Snow Trax #6

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)

Snow Over the Desert: Ski Apache


When people think of skiing in New Mexico, their thoughts naturally turn toward the northern mountains, but high above the beautiful deserts of south-central New Mexico is one of the nation's finer mid-sized winter resorts, Ski Apache. Sitting on the flanks of majestic Sierra Blanca Peak, which soars to an elevation of 12,003 feet, winter is no joke here. In fact, this season Ski Apache has outstanding conditions, with a mid-mountain snow base of 55 inches or so.

From the resort's summit you can gaze down on the baking realm of White Sands National Monument more than 7,000 feet below--an astounding contrast! On clear days the awesome panorama encompasses the Sangre de Cristos to the north, the Gila country to the west, the high plains to the east, and mountain chains marching southward into Mexico. But there's more here than scenic vistas.

The area's attributes include the state's greatest lift capacity (16,650 skiers per hour), coupled with 1,000 vertical feet of snowmaking to get the resort through lean winters. And though not boasting major vertical drop, Ski Apache does have a respectable 1,900 verts spread over 750 acres and a surprisingly diverse range of terrain.

On "The Face" you'll find at least nine tough fall line pitches, such as Screaming Eagle, The Terrible, Incredible, Mescalero, and Roy's Run served by the state's only gondola (which rises 1700 vertical feet over its mile and a half length) and two chairs. Five other chairs service wonderfully groomed beginner and intermediate pockets with gently meandering runs, wide-open ballroom cruisers, and some beginning expert terrain. And for those in the know, there's even some glen and tree skiing, such as the hidden one-skier-wide tracks off Game Trail.

Perhaps the most outstanding natural feature of the mountain, however, is Apache Bowl, a vast tree-dotted amphitheater near the summit served by its own chairlift. While high winds occasionally strip away its snow, when it's on-as it is this year--it's fabulous. Snowboarders especially love the bowl's natural halfpipes, "The Fingers."

In addition to its outstanding mix of terrain, Ski Apache also exhibits a unique skiing culture. The majority of patrons drive in from Texas, some from as far away as Austin, who arrive bleary-eyed but ready to ski. Alongside them one finds scores of Mescalero Apaches, whose tribal government owns the resort, and local Hispanic and Anglo skiers. The final element is patrons from Mexico-who compose almost 20 percent of the area's business. The scene in the base area bar at the end of the day is-to say the least-quite lively.

Guiding this social experiment for the last 37 years has been general manager, Roy Parker. During a recent visit, the hard-charging skier (and accomplished pilot) filled me in on the history of the area as I caught my breath on chairlifts between runs. Ski Apache first opened in 1961 with three T-bars and $3 tickets under the ownership of Roswell oilman Robert O. Anderson, who installed one of the nation's first four-person gondola; it is still in use. In 1963 Anderson sold the area to the Mescalero Apache tribe, who had no experience running a ski area. In the winter of 1964, Parker-who worked previously in Colorado as a Vail instructor, a Winter Park patrolman, and as manager at Loveland Basin from 1956-1959--was brought in.

"It was kind of a fiasco, at first," he recalled. "Between a poor snow year the previous winter and bad management, the area was bankrupt." He methodically set about improving the ski experience while getting his hands around the financial problems. Since then he has had only two losing years, in 1974 and last winter, while adding significant new terrain and lifts, support facilities, and snowmaking-with the aid of his right-hand man, mountain manager Denny Grover, a former California surfer and sailor who arrived in 1967.

"I'm proud of the fact we've increased the number of skiers from 20,000 a season to over 200,000, and the role we play in introducing new skiers and snowboarders to the sport," said Parker. "On a good day, as many as 1200 people may be enrolled in ski/boarding school here, and of those, some 90 percent will be first-timers. In any given winter, we estimate we introduce 20,000 to 25,000 people to skiing. We've also have turned this into a good investment for the tribe. We employ more than 150 tribal members each season, and are generating a positive cash flow."

Looking forward, Parker noted there is more terrain to be developed at Ski Apache. In Apache Bowl, he pointed out a potential chairlift corridor which would add loads of upper-expert skiing, and he also has an eye on another potential expansion area. But he cautioned, "Whether or not it will ever become a reality is anyone's guess," citing the difficulties today in obtaining necessary permits for any ski area developments. But, expansion or no, Parker said he expects to close out his distinguished career at Ski Apache. "This has been my life." Not a bad way to go.

Prices--Adults lift tickets $42, kids 12 and under $27; adult rentals $19 per day, kids $10. Free lift tickets to first-timers enrolled in ski school.

Getting There--Ruidoso has a large airport, but no regularly scheduled major airline service. Most people drive-it is about three and a half hours to the ski area from Santa Fe. The ski area is 12 miles from Ruidoso up a windy, narrow road off NM 48. Chains are required during storms.

Lodging--There's loads of options in the area, though none at the base itself. Because summer is actually "high" season here, winter rates are quite reasonable. There are hundreds of condominiums and many good motels in and near Ruidoso--including the comfortable Best Western Swiss Chalet (800-477-9477) with dining, a bar, sauna, and indoor pool. A few miles beyond Ruidoso is the Inn of the Mountain Gods, a four-season resort owned and operated by the Mescaleros. Amenities include a casino, indoor tennis courts, and swimming. A shuttle service provides rides to the ski area and town. For details, call 800-545-9011. For general information on Ruidoso lodging, call 800-253-2255.

Another lodging option is to stay in the historic town of Lincoln, about 37 miles from the ski area. This small, charming town set along the Rio Bonito was the center of the famous Lincoln County War and the life of Billy the Kid. There are several excellent B&Bs here, including the 115-year-old Ellis Store & Co. (800/653-6460). Rates begin at $69 and include a tremendous breakfast. Another excellent Lincoln B&B is Casa de Patron (505-653-4676).

Other Activities: Because of the altitude difference between Ruidoso and Ski Apache, you can also often enjoy golfing on one of the town's two public courses on your ski trip. There's also horseback riding, sleigh and carriage rides, snowmobiling, live theater and music at the incredible Spencer Theater (505-336-4800), and numerous art galleries to peruse.

Information: web sites: or Snow reports: 505-257-9001; general information: 505-336-4356.


Ski Santa Fe will host the annual Jimmie Heuga Snow Express, a fund raiser for MS programs, Feb. 22-23. The event was launched in 1986 to support the Jimmie Heuga Center of Edwards. Colorado, a non-profit institution dedicated to improving the quality of life for people suffering from multiple sclerosis. Three-person teams of skiers and/or snowboarders compete in a four-hour marathon and a giant slalom event for prizes and points. These results are combined with additional points awarded for a team's fundraising ability (a minimum of $1,000 is required to enter). The winning team will receive a trip to Vail, Colorado to represent Santa Fe in the national finals on April 15-18. Participants receive free skiing courtesy of Ski Santa Fe, and a free racing clinic being conducted by Norwegian World Cup and Olympic ski racer Reidar Wahl. They also can attend the opening reception on Feb. 13 at the Governor's Mansion, hosted by Governor Gary Johnson, and a free breakfast and lunch at the ski area. Teams are still being formed and accepted. Register your team at For details, contact this year's volunteer coordinator, Dan McCarthy, owner and manager of Santa Fe Mountain Sports (505/988-3337 or

Ski Apache is out to prove who is the fastest skier in Texas. March 3-4, the area will present the Texas State Ski Championship, with classes for women and men in both skiing and snowboarding. There will be various age classes as well. Prizes will include trophies, medals, T-shirts, bibs and bragging rights. The grand prize-a season pass to Ski Apache for next winter will be awarded to the fastest man and woman skier. Participants will also be included in a raffle for loads of major ski gear and lodging at the Inn of the Mountain Gods. The cost per entrant is $60 for pre-registration (at or at "J's Joint" in Ruidoso on Friday, march 2, 6:30-8:30 p.m.), or $80 the morning of the event at the Ski Apache Lodge (a valid Texas driver's license is required. Registration includes a two-day lift ticket, T-shirt, and race bib. For details, call 505/336-4356

Contact Ski N.M. at 505/984-0606 or 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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