Angel Fire: It’s a Family Thing

Angel Fire, NM – The Ute Indians first called this area nestled high
in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains “Angel Fire” for the soft, amber glow of the
setting sun as it radiates down the valley just before dipping beyond Wheeler
Peak, New Mexico’s highest point. Today, the name conveys a slightly different,
yet parallel meaning: the moniker of one of New Mexico’s largest ski areas,
where the warmth of the setting sun is mirrored by the resort’s family-friendly


There was no amber glow other than that produced by our headlights, however,
as we negotiated 24 twisting, turning miles of U.S. Route 64 east from Taos,
sharing the late-night road with little more than some curious native elk. 
Dropping off the east side of 9,107-foot Palo Flechado Pass, the road quickly
descends to the Moreno Valley, an oasis of civilization tucked amongst the sparsely
populated hills.

Angel Fire is infrequently a household name outside of Texas, Oklahoma and
Louisiana, so we were a bit surprised by the diversity of lodgings.  The resort
is purpose-built with functionality in mind and lacks some of the local charm
of other areas where the town, quite frankly, came first. However, the many
condominiums (the bed base is 3,000 strong) boast modest prices for a ski area,
and options for dining include many for the budget-minded. The streets were
quiet, as après-ski options are limited to a few bars with live music in keeping
with the resort’s family atmosphere.

The access road climbed past the numerous condominiums and private residences
before arriving at the welcome desk of the slopeside Angel Fire Resort Hotel. 
Exhausted by a day with enough miscues to make even Murphy shake his head in
disbelief, we quickly bedded down for the night.  With such comfortable accommodations,
sleep wasn’t far behind.

Most of Angel Fire's trails are intermediate cruisers (photo Marc Guido)

Most of Angel Fire’s trails are intermediate cruisers
(photo Marc Guido)


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Angel Fire Resort is a relative newcomer on the skiing scene, first opening
in the mid-1960s.  Initially developed as a residential project for summer visitors,
skiing arrived as an afterthought, although it has since developed into New
Mexico’s fastest-growing ski area.  Uphill transport covering an overall 2,077
vertical feet is provided by the state’s only two high-speed detachable quad
chairlifts (their singular status eagerly pointed out by Sherrie Bullington,
the resort’s communications manager), 3 double chairs and one surface lift.
As part of a 10-year, $40 million upgrade, the Chile Express detachable has
cut the long ride up the front of the slope by nine minutes. The topography
of the mountain’s front side dictates that the lift traverses a broad expanse
of almost flat terrain, and it is here that the speed of a detachable lift is
most welcome.  The Southwest Flyer quad has augmented the older slow doubles
on the more sustained pitches of the back side of the mountain. 

A family-friendly atmosphere pervades all aspects of Angel Fire Resort.  “We
cater mainly to families,” Bullington reinforced, “we’re mainly intermediate.”
While on paper 21% of the mountain’s 68 trails are dedicated to advanced skiers,
in reality the percentage is far less, as many of the mountain’s black diamond
offerings will leave expert skiers wanting.  Comparisons with neighboring Taos
Ski Valley
are inevitable, and what Taos lacks in easy cruising, Angel Fire
makes up for in spades.  While there are a couple of sections with steeper pitches,
most notably the terrain served by Lift #6 and the precipitous pair of Silver
Chute and Maxwell’s Grant, the vast majority of Angel Fire’s terrain will stroke
the intermediate ego.  Further expansion which has appeared on the resort’s
drawing board for several years now, to climber’s left of the existing ski area,
will add additional expert terrain, although part of this is easily accessed
at the present time via a gentle hike and skate from the resort summit.  Bullington
advises that they plan to add a lift into this terrain within two years, yet
older trail maps show the terrain as planned for the 1997-98 ski season.

Even the beginner can descend from mountain’s 10,650 foot-high summit to its
base. The resort’s quoted 400 acres of terrain may sound small by western standards,
but when one understands that all of Angel Fire resides below tree line and
that tree skiing is strictly verboten, 400 acres will provide enough diversity
to keep an intermediate skier happy for days on end.  With a high of only 150,000
skier visits annually, those 400 acres are likely to remain peacefully uncrowded.

(click on image to open a full-size Angel Fire trail map in a new browser window)

(click on image to open a full-size Angel Fire trail
map in a new browser window)

Silver Chute and Maxwell's Grant, two of Angel Fire's steepest runs, are visible to climber's left of the Chile Express chair (photo Jim Bell)

Silver Chute and Maxwell’s Grant, two of Angel Fire’s
steepest runs, are visible to climber’s left of the Chile Express chair
(photo Jim Bell)

Angel Fire's Summit Haus (photo Marc Guido)

Angel Fire’s Summit Haus (photo Marc Guido)

Among those intermediate options is Hully Gully, a broad favorite on the mountain’s
“back side” with steady, gentle cruising served by the resort’s Southwest Flyer
high-speed detachable quad chairlift.  In the same vicinity, Fire Escape provides
a gentle introduction to mogul skiing, and La Bajada leads a novice gently through
the trees from the top. 

Skiing in New Mexico is all about elevation, both for snowfall and snow preservation
at this southerly latitude.  Angel Fire’s base resides at a lofty 8,600 feet,
and with an average of 210 inches annually they’re no snowfall slouch, but they’re
not exactly a natural snowfall powerhouse, either.  This deficiency is more
than made up for with an ample snowmaking system covering 52% of the skiable
terrain, and its benefit was evident during our February visit when south-facing
adjacent hillsides were melted bare by the strong sun despite a decent snow
year. Thanks to their snowmaking system, slopes and trails sported plenty of

Fresh snow was still available, though, for those willing to sniff around a
bit.  Nine inches had fallen several days earlier, and the ungroomed Sluice
Box sported only a half-dozen set of tracks, a testament to the decidedly grooming-conscious
intermediate nature of Angel Fire’s clientele.

We mentioned that Angel Fire is all about the family experience, right? The
resort understands its market niche and caters to it extremely well.  A sprawling
6,000 square foot children’s center is nestled just above the base complex,
its own learning slope cordoned off from the speeding masses by an expansive
orange PVC fence.  The building also houses childcare for the youngest, and
a variety of activities for those just learning who choose to not spend all
of their time on the slopes.

At least one snowboarder belongs to most snow-sliding families, and Angel Fire
has therefore been able to capitalize on Taos Ski Valley’s ban on single-planked
sliding.  “If you have a car full of people, one of them is going to be a snowboarder,”
Bullington rationalized, “and that’s helping us because we have something for
everyone here.”

The resort offers two terrain parks for skiers and boarders, the newest of
which is an Adventure Park located at the summit that debuted last season adjacent
to the Summit Haus, which itself sports an outdoor grill, snacks, hot and cold
beverages, and beer and wine service.  Plans are in the works to construct a
halfpipe facility this coming summer for the 2001-2002 winter season.


Bullington enthused that Angel Fire “provides a wide variety of winter sports,”
and she sure wasn’t kidding.  Snow-sliding activities at the resort are hardly
limited to skis or snowboards.  With activities geared to all ages, it is a
perfect setting for the family with children. Angel Fire offers snowshoeing,
ski blades, snowmobiling and tubing, plus they are unique in New Mexico as the
state’s only winter sports venue to offer snowbikes as an option.  This past
winter, Angel Fire opened New Mexico’s newest cross country ski network.

Most unique, however, are Angel Fire’s World Shovel
Race Championships, scheduled for a single weekend in February.  Voted the Most
Unique Event of the Year by Events Business News, the World Shovel Race
Championships have become a favorite for folks on the crazy side and spectators

Uh ... where's the shovel? (photo Ben Blankenburg / Angel Fire Resort)

Uh … where’s the shovel? (photo Ben Blankenburg / Angel
Fire Resort)

In its inception, shovel racing was a competition
among trail maintenance crews who discovered that riding their work shovels
down the mountain at the end of the day was the quickest way home after a long
day of work. Today, it involves anyone “loco” enough to hunker down on various
types of scoops and race down the ski mountain in a 1,000-foot long course for
the fastest time. The shovels have evolved from the standard Number 10 scoop
shovel with ski wax as the only modification (the Production class) where speeds
of up to 61 m.p.h. have been achieved, to racers in the Modified Unique class
with shovel creations that are not built for speed, but to bewilder and amaze.
Much like floats in a parade, participants are only limited by their creativity
in livening up their shovels. An entire living room scene has come down the
ski mountain at over 40 miles per hour. The Taj Mahal made a run, as have a
beach scene, a hot air balloon, a chicken sandwich and a larger-than-life Bart

In between lies the Modified Speed class, featuring
aerodynamic contraptions built around a shovel and designed for speed. They
have been clocked at speeds faster than 75 miles per hour. These elaborate designs
look more like on-snow drag racers and undergo an extensive inspection process
before the race. One would be hard pressed to find the shovel on these speed
demons, which is required to be 12 inches from the racer’s rear and touching
the snow.


The Angel Fire Resort Hotel offers spacious and comfortable accomodations (photo Angel Fire Resort)

The Angel Fire Resort Hotel offers spacious and comfortable
accomodations (photo Angel Fire Resort)

Wheeler Peak looms beyond Angel Fire's base complex (photo Marc Guido)

Wheeler Peak looms beyond Angel Fire’s base complex (photo
Marc Guido)

Angel Fire does a brisk conference business as
well.  The year-round Conference Center offers more than 17,000 square feet
of meeting space in 12 different meeting rooms that can accommodate up to 300

“Our versatile meeting facilities can host everything
from an intimate wine and cheese reception to large corporate conferences,”
said Rachel Bayon, Conference Sales Manager.

Lodging, restaurants and conference rooms are all
centrally located inside the Angel Fire Resort Hotel, at the base of the ski
area. The Angel Fire Resort Hotel features 133 spacious guest rooms with two
queen size beds per room, cable television, a coffee maker and mini-refrigerators.
The hotel also offers 12 two-room suites with small kitchenettes. Other hotel
amenities include an indoor pool, hot tub, a hotel lounge, restaurant and gift


Most skiers arrive at Angel Fire either by car
or via the Albuquerque International Sunport (airport) an easy 150 miles to
the south – it’s only the last short stretch from Taos which seems to lack any
straight road.   If you prefer to not rent a car, Faust’s Transportation (505-758-3410)
and Pride of Taos (800-273-8340) both offer daily shuttle service to and from
the airport in Albuquerque and Angel Fire. However, the 2000-2001 ski season
saw the debut of seasonal direct air service from Dallas/Ft. Worth into the
airport in Taos, a joint venture between Angel Fire and Taos Ski Valley on Ozark
Airlines charter planes.  Rio Grande Air also makes the trip between Albuquerque
and Taos in 40 minutes flat, and American Eagle’s commuter service is reportedly
looking carefully into adding service to Taos.

Within close proximity of Angel Fire are three
other significant ski areas, each with its own unique character: Taos Ski Valley,
Red River and Ski Santa Fe.  The combination of the four is sure to provide
the visiting skier or snowboarder with a unique taste of the Enchanted Circle
region of New Mexico.

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