By Cindy Brown
It’s deeper on many levels here in Northern New Mexico and it’s time to get outdoors. Downhill skiing is great fun, but if you want to experience the Southern Rockies at a slightly slower pace, consider snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Both are great ways to get some exercise and enjoy the beauty and solitude of the forests that surround Taos.
Snow-covered peaks provide a dramatic backdrop and the weather is often sunny and pleasant. You will likely see wildlife tracks and maybe even be lucky enough to see bighorn sheep, deer, elk and other animals foraging for food.
If the snow has been packed down on the trails, you can hike using a traction device such as Yaktrax or microspikes to help ensure stable footing. After a big snow, snowshoes and cross-country skis will help you stay on top of the white stuff and provide a more enjoyable way to get around.
If you are just starting out, consider visiting a local resort or going on a tour with a guide. If you have a bit more experience, there are many destinations nearby that provide great opportunities for exploring on your own.
Wherever you go, be sure to check the weather and observe the avalanche and safety advice that follows.
Following are a few of the best places in Taos County to spend a day snowshoeing or cross-country skiing:
One of the best places to get started on snowshoes or Nordic skis is the Enchanted Forest Cross-Country Ski Area, which is located just outside of Red River on Carson National Forest land. There are more than 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) of snowshoe and ski trails. Enchanted Forest offers a dog-friendly area and snowshoe tours. Among the benefits of recreating here are groomed trails, warming huts, yurts for camping and gear for rent. Ski patrol is on hand to provide an extra layer of safety.
For cross-country skiing, there are lessons available and trail use passes. Some of the slopes are gentle like Power Puff and others are more challenging like Face Flop Drop. From Enchanted Forest, there are great views of Wheeler Peak and Gold Hill.
At the Angel Fire Resort Nordic Center, there are opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and sledding. Miles of trails roll along canyons of spruce and pine trees, beginning at 8,600 feet in elevation.
Taos Snowshoe Adventures
Another way to get started is to sign up for a tour with Taos Snowshoe Adventures. They offer guided tours of various lengths for different fitness levels in the Carson National Forest, including full moon snowshoeing. Stuart Wilde, owner and guide, says, “Snowshoeing is a fun and easy way to get out and explore the winter wonderland of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains around Taos. Snowshoeing doesn’t require a whole lot of technical ability, so with the right gear and a little instruction you’re ready to hit the trail.”
Wilde is an experienced local wilderness guide and is certified in wilderness medicine, emergency rescue and avalanche awareness. He explains that Taos Snowshoe Adventures offers a real backcountry experience, venturing off into the mountains in several feet of snow while ensuring everyone stays safe.
Solitude is one of the things that make snowshoeing special in the forests around Taos and Wilde’s tours often explore lesser-known trails. “Being out in the mountains anytime is beautiful and inspiring,” said Wilde, “but in the winter, there is something special going on. It’s pretty magical.”
Places to explore on your own
The Amole Canyon Trailhead (Carson National Forest #10) is less than 20 miles south of downtown Taos on State Road 518. “Amole is a great mellow place to poke around. Many locals love it,” says Craig Saum, trails planner with the Carson. “It is very important for people to know that winter snow trail etiquette involves keeping snowshoe traffic and dogs out of the ski tracks.” He adds that although there is not a lot signage right now, there are plans to do a signage improvement project next year. In the meantime, locals who know the best routes are out early laying down tracks so that others can follow later in the day.
Be on the lookout for the blue diamonds that mark the trails. There are courses that vary from 1 mile to more than 6 miles and some with more challenging grades for experienced skiers.
Continuing on south on State Road 518 past the Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, look for the Agua Piedra Campground. Near the entrance, there is a log cabin. It was constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and served as a warming hut for one the earliest ski areas in New Mexico. It is now used for events like family reunions. The open areas near the cabin are good places for beginners to try out their skis and the Agua Piedra Trail (CNF #19A) offers more challenging terrain for advanced skiers.
Near Taos Ski Valley
On the road that leads to the Taos Ski Valley (State Road 150), there are trailheads for Yerba, Manzanita, Italianos and Gavilan Canyons (CNF #61, 58, 59, 60). These gorgeous snow-covered trails with stream crossings are appropriate for snowshoers and advanced cross-country skiers. Parking is usually accessible off to the side of the road, although you may want to wait a few days after a big snow to allow for some snow melt.
Other trails near the ski valley include Bull-of-the-Woods/Wheeler Peak Trail (CNF #90), accessed from the base area parking. The Southwest Nordic Center has a yurt for rent, located near the two-mile mark at the Bull-of-the-Woods pasture.
Many of the roads in the Carson are closed to automobile traffic in the winter, making them ideal wide open trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Northside at Taos Ski Valley is available for snowshoeing. A $5 day pass can be purchased at the trailhead kiosk or in several locations in town and at Taos Ski Valley.
In the event of heavy snowfall, it is particularly important to pay attention to current conditions and avoid areas with steep slopes. Chris Kodey, training officer and leader of the winter unit for Taos Search and Rescue, says, “The most important aspect of avoiding avalanches is to avoid avalanche terrain altogether. We consider avalanche terrain to be a snow-covered slope with a steepness of 25-60 degrees.” (Although most avalanches occur between 30 and 45 degrees).
Most of the Williams Lake trail, for example, travels directly underneath or through avalanche terrain. This is a well-traveled trail and people assume it is “safe” because they see others using it. However, that is not the case. If you are considering entering avalanche terrain, it is imperative that you have the proper training and know how to use avalanche rescue equipment. Avalanche rescue equipment consists of an avalanche beacon, a shovel and an avalanche probe.
Cindy Brown is the hiking columnist for the Taos News and author of the “Taos Hiking Guide,” available at local retailers and nighthawkpress.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Safety tips for the trail
• Check the weather forecasts. A sunny morning can turn into a snowy afternoon quickly, especially at high elevations.
• If you are new to the area, give yourself time to become acclimated to the altitude. Many of the trails are located at 8,000-11,000 feet. Expect to tire more quickly than usual.
• Go with another person or a group and let someone know when you will be back.
• Carry high-energy snacks and water with you.
• Sunglasses or googles, along with sunscreen, are important for sun protection.
• Bring maps, compass or GPS.
• Carry a first-aid and repair kit, along with matches.
• Check with the Carson and local outfitters for current snow conditions.
• Temperatures will vary dramatically depending on elevation, shade and wind.
• Start with a base layer that will keep you warm and wick away moisture, like silk, wool or synthetic.
• Add a second layer of fleece or other insulating material for warmth.
• Your outer layer should include a shell or lightweight coat that will protect you from wind and wetness.
• Bring an additional layer or warm scarf for exposed areas and the descent.
Where to rent snowshoes and cross-country skis
• Taos Mountain Outfitters on Taos Plaza has snowshoes for rent and for sale; you can reach them at (575) 758-9292.
• Mudd N Flood Mountain Shop on Bent Street has snowshoes for rent and sale and cross-country skis for rent. Call them at (575) 751-9100.
• Cottam’s Ski Shops has snowshoes and skis available for rent at their midtown location and snowshoes for rent at the ski valley; call either (575) 758-2822 or (575) 776-8719.
• Adventure Ski & Snowboard Shop at 1337 Paseo del Pueblo Sur has snowshoes in a range of sizes and cross-country skis for rent. Call (575) 758-1167.
For more information
Carson National Forest supervisor’s office: call (575) 758-6200 or stop by 208 Cruz Alta Road. Visit the website at fs.usda.gov/carson/.
Taos Visitor’s Center has maps at 1139 Paseo del Pueblo Sur or call (575) 758-3873.
Enchanted Forest information and pricing: enchantedforestxc.com.
Angel Fire Resort information: visit angelfireresort.com or call (575) 377-4488.
Taos Snowshoe Adventures: call 800-758-5262 or visit SnowshoeTaos.com.
Northside: call for more information (575) 776-3233 or visit ridenorthside.com.
Southwest Nordic Center: to reserve the Bull-of-the-Woods yurt, contact (575) 758-4761 or go to the website at southwestnordiccenter.com.