The land of enchantment: Sleepy skiing town of Taos is New Mexico's best-kept secret
I didn't like New Mexico at first. It seemed to be lacking in color, void of the vivid hues we see in Houston's abundant trees, grasses and flowers. But, now that I've been there often, I find the place is under my skin — to the point where now, every time we go to the mountains of Northern New Mexico to ski, I talk to my Las Cruces-raised husband about perhaps retiring there, in a traditional adobe home decked out in local finds: Glazed pottery for everyday kitchen dishes, Native American-inspired rug designs and pillows and handcrafted retablos of saints on the walls.
My husband smiles, because he understands how this spiritual place can fill the soul, but also because he never thought I'd come to such a mindset.
I grew up skiing in Colorado. I remember how the then-fledgling Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory charmed in Breckenridge with its tiny house headquarters, the steeply sloped roof like something out of a fairy tale, with hot chocolate and cookies inside. My childhood ski memories are of blue jeans sprayed in Scotchgard, rustic decor, close-knit times with family and the beauty of the mountains.
So I was thrilled to find that Forbes' list of the top 10 ski resorts in the United States did not include little laid-back, alpine-flavored Taos Ski Valley near Valdez, New Mexico, because, in some ways, bringing our boys to Taos to ski allows us all a chance to go back to the laid-back Colorado where my father taught me to wedge and make parallel turns. Taos is more a "ski and be skiing" than "see and be seen" kind of resort, and I hope that it stays that way.
My childhood ski memories are of blue jeans sprayed in Scotchgard, rustic decor, close-knit times with family and the beauty of the mountains.
Taos is a fantastic place to learn for the first time — or to accept the challenge of slopes rated on a more difficult scale overall on a mountain renown for its steepness. It's a place for local food that's more homemade than gourmet, and for lift lines that are close to nonexistent outside of holidays.
Après-ski at Taos Ski Valley lasts until 9 p.m. at the latest — lifts close at 4 p.m. — and it's mostly about classic rock or live music, or both, and beer, and trash talk about the when and how and where of the day's skiing. No big hair, no big jewelry, no fur. Tech gear's always in fashion, as are contented faces weathered by sun, wind and snow.
Where to ski
All lifts but one are serviced by each kind of slope — easiest (green circle), more difficult (blue square) and most difficult (black diamond), so groups with differing comfort levels can still ride up the lifts together, even as each person's map of trails to conquer may differ.
Kachina Peak, at nearly 12,500 feet, is the summit of Taos Ski Valley — and the hike from the top of Lift 2 along Highline Ridge to get there, carrying skis, is a long 45 minutes. Expert skiers and boarders wanting even more from Taos than chairlift-accessible runs (even if they're hair-raising double-black diamonds) regularly make that trek for breathtaking views, wide-open terrain, and long runs down to The Bavarian.
Where to shop
On the mountain base at Taos, aside from the lift ticket window and two separate ski schools with separate bunny slopes — one for adults and one for children — there's a photos-from-the-mountain booth, gift shops, hotels, restaurants, the all-important supplier of hot chocolate and cookies, and ski-and-board rental shops with overnight storage lockers and performance demo packages for serious skiers and boarders.
Chocolate Extreme (Monday through Thursday from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m., Friday through Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. during ski season) has sold sweets at the ski valley for 20 years. Its homemade toffee is so popular it's available online at Taos Toffee, and at organic market Cid's in town.
Cottam's rental shop has an enviable collection of Neff gear, and all manner of "Taos" wear. Next door, Boot Doctors has a similarly impressive collection of mountain gear, and a team of experts who can customize a ski boot to a foot via new vacuum technology, or custom-form cushiony insoles.
Where to eat
One of the best parts about skiing Taos is the local chili, whether it’s the surprisingly awesome red chili hot chocolate served on-slope at the Whistlestop Cafe at the bottom of Lift 6, or Stray Dog Cantina's green chili stew, complete in Northern New Mexican style with an over-easy fried egg topper, or perhaps
"Christmas" chili (that would be both red AND green) smothered onto huevos rancheros at Doc Martin's in town. New Mex-Mex is excellent food; after eating here for several days you may not want your Mexican cuisine sans chili again. And you may be a bit wistful at the lack of honey for sopapillas on your next Tex-Mex table.
When we do a family ski trip we fly into Albuquerque and drive the picturesque 2.5 hours up to Taos. (You can also fly into Santa Fe Airport and save about an hour's drive time.) My in-laws, meanwhile, drive up from Las Cruces. They don’t ski; they relax and visit museums and churches. Then my mother-in-law cooks. We're treated to lovely hot homemade New Mex-Mex every night. Sans such familial talent, the fare — or at least the atmosphere — at the following restaurants will provide a worthy alternative to homemade posole and enchiladas:
New Mex-Mex is excellent food; after eating here for several days you may not want your Mexican cuisine sans chili again.
Slopeside, Stray Dog Cantina has fantastic local food and a laid-back après-ski atmosphere, and is always our first choice. Pandora station Spacemonkeys Versus Gorillaz provides atmosphere while you're downing Tuaca-spiced apple cider or New Mexican green chili stew. Photos of patrons wearing their Stray Dog Cantina T-shirts at around-the-world locales line the staircase up to the bar area. For a lunchtime change from chili, try The Bavarian, attached to the Bavarian lodge at the bottom of Lift 4, which serves German fare perfectly paired with beer: Weinerschnitzel, apple strudel and spatzle. Other après action slopeside may include cocktails at The Blonde Bear Tavern at the Edelweiss, or live music at the Martini Tree Bar.
Off slope, KTAO Station Bar has a menu, but is more about atmosphere than food. Sit right next to the DJ booth here at the world's one-and-only 100 percent solar-powered radio station, enjoy an excellent view of the mountains and listen as guest artists go on the air. Shuttles will take you to and from the ski valley, 15 minutes away. Open until 11 p.m.
In the town of Taos, find very laid-back, family-friendly authentic New Mex-Mex at Michael's Kitchen. Be sure to visit the bakery on your way out. Antonio's, also in town, is more formal and specializes in both Mexican and New Mexican dishes. If you're adventurous, try the enchiladas de huitlacochecon mole verde — delicious. The Range Cafe in Bernalillo is quite conveniently located on the way to the Albuquerque airport, for last-minute local goodness before having to wait for H-E-B's annual Hatch Green Chili Roast to hit Houston.
Where to stay
The Taos Chamber of Commerce has an extensive list of B&Bs and other places to stay. Taos, the town, is approximately 40 minutes from Taos Ski Valley, and tiny Arroyo Seco is a mid-point, approximately 20 minutes from the ski valley and 20 minutes from the town of Taos. Slopeside ski-in/ski-out options at Taos Ski Valley include The Powderhorn, Edelweiss, Bavarian, St. Bernard and Alpine Suites.
The luxurious El Monte Sagrado, historic Taos Inn, and Hotel La Fonda on the Plaza are favorites in the town of Taos. For unique off-the-grid accommodation, look into an Earthship. Or book an inexpensive stay at hostel The Abominable Snowmansion in Arroyo Seco.
How to acclimate
A word of warning before you make a quick trip from Houston to 9,200 feet above sea level: As the locals say, "The mountain either accepts you, or rejects you."
If the mountain should reject you, you’ll know it. A sudden bout of altitude sickness may include headache, dizziness, nausea, weakness and shortness of breath which, if experienced, may be quelled after a spell or even prevented in the first place by breathing less — that is, resting — on the first day, increasing simple carb intake, and saying "yes" to caffeine and "no" to alcohol until acclimation.
May the mountain accept you immediately. But bring aspirin and Dramamine—just in case.
If you choose not to exert yourself on the first day, there is plenty to see and do in the Taos area off the slopes:
Shop Taos Plaza: Fans of high design for the home might find discounted souvenirs at Nambé's company-owned store on Taos Plaza. Browse the unique fabrics at Taos Adobe Quilting while the kids go next door with Grandma and Papa to Twirl Toystore and Playspace, or visit the charming John Dunn Shops one block north of the Plaza.
Visit the Museums: Museums just off Taos Plaza with rotating exhibits include the Harwood and Fechin. Taos' oldest museum highlights the life and times of local legend Kit Carson. Get an integral feel for the culture and history of Taos four miles north of the Plaza at the Millicent Rogers Museum: More than a dozen galleries feature 5,000 or so pieces of Native American and Hispanic folk art, including furniture, weaving, paintings, pottery and Native American jewelry.
See the Earthships: Taos' hippie counterculture pervades to this day; there is a worship center for nearly every religion in diverse Taos, and backpackers come from all over the world to learn how to make their own earthships, radically green buildings made entirely of recycled materials, usually non-traditionally shaped, and existing off the grid. Taos is, in fact, Earthship World Headquarters.
Stand on Rio Grande Gorge Bridge: Ten miles northwest of Taos, walk out to the middle of the fifth highest bridge in the United States, and then look down the dizzying 650 feet to the rift valley, where the watercourse of the Rio Grande forms a 50-mile tectonic chasm, beginning near the Colorado border and continuing southeast of Taos.
Experience Native American culture: Visit nearby Taos Pueblo. Be sure to check visiting hours, as the Pueblo closes for tribal rituals.
Get a spa treatment, do a wine tasting: At Ojo Caliente, under an hour west of Taos, enjoy a spa treatment or soak in natural mineral spring pools (iron, soda, and arsenic) or the mud pool. (If you go, bring an older bathing suit.) Thirty minutes away but equidistant southwest from Taos, the Vivác Winery offers house-made chocolate as well as some excellent dry reds. Black Mesa Winery is also worth a visit, but not if you don't like cats. Despite many freely roaming little winery mascots, Black Mesa's signature wine is a tasty blend called Coyote.
Spend the afternoon in Arroyo Seco: Arroyo Seco is small but boasts galleries, shops and eateries worth visiting including Taos Cow, open for breakfast and lunch, and specializing in ice cream. Get your saint retablos at Santos y Mas, or the Arroyo Seco Mercantile. And, be sure to stop by Claireworks for unique silver jewelry by local artist Claire Haye.
Venture to the Churches: One of the most photographed churches in New Mexico, San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, built between 1772 and 1816, is four miles southwest of Taos on the plaza in the Ranchos de Taos historic district. El Santuario de Chimayó is the "Lourdes of America" destination of thousands of pilgrims and travelers each year who come for various reasons; some hope to be physically healed by visiting. The church was built in 1816 over what many believe to be the site of miraculous healings 200 years ago where a wooden crucifix was unearthed. Chimayó, just over an hour's drive from Taos, is the starting point on what is called the High Road to Taos, which begins at the Rio Grande River and winds through tiny adobe pueblos in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, ending in Taos.
If you come to Taos, expect local color and local food, and something for everyone in your party, whether or not they ski or snowboard. Bring your sense of adventure. Leave your fancy clothes at home; relax and enjoy the mountain.