TravelCross-Country Skiing in the “Great White Southwest”

FasterSkierOctober 9, 2005

I got the idea to write this story when I recently spoke to the Miller family, who own and operate the Enchanted Forest XC Ski Area in Red River, NM ( They are running a special on season’s ski passes in which you can ski at four of the [desert] Southwest’s best-known Nordic ski areas that, in addition to Enchanted Forest, include: Flagstaff Nordic in Flagstaff, AZ, and the Rim Nordic and Green Valley Nordic areas in the San Bernadino Mountains of Southern California. I got to thinking more than usual about how interesting it is that we have such great areas for xc skiing in this part of the world. We’re about the same latitude as the Greek Isles, Northern Iraq, Oklahoma City and Nashville, Tennessee.

It seems kind-of strange, but I’ll bet we have better snow conditions on average here in New Mexico than much of the Midwest. Last year, we even had better snow than British Columbia, Canada. Of course, New Mexico is a state where the average elevation is somewhere above the limits for holding any Olympic or world-cup competitions. Even Albuquerque sits at a mile above sea level. You can’t xc ski in Albuquerque itself, but a quick 18-minute tram ride to the top of Sandia Peak (10,300 feet) puts you right smack-dab on top of a lot of snow. It’s pretty cool to be able to xc ski along the Sandia Crest trail and look down on the Rio Grande Valley’s desert landscape. In the middle of the winter, a cross-country skier can go up to Sandia Peak and ski on perfect Swix blue conditions in the morning, then go for a fairly comfortable bike ride in the valley in the early afternoon. The Southwest can also be prone to long, warm, dry spells, so that is always a fear we live with. In particular, high pressure can set up in the Great Basin or the Four Corners region, and put a major kibosh on our “normal” Pacific low-pressure systems that march in off of either the Southern Baja Coast (our best precip producers), or the much colder Northern Pacific Coastal storms (better for cold weather and cold snow).

Yep, New Mexico is a great place for xc skiing…most of the time. Recent winters have been very sporadic, probably like other places. Last winter, we got tons of snow early in November and were able to ski on great snow until the second week of April. It was never the least bit bad. However, two years prior to that, we were on rock skis the entire winter and spent just as much time scooping snow onto the big rocks as much as we skied. Other challenges we face are trail restrictions, lack of user understanding and cooperation, do-it-yourself grooming and trail maintenance efforts, lack of interest and lack of help (also a function of our more sparse population), and general lack of policy and apathy by the U.S. Forest Service. Most of the established xc skiing trails are quite successful, though. A New Mexico xc skier must also get accustomed to conditions that can sometimes vary dramatically from perfectly frozen snow in the shade to transforming or slushy snow in the sunny, south-slope areas., and Angel Fire (~25 km of groomed and very wide trails at the top of the Chili lift at the downhill ski area: Both are high-altitude areas that receive lots of snow and stay pretty chilly even on warm days. They both had pretty decent snow during those very lean years and that kept us going. They are situated in the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountain range, which always seems to receive at least a good dose of snow every year (anywhere from 100” to 500”+ annually). Both areas do a great job of grooming, most of the time, and offer xc skiing experiences much like those found in Colorado, but also somehow uniquely New Mexican. Temperatures are cold in the morning, often sub-zero, and warm up nicely by afternoon, sometimes above freezing. Snow at this altitude does not transform very quickly due to the dry air. So, waxing is usually pretty simple and does not require a lot of fluoro content. Of course, we go with the fluoros when we’re racing, but that’s just because we THINK we need it to beat our best buddies, etc.

Here in Los Alamos, we have the oldest and most active xc ski club in the state, and one of, if not the oldest xc trail systems. We consolidated with another “old” organization that had members from Santa Fe and Albuquerque as well. We (the Nordic club) maintain a very nice 10km (plus some if we push it) trail system in the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos, which is a bizarre volcanic mountain range west of the Rio Grande Valley and across from the higher and better-known Sangre de Cristo mountains. The elevation of the trail system lies at between 8,900′ and 10,000′, so snow is fairly consistent.

Sunrise over the Sangre de Cristos (in the distance) up at Pajarito Nordic

The trail system was actually created by a couple of local old-timers who are still in our club. One guy is of Norwegian descent, born and raised in Wyoming, but lives in New Mexico because of its active artist community. The other “old guy” is a Los Alamos National Labs guy, or “Labby”, whose tremendous ingenuity and machinist skills have kept the club going through many hard years of grooming and frustrating breakdowns with machines that have long ago seen their better days. Much of the machinery is old used stuff from the various Nordic areas of Colorado and Enchanted Forest (Red River). Those two guys began cutting and grading trails in what is called the Cañada Bonita drainage just north of the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area ( back in the ‘70s for more consistent xc skiing other than just touring around the woods on old service roads. They also created a junior development-racing program that became quite popular and competitive with the Colorado programs. Most kids now don’t seem very interested in xc skiing around here, but the adults have stuck with it and the club is bigger than ever ( We try to get kids involved, and there is a little bit of interest with some local cyclist kids, but there is not much of a cross-country skiing culture in New Mexico, as most of the interest in skiing goes to our ten more famous and popular downhill areas.

There is also a volunteer 5km trail system near the Santa Fe Ski Basin, but most of the local trail efforts are concentrated on the Los Alamos trails, since it is too difficult to keep the hikers and dogs off of those [SF] trails. The Forest Service has not bothered enforcing anything on public lands where volunteers maintain the trails. Santa Fe people are a strange lot, who don’t seem very interested in any organized groomed xc skiing and prefer instead to drive up to the trails in their expensive SUVs and expensive outdoor gear to hike and let their very expensive dogs run rampant on the groomed trails instead of going to the equally available unlimited backcountry trails right next to the ski trails. Too bad, it could be a good place for xc skiing.

The Los Alamos trail system is a very unique xc skiing experience. It’s only 15 minutes from downtown Los Alamos, yet the feel is very much like being in the wilderness and like you’re a world away from civilization. It’s great for training and racing, but mostly it’s great just to have something so spectacular so nearby.

It’s also interesting to groom. About 5 of us do almost all of the grooming, although we have at least a dozen guys and gals signed on as volunteer groomers. We get it all done with two used, old Ski-Doo Alpine snowmachines, and now, our “new” rebuilt and retooled green 1973 Cushman Trackster that we call “The Hulk”. That thing is cool. It’s as much of a hobby to my friends and me as the actual xc skiing is. Before I knew it, we had all became beer-swilling, greasy redneck mechanic cross-country skiers who perpetually smell of oil and gas all winter! I fear that all of the health benefits we get out of our healthy lifestyle are negated by the exposure to the machines we use to groom and the habits we’ve picked up maintaining them…how ironic. I’ve rebuilt engines, electrical systems, and drive trains right out on the trail system, in the middle of the night and in arctic frigid conditions. It’s all for the special moments when the snow is perfect, the track is perfect, and the great feelings that come along with it. What else would I do with my spare time? Most people around here appreciate it and donate to the cause because they realize what a unique experience it is to be able to ski such great conditions in a place like New Mexico.

The author hits the trail in his own ski race, “The Pajarito New Year’s Resolution Race”

UNM’s xc ski team coach, Fredrik Landstedt is a good ambassador for the sport and promotes having all skiers show up for his events, even us citizen hacks. UNM has an amazing xc skiing program, even winning the NCAA Div. I national title. They are mostly foreign talent but there are always a few U.S. skiers on the team as well. They even attend some of the local events and show up to the local ski trails from time to time and let us ski with them if we can. Since it’s such high altitude, they usually ski very easily and save their hard efforts for the races or when they’re able to do intervals on rollerskis back on the bike paths and foothills of Albuquerque.

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