There are more ways to enjoy the snow than bumping down a slope on skis, a snowboard or an inner tube. Imagine, instead, tramping on snowshoes or sliding on cross-country skis through the forested hills near Taos, New Mexico. Around a small grove of trees is a yurt, or round hut, with a thin trail of smoke rising from its chimney. There are no phones, no computer, no television, or distractions of any kind in this winter wonderland. With a few friends, a backpack full of wine and food, the only activities are exploring the gorgeous, high-alpine scenery during the days and spending nights playing cards by lamp-light, or chatting next to the wood-burning stove.
Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are great ways to get into the backcountry and enjoy the winter landscape, where there’s a world of natural beauty and adventure. In most areas, the choice of using cross-country skis or snowshoes is based on personal preference, since both are usually viable options. Unlike the distaste some snowboarders and skiers have for each other on the downhill slopes, the snowshoers and cross-country skiers of the backcountry generally get along. There are only a few basic rules: If it is possible, the snowshoers avoid trampling ski tracks and the person coming down hill has the right-of way. Compared to snowshoes, cross-country skis are harder to learn and climbing hills is more difficult. However, they are faster downhill and exciting on runs. Snowshoes, on the other hand, are good for people who want to enjoy nature by being in it, not flying through it.
One of the best places to take the first step towards becoming a snow-wizard is in Red River’s Enchanted Forest. The area is great for families, dogs and new-skiers. It has clearly marked, groomed trails, which makes negotiating the terrain easy and trails are rated according to difficulty, just like you’d find on a downhill ski slope.
They also offer a warming hut, there’s a ski patrol if you get lost and outhouses along the trail. A rental package that includes lessons is around $40 and is recommended for those on their first, wobbly day on skis; the less time they spend face down in the snow the more time beginners will spend enjoying themselves.
Other attractions include an area with dog-friendly terrain, ‘skating’ races where speedy, athletic skiers punish themselves in a brutal up-hill race. A popular event, held on Christmas day, is the Luminaria Ski Tour, when the trails are lined with luminaries for night skiing and snowshoeing. Pesole, cookies and hot drinks are included with admission to the event.
Food plays into another interesting event on Feb. 25. During ‘Just Desserts’ participants travel a kind of Willy Wonka landscape, where black forest cheesecake, 18 layer cinnamon tort, and espresso cake are laid out on different picnic tables along the Enchanted Forest’s five-mile track. Further proof that adding a cake or two can improve anything.
Over the last several years, the Valle Caldera National Preserve has seen a lot of improvements in the way it is managed, and this year is no exception.
The Valle Caldera is one of New Mexico’s most beautiful and pristine wild areas. Known for its enormous sweeping meadows, frequent elk, coyote and even bald eagle spottings, this national preserve is truly unique. With the addition of two yurts and easier access for skiers and snowshoers, this may be the best winter in years to visit the Valle Caldera. Some trails are free, while others require a $10 permit. It is $15 to go snowshoeing and skiing at night.
Starting this winter, two yurts will be available inside the Valle Caldera. With the exception of food, the yurts are fully outfitted. They are being rented on a lottery-system, much like the ones sold for some hunting permits. The system hasn’t proved highly successful for yurt rentals, however. Lottery tickets are $5 for a specific weekend and there is no limit to the number of tickets an applicant can buy. The winner of the lottery can rent a 6-person yurt for $180 a night.
Those who don’t want to risk their perfect weekend to a lottery might be interested in the Southwest Nordic Center’s Bull of the Woods Yurt, two miles from the Taos Ski Valley. This yurt will also be tempting for the snowboarder who yearns to see what the mountains of Taos have to offer. The Taos Ski Valley doesn’t allow snowboards, but they’re welcome in the backcountry. The world-class terrain is ideal for the boarder or downhill skier who doesn’t mind doing some hiking to take a ride through untouched powder. SNC also has yurts in Chama.
The Bull of the Woods Yurt accommodates 10 people comfortably and has propane cook-stoves, all kitchen utensils, a selection of games and a wood stove keeps the inside toasty. Guests only have to bring their own food and equipment like snowshoes and skis. Most weekends are already taken, but there are some still available late in the season.
For those who are less interested in steep runs and dodging through trees, there is phenomenal high-alpine touring to be done on snowshoes and cross-country skis as well. The moderately difficult, ridge-line hike to Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico, is one of the area’s prize attractions.
For trails closer to home, try Santa Fe’s popular Aspen Trail. As the name implies, this moderate trail breaks through the aspens for some spectacular views. In the Sandias, the best place to start is at the south end of the observatory parking lot. The Sandia Crest Trail will take you along the ridge to the Kiwanis hut. Heading down the northeast side will take you to a network of well-labeled trails. Cross-country ski maps are available through the Forest Service for a nominal fee.
You can rent gear at Enchanted Forest, but elsewhere, you’ll have to come prepared, which means renting snowshoes or skis in town. In general, snowshoe rentals are about $15 per day. If you don’t own a pair of waterproof hiking boots, you might consider renting those as well. Skis come with their own boots and cost about $25 per day. To rent gear in Albuquerque, stop by REI or Sportz Outdoors. In Santa Fe, Sangre De Cristo Mountain Works or Alpine Sports, and Taos Mountain Outfitters in Taos. Check the “Ski resort report” for current snow conditions.
Southwest Nordic Center’s Weekend rates are $125 a night with a two-night minimum. Call 758-4761 or visit http://www.southwestnordiccenter.com.
A day pass at the Enchanted Forest is $12. Call 754-2374 or visit http://wwww.enchantedforestxc.com.
Valles Caldera, visit http://www.vallescaldera.gov or call 382-5537.
WHERE TO RENT GEAR
Alpine Sports 121 Sandoval St, Santa Fe, 983-5155
REI 1550 Mercantile Ave NE, Albuquerque, 247-1191
Sangre De Cristo Mountain Works 328 South Guadalupe St., Santa Fe ,984-8221
Sportz Outdoors 6915 Montgomery Blvd NE, Albuquerque, 837-9400
Taos Mountain Outfitters 114 South Plaza, Taos, 758-9292.
**First published in the Dec. 7 issue of Crosswinds Weekly.