Snow Trax #5, 2002

Highline Ridge, Taos Ski Valley
Highline Ridge, Taos Sky Valley

by Daniel Gibson

This column on snow sports and related travel is posted bi-weekly. In addition to New Mexico, it covers the Southern Rockies of Colorado and occasionally roams further afield in the Western United States.

Piping Hot: Tune Out, Drop in at Angel Fire's New Terrain Parks


Once they couldn't get no respect, but today snowboarders and trick skiers are the darlings of ski resorts, propping up an otherwise sluggish industry. The growing importance New Mexico's boarders and new "free ride" skiers has certainly been recognized by Angel Fire Resort, which is pumping some serious money and effort into wooing this segment of winter sports enthusiasts to its fine facilities in the breathtakingly beautiful Moreno Valley of north-central New Mexico.

This season, in fact, Angel Fire has opened not one, not two but three terrain parks-including the state's only professionally designed and maintained halfpipe. Here, on any given weekend, you'll find hundreds of earnest, enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders plopped down on the snow at the top of the Liberation Terrain Park at the mountain's summit. Pop and rock tunes blare from speakers hanging from the park's own two-person chairlift, while the trick riders scope out their fellow aerialists in the halfpipe and jumps below. You see kids pulling tail grabs, 360s, and even an occasional flip. This ain't no ordinary turn left, turn right kind of place.

"Droppin' in," calls Alex Diamond, 15, of Albuquerque. "I'm, gonna give it a try," he explains. "A friend just ripped the pipe, and now I've got to follow." He stands up, crouches into a stable stance and tips over the edge of the resort's halfpipe and pulls off a credible series of turns up and down the pipe's steep walls before exiting to a high-five from his bud at the bottom.

The halfpipe was designed by Chris Gunnarson of Snow Park Technologies, and is unique in that most of its mass is actually earth (11,000 square yards of dirt were bulldozed into place to create its walls), which means it can open with a minimal amount of snow. Gunnarson has designed pipes for the ESPN Winter X Games, as well as international events. The pipe features walls at least 12 feet high (and as tall as 14 feet in some spots) and runs 500 feet in length. To maintain its smooth, sloping walls, the resort purchased a Bombardier Halfpipe Grinder, and to police its use, has hired five young park rangers.

"It's getting tons of use," says Chris Dunsirn, 20, of Albuquerque, who has an enviable staff position as a terrain park ranger. "We're getting great feedback on it, and the most exciting thing is that every time people show up to use it, it's different. We change the jumps nightly, and are adding new rails and other 'hits' all the time. The pipe is just one part of it."

It couldn't have come at a better time. "This state has always been seven to ten years behind the rest of the nation, but Angel Fire has bolted forward into the future with this move," says enthused boarder Erin Fria, 31, of Albuquerque. "I've been fortunate to ride at a lot of resorts, and this is as good as many I've seen in California and Colorado. Hopefully other New Mexico resorts will follow suit. I love this sport, and it is terrific to see some local resort step up. I drive up every weekend, because I'd rather give them my business-they obviously value snowboarders. And the new parks are first class. If there's powder, I'm there. Otherwise, I'm here in the terrain park. It's a personal challenge and something new."

Liberation Park at Angel Fire is actually just one of the resort's three terrain parks. It is designated as the intermediate-level facility. On the mountain's "backside" is the advanced level Badlands Park (with bigger jumps but no pipe), and at the resort's base is the beginner-level Exhibition Park, with a quarter-pipe. "The bottom line is to increase the number of skiers and riders, and to generate a new level of excitement," explains Jon Mahanna, the resort's mountain manager. "We aren't just a ski area anymore. We're a snow sports area, with cross country skiing, snow shoeing, snow biking, ski blading and the terrain parks-something for everyone. When you look at the industry trends, skier numbers are flat-at best. If it wasn't for the snowboarders and trick skiers, we'd really be hurting. Currently snow boarders comprise about 12 percent of our business. I see the opportunity, with the terrain parks, to increase this to 30 to 35 percent."

But the young users aren't thinking about economics as they wait their turn to drop into Liberation Park. Amber Herbert, 13, or Mabank, Texas, is simply nervous--but game. "My boyfriend is at the bottom waiting for me. I guess I have to follow." Mark Hughes, 16 of Amarillo, on the other hand, has been trick skiing for eight years. "I want to go pro," he notes, shaking the ice off his Snow Jam skis, designed specifically for terrain park use. "That's my main focus now in skiing. I've been on bigger pipes before, but this is pretty cool for New Mexico." Justin Hoyle, 19 of Taos, another of the terrain park rangers, notes, "I enjoy the whole mountain, but I have the most fun here. Right now I'm working on mastering the spine (a long rail for balance tricks) and straight airs with grabs, but there is always something new to learn. It's a lot of fun."


To go with the new terrain parks, Angel Fire is hosting eight or nine major competitive events this season, several sanctioned by the U.S. Snowboarding Association. In March it will conduct the Big Open for boarders and skiers, with prize money ranging from $5,000 to $10,000. It is expected to draw participants from as far away as California.

Angel Fire was founded in the mid-1960s by the LeBus family of Wichita Falls, Texas as a land development operation. With the arrival of  new owners (Tim Allen, Greg Allen and Craig Martin of Dallas) in the mid-1990s, the installation of high-speed quad chairlifts in 1996 and 1998 and other major facility improvements, it has evolved into a fine resort.

The hardware has been joined by a proliferation of snow sliding options. The resort is the only ski area in New Mexico to offer the new sport of snowbikes, and last winter opened one of the state's premier cross-country ski operations. It also provides snowshoeing, ski blades, snowmobiling and tubing (at the summit on weekends and holidays during the day and on a tiny slope at the base from 5-7 p.m. for $7 per person), and numerous non-snow activities, including wagon rides, and winter horseback riding. The resort's famous and wacky World Championship snow shovel races will be held this year Feb. 1-3.

The resort boasts a respectable 2,200 foot vertical drop spread over a modest 400 acres. Runs are ranked 31 beginner, 48 percent intermediate, and 21 percent advanced. The area is best noted for its long, relaxing cruising runs, some of which-like the appropriately named Headin' Home--wind miles from the 10,650-foot-high summit back down to the main base. These easy-going runs allow even beginners to descend from the summit--where you can scope out the impressive views of the Moreno Valley below and New Mexico's highest mountain,13,161-foot-high  Wheeler Peak to the west. Tucked away in the back basin are steeper runs like Hari Kari, Minder Binder, and Charisma. Nice Day is another advanced run which meaders along a ridge and presents an interesting double fall line.

Getting There: Angel Fire is a 30-minute drive to the east of Taos, over Palo Flechado Pass.

Lift Tickets: Adult single day lift tickets (for all lifts) run $43, for teens (ages 13-17) $35, and for kids (ages 7-12) $27, and free for kids under 7.

Dining & Dancing: Angel Fire has one of New Mexico's better ski area restaurants, Aldo's Cantina. It's located in the base area just to the north of the Chile Express chairlift. The intimate space-only 16 or so tables-has a pretty fireplace and a warm and colorful ambiance. One of the oldest eateries in the village is Zebadiah's Restaurant and Bar (NM 434), which is open for lunch and dinner daily and is popular with locals. Pool and live music on weekends provides one of the town's few places to congregate. Another suggestion for some tasty New Mexican fare is Maia's (village center on N. Angel Fire Rd., 505/377-1897).

Accommodations: The most convenient place to stay is the Angel Fire Resort Hotel, located just a few minutes walk from the Chile Express chairlift. Ask for a room with a slope side view. The lodge has a small indoor pool, hot tub, a bar (it often hosts live music on weekends and holidays), several restaurants, small a video arcade, retail ski shop, and gift shop. Altogether, there's some 3,000 beds in town for visitors, including many convenient condominiums.

Information:  web site at, or call 800/633-7463 or 505/ 377-8012.

Resort Contact Information & Seasonal Schedule

Angel Fire: 800/633-7463 or, open Dec. 14 through March 24; Crested Butte: 888/463-6714 or, open Dec. 15 through April 15; Durango Mt. Resort: 800/982-6103 or, open through April 7; Enchanted Forest (XC): 800/966-9381 or, open; Monarch: 800/228-7943 or, open; Pajarito Mountain:505/662-5725 or, opening as soon as possible; Red River: 505/754-2223 or, open fulltime Dec. 14 through March 24; Sandia Peak: 505/242-9133 or, scheduled season Dec. 14 through March 17; Ski Rio: 505/758-7707 or; Ski Santa Fe: 505/982-4429 or, scheduled season Dec. 8 through April 7; Sipapu: 505/587-2240 or, scheduled season Dec. 13 through early April; Ski Apache: 505/336-4356 or, open through March 31; Taos Ski Valley: 505/776-2291 or, scheduled season Dec. 14 through April 7; Telluride: 866/287-5016 or, open through April 7; Wolf Creek: 800/754-9653 or open through April 7.

Contact Ski N.M. at 505/984-0606 or for reports on New Mexico ski areas and to order a free winter trip guide; Colorado Ski Country at 303/825-SNOW or 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. 6; Enchanted Forest (XC)-800/966-9381; 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 four books, most recently Pueblos of the Rio Grande: A Visitors Guide (Rio Nuevo Publishers). His first day on "sliders" was 40 years ago.

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