apache?
Crawford grew up in the Texas panhandle and went to college at Texas Tech University, where he would listen to the snow report on the radio and skip class to ski on powder days. He relocated to Ruidoso in 2006, is in his second term as mayor, and has been among the village planners, elected officials, and community groups developing ideas, pooling finances, and building public-private partnerships for more than a decade.
“We’re trying to get more control of winter business, so if there’s no snow, there are things for people to do,” he says. “We’re just trying to control our own destiny.”
The same mountains and trees can still draw visitors, but for other types of fun. Locals’ interests are shaping what grows in that space: Resident mountain bikers built some of the trails, and local disc golfers had a hand in developing the abundant array of disc golf courses. In total, the mayor counts 52 shovel-ready projects. The goal is to entice tourists to linger and try something new. Now that you’ve hiked, try fishing. Gone biking? Consider blasting down a tubing hill or ripping down a zip line. A bit of the work moved slowly, and that cost some people’s faith. But now, Crawford says, they see changes like those at Grindstone. Now, they believe.
WHITE MOUNTAIN, THE SACRED PEAK THAT SKI Apache perches on, fills the horizon behind the Inn of the Mountain Gods, set down on the opposite side of town but never out of sight. The Mescalero Apache Tribe runs both properties. This year’s season was “a little short,” says Julie Kaydahzinne, Ski Apache’s marketing manager, as we sit for lunch at the Broken Arrow Tap House, tucked just inside the inn, to talk about the ski season and plans for the resort.
Kaydahzinne’s parents worked at Ski Apache, so “we basically just lived there,” she says. The mountain she grew up skiing was busy from Thanksgiving to Easter. Back then, when they closed for the season, the resort still had so much snow that every run was open.
Last winter, opening day was delayed until January—the latest ever, she says—and chairlifts stopped spinning in March, almost a month before Easter. The upper mountain’s steep terrain opened only briefly.
“It’s becoming more obvious that global warming is happening,” Kaydahzinne says. “There’s a lot less snow in the last 10 years, so we have to find a way to use our mountain and keep our economy going, and we have a lot of opportunities up there. There’s nobody anywhere that can replicate this because of where we are located, and because of our elevation and our natural beauty.”
New, state-of-the-art snowmaking machines blow snow even when the air temperatures are above freezing. That allows for opening the beginner terrain no matter the weather, and that terrain serves most guests. Still, she adds, “We have to find a way to make up for all the snow we aren’t getting.”
With that in mind, a zip line—one of the longest in the country—runs through Ski Apache. The gondola lifts scenery-seekers and hikers to the peak with a view sweeping west, where White Sands National Park glitters on the horizon. Mountain bikers ride the gondola up, then blast back downhill.
At the Inn of the Mountain Gods, attractions include a spa, concert venue, golf simulation suite, and Golf Digest–ranked course, along with another zip line that cruises over Lake Mescalero, where people can fish, paddleboat, and enjoy “Wine Down Wednesdays” on the patio.
Each fall, Apache lands open to big-game hunting. Trophies ringing the aptly named Big Game Sports Bar suggest they mean really big elk and deer. Around the casino and hotel, artwork, murals, and glass cases displaying traditional dresses and pottery showcase the tribe’s culture and creativity.
“That’s something Ruidoso runs off of—people come to see us and our culture,” Kaydahzinne says. “We’re part of Ruidoso’s economy, but we are our own people.”
And they, of course, aren’t going anywhere.
I’M STANDING AT A RAILING OVERLOOKING THE Río Ruidoso (“noisy river,” in Spanish), which runs behind the business corridor through midtown, and a newly paved pathway when Rodney Griego, Ruidoso’s parks director, pulls up to give me something like a tour of the imagination.
He drives me around town to talk through projects underway—the decorative light poles being installed that morning in midtown, the sidewalk being poured to connect downtown with new parking areas and public restrooms at Wingfield Park. The park already hosts a growers’ market from June through October. Eventually, it may also see a summertime splash pad and a wintertime ice rink.
Alto Lake, a kids’ fishing pond, has just been stocked with trout and catfish. Picnic tables are on the way, and more trails are planned. Moon Mountain, 630 acres of land owned by the state, sat idle for years before an 18-hole disc golf course opened there in November 2019. World champion disc golfer Eric McCabe designed the course; Rugged Ridge Disc Golf installed it. Given its description as a “championship level course,” you can expect demanding hikes uphill and tricky throws. (A more beginner-friendly course is at Wingfield Park, and Grindstone also hosts 27 holes of disc golf and a few free-roaming horses.) Moon Mountain was scorched by the McBride Fire, which burned 200 homes in April and killed two people. Previous fire-mitigation work left the forest resilient to those flames, and once the summer rains arrived, grassy hillsides quickly greened up.
The Ruidoso Winter Park, which sits at the bottom of the canyon that climbs to Ski Apache, has partnered with the village for more than 20 years, Griego tells me. He parks near the steep hillside where the Screaming Eagle Mountain Coaster, which will roll over 5,100 feet of “waves,” is slated to open this fall. He points out Teflon-coated chutes that already rocket tubers downhill in summer as well as winter—and they’re just two of 12 planned runs. Eventually, a surface lift will even allow for a micro-taste of skiing.
“Operations have been a huge, huge benefit to the village in the winter months, because even when the ski area is closed because of a lack of snow or high wind, this place is open all the time and extremely busy,” Rodney explains.
But there’s something to enjoy in the sheer nature of the town, too. As Griego drives by the golf course, newly ringed by paved walking and biking trails, he pauses to scan for an elk herd that routinely browses the fairways.
“In September, when they’re in the mating season, there’ll be a herd of 50 elk out here, with bulls bugling,” he says. “It’s a sight to see.”
Eat. In June, the Inn of the Mountain Gods opened the Market at the Mountain, a high-end food court with Warshield Tacos, Scouts Corner Bar, Wahlburgers, Samurai Sam’s Teriyaki Grill, Sbarro, and Carrizo Canyon Coffee House. Newcomers to the town’s food scene include Ruidoso Sushi and Island Noodles. At the Rio Grande Grill and Tap Room, the waitress will take your name with your order, then remember to call you by it all night as she drops off a Sierra Blanca Brewing Company beer and a burger. Dive into omelets and coffee served by the carafe at Cornerstone Bakery & Café, where the bakery case includes New Mexico classics like bizcochitos and empanadas alongside pecan pie.
Drink. Two Noisy Water Winery spaces bracket Sudderth Drive, the main street in town, one more intimate for sipping reserve wines and the other a bustling event-space with a patio, charcuterie fixings, and a lengthy list of reds and whites to taste on-site or take home by the bottle. The Hidden Tap, Downshift Brewery’s flagship location, fills pints with porters and IPAs amid décor that leans into the local Bigfoot mythology.
Sleep. Well-appointed rooms await at the Inn of the Mountain Gods, just a few minutes’ drive from downtown, where lakeside rooms mean a balcony with seats to watch the water. Craving a streamside cabin? Looking to park the home-on-wheels? On the town’s website, browse lodgings by type, with filters for dog-friendly destinations so your best hiking partner can tag along.
Shop. Midtown Ruidoso is lined with shops selling T-shirts, handmade soaps, candles, and carved wooden bears. Missing a piece of gear for your outdoor adventures or dying to try disc golf? Hit Backcountry Attitudes. Independent artisans’ work fills the shelves at White Mountain Pottery. Browse bronze sculptures, contemporary paintings, and jewelry with serious flair at Adobe Fine Art, one of the largest galleries in town.