Bull Of The Wood yurt, above Taos Ski Valley
Looking toward Wheeler Peak from top of Bull Of The Wood Mountain Photo credits: Barb Belknap
A week on the high road through Taos
Beginning a fabulous Northern New Mexico ski vacation, we turned off Highway 285 just north of Pojoaque onto Highway 503 at Nambe. This is the 56-mile High Road to Taos which winds through the high desert, mountains, forests, small farms, pueblos, and Spanish land grant villages with names that roll of the tongue like Chimayo, Cordova, Truchas, Ojo Sarco, Las Trampas, El Valle, Picuris, and Peñasco.
We drove past the historic El Santuario de Chimayo off Highway 98, not anticipating that a pocketful of that miracle healing dirt might come in handy along the way. The High Road tees into Highway 76 before climbing through the hoodoos and badlands toward the adventures that lay ahead of us.
We detoured to Highway 75 through Truchas to ski up a forest road toward the Truchas Peaks to visit our friend Mary (newmexicowilderness.org). There is not much traffic other than snowmobiles in the winter, but it is still not a good idea to park along the road, considering the area’s long history of vandalism.
The abundant snowfall of December had melted to ice and frozen mud, enabling me to drive in a couple of miles, drop the backpacks, skis, and wife Barb. Then I drove back to park at Sammy’s house on the edge of the forest and walked back in.
This left a mere three-mile uphill ski to the homestead where Mary has lived for a number of years in a ten-by-twelve vaulted straw bale hut. For guests, she provides a hand-painted, felt-insulated yurt that was made in Mongolia (groovyyurts.com).
A light snowfall gave way to clear skies and a full moon with temperatures dropping to around zero. Mountain people go to bed early, and the night is long—especially in winter when survival sometimes mandates one to wake up every couple of hours to stoke the wood stove. A trip to the outhouse in the moonlight is a beautiful adventure, not to be missed.
Morning came soon enough. After filtering water from the creek, splitting wood, and touring around a bit, it was time to ski back down the road. We were lucky enough to catch a ride part of the way with Sammy and his friend who were out tracking mountain lions with their dogs and snowmobiles.
We then continued back to the High Road to Taos and checked in at the venerable Sun God Lodge. It’s in a slight state of disrepair, but is the cheapest place in town, has quiet radiant heat, and Wheeler Peak is perfectly framed in the window of Room 26.
Guests can walk across the road to Five Star Burgers for half price Marble ales at happy hour. Skiers should limit intake, though, because tomorrow promises a big day of skiing at Taos Ski Valley (www.skitaos.org).
The ski area map at Taos reads, “For more than fifty years, the ridge lines, bowls, and steeps of Taos have offered the grail in extreme skiers’ quests for extreme experience.” The map says that runs are challenging and variable and advises the rest of us to ski within our ability.
Packed powder made the runs fast and the steeps treacherous. Taos opened its slopes to snowboarders in recent years, but for these conditions, I opted to rent some high-performance skis. One should not assume that the new technology will allow him to ski better than he did twelve years ago when he ditched his long, straight skis for a snowboard. I should have skied with Barb, even if she was moving kind of slow that day.
The sign at the top of a run I came to warned, “Do not enter unless you can self-arrest” and was not referring to spontaneous cardiac events of the elderly. Even if you feel you are skiing better than ever, it just takes one fall to realize the true meaning of “self-arrest.” I fell, and slid down the fabled steep, banged my helmet on a tree, sent my high-tech skis flying every which way, and eventually “self-arrested” to a stop.
Before the lifts stopped running, I found myself limping, defeated, to après-ski, skipping the popular after-hours inner tubing and looking forward to a hot bath back at the Sun God. I sat alone, nursing a beer in the Martini Tree bar, waiting for Barb to finish her last run.
The Taos experience is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon; the incomprehensible magnificence of the place leads one to do crazy things on the first day. Lessons learned, the second day went better on the abundant blue and single black slopes with Barb who skis better than I thought, especially after a little coaching from the expert. Taos can be a lot of fun, even without finding the grail. (I have since learned that after heavy snowfall in late January, conditions at Taos are rated as some of the best in the country.)
After a couple days of this frivolity, we are normally more than ready to call it quits—but this time a bunch of our friends were meeting us the following day in the ski area parking lot to cross-country ski to the Bull of the Woods yurt for two nights in the wilderness. We had made reservations well in advance through the Southwest Nordic Center (southwestnordiccenter.com). The yurt is two miles up a forest road. It’s a steep climb from 9,300 feet to 10,800 feet that requires climbing skins or snowshoes most of the time in winter. If there had been a lot of snow, we would have taken shovels and avalanche beacons.
The yurt contains beds and a well-equiped kitchen—all we carried was a light pack with food, clothes, sleeping bag, toiletries, flashlight, GPS, books, beverages, etc. The yurt is twenty-four feet wide—like a cathedral compared to Mary’s yurt. Barb and Mike (“Big Stick and Twiggy” of San Juan River fame) lugged a mandolin and ukulele along. After dinner, we cleared the dance floor, ready to party all night (or at least until 9:30).
This yurt is in close proximity to extensive telemarking terrain. In addition, one can ski or snowshoe tour into high alpine terrain and above tree-line ridge for amazing views. We skied to the top of nearby Bull of the Woods Mountain planning to go on towards New Mexico’s highest mountain, Wheeler Peak, five miles away. The wind was too fierce, however, so we returned to the yurt for naps, instead.
At 12,000 plus feet, Gold Hill peak is another reasonable day hike in the opposite direction, but the few of us that tried ran out of energy and daylight before getting very far. Goals are not important on the high road, because you are already there with every step. It’s beautiful, but no place to be lost after dark—especially on my night to cook dinner.
After a fine week on the High Road through Taos, we took the short drive back home on the low road along the Rio Grande.
Forest Service waives recreation fees
The Cibola National Forest and Grasslands will join the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies in hosting four fee waiver events in 2012 within the National System of Public Lands.
“We encourage the public to get outdoors in America’s vast and dynamic playground,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “We hope that visiting your beautiful national forests and grasslands will help people gain a deep appreciation for natural resources, and create lifelong memories.”
On the fee waiver dates, there is no charge to use most of New Mexico’s day use areas and campsites, including Cibola National Forest and the Sandia Ranger District. The only exception is for reservations made through the National Recreation Reservation Service due to the difficulties of refunding reservation payments.
“While the BLM serves as the steward of America’s public lands, we can’t do our job alone,” said BLM Director Bob Abbey. “Waiving fees a few days out of the year may help some people, who might otherwise not have the opportunity to experience their public lands and develop a passion for them as others have [the opportunity to do so].”
This year’s fee waiver dates are:
- January 14-16—Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend
- June 9—Get Outdoors Day
- September 29—National Public Lands Day
- November 10-12—Veterans Day weekend
All recreation fees at day use sites on the Sandia Ranger District and all open campgrounds throughout the Cibola National Forest will be waived. Because of changing weather conditions, contact the appropriate ranger district to see if a site is open.
These fee-free days also apply to areas managed within the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). The NLCS encompasses more than 27 million acres and includes more than 880 federally recognized areas, such as national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, national scenic and historic trails, and conservation lands of the California desert.
Other fees, such as overnight camping, cabin rentals, and group day use, will remain in effect. More details about fee-free days and activities on BLM-managed public lands are available at www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/Recreation/BLM_Fee_Free_Days.html.
For more information, go to www.fs.usda.gov/cibola or call the Cibola National Forest Supervisor’s Office at 505-346-3900
Where in the world is it?
This is a photo by William W. Dunmire of a roadside landscape scene taken from
somewhere in New Mexico. Guess where it is!
It is from New Mexico's Living Landscapes: A Roadside View, by William W. Dunmire.
Answer: Just drive west on Hwy. 550 from Bernalillo, and before you get to San Ysidro, the road heads straight for White Mesa that is covered by thick beds of pure white gypsum. The gypsum here is being mined by Centex Corporation for use in manufacturing wallboard, plaster, and other building materials. Over the years the mesa top has gradually been whittled down. White Mesa is one of the first of many natural features seen on the loop road that loops over the mountains — The Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway.