Snow Trax #3

by Daniel Gibson

This Column is Posted Weekly or Bi-Weekly. In Addition to Northern New Mexico, the Column Covers the Southern Rockies (New Mexico and Southern Colorado)

Best of Southern Rockies Snow Sports


Perhaps the best day I ever had skiing was my very first day. I wasn't quite seven years old and even though I spent most of the day down in the snow at the Santa Fe Ski Basin getting wet and cold, I'll never forget the fun I had--I literally had to be pulled off the slopes.

That is the thing about "best" experiences: they are particularly personal and subjective. One person's "best" might be another person's nightmare. That aside, however, I'd like to offer up my list of "bests" regarding snow sports in the Southern Rockies. More Bests" will follow in future weeks.

Best Overall Area: In New Mexico: It's got to be Taos Ski Valley for its steeps, deeps, and unique character, but be warned--snowboards are verboten. Colorado: A close call between Telluride and Crested Butte. Both are big, varied, and major mountains, and with cool town scenes.

Best Snowboarding: Telluride proceeds to fine tune its impressive boarding program. This includes the Southwest's largest snowboarding terrain park, Air Garden. The 16-acre facility spans 850 vertical feet, and features a halfpipe some 365 feet long and 49 feet wide (built to the specifications of the pipe used at the Nagano Winter Olympics). The pipe is maintained by a tailor-made grooming machine called "The Snow Dragon." The park has 45 other "hits" scattered about, including spines, tabletops, bread loaves, fun boxes, hips, rollers, quarterpipes, gaps, banks, rail slides, and log slides.

Telluride's instructional program is also impressive, with over 80 snowboarding instructors presenting courses ranging from a morning beginners clinic to full days adventure outings on specific terrain: bumps, carving on cruisers, trees, terrain park riding, or extreme.

Runner-up--Purgatory: Opened a new boarding area, the Pitchfork Terrain Park, three seasons ago. It is located just below the Powderhouse Restaurant at mid-mountain (access via lift 2), and includes a half-pipe.

New Mexico: Angel Fire has embraced boarding in a big way, with a terrain park and some events. Ski Apache has some natural halfpipes in the bottom of Apache Bowl that are a gas.

Best Cross Country Area: Top kudos go to Telluride, with five groomed trail systems totaling some 100 km, including terrain for beginners to experts, certified instructors, clinics, guided tours, and outstanding views. Call the non-profit Telluride Nordic Association (970/728-7260) or the Telluride Nordic Center (970/728-7260) for details.
New Mexico: Enchanted Forest (505/754-2374) near Red River has a fairly extensive trail system, rentals, and instruction programs.

Best Beginner Runs: Telluride is tops in this category, with an entire sub-area for beginners and intermediates with its own chairlift that rises 1,720 vertical feet over easy-going terrain-a terrific place to learn. Adjoining it is another wide-open slope called The Meadows, also with its own chair.
Durango Mt. Resort also has lots of beginner turf-a slew of runs off lift 4-and from the summit of lift 2, including the run named Mercy.

New Mexico: At Santa Fe, I would suggest that after beginners have mastered the "bunny runs" at the bottom of the mountain they point their sliders from the top of the quad chair down Santa Fe Trail to Davey's Lane to Thru Way to Lower Broadway. This linked run has a variety of open areas and trails, and subtle changes in pitch--but nothing tricky. The adventurous beginner might wish to head up the triple chair to Sunset.

At Taos Ski Valley, beginners should stick to beginner slopes. TSV doesn't overrate its runs--if anything it underrates them--and none of the upper mountain beginner runs should be tried by a raw novice. Notable advanced beginner choices from the summit include Bambi to Whitefeather, or for the more ambitious, Honeysuckle to Lower Totemoff to Winkelried to Rubezahl. This later route takes you into the beautiful Kachina Basin on the area's "backside."
Best Intermediate Runs: Telluride is rich in intermediate terrain-including all the runs off lifts 3, 4, and 5 just above the Mountain Village--really too many choices to even note here. Crested Butte also has loads of intermediate terrain, including the little-skied runs off the Gold Link Lift, and the slightly more difficult runs off the Paradise Lift, such as Ruby Chief.

Durango Mt. Resort is predominately intermediate terrain. Boggie is a great one off Lift 3, while Chet's off Lift 8 is sure to have your thighs crying for mercy.
New Mexico: Taos. My favorite on the lower "frontside" of the mountain is Porcupine, or West Basin to Lower Stauffenberg to Don't Tell. In Kachina Basin try either Shalako to Midway, or Honeysuckle.

At Santa Fe, off the quad, I would suggest Open Slope. As its name implies, it's very broad, yet some short pitches will challenge you. Or, if adventurous, try Muerte. Off the triple chair try Gayway. It is moderately steep but well groomed. Better intermediates will also enjoy Parachute.

Angel Fire, Ski Apache, Red River, and Pajarito all contain a preponderance of intermediate terrain, with more choices than can be noted here.
Best Expert Runs: Taos wins hands down. No expert is worth the name who avoids famed Al's. It begins with a steep pitch, then pummels you with a series of small drops, and ends with another cranked pitch. Tougher, however, is Spencer's Bowl to Snakedance, with its double fall line. Higher up the mountain are the chutes of Oster, Fabian, and Stauffenberg-all reached by, I believe, America's only black-diamond traverse--High Traverse. In Kachina Basin try Hunziker Bowl to High Noon to El Funko for a novel way down.

At Santa Fe, the steepest terrain lies on the north side of the triple chair, in particular Big Rocks, which begins in moguls amidst tight trees, then drops through a cliff band in a series of short chutes.

Colorado: Telluride has some very tough mogul runs on its older, front face, like Kant-Mak-M, Spiral Stairs, and the narrow, well-named East Drain. Higher on the mountain are even tougher runs-little slashes through the tress like Silver Glade and Zulu Queen.

Durango Mt. Resort has some steeps and deeps in the section called The Legends, full of glens, small cliffs, and trees. And the classic Lower Hades can be tough if the moguls are allowed to build up.

Wolf Creek has some challenging slopes as well. A short hike up Alberta Peak presents a towering cornice and steep face that drops into a series of nice glades. Big air can be had in the Waterfall Area on runs like Big Drop and Sun Rocks, placing it into the "extreme" category.

Crested Butte: International is a tough, long run parallel to the Silver Queen high-speed quad. Keystone Ridge and Horseshoe, off the Twister lift, take you into the trees and a nice small bowl.

Best Extreme Terrain: A tie between Taos Ski Valley and Crested Butte.
Above and beyond the expert slopes of Taos lies another realm, the land of double black diamonds--the only slopes so designated in the state. Among my faves in this category are obscure Werner Chute, and a handful of runs off Highline, Kachina, and West Basin Ridges, like Upper Stauffenberg Chute and Hunziger Chute-which may be the area's steepest and most exposed run.

Crested Butte made its reputation as the King of the Steeps. Home to the Saab U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championship and the Sector U.S. Extreme Boardfest, the resort has an entire sub-area called the Extreme Limits that is nothing but diamond and double black diamond terrain. The ungroomed but inbounds slopes are served by two surface lifts providing access to huge bowls-including Headwall, Spellbound Bowl, the North Face and Phoenix Bowl-each with multiple runs. The Silver Queen quad express also dishes out some nasty lines, as in chutes M, N and O, and the narrow ribbon of snow called Banana Peel.
Telluride: The hike-to terrain on Gold Hill includes some fairly steep chutes, like Electra and Dynamo, and the area is preparing for an expansion into some truly gnarly terrain.

Best for Kids: No clear winner. New Mexico: Taos has the best programs for both child daycare and kid skiing in the region. They are well organized, kids get personal attention, and the 18,000 square-foot Kinderkafig facility (remodeled for this season) is outstanding. Kids love Red River, with its on-mountain children's ski park, its large game arcade just off the ski slopes, and the town's funky, Old West-theme park atmosphere. The area also offers good rates for families, with many Stay/Ski Free lodgings. Tiny Sipapu is also popular with families due to its intimate size and slightly lower expenses. Angle Fire has lots of slopeside condos that offer family convenience.

Colorado: Both Crested Butte and Telluride have outstanding children's programs-both on-snow and daycare style. Crested Butte also has Kids Night Out (and mom and dad night out as well!), and the "Kids pay their age" program for lift tickets.
Best Sledding & Tubing: Purgatory takes this category with its Alpine Snowcoaster tubing hill. Crested Butte has a sledding hill at the ski area.

In New Mexico, several spots near Cloudcroft specialize in sledding and tubing, with rentals, snack bars, and warming lodges available. Angel Fire has a tubing/sledding area (with rentals available) that is open daily from 4:30-6:30 p.m. (under lights). Near Santa Fe, on the ski basin road, is Hyde State Park, which has a steep tubing area (bring your own ride).

Best Accommodations: Impossible to call. New Mexico: The convenience (ski in/out), food, service, and atmosphere of the Hotel St. Bernard at Taos are tops. More prime Taos Ski Valley properties include the Inn at Snakedance (ski in/out), the condominium units of Chalet Montesano, the Sierra del Sol condos, the Thunderbird Lodge, the posh Bavarian, and the Austing Haus (the latter is a five-minute drive from the slopes). Options in the town of Taos include the historic, expensive but fine Taos Inn; the relatively new, lovely and luxurious Fechin Inn; and a handful of nice B&Bs. For Ski Apache, the closest lodging is the Best Western Swiss Chalet. The Inn of the Mountain Gods offers a slew of resort amenities (from Vegas-style gambling to pools and tennis) but ordinary motel-style rooms. A nice change is offered by the Monjeau Shadows B&B; or Ellis Store & Co., and Casa de Patron--two other B&Bs in the historic town of Lincoln (about an hour from the slopes). In Cloudcroft is one of New Mexico's nicest hotels, the historic Lodge at Cloudcroft.

Colorado: The New Sheridan in Telluride, particularly if price is no object. A storied hotel in the heart of the historic town.

The Sheraton at Crested Butte is a posh choice close to the slopes, with an indoor/outdoor pool, restaurant, deli, and bar. For condos, try the Crested Mountain with ski-in convenience. For outstanding budget lodging in town, check out the new Crested Butte International Hostel.

Durango Mt. Resort has some very nice facilities right at the base-including the Eolus Condominiums and Kendall Mt. Complex originally costing some $15 million to build. They include luxury suites as well as singles. In the town of Durango are the wonderful, historic Strater Hotel and General Palmer Hotel.

Contact Ski N.M. at 505/984-0606 for reports on New Mexico ski areas; Colorado Ski Country at 303/825-SNOW for Colorado reports; or individual areas: Angel Fire--800/633-7463 x 3; Crested Butte--888/TO POWDER; Durango Mt. Resort: 800/525-0892, ext. 4; Enchanted Forest (XC)--505/754-2374; Monarch--800/228-7943; Pajarito--888/662-7669; Red River--505/754-2220; Sandia Peak--505/857-8977; Ski Santa Fe--505/983-9155; Sipapu--505/587-2240; Ski Apache--505/257-9001; Taos Ski Valley--505/776-2916; Telluride--970/728-7425; Wolf Creek--800/754-9653.

Daniel Gibson of Santa Fe ( is the author of Audubon Guide to the National Wildlife Refuges: Southwest (St. Martins) and two general guide books, American Southwest and New Mexico (John Muir Publications). His first day on "sliders" was 39 years ago.

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