The highest point is Kachina Peak at 12,481 feet (3,804 m). Kachina Peak abutts the Wheeler Wilderness Area home to Mt. Wheeler - the highest peak in New Mexico. The addition of a new lift up to Kachina Peak brings Taos Ski Valley's vertical drop up to an impressive 3,274 feet (998 m). But the skiing is not about vertical feet to be skied, rather it's all about demanding advanced trails and testing yourself, possibly on an extreme trail down from the elongated ridge summit.
Indeed, the ski valley is dominated by a line of ridges from Kachina Peak along Highline Ridge onto West Basin Ridge and curving out into Wonder Bowl. The ski area encompasses 1,294 acres (524 ha) with 110 trails -24% beginner, 25% intermediate and 51% advanced/expert. The Out to Launch Terrain Park is a new addition, located on Maxie's trail under lift No.7, offering two huge airs, a hip, a quarter pipe, and rails. The park is groomed nightly.
It is worth noting that hiking is certainly part of the culture at Taos and much of the best expert terrain is accessible only after a short hike. If visiting, expect to do a little hiking. Many short, 5-minute hikes bring Taos' best steeps into reach.
One thing to be aware of: snowfall is not reliable especially early season (the resort opens November 28th and closes the first Sunday in April). It's fair to say that snowfall fluctuations at Taos can be extreme. While Taos averages 305 inches (775 cm) of snowfall annually, in bad winters Taos has seen as little as 140 inches (355 cm). Booking a trip earlier than February can be risky. That said artificial snowmaking facilities cover 100 percent of the beginner and intermediate trails. The weather does fluctuate with the coldest month always being January, while March temperatures can nudge over 50 ˚F at the base.
Taos Ski Valley has 13 lifts in total - 4 fixed grip quads, 1 triple, 5 doubles, and 2 surface lifts. Taos' lift system certainly won't win any awards for speed or uphill capacity. The lifts are slow, but somehow that seems in keeping with the character of the resort. Were they any faster, they would deposit more skiers on the mountain than it could handle; snow conditions on Taos' legendary steeps would almost certainly suffer.
New for 2014-2015, Taos is installing a triple lift to the summit of Kachina Peak. Kachina's expert terrain is legendary, but access previously required an almost as legendary hike. The new lift, the most exciting infrastructure project at the resort in over a decade, will cut the uphill travel time to only five minutes. The Kachina Peak triple will top out a breathtaking 12,450 ft. above sea level, a 1,100 ft. vertical rise from the top of Lift 4.
Seen from the valley floor, the Taos slopes can be terrifying. A sign proclaims "Don't Panic - You are looking at only 1/30 of Taos Ski Valley.” However, once beginners get past the fear of looking up at some of North America’s steepest mogul runs, Taos is actually a fantastic resort for novices. Unlike many ski resorts, Taos doesn’t have a cluster of true novice runs. The green runs are spread out across the mountain and almost every chairlift has a green trail from its summit (Kachina Peak is the notable exception). As a result, beginners are able and will want to explore the entire resort via long green runs.
On the frontside, the main downhill option for beginners is White Feather. Ernie Blake had a wry sense of humor and White Feather is perfect example of Ernie secretly having a little fun. While most assume the trail’s name is Native American in origin, White Feather is an actually reference to the white feathers British women handed to men who, presumed to being cowards, failed to enlist in the British Army during the Boer War. Talk about a deep reference! However, there is nothing cowardly about skiing White Feather and this long green run drops 1,700’ from the top of Lift 1 back to the base. The lower stretches with fencing to the skier’s left offer particularly beautiful views of the valley below. Novices can also venture onto Lift 8 and take Jess’s or Bonanza back to White Feather for some additional variety.
On the backside of the resort, Honeysuckle is the main beginner run. The trail begins at the top of Lift 2 near the hike-to terrain of the West Basin Ridge. It zigs and zags its way down the backside of the resort collecting expert skiers from the steep chutes above as it descends to the base of Lift 7. After riding Lift 7 back to the top, beginners can choose to ski Lower Totemoff (named in honor of Ernie Blake’s indian guide) or follow the right branch of Honeysuckle to the base of Lift 4.
Lift 4 offers one of the best clusters of green trails on the mountain, though, quizzically, many beginners struggle to find this part of the mountain. Perhaps its distance from main base – a minimum of two lift rides and several runs are necessary to reach the base of Lift 4 – discourages novices. Whatever the case, the green runs off Lift 4 see fewer skiers despite being the easiest novice slopes on the mountain. Japanese Flag is the main downhill option and winds its way through gullies and mature strands of pine trees before merging with Lower Patton. Several routes are available by taking the various green spurs that present themselves during the descent. Once done skiing in this area, beginners can take the Rubezahl trail to the main base village. Skiing the full circuit to and from the village base as described above can take beginners a full morning or afternoon. Many prefer to skip the Rubezahl trail and imbibe on the deck of the Bavarian, utilizing the Bavarian’s shuttle back to the base at 4:15 pm.
For true first timers, there are several learning pitches near the base village. The Pioneer Lift services a gentle green slope that runs parallel to Rubezahl. On the other side of the base area, the slightly steeper pitches of Strawberry Hill (served by an eponymous lift) provide a slightly bigger challenge for novices looking to progress to the longer greens atop the resort.
One additional benefit for beginners at Taos Ski Valley is the fact that all of the green runs are covered with snowmaking. While expert skiers can have real concerns about whether the snowpack will be deep enough to allow some Taos' famous steeps to open, beginners have no such concerns. The dry desert air and consistently cold temperatures allow Taos's snowmaking to lay down a reliably excellent surface.
Blue skiers should stick initially to the trails off Lift 7 and familiarize themselves with the difficulty of Taos' trail system. Some fast cruising on Porcupine and Powderhorn, not too narrow if sometimes steep, and great preparation for the harder trails off the ridge. A day in one of the Race Clinics or a short "Mogul Mastery" course might also come in handy. For moderate skiers there are a quarter of the marked trails to try out, but you feel sandwiched between novice and expert, especially if the snow is deep.
Nevertheless, Bambi is a good long trail from the top of the No.7 lift. It links up with Powderhorn and then Whitefeathers to the bottom of the mountain. If you're feeling adventurous you can also link up from here with several other black trails. Upper Tottemoff links with Maxie's below No.7 lift to give a challenging trail connecting with the long advanced Lorelei run.
A skier drops into a run along the West Ridge Basin
Taos Ski Valley's expert terrain is truly world class. It ranks in a class with other legendary American resorts like Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley and Aspen Highlands. When conditions are favorable, it is often regarded as having the best tree skiing in North America. Skiers can expect steep, well-spaced trees that are fun more than they are terrifying. In fact, unlike some of its peers with regard to expert terrain, Taos stands out for the sheer pleasure skiing its steepest slopes provides. Taos’ expert runs are challenging without being death-defying.
However, that’s not to say Taos’ expert skiing has an undeserved reputation for challenge. Far from it. One element that makes Taos’ expert skiing particularly difficult is the noticeable lack of bailouts. This is a skier’s mountain and Ernie Blake intentionally limited the number of trail junctions to allow uninterrupted fall-line skiing. No green trails cutting across the runs makes for tremendous skiing, but also no where to peel off if a run is too hard.
Another aspect of Taos that makes it unique is its hike-to terrain. To truly exploit all of Taos' expert options, some hiking and/or traversing is required. Skiers visiting Taos Ski Valley should be prepared to hike a little because much of the best expert terrain is accessible just above the lifts. Despite being at over 11,000’ most of the hikes are reasonably short. The walk is just long enough to discourage a timid or out of shape skier, but short enough to make doing laps manageable for those in reasonable shape.
Perhaps the only area in which Taos' black diamond terrain comes up short is groomers. Don't expect to find steep groomed runs. They simply don't exist at Taos (try Sun Valley instead). Taos leaves its black and double black terrain as nature intended.
One last note on Taos' expert terrain. While some of the trail names include the word "glade", Taos does not make a formal distinction between trails and glades. Many of the black and double black runs described below are a mix of trees and open pitches. If skiing a double black run, expect ungroomed trees to pop up at some point.
So steep are the frontside trails that plunge into the village that the resort erected a sign near the base area which reads “Don’t Panic – You’re Looking at Only 1/30th of Taos Ski Valley.” The panic-inducing run that led to the sign remains one of the most iconic bump runs in North American - Al's Run. Al’s Run inspires terror (and applause) from the lift above as the run plummets down to the main base area. Worse still for the skier in over his head, there’s no bailout. The trails adjoining Al’s Run like Inferno and Rhoda’s are almost as steep and every bit as challenging due to their double fall lines.
A series of steep tree runs to the skier's left from the top of Chair 2 are also a must. Castor, Pollux and Pipeline are beautiful glades with real, sustained pitch and tremendous snow quality. Across the Bambi trail from these runs is one of the best pods of terrain on the entire mountain. Often overlooked because it cannot be lapped, Pierre's, R&R and Werner Chute. These runs are all quite steep and empty into Taos' second most leg-punishing mogul run - Longhorn. Adjoining these runs, but falling on to the other side of the ridgeline near Chair 7 are another trio of difficult tree runs - Lorelei, Sir Arnold Lunn and Walkyries.
Lastly, no visit to the frontside of the resort would be complete with skiing some of Taos' excellent and long tree runs. Our particular favorite is North American, accessible via a right turn after 100 yards on Al's Run. One of the longest glades in the West, North American bucks, spins and rolls like a bronco all the way down to the base. On the other side of Al's Run, Rhoda's Glade, Jean's Glade and Edelweiss Glade are all also worth a run. Unlike North American which peters out near the bottom, these glades get steeper as they descend before mercifully crescendoing near the base village.
Just a short traverse from the top of the Al’s Run takes skiers to Chair 2. From the top of Chair 2 skiers can hike up to the top of Taos’ most famous expert runs on the West Basin Ridge. The hike is 5-10 minutes depending on a skier’s level of physical conditioning, but regardless of how long the hike lasts, the payoff is worth the pain. From the top of the short hike, almost the chutes that feed into the basin are downhill – no more hiking required. Many of the runs here feature 5-10’ cornice drops into 35-40 degree sustained steep chutes. Stauffenberg – named in honor of the martyred Prussian colonel who attempted to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 – is perhaps the most intimidating. Several other chutes such as St. Bernard and Thunderbird are almost as steep and also feature trees.
New for 2014-2015, Taos opened 30+ acres of gladed terrain on the far side of the West Ridge Basin called the Wild West Glades. Unfortunately, the glades are not worth the tremendously long hike (this run is one of the few aforementioned runs requiring additional hiking after the ascent to the top of the West Ridge). The glades are tremendously thick and require either some additional cutting or more skiers to knock off the many pine boughs clogging up the run. We did our part and came out bloodied and beaten by the bushwhack.
The trails on Highline Ridge are located a short walk above the West Basin. Many tired hikers will skip the extra five to ten minutes required to reach Hidalgo, Juarez and Nino’s Heroes and the other slopes on Highline Ridge. Given the quality of the West Basin trails, one could hardly blame them. However, hiking the additional distance to Highline Ridge is a must for any serious skier.
Compared to the tight lines of the West Basin, the runs on Highline are quite open and less challenging. The skiing is steep, open bowls with more accessible entrances. Juarez is a popular choice because it’s the second one up the ridge (one really can’t hike that far and stop at the first chute…). All of the trails empty out on the Honeysuckle run near the bottom of Lift 7A.
For the winter of 2014-2015, Taos installed a new Kachina Peak triple chair to the summit of the resort's highest point. Formerly solely accessibly be a grueling 30 minute hike, this new black and double black terrain greatly improves the expert skiing at Taos for those who prefer lift-accessed challenge. On the downside, the formerly-empty Kachina runs now get skied out in a day and moguls form where powder used to remain for weeks. On the whole, however, the addition of lift access to Kachina Peak is a game-changer for Taos.
The terrain atop Kachina is amongst the finest high alpine skiing in North America. A variety of runs unfold both to the left and right of the top terminal of the triple. Main Street, directly below the chair, is the most skied run, but moving downhill to the looker’s right the steep bowls of K1 through K5 are far more interesting and nuanced. Wide upper mountain bowls give way to a set of steep and narrow gullies that feed skiers back to the triple chair. Skiers can choose the difficulty of their descent by either avoiding or seeking out the narrower couloirs in the lower sections of the run.
In Taos Ski Valley, the gastronomic emphasis is romantic. Whatever a skier may fancy from enchiladas to wienerchnitzel, Taos gets it right. To make your trip even more memorable, plan to lunch on the deck at the Hotel St. Bernard on any sunny day. Almost as old as the ski area itself, the Hotel St. Bernard was founded by eccentric Frenchman Jean Mayer in the late 1950's. Its deck overlooking the base area is one of the best ski lunches in North America. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and burritos are the typical fare along with cold beer and a stirring view. Picnic table style benchs are available on the main deck as well as a three-tiered bench where tired skiers enjoy libations while soaking in the rich Taos sunshine. Downstairs and inside from the deck - via either the perilously marked "Experts Only" steep stairs or the "Intermediate" cut around - the St. Bernard offers a light waitress-served lunch. Of course, if you're fortunate enough to be staying at the St. Bernard for the week, you'll enjoy a full multicourse culinary extravangza each day, but visitors for the day are limited to the "express lunch" of sandwiches and soup and left to gawk at the platters whizzing by destined for hotel guests.
Elsewhere in the main base village, there are a handful of lunchtime rendezvous eateries in the pizza and cafeteria mold. Rhoda's Restaurant, located slopeside in the Resort Center and open from 11:00 am to 9:00 pm is the main base area cafeteria. Fare is a mix of typical American ski lodge cuisine (hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, etc.) and New Mexican food. Try some of the local specialties such as burritos smothered in either red or green chiles. On the outside deck you can watch skiers coming down the legendary expert slope - Al's Run.
Upstairs from Rhoda's is the Martini Tree Bar. Named for Taos' founder Ernie Blake's propensity for hiding mixed cocktails in trees around the resort as a way of pepping up timid skiers in his ski school, the Martini Tree is the place for apres-ski in Taos. Recently updated yet still retaining its old charm, the Martini Tree features a mix of craft beers, cocktails and snacks amidst a sea of Taos' memorabilia. Elsewhere in the main base area skiers can find all types of food from casual through to fine dining, and from New Mexican through to French cuisine. Tenderfoot Katie's is the place for a quick, economical breakfast or lunch.
Up on the mountain itself, Taos also does not disappoint. The Bavarian, pictured above, is a beautiful setting for lunch or a leisurely German-style apres ski. So authentically Bavarian that one would be forgiven for mistaking it for Garmisch, the Bavarian is one of North America's standout on mountain restaurants. Set in a beautiful nook at the bottom of Chair 4, the beautiful wooden structure was actually built in Bavarian before being disassembled, shipped to American and reassembled. On sunny days its deck is as packed as the St. Bernard, but offers dirndl-clad waitress service and 1L draft beers served in giant glass steins. Famous for its goulasch, Jagerschnitzel and "Bav Dog" bratwurst, many a skier has been lured into a lunch after which he did not ski. The giant-sized portions of spatzle and pretzels are also a popular choice to share amongst a large table. However, no meal at the Bavarian would be complete without a sampling of the Apfelstrudel with ice cream and whipped cream ("mit Schlag" as the Germans would say). If the beer, the pretzels, or the Bav Dog haven't done you in, this marvelous apple studel just might.
A few other on mountain eateries also merit a mention. The Whistlestop Café is located at the base of Chair 6 lift and is a good place to meet friends, get a coffee, a slice of pizza, or a bowl of soup without descending back to the village. Over at Chair 4 near the Bavarian is the Phoenix Grill, a handy spot for enjoying lunch-and the outdoor deck is a good place to soak up the sun. Fare at the Phoenix Grill is similar to Rhoda's. Nearby the Black Diamond Espresso hut offers warm beverages perfect for a cold day. We particularly approve of the Mexican Mocha, made with cinnamon and vanilla extract.
The Hondo Lodge (now the Inn at Snakedance) was his first building and the first lift was installed with the help of 16 locals and a mule. The resort was run by Ernie's family until quite recently and this "hands-on" heritage gives the village a compact, cozy, welcoming feel. But don't just take our word for it-editors at Ski magazine have given the resort their "Top Choice" accolade too.
However, there are those that would say that Taos' base village is tired and somewhat rundown. A major base area redevelopment is underway to breathe life into the aging resort core while still respecting the unique "mom and pop" feel of the village.
Nearby, the town of Taos has plenty of accommodations and attractions. It is a former Spanish settlement featuring picturesque adobe architecture typical of the local Native American culture. (Adobe is earth mixed with water and straw, then either poured into forms or made into sun-dried bricks.) The climate and architecture made Taos an artists' and writers' colony-D.H. Lawrence lived here during the 1920s (his ranch is maintained by the University of New Mexico) and famous frontiersman Kit Carson lived here too. The local Indian (Pueblo) culture goes back over 1,000 years. Today Taos is well known as a haven for artists and it boasts many varied galleries. Taos is also the home of the oldest inhabited Native American Pueblo (village) in the U.S.
Tim's Stray Dog, also at Taos Ski Valley, is a must for margaritas, while the Old Blinking Light in town is another watering hole with good food. The Thunderbird Lodge has a popular bar for the 35 set where they play lots of jazz and the atmosphere is old ski lodge style with fireplaces. In town, for the young crowd, the Alley Cantina hosts a continuous party and has pool tables and live music. However, Taos is not nightclub friendly and those looking to bop till they drop will be disappointed.
But it is one of the most romantic spots in the West and just soaking up the sunshine (over 300 days of it) on one of the restaurant decks can pass as a consummate "activity." If you are feeling energetic then you can try the tubing hill, ice skating, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing. There are several ski and boot rental, repair and retail stores. For convenience and price, renting in the Valley as opposed to the Town of Taos is best. Both Taos and Taos Ski Valley have shops selling everything from T-shirts to Southwestern jewelry. The big event here each year is the Taos Winter Wine Festival, featuring tastings, wine dinners and seminars from January 23rd to February 2.
In Taos Town a visit to the artists of Taos Pueblo is a must. They produce beautiful handcrafted wares using techniques passed down through generations. Tanned buckskin moccasins and drums are characterized by simplicity and enduring quality. Sculpture, painting and jewelry are contemporary expressions of traditional art forms. Check out the micaceous clay pottery, which has been the utilitarian cookware through the ages. Today, Taos Pueblo potters are challenged to produce high quality pottery by putting a high polish on vessels. When you visit Taos Pueblo, you will have an opportunity to learn about the history and culture, as well as to purchase fine arts and crafts.