It comes as a real surprise to some visitors to Southern New Mexico that there is a thriving, vibrant, and exciting winter sports scene in and around the resort community of Ruidoso. Set at an elevation of almost 7,000 feet, in a good winter one can sled, ice skate, and snowshoe right in town. Seventeen miles away and some 3,000 feet higher in elevation is the southernmost major downhill ski area in the nation, Ski Apache.
One of only a few ski areas in the nation owned and operated by a Native American tribe, Ski Apache offers up some surprisingly good skiing and snowboarding in an average year and excellent possibilities in a wet winter. It is home to the state’s only gondola lift, which provides quick and weatherproof access to the summit, plus enough chairlifts to ensure short or no lift lines. Its Windrider Zipline, one of the world’s longest, runs almost 9,000 linear feet from its start elevation of 11,489 feet and operates even in winter — weather permitting.
This ski area, which seems an impossibility amidst the Chihuahua Desert of south-central New Mexico, was launched in 1961 as Sierra Blanca Ski Resort by oil magnate Robert O. Anderson and general manager Kingsbury Pitcher.
In 1962 the state’s first, and only, gondola was added to the area’s original three Poma (or button) lifts, attracting a phenomenal 25,000 skiers in its second year of operations. In 1963, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, whose original homelands encompassed the region, bought the operation, becoming the nation’s first tribe to own a ski area. In 1984 the area’s name was changed to Ski Apache.
On a good year, from its high point you can stand on top of five feet or more of snow and look west and down 7,000 feet to sparkling White Sands National Park where horny toads dart about yucca and cactus. The greatest vertical displacement in the state offers magnificent views of mountain ranges marching south toward Mexico and eastward onto the Great Plains.
In the summer of 2012, a massive fire roared through the ski area, destroying its original gondola and two other chairs (all since replaced) and killing large tracts of pines. The ski area is slowly clearing the dead and down wood, which will eventually open up significant new skiing terrain.
The area has a preponderance of beginner and intermediate runs, but also abundant terrain for expert skiers, and even some excellent tree skiing when conditions allow.
The distinctive Modernistic-style main lodge was designed by award-winning architect Victor Lundy, with soaring wooden columns echoing the surrounding tall pines.
With no development in the base area other than a basic lodge with a cafeteria and bar, all visitors stay, dine, and pursue other activities in Ruidoso, which has a huge number of lodging options, restaurants, small shops, and other amenities.
The ski area has a vertical drop of 1,900 feet, spans 750 acres, averages 180 inches of snowfall each year, and has two terrain parks. It has a full rental department, instruction program, cafeteria, bar, and sports shop.
Sledding and tubing
When winter favors south-central New Mexico with its normal snowfall, visitors and locals flock to Ruidoso Winter Park, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2022. A magic carpet lift carries you uphill, and then you can choose your descent, from mild Penguin Park to steeper, faster runs. Each rider has a separate lane for safety. There is a concession stand for food and drink, and you are allowed to bring your own as well. Tickets allow for three hours of fun per person ($36.50), with evening sessions ($26.50) beginning at 3 p.m. Their VIP Igloo Package includes a private heated tent, an attendant, daylong passes, and more, beginning at $475 per day. With the installation of a mountain coaster and a zipline, thrills can be had even when Mother Nature fails to call. The park is located north of town in Alto at 121 Ski Run Road, just off NM 48 in the Eagle Creek Sports Complex.
Sleigh rides through the Upper Canyon area of Ruidoso have been a winter tradition for many years. This enchanting experience is a great way to take in the beautiful lights of the Upper Canyon’s special holiday display and the stars of the night sky. Rides, pulled by draft horses sporting jingle bells, generally run 30 minutes and begin at 5:30 p.m. They operate even without snow, moving on hidden wheels.
For the 2021 – 22 winter, the Ruidoso Parks and Recreation Department installed an outdoor ice rink at Wingfield Park (300 Center St.) and plans to operate it again this winter. A day pass with rental skates last season ran $20 per person, and for the pass alone, $10. Last winter, it operated daily during the Christmas holidays, and Fridays – Sundays beginning in mid to late December. It will close in early to mid-February, depending on the weather.
Information at 575-257-5030.
There are numerous hiking trails in the Ruidoso area on national forest lands that are also suitable for cross-country skiing, though none are prepared for skiing and, few people pursue this winter activity near Ruidoso. For details on possible routes and other information, contact the Smokey Bear District Ranger Office in Ruidoso at 575-257-4095, or visit
Likewise, not many winter visitors or locals seem to enjoy snowshoeing in and around Ruidoso, but the beauty of this activity is that all you need are the shoes themselves and a bit of the white stuff. Walking trails in and around town provide possible routes, and folks are known to even enjoy a snowshoe stroll around local golf courses. See the website above for trail maps.
So, next time you think of a winter vacation, rather than looking north to the crowded and expensive resorts of Colorado, Utah, or Wyoming, think closer to home and motor over to friendly Ruidoso and its bevy of winter activities and charm.
Story by Daniel Gibson
Daniel Gibson was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame in October 2022 for his snowsports writing. He is the co-author of Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico (Arcadia Publishing, 2021), with 183 historic photos; and author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, websites, and magazines including Powder, Ski, and Wintersport Business. He can be reached at [email protected] or via DanielBGibson.com.
Posted by Ruidoso.com