Taos. Wow. I almost feel bad even writing about this place because I don’t want the secret to get out. The perfect blend of art, music, ski bums, dry powder, and near-vertical slopes. But let’s rewind for a bit. Molly and I had been itching for years to get away on an epic ski/snowboard vacation and since we were planning on starting a family soon, figured this would probably be our last chance for a very, very long time. I had heard about Taos Ski Valley back in college as a spectacular ski (and snowboard as of 2008) destination sure to challenge even the most hard-core riders. Ever since, I had been chomping at the bit to experience it for myself. Additionally, throughout our travels in the West, Molly and I always pose the same question to locals: “You live in an awesome place already, where do YOU vacation?” Taos came up perhaps more than any other destination. If people who already live in places like Boulder and Aspen are going there, it must be worth checking out, right?
A whirlwind of planning commenced and it just so happened that we would be able to knock off a bucket list item for Molly as well in the form of a cross country ski-in yurt in the Rio Grande National Forest just over the border in south central Colorado. When the dust settled, we had booked a long road trip starting February 28th that would provide us one night in Kansas City, MO, three nights in Taos in a casita, three nights at the yurt, and one extra day to hit another ski area or visit friends in CO before we had to head for home.
To beat traffic and allow us extra time to explore, we left Chicago around 5am and arrived at the KC Sheraton in the early afternoon. Being a true nerd at heart, I had requested a visit to Legoland, across the street from the hotel. Denied! Unfortunately, Legoland does not allow anyone over the age of 16 through the door unless they are accompanying children. Feeling rejected, we decided it was time for some adult entertainment and headed to the Power and Light District for food and booze. After a surprisingly fun evening, we retired to the hotel’s indoor/outdoor saltwater pool and hot tub. Swimming outdoors in late February after one of the worst winters on record back home was pretty close to heavenly.
We got up at a reasonable hour the next morning and pointed the car west. Much to our dismay, a strong system of thunderstorms and snow was pushing up from Texas, forcing us onto a more northerly route through Colorado Springs and then straight south, rather than cutting southwest across Kansas. I’ll be honest, it was a miserable drive, one of the worst; but the recent ice storm left some spectacular scenery approaching CO Springs.
After our hellish drive, we arrived late to our casita in Taos and were pleasantly surprised by a clean, artsy, pueblo-like cabin well appointed with radiant heat floors. We settled in and prepared ourselves for the epicness that was to follow in the next week.
Taos Ski Valley did not disappoint. Rather than try to describe it myself, I will provide readers with the brochure description composed by a writer far more eloquent than I:
“We have a secret. Skiing is a way of life, not a business. Snowboarding is an adventure, not a game. Mountains are big and wild and meant to be respected, not turned into outdoor theme parks. Our peak is 12,481 feet above sea level. Our company is still run by the same family who explored the slopes of the Sangre de Cristos almost 60 years ago and envisioned the lifts and the runs and powder shots to come. Our snow is deeper than our friends to the north and drier than our friends to the west. Our mountain is lined by trees and wilderness, not condominiums. Our heritage is real. Some people say there are no more secrets left in skiing and snowboarding. They say there’s nothing left to be discovered, that all the stashes are gone, the mysteries revealed. They say that powder days have been reduced to a mere hour, and the only way to chase first tracks is fight the crowds. Well, they don’t know Taos. Do you?”
The two days Molly and I spent in the Valley were truly spectacular. Our first day we had 18″ of fresh powder waiting for us in the morning, and the second day we had crystalline blue skies and enormous views. Molly was a true champ and snowboarded both days, despite being more sure of herself on skis.
She only got mad at me once when I took a wrong turn and what was supposed to be a relatively mild run turned into cliff-drops and a 70 degree sloped trail not much wider than a snowboard. It was NOT fun, even for me.
She must not have been angry for long because on the second day I convinced her to hike the highline ridge with me to hit the double blacks and glades at the top of the mountain. We were a little bummed that the summit was still closed due to avalanche danger, but Juarez was still fun and absolutely full of powder!
After two days satiating my adrenaline addiction snowboarding Taos Ski Valley, it was time to depart for the second leg of our vacation, Molly’s Flat Mountain yurt trip. We would have three nights to relax, recover, and explore after a quick 4.5 mile cross country ski in. Or so we thought. I have never cared for the sport of cross country skiing, finding the skis irritatingly flimsy and unathletic. But hey, Molly had just bombed double blacks with me for the last few days, so I figured, 4.5 miles isn’t very far, how bad could it be? From the moment we stepped on the trailhead, things started to go wrong. First, a snowmobiler had somehow lodged his machine in a treewell near the trailhead and asked for assistance. What Molly and I thought would just take a couple minutes ended up taking a couple hours. This was late season in big snow country, and the treewells had 8 feet of snow in them, much of which we had to dig through to extricate the stricken snow machine. By the time we were geared up to get on the trail, a storm had moved in and we began to have trouble seeing the blazes that marked the way to our yurt. Tensions and frustration levels rose quickly and, erring on the side of caution, we decided to turn back and try again the following morning after the storm let up. We found a charming little hotel in Chama, NM and decided we had made the right call.
In better spirits and sans our tow sled, we started off the following morning under perfect conditions. The owner of the hotel had even offered to shuttle us to and from the trail head for $15 so we wouldn’t have to leave our truck full of gear and unattended! Anxious to get to the yurt, we pushed hard up the mountain, making the 4.5 miles seem more like 10.5. Note to self, take breaks, drink water, eat snacks, repeat. You would think after all the backpacking we have done, we would have applied the same principles to skiing!
We arrived at the yurt sunburned, hungry, and tired, but happy. The yurt itself was set up perfectly with a large propane tank for cooking and washing, a wood burning stove, a table and benches, bunks, and an outhouse. Luckily, the owner had let us extend our reservation by a day since we were not able to reach it the night before, meaning we still had three nights to enjoy our new surroundings.
Our original plan had been to bring our snowboards to hit up some of the backcountry powder not far from the yurt, but after our miserable aborted trip the afternoon before, we decided to ditch the extra weight and leave them behind. All was not lost, however, as we spent our first full day at the yurt building a two story igloo and catching some rays.
The second day at the yurt, all plans of exploring were shut down by a day-long snow storm. It was surprisingly peaceful to relax, read, and cook as we watched the snow accumulate.
Our last morning at the yurt brought a beautiful mix of sun and snow as we enjoyed a leisurely, mostly downhill ski back to the trailhead and our ride back to the real world.
To say Taos was life-changing may be an overstatement, but I will certainly never look at another ski resort the same way again. Taos Ski Valley could not have been more perfectly disparate from the rest of the skiing world. World-renowned places like Tahoe and Park City while exciting and beautiful, don’t hold a candle to Taos. Maybe it is the remoteness, the steepness, the barely groomed powder, the lack of condos, the locals almost rabid love for their mountain, or the art hippies, but Taos has a feel that is all its own. We will undoubtedly be back for more.