Photography ©Dianne Stromberg

Snow Time!

There’s Winter Fun for All on Santa Fe’s Storied Slopes

by Ben Ikenson

December 2012/January 2013

With the Southern Rockies arching their way across much of Northern New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment is also a land of excitement—especially in the winter. Each year, the high-altitude geography becomes a snow-topped playground for skiers and snowboarders, and the Santa Fe area is home to an impressive variety of resorts and facilities that cater to visitors no matter their experience, age, or skill level.

A sign for Aspen Peak, Ski Santa Fe, New Mexico
Ski Santa Fe has one of the highest base elevations for a ski area in the country. On the Millennium Triple Chairlift, skiers are taken as high as 12,075 feet.
A skier jumping
Photography ©Julien McRoberts

Ski Santa Fe

On clear winter days, the alpine panorama of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from Deception Peak is breathtaking. But it’s not the crystalline scenery at more than 12,000 feet that attracts hordes of visitors to this lofty mountain, where skiers have been tearing down its slopes for more than 60 seasons. Just 16 miles from town, Ski Santa Fe (skisantafe.com)—which, at 10350 feet, boasts one of the highest base elevations in the U.S.—is a winter wonderland that manages some 660 acres within the Santa Fe National Forest. With an average snowfall of 225 inches per year (and additional powder-making capacity on half of its 77 runs), Ski Santa Fe attracts skiers and snowboarders of all levels who enjoy the steep bump runs, the open chutes, and the superb gladed trails.

Last year, more than 132,000 visitors came to enjoy the slopes. Many, no doubt, came to learn how to enjoy them, as Ski Santa Fe offers a vast menu of ski and snowboard lessons, with group lessons, private lessons, and group lesson/lift ticket packages. The facility’s Chipmunk Corner includes a snowsports school for kids and a daycare center, while a terrain park, lovingly referred to as the “Bone Yard,” has beginner- and intermediate-level obstacle and jump features on which snowboarders and skiers can practice their maneuvers. 

This year, expectations are high for another strong turnout. While the weather is always unpredictable, says Benny Abruzzo, mountain manager for Ski Santa Fe, “the forecast has been extremely positive, calling for a wetter, colder winter than in recent years, so we’re pretty optimistic about this season.”

Also optimistic is Buzz Bainbridge, a local ski legend and former director of the New Mexico Tourism department. “[Ski Santa Fe] is a great place to ski, and it’s been amazing to watch the industry really grow up here,” he says. In 1946, Bainbridge and his wife Jean managed the Hyde Park and Big Tesuque ski areas, which were early predecessors to Ski Santa Fe. The couple were not only ski buffs before much of the rest of the country was swept up by the postwar craze, but they helped produce that craze, offering ski lessons and later promoting a “Ski the Rockies” campaign, which convinced elites they didn’t need to head overseas for top-notch skiing and introduced the sport to a broader swath of Americans. 

At age 91, Bainbridge no longer hits the slopes, but he’s maintained a fairly regular presence at Ski Santa Fe over the years and was around this past summer to observe the recent renovation and expansion of La Casa Lodge, originally built in 1966. With an addition of more than 12,000 square feet, the complex at the base of the slopes includes a new rental shop with top-of-the-line equipment, an expanded gear and apparel shop, and a large new food court.

Ski Santa Fe is a great place to ski, and it’s been amazing to watch the industry really grow up here,” says local ski legend Buzz Bainbridge.

Taos Ski Valley

Ernie Blake, another legendary ski pioneer, was a manager at the Santa Fe ski basin in the early 1950s as well as a pilot. Blake, who passed away in 1989, thought he may have been hallucinating when, from the vantage of his Cessna 170, he spotted the virgin scenery of La Cal Basin, just north of Wheeler Peak. “There was a tremendous snow basin…. I thought it was an optical illusion,” he reportedly once said. Blake decided to pull up stakes, go north, and blaze his own trails, establishing Taos Ski Valley (skitaos.com) about 20 miles north of Taos in 1954 and ultimately helping to make Northern New Mexico a world-class ski destination.

“This resort has rightly earned its spot in the pantheon of North America’s most challenging ski areas,” a New York Times review emphatically proclaimed of Taos Ski Valley. Of the resort’s 110 trails, many are steep chutes dropping from Highline Ridge that threaten to take even the most experienced skiers down their inclines in a less than graceful fashion. Fortunately for most of us, there are also plenty of more moderate runs from the West Basin and Kachina Peak as well, and, last summer, in response to longstanding criticism that even its beginner runs were steep, management oversaw the installation of a new beginner hill with a 1,400-foot-long lift. And it was only four years ago when the resort put out what was then a controversial welcome mat for snowboarders, who now make up a considerable portion of the 200,000-plus annual visitors that keep Taos Ski Valley and the tiny village at the foot of the slopes alive each winter.

“Without snowboarding, we might not have survived,” says Adriana Blake, who heads up marketing for the ski facility and who is also Ernie Blake’s granddaughter. “We really felt we needed to enhance our market viability.” While there were some initial reservations by longtime ski purists, Blake says she no longer hears those complaints. “We can all get along.” she says, adding that her granddad “would be happy we were able to maintain the family business while getting more folks out to enjoy the slopes, whether on skis or snowboards.”

Pajarito Mountain

The Los Alamos community was yet another player in the postwar ski fervor in New Mexico. Bainbridge is reported to have said that the ski school he operated with Jean was popular because “the Los Alamos ski patrol, in their pedantic way, would stop awkward skiers and strongly suggest that they take lessons.”

Established in the 1950s, the Los Alamos Ski Club included former Manhattan Project scientists, among other local enthusiasts, who soon found their own snowy slice of heaven on the east slopes of the Jemez Mountains, after moving from a nearby hill. Now with 40 trails, 5 chairlifts, and a surface lift, Pajarito Mountain (skipajarito.com), also open to snowboarders and snowbladers, is a small, cooperatively owned operation that describes itself as New Mexico’s best-kept skiing secret. 

“When people come here for the first time, they’re really surprised by the variety and quality of terrain.” says Tom Long, the ski area’s general manager. “We have some double black-diamond runs, excellent bump skiing, and lots of great forest trails. And, because we’re such a small, low-key operation, there are never lines for the lifts. On a good year, we get maybe 50,000 people.” 

Given that the facility’s snowmaking operation isn’t very extensive, its seasons must rely on Mother Nature, which Tom suspects means an opening day this winter in mid-December. “When there’s good snow on the ground, just grab some skis and come on out,” he says.

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