You'll see the bumper stickers around town, but don't let them scare you - “Taos, A Four-Letter Word for STEEP” - this intimate little resort and the funky Southwestern town at the bottom of the mountain have much more to offer than just a sun-soaked adrenaline rush. Both the town and mountain here are brimming with a rugged sense of individuality and seem to go out of their way to buck the trends when they aren't inadvertently setting them. Up until March of 2007, family-owned Taos Ski Valley was one of just four remaining ski areas in the nation that didn't allow snowboarders – carvers from around the world rejoiced when that wall finally came down. Taos Ski Valley's new status as an equal opportunity mountain better matches the attitude in the Town of Taos, where all forms of creativity are embraced warmly and celebrities often come to escape the L.A. Scene and just feel normal again for a while.
Taos Ski Valley is a 20-30 minute drive from the actual town of Taos, which is nestled in the lap of where the Sangre de Cristo range meets the wide mesas of the Rio Grande Valley. Heading north from Town, you'll hang a right at the “old blinking light” intersection (no longer blinking) onto the Ski Valley Road. Pass through the quaint town of Arroyo Seco, where a hostel provides the cheapest accommodations, plenty of vacation rental homes provide the most spacious, and a 50-acre ranch provides Julia Roberts with her main home. Take care when driving the last eight miles up a winding two-lane canyon road – unprepared or careless motorists often litter the shoulders on snowy days.
Pulling into the TSV parking lot at 9,200 feet of elevation, you might be a little underwhelmed – only a few runs are visible and the base village is definitely much smaller than that of your typical Colorado resort, but have faith that wonders lie just a bit higher.
Taos is so far from the nearest Interstate or airport that crowds and lines usually aren't a problem, but if you're here on a sunny morning right after a big powder dump you might find the lone high-speed quad lift from the main base area (Lift 1) a little congested. The locals' secret is to hop in your four-wheel drive car, and head up the dirt road that leads to the Bavarian Lodge and Lift 4 (the Kachina Lift), which takes you straight up to the steeps, with access to the legendary chutes of Kachina Peak or a more mellow cruise down the still-challenging Hunziker Bowl. There's also an easier way down, but beginners beware: TSV is crawling with double-diamond runs all over the hill – it's possible to step off almost every lift and be on expert terrain within just a few seconds, so ski/ride aware!
The Whistlestop Cafe (bottom of Lift 6) and Phoenix Grill (bottom of Lift 4) offer standard mid-mountain amenities, but it's worth the extra few steps past Lift 6 and lounge on the Bavarian's front deck with some authentic German brews and brats.
Apres-ski at TSV is an old-school affair – to keep development to a minimum and keep this national forest land as pristine as possible, there's little in the way of ski-in facilities except for a few condos, and to some extent, the two premier (and newly renovated) lodges – the Edelweiss and Snakedance inns. The lodges offer comfort and luxury, while the older part of the village provides a more rustic, homey atmosphere – the Martini Tree Bar, just off Lift 1, serves up live music and drinks with character and is just a little bit of a dive, and Tim's Stray Dog Cantina or Crossroads Pizza are local favorites that remain jam-packed through the winter.
For the full Taos experience though – you might have to spend a day off the mountain in town. It's hard to believe how much action there is in this isolated town of about 5,000 year-round residents. Dozens of galleries, restaurants, art and history museums, the epic Rio Grande Gorge outside town, the US' oldest community at Taos Pueblo, hot springs, spas.... Some folks decide the area needs a lifetime to explore and never go home, and we'll be glad to have you.
Must-See in Taos:
• Taos Ski Valley (Duh)
• Taos Pueblo, especially during a ceremonial feast day or traditional dance open to the public. Christmas Eve here is an experience you'll never forget and your friends won't believe!
• El Monte Sagrado – A world class spa and resort in town with live music at the hip Anaconda Bar.
• Rio Grande Gorge Bridge – Breathtaking. Recently closed down for a few days for filming of the most recent Terminator movie.
• Ledoux Street / the Harwood Museum – The heart of Taos' world-class art community.
• Taos Plaza – Four centuries old, this is the center of Taos, now home to shops, restaurants and hotels. Try Joseph's Table in the Hotel LaFonda or the Alley Cantina, down the side alley, inside the oldest house in Taos.
• La Hacienda de Los Martinez – Go back centuries in time and visit an authentic Spanish hacienda and rancho from the years just after the conquistadors first passed through.
*all photos courtesy of Taos Ski Valley