Exploring New Mexico’s High Country: Taos Ski Valley and Red River

While driving through New Mexico, anyone can see just how varied the Land of Enchantment is for themselves. In the East, the mellow, rolling buttes of the plains dot the landscape. In the West, the easternmost fringes of the painted desert provide drivers with a visual overload of beautiful stratified rock. Going south the eyes …
New Mexico has a pretty good bit of high country.

While driving through New Mexico, anyone can see just how varied the Land of Enchantment is for themselves. In the East, the mellow, rolling buttes of the plains dot the landscape. In the West, the easternmost fringes of the painted desert provide drivers with a visual overload of beautiful stratified rock. Going south the eyes are met with dramatic fault-block mountain ranges throughout the Rio Grande Valley and the snow-like dunes of the White Sands desert. Finally, in the north, near the towns of Santa Fe and Taos, the southernmost flanks of the Rocky Mountains loom above the landscape, offering some of the best mountain biking in New Mexico.

Just north of Taos lies a region deep in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that encompasses New Mexico’s highest peaks with a completely different tone than Taos. While Taos is a classic, arid New Mexican destination, this region is much more reminiscent of Colorado with green vegetation and bare, above tree line peaks. The two main towns within the region, Red River and the Taos Ski Valley, both provide great eats and cool places to stay in a region full of mountain biking opportunities.

Taos Ski Valley

Although the Taos Ski Valley might be more well known for its skiing, plenty of thought is being put into its growing mountain biking opportunities. Keep in mind the Taos Ski Valley is still growing, so a mountain biker could only ride there for a couple days. However, the singletrack is already proving to be some of the best in Northern New Mexico, offering a great blend of new school and old school styles.

The Trails

photo: Futchu

The major trail network in the Taos Ski Valley is Northside, a huge, growing labyrinth containing over 20 miles of singletrack. Northside also has the honor of being the highest mountain bike trail network in the state. Its highest point, Frazer Mountain, pokes just above 12,100 feet. Anyone coming to Northside from the desert will appreciate the tacky forest dirt and the expansive views. Although there is a $10 fee, the money goes straight to the builders and to the town in order to expand the trail system.

There is no easy way to climb at Northside. Not unlike the skiing on the opposite side of the valley, Northside is incredibly steep. For a taste, just look at some of the trail names. Three sections of the Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain Road are called the Mothers, and when I was told about them it was suggested they left out the next word of the phrase they were trying to convey. In addition, there’s an entire trail called Hike-a-Bike, and they’re not kidding. I did get a chance to ride a brand-new trail named Gold Camp, which runs from the trail kiosk to the mid-section of the Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain Road. The grade is bearable and they did manage to bypass two of the Mothers, making this addition a welcome new route up to Frazer Mountain Road.

photo: Futchu

From there, it’s a game of picking your poison. Both Frazer Mountain Road and Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain Road are incredibly steep, but the former has the distinct bonus of topping Frazer Mountain. The summit provides amazing views above the tree line that stretch far into the alpine tundra of the snow-clad Wheeler Peak Wilderness and down to the village.

photo: Futchu

Going downhill provides many more options. Bombing back down Frazer Mountain Road, whose hike-a-bike grade going uphill turns into a series of gnarly, high-speed steeps going downhill, is definitely a popular and rewarding option. However, I found it even more exciting to ride down the ridge to the Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain area via the Wheeler Peak Trail. This route delivers some exhilarating high alpine riding similar to the Monarch Crest.

At Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain, a couple options to get off the high reaches of the trail system exist. My favorite was riding the Malachite Trail, Redi’s Run, the Steam Engine Trail, and the Sawmill Trail, in that order. This route provides a sampling of Northside’s various downhill options. Redi’s Run is characterized by rolling switchbacks, while the Malachite Trail and the Sawmill Trail are defined by steep, straight runs down the mountain that allow for quite a bit of speed. Finally, the Steam Engine Trail’s tight, relatively buff nature puts it in a league of its own as it meanders down the mountain along a creek.

Other Activities

Aside from mountain biking, the Taos Ski Valley still has a lot to offer. For instance, Taos Ski Valley boasts “easy” access to Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest point at 13,161 feet, via the 12.4-mile William Lake hiking trail. Stunning 360-degree views accompany hikers along this walk above the tree line, allowing visitors to see up and down the long spine of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. Furthermore, hikers might be greeted by the marmots and bighorn sheep who often feed in the alpine tundra during the day.

Taos Ski Valley also provides the weary mountain biker with some good opportunities to go fly fishing along the clear Rio Hondo River, rock climbing above town, and horseback riding at Northside for a new perspective on the trails.

Red River

On the opposite side of the region lies Red River, a little town with a small ski slope, plenty of western charm, and excellent mountain bike trails. Since its slopes aren’t socked in by the wilderness like those of the Taos Ski Valley, Red River has access to large tracts of Carson National Forest that are bike-friendly. Forest Service trails like the Lost Lake Loop and Fourth of July Canyon make up a large amount of the trail base.

The Trails

The Lost Lake Loop is certainly the most famous of Red River’s trails, and probably the biggest draw for mountain bikers coming to the area. In 2015, as part of the National Authorization Act, the boundary of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness was adjusted so mountain bikers could legally ride the entirety of the Lost Lake Loop. Through the efforts of organizations like the IMBA, a beautiful high alpine loop passing one of the prettiest lakes around was opened to biking.

The beautiful Lost Lake

From the trailhead, the Lost Lake Loop climbs thousands of feet above a nearby creek onto a ridge. Then, after skirting the ridge, amazing views of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness and beyond are revealed before a brief descent to Lost Lake. Lost Lake hovers right at the tree line, providing a glimpse of a high ridge above and the crystal clear lake below.

Riding one of the last talus slopes before enjoying a descent into the valley.

Next, the exclusively downhill route descends through thick forest and around rushing streams before meeting one of the forks of the Red River at the bottom of the valley. After a very brief climb onto the other bank, the trail flattens out while the river continues to slowly descend, making for a prime final descent to the Forest Service Road. The more adventurous might choose to stash their bikes at the intersection with the Horseshoe Lake Trail and make a break for Wheeler Peak’s summit, which totals about 5 miles round trip.

The town of Red River itself also boasts a couple trail options. From town, it is easy to hop on the Red River Ski Area’s lift to take the downhill trail back into town. In addition, the Pioneer Creek Trail, the Exploration Trail, and the Mallette Canyon Trail are all within riding distance from downtown. For those looking for another loop, Fourth of July Canyon provides a thrill of a downhill after a long climb up to the summit. Lastly, the nearby Valle Vidal Unit of Carson National Forest contains the Powderhouse Canyon Trail; however, beware as it may be in disrepair. If you chose Powderhouse Canyon as one of your rides, be prepared for anything.

Other Activities

According to Red River’s website, Red River encourages many of the same forms of outdoor recreation the Taos Ski Valley does. First, the fishing on the Red River is supposed to be excellent, and the town’s immediate access to Carson National Forest makes it a great basecamp for horseback riding adventures. Because Red River isn’t socked in by wilderness areas, off-road motorized travel is very popular on the many roads extending upward into the mountains.

Lodging and Restaurants

Given this region’s extreme beauty, there are naturally plenty of places to stay. In Red River, I stayed at Hotel Ryland. This place takes hotels to a whole new level. For starters, their reliable internet and cable provides entertainment after a hard day spent in the mountains. Right outside the main building lies firewood, grills, and even a fire pit. Inside, the rooms come with full-blown kitchens, complete with a stove, an oven, and a full-sized refrigerator. They even have a bike rack filled with cruisers guests can use to easily get around town.

Besides Hotel Ryland, Red River appears to have a myriad of other lodging options. Some of the standouts were the Terrace Towers Lodge and the Alpine Lodge. Even so, outside Red River lie an infinite number of cabins, not to mention VRBO and Airbnb rentals.

Superb restaurants in Red River include Anchovies Pizza, which will surely please any hungry mountain biker. In addition, Shotgun Willie’s great country-style food can easily be used as a weapon against a nasty calorie deficit.

Although I didn’t actually stay in the Taos Ski Valley, I did check out some of the available lodging options. On the road to the Taos Ski Valley from the Rio Grande River Valley, I counted four clean campgrounds along the Rio Hondo River. The village itself contains a couple of the average high-priced ski resort hotels; however, the Alpine Village Suites delivers some reasonably-priced options.

The Bavarian Lodge & Restaurant

My favorite restaurant in the Taos Ski Valley was easily the Bavarian Lodge. Hailing from Wisconsin, I get exposed to a lot of traditional German food. I can confidentially say the Bavarian Lodge has some of the best German food I’ve eaten outside Milwaukee.  For some New Mexican-focused food, try the Stray Dog Cantina, which serves New Mexican classics like Frito Pie and Navajo Tacos.