New Mexico's ski playgrounds

This burgeoning 5,000 bed skier's town is only one example of what you can expect from New Mexican skiing. The state's areas took no chances with snow conditions; Red River, for instance, now has an incomparable snow-making capacity, which helps extend the ski season. A quarter-million dollars' worth of pipes lead all the way to the top of the mountain. The Red River ski lifts function well, too. And the area has also installed a superslow, extra-low lift for the first-timers and small fry.

Some of the new local motels compare with Aspen's. And Red River, which looks more Western than Southwestern, now boasts 20 restaurants. (Most of them are rather homey.)

In the same sense, Taos Ski Valley will triumph in the food department this ski season: The St. Bernard Lodge flew in a new French chef.

To be sure, it is impossible to judge the terrain from below. You see only a small fraction of it. There are some five-mile long trails and vistas that please average skiers. There are bunny hills for beginners.

The appeals of Angel Fire is still mainly to beginners and low intermediates. The poetically named area beckons 12 miles south of Eagle Nest, New Mexico. Three chair lifts connect with 18 miles of trails. Among others, you'll ski an "Angel Food" run and the long, docile "Headin' Home" trail. Novices will welcome the gentleness of Angel Fire Skiing, which may be a bit too tame for the hotshots.

To big news at the well-managed Santa Fe Ski Basin is that Bishop's Lodge, which doubles as a dude and guest ranch during the summer, now opens in March which makes it perfect for ski vacationers who hope to do some horseback riding and tennis playing. Bishop's offers both.

This is also the year for an even more hectic night life and more varied accommodations at growing Ruidoso, the town that connects with New Mexico's supersuccessful Sierra Blanca Ski area.

Sierra Blanca possesses enough lifts (seven) and enough skiable acres (700) to please even the most finicky vacationer. The view from the 11,400-foot summit never fails to impress, and even this scenery-pampered writer was under the spell of Sierra Blanca's long, treeless, alpine bowls.

Sierra Blanca's bigness is a nice contrast to some of New Mexico's smaller ski places. Consider Sandia Peak, above Alburquerque, or the Raton Ski Basin, with a vertical drop 223 feet and one poma lift. Or try Powder Puff, the tiny hill in the shadow of mighty Red River. Or Val Verde; the green valley gets its white cover like all the others. Or Cloud Country, with night skiing on weekends.

Most of all, perhaps, I enjoyed Sipapu, on Highway 4, south of Taos. The little areas belongs to the Bolander family, which also runs it. Mother, father , and children operate the modest ski hill, the ski shop, the ski patrol, the tiny grocery, which sells gifts and souvenirs, and a small trailer park. In fact, Sipapu is small enough to have the charge accounts.

Sipapu means "happy hunting ground" in Indian. It sounds like an apt expression for all of New Mexico's skiing.

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