Ski Apache

Ski Apache is a mountain of the unexpected. Nestled on the northern flank of the 12,003-foot Sierra Blanca peak near Ruidoso, it is one of America’s southernmost ski resorts, so you can simultaneously enjoy mild winter temperatures and alpine snow. The high elevation, generous acreage, and steeply pitched chutes make Apache a terrific pure skiing experience, but the mountain’s unique feature is its pan-cultural atmosphere. Since 1964 it has been owned and operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe, and the trails have names like Screaming Eagle and Geronimo. The whole hill is alive with the sound of español, spoken by both the locals and the out-of-towners: Fifteen percent of Apache’s skiers come from south of the border, and 70 percent are Texans. (Where else would you find a ski race called the Lubbock Cup?)

Whether you’re flying into El Paso (a two-hour drive away) or going the whole way by car, the trip to Ruidoso begins with a gorgeously desolate journey through the fringe of the Alamogordo and White Sands area, a preview of the vistas to come at the mountaintop: nothing but sand, greenery, and red clay dust for miles in every direction. Ski Apache is a good half an hour from Ruidoso, and to reach the base, which is at 9,600 feet, you have to negotiate a fairly treacherous mountain road for twelve miles.

What you won’t see on the way up is a cluster of condos or a faux-Tyrolean village with a Starbucks and a day care center: The land around Apache remains undeveloped because it belongs to either the Mescaleros or the National Forest Service. Skiers happily make do with two base areas that include a couple of lunch counters and snack bars, two cafeterias, a bar, a brand-new ski rental shop, and a rental facility for snowboarders. Apache’s semi-antiquated equipment and lack of amenities are part of its appeal—like Alta, Utah, it’s a no-frills mountain for people who know where their priorities lie.

You’ll probably want to start the day with a ride on New Mexico’s only gondola, which ascends all 1,700 feet of Apache’s vertical rise and has been in operation almost since the mountain first opened as Sierra Blanca in 1961 (the name was changed in 1984). The holiday crowds can be forbidding, but at off-peak times, when the lift lines are short, things move plenty fast—and you can’t help but fly on the mountain’s abundance of black diamonds. The left side of the mountain boasts almost a dozen speedy tree-cut runs, some dotted with moguls and others groomed flat and narrow for pure scorching pleasure. The trails are not going to present a major challenge to a veteran, but they offer a more than adequate setting to work on your bumps technique or settle in for a breathless afternoon of high-velocity cruising. The top of the mountain features a wide, beautiful intermediate bowl, though when I was there, it was a tad on the brown side. I’d obviously come too early in the season—by the end of winter 1998, the mountain had been graced with 320 inches of snow, 135 inches above its average.

As with Santa Fe, a ski trip to Ruidoso offers the opportunity to glimpse a bustling summer resort at rest. You won’t be able to watch the ponies at Ruidoso Downs, and it can get a little chilly on the golf course, but there’s more room at the blackjack tables, lift-served sledding and tubing at the Winter Park, and the simple charm of uncrowded streets and an unhurried pace. Above all, there’s a chance to do some serious shredding.— J.C.

Season November 26 —April 4 (505-336-4356; www.skiapache.com).

Size 750 acres, 55 runs (20 percent beginner, 35 percent intermediate, 45 percent expert).

Lifts/prices 11 lifts. All-day lift ticket $40 from November 26—28 and December 19—April 4, $29 from November 29—December 18; half-day ticket (afternoon only) $28, three-day ticket $114.

2005 Note: Please check www.skiapache.com for up-to-date fees and services information .

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