Northern New Mexico is basically Colorado, without the people and with better margaritas. PHOTO: Getty/iStock
Northern New Mexico is basically Colorado, without the people and with better margaritas. PHOTO: Getty/iStock

Why You Should Live in Santa Fe

Traditional ski towns are no longer affordable options for most skiers— satellite ski communities like Santa Fe are the new dream

Population: 83,875
Median Home Price: $310,000
Miles from a chairlift: 15

Snowfall looks different in New Mexico. When it snows, the ground looks redder, the junipers greener, and, somehow, the snow whiter. Snowfall stacking on adobe looks like some kind of magical realism. It makes for an altogether incredible aesthetic.

But those beautiful days were behind us, I assumed—it was late March after all. A few days earlier, I skied in denim. I had friends in town, visiting from California, and they didn't even bring jackets. Plus, this whole mountain biking thing—that was pretty fun.

Then, in the matter of a March afternoon, the weather went from 75 and calm to gray and gale force. The plaza was eerie. By the time we left dinner at Tune Up, unarguably the best restaurant in town, it was dumping. Storms do that here, I learned. They show up unannounced and disappear just as quickly.

Ski Santa Fe reported 11 inches in the morning, but I still didn't quite believe it. My friends and I took our time eating huevos rancheros smothered in green and red chile sauce and sopaipillas at the Pantry diner before we headed up Artist Road for the 15-mile drive to the 10,350-foot base of the ski area. The snow continued, blowing at hard angles. The road was a disaster—Texans. We counted a dozen abandoned cars. It was a war of attrition. Once we squeezed through a three-car pileup and a snowplow, we were on our way toward freedom.

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We parked near the front of the lot and were on the lift at 10 a.m. At the top, we couldn't see a thing. We pushed for the trees, where we would ski steep, fresh powder through the glades with about 50 other people the entire day. It was the best skiing of the season, and by the time we were home later that afternoon, it was summer again. We went into the historic plaza for cocktails at Secreto and a Spanish dinner at La Boca. The sunset was New Mexican standard—the desert turned gold and the patchy skies a range of oranges, pinks, and purples.

Cody Barnhill at Taos Ski Resort. PHOTO: Jimmy Chin

Welcome to spring in the "Land of Enchantment," an unknown skier's outpost with exceptional access to mountains that few people ski. It's also livable. In Santa Fe, New Mexico's state capital of 84,000 that sits at 7,200 feet, one can actually have real adult things—like a career, or a family, or a home—and still access world-class skiing in the backyard. Between the State of New Mexico, tourism, and the nuke factory at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the job market is more diverse than a traditional ski town's. The median home price is a solidly middle class $310,000 in town and $161,00 throughout the rest of the state.

It isn't all enchanting and skiable. Its unemployment rate is 6.7 percent—dead last of the states and only slightly lower than Guam. The state is ranked 49th in the country for child well-being, 49th in education, 49th in economic climate, 42nd in growth prospects, and 41st in quality of life. It is also especially susceptible to the diminished snowfall that is a result of climate change.

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When it doesn't snow, Santa Fe always has something to do, outside or in. Culturally, it is unlike anywhere else in the country. It was founded as a Spanish colony in 1610. Indigenous people had claimed the land a thousand years before then, as their pueblo ruins scattered around the state show. Ancient crooked streets lined with one-story, adobe-style architecture, art galleries, museums, and vast trail networks, surround downtown. Though the town is sleepy—the median age is 44 and it's hard to find a drink past 10 p.m.—the area has long been a hotbed for creatives. "Touch the country of New Mexico and you will never be the same again," wrote D.H. Lawrence.

But let's talk about why we are all here in the first place: the skiing. In my first winter in New Mexico, I had a pass to Ski Santa Fe, a great community hill with bountiful backcountry skiing, like the 1,000-foot-long Nambe Chutes. Thirty minutes from my door, the town hill is a quiet place to spend a half-day skiing steep trees or a morning or evening skinning up the groomers. Meanwhile, weekend trips to Wolf Creek (two hours away), Crested Butte (five), and Telluride (six) are annual musts. And then there's Taos. Two hours from Santa Fe, Taos has the most interesting ski terrain in the country.

One day last winter, my fiancé and I showed up to Taos after it had snowed 40 inches of characteristically dry desert powder. As we rode up Chair Two and then hiked beyond it, snow crystals hung in the air under bright skies. We sent it off the cornice and sped through the drainage near Juarez, dumping speed in the waist-deep pockets of light snow as we flew down to the cat track. Afterward, we headed to West Basin, the Freeride World Qualifier site, with someone skiing Taos for the first time. Steep, thought-provoking lines sluice in between 30-foot rocks. At the bottom, our friend's mind was blown: "I've never skied anything like that before," he said. That day the big lines on 12,480-foot Kachina Peak, accessed by the Kachina chairlift, were closed, like they are all too often. It's big, exposed, and intimidating up there. Like New Mexico itself, the potential on Kachina was unlimited, if also often unrealized. So we headed to the Bavarian for steins of Hofbrau and pretzels on the best deck in skiing—always sunny and full of lederhosen, dirndls, and high spirits.

On the way home, we stopped by the inimitable Taos Mesa Brewery, a concert venue, community hub, and restaurant on the mesa built out of reclaimed and recycled materials by a longtime skier and musician. After a pint and a conversation with the affable owner, we kept south on the high road, past the massive fissure in the ground that is the Rio Grande Gorge, past hippie communities, geodesic domes, Earth Ships, and a mind-boggling amount of open space, until we arrived home in quiet, dusty Santa Fe.

This story originally appeared in the November 2017 (46.3) issue of POWDER. To have award winning stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.