of Southern Rockies Snow Sports
By DANIEL GIBSON
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
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,
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
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
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
Best Extreme Terrain: A tie between Taos Ski Valley and Crested
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
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
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
Daniel Gibson of Santa Fe (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.