Road Trip Report: Taos, Take Me Away
A divine drive to discover ’The Soul of the Southwest.’
For the Aspen Times Weekly
Over the past year, I felt like I was existing among two conflicting realities of travel enthusiasts: those who still went and those who sorely stayed home.
The farthest this germaphobe went amid the pandemic (aside from a travel anxiety-inducing family 911 in Washington last fall) was the bathtub — a new regular self-care ritual during which I would also flip through my many magazine subscriptions or worse, scroll social media dreaming about where we would go as soon as the CDC gave the go-ahead.
According to its latest update on April 2, “The CDC recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated, because travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. If you are not fully vaccinated and must travel, follow CDC’s recommendations for unvaccinated people.”
Double doses of Pfizer scheduled, my guy and I spontaneously started planning a post-jab road trip to Taos, New Mexico. We had decided it was the most exotic-yet-drivable destination, and one where we could also squeeze in some spring skiing. The state’s stringent COVID-Safe Practices were a bonus in easing my nerves for our first official vacation in 14 months (New Mexico only dropped its restriction on out-of-state visitors in February).
We set out on the six-and-half hour, 353-mile journey — far shorter in the summer when Independence Pass is open — at the end of March with an air of excitement we almost forgot how to embrace. As we crossed over the Colorado state line and entered into “The Land of Enchantment” I was more ready than ever for Taos to take me away.
TOP OF THE TOWN
Known as “the soul of the Southwest,” the high desert, artsy enclave of Taos is situated at the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico and teems with history. The Taos Pueblo, which lies on the north boundary of town, was built somewhere between 1000 and 1450 A.D. and is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. Today, more than 1,900 people of the Puebloan Native American tribe still live in the settlement — designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992.
But its crown jewel is the Taos Plaza — a landmark that was once a Spanish-fortified walled square and was reestablished in 1796 — now surrounded by adobes filled with art galleries, restaurants, jewelry stores and clothing boutiques. Since it was our first time in Taos, we planned for two days with an overnight at the Taos Inn to explore before heading up the hill to Taos Ski Valley. Only a 35-minute commute, next time we’d opt straight for the swankier accommodations at The Blake, but the cozy, in-room fireplace and prime location were a plus.
Photo: A well-appointed living room in a suite at The Blake.
The Blake, Taos Ski Valley, NM
Named in honor of German-born ski pioneer Ernie Blake and his wife Rhoda, who founded Taos Ski Valley in 1955, The Blake is an 80-room, LEED-certified alpine guesthouse adjacent to Lift 1 making summer and winter mountainside adventures as easy as taking a few steps outside from the back door. It’s also the most luxurious lodging option in the area with a curated native art program (daily tours are offered to guests), gourmet in-house restaurant, pool and hot tub deck, state-of-the-art fitness center, full-service spa, gear shop and ski valet. Each well-appointed room is stocked specifically for adventurers — think lens wipes, eye drops, boot dryers and equipment-friendly walk-in closets. And its sophisticated suites (they run as large as a four-bedroom penthouse) come with a full kitchen, washer/dryer and gas fireplace. The Blake is currently scheduled to reopen for the 2021 summer season on June 18. Rooms from $218 per night. skitaos.com
Whether you are just passing through or going to stay awhile, drinks at the Inn’s Adobe Bar (aka “the living room of Taos”) and dinner at Doc Martin’s are a must for spicy margaritas and traditional southwestern dishes. On the shopping scene, score vintage treasures at People of the Valley Mercantile, get fitted for a custom chapeau at Six Hand Hat Company, gear up at Taos Mountain Outfitters, tempt your turquoise collection at El Rincon Trading Post (although my favorite find was from a parking lot vendor at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge) and indulge your sweet tooth at Chokola Bean to Bar. Taos’ many museums were still closed due to COVID during our visit, so alas, we’ll have to the check out the Harwood Museum of Art, Kit Carson Home & Museum and Millicent Rogers Museum on the next trip.
TAOS SKI VALLEY 2.0
We spent the next three days playing tourists in Taos Ski Valley and arrived just in time for a spring storm that dumped more than 20 inches of snow over the course of our stay. Hanging our helmets at The Blake — the base village’s luxury hotel hub that opened in 2017 — we took advantage of our ski-in, ski-out status for first chair on day one. Taos Ski Valley’s terrain is notoriously extreme, long drawing the most serious of skiers to attempt expert-only zones both on- and off-piste.
Admittedly, seeing the incline that Lift 1 (the resort’s only high-speed quad) follows to the top was slightly intimidating, but the butterflies in my stomach were gone after spotting a faded, vintage sign on the way there that reads, “Don’t panic! You’re looking at only 1/30 of Taos Ski Valley. We have many easy runs too!”
From the top of Lift 1, we skied our way over to Chair 2 and rode it to the top in an attempt to access Taos Ski Valley’s notorious, hike-to-only routes on “The Ridge.” Tie-dye “Ridge Head” t-shirts staked outside Ski Patrol Headquarters greeted us before we stopped by the walk-up window to inquire about the day’s conditions. Despite the heavy snowfall, it was mostly closed already for the season, so we headed for the fresh powder on Kachina Peak instead.
In 2015, the installation of a lift up to the 12,450-foot summit of Kachina Peak signaled a new era for the once sleepy, no-frills resort — previously only accessible via a 45-minute hike for Highland Bowl-esque steeps. It was the first major on-mountain infrastructure investment made by hedge-fund billionaire Louis Bacon, who purchased Taos Ski Valley in 2013 from Mickey Blake; his parents Ernie and Rhonda Blake founded the area in 1955. As part of Bacon’s $300 million commitment to its renaissance, The Blake opened two years later with a an ongoing slate of improvements still in progress.
“We overhauled the base plaza, and invested millions in on-mountain infrastructure, including replacing older lifts, upgrading our snowmaking equipment to be more energy efficient and effective,” explained Taos Ski Valley CEO David Norden. “We also invested in new summer operations, which include a via ferrata course, mountain biking trails and completely renovated events spaces and restaurants.”
Norden, who previously served as a project manager in the development of Aspen Highlands from 1998-2003, is also overseeing the finishing touches on The Blake Residences — an adjacent building featuring 24 fully-appointed units scheduled for occupancy this summer.
“Despite all these upgrades, we are still committed to growing better, not bigger,” added Norden. “Significant growth of skier visits is not part the equation. Our emphasis is on retaining the soul and character of Taos Ski Valley, while enhancing the visitor experience and aligning with our B Corp ethos — any future capital improvements will be done with this ethos in mind.”
THE B CORP EFFECT
As The Blake was opening its doors in 2017, Taos Ski Valley also announced that it had achieved Certified B Corporation (B Corp) status. It is the first (and only) ski resort in the world to earn the designation, which certifies a for-profit company’s superior performance on social and environmental matters. Also a conservationist and philanthropist, Bacon dedicated his takeover to creating a legacy for Taos Ski Valley in operating with the highest integrity of sustainable and ethical practices, leading the charge in going through the rigorous B Corp process.
That B Corp ethos has set Taos Ski Valley apart from its competitors in attracting an increasingly conscious consumer base as the ski industry itself continues to fight the challenges of climate change. Here at Aspen Snowmass, although not a Certified B Corp, Aspen Skiing Company has set a green standard in its own right.
Auden Schendler, Skico’s vice president of sustainability and board chair of the climate nonprofit Protect Our Winters, wrote an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review earlier this month that challenged the paradigm of corporate responsibility practiced by companies like Skico and Taos.
“Systemic change is the only path to climate stability,” he wrote. “But what the corporate sustainability movement has truly succeeded at is ensuring that everyone works within a narrowly defined playing field that leaves the one thing we need to upend—the fossil-fuel-based economy—intact and unthreatened.”
Joining companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia, Taos Ski Valley had to pass the B Impact Assessment test, which evaluates businesses in social and environmental performance. As a business built on the natural environment, Taos Ski Valley prioritizes energy efficiency, land stewardship, efficient water use, community engagement and responsible waste management.
“A decision to stop selling products in plastic bottles was the first step in Taos Ski Valley’s zero-waste journey,” a recent Certified B Corp blog post highlighted. “The B Corp ski resort added water bottle filling stations, then moved on to examine its recycling practices for other opportunities, especially those focused on reducing food waste.”
Working with BioCoTech Americas, Taos Ski Valley now operates a food dehydration device that processes 150 to 200 pounds of waste in a 14- to 16-hour period and produces an inert carbon material used to enhance the rocky, mineral-heavy soil and reduce erosion.
“The market is recognizing our work: We’ve won multiple Golden Eagle awards for environmental sustainability the last several years, and we even host the annual B Leadership Summit (the annual conference for top B Corp CEO’s to collaborate and envision the future of the global movement),” Norden proudly shared. “We signed the Camber Outdoors CEO pledge to advance our work on diversity, equity and inclusion. And, we have more people coming to the mountain to ski and experience our summer activities. We feel achieving B Corp status is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.”
Taos Ski Valley’s latest initiatives include collaborating on a leading forest health project known as the Rio Grande Water Fund with The Nature Conservancy and US Forest Service.
Norden added: “This work will proactively mitigate devastating forest fires, help protect water sources, and protect habitats. We are also significantly invested in improving racial and social equity in outdoor sports and in skiing, starting with wage equity programs and paying a living wage rather than a minimum wage for entry level staff. Recruiting is difficult in the ski industry, so we feel it gives us an advantage.”
While Taos Ski Valley is a welcome winter escape from Aspen for a change of ski town scenery (and included on both the Ikon Pass and Mountain Collective Pass), the summer season has increased in popularity in recent years for Taos and the northern New Mexico loop of oases aptly known as the “Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway.”
The warmer months offer an abundance of organized outdoor adventures whether you’re hiking, biking, rock climbing, horseback riding or whitewater rafting. New this year is the Via Ferrata experience. An Italian term meaning “iron path,” the Via Ferrata is a protected climbing route situated at 11,500 feet in the sub-alpine ecosystem of Kachina Peak and built with a steel cable rail fixed to the rock, metal steps, ladders, suspension bridges and zip wires.
As you start planning a summer road trip of your own, a sojourn south of the Colorado border will certainly soothe your wanderlust. And for cautious travelers like me, Taos is the best bet for easing back into getting away post-pandemic, but still finding yourself a world away. Following an entire year with that freedom was abruptly axed — also reflecting on the grief, loss and struggle so many faced — having the perspective that travel is not a right, but a privilege makes taking that first vacation all the more fulfilling.
The Ahi Tuna Tartare Tostada at Medley. | Courtesy Medley.
Glenwood Springs, CO
If you’re hitting the road to Taos before Independence Pass opens in the early morning, get your sugar and caffeine fix from the friendly (and wide awake) staff at Sweet Coloradough. The full-service bakery not only specializes in donuts — named the top shop in Colorado by USA Today in 2020 — but also has a vast array of breakfast sandwiches and espresso drinks (you’ll likely be asked if you want a shot of Bailey’s or Irish whiskey in it for the road!). sweetcoloradough.com
Once a staple of Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood, Buchi moved to the mountains in 2019 where husband-and-wife owners Emmett Barr and Kim Hastings craft the ultimate cubanos, empanadas and Cuban coffee creations. Grab an Aye Conyo (roast pork, ham, turkey, pepperoni, Swiss cheese, pickles, onions, hot peppers. mustard and key lime mayo) to-go or if you need a break from the car, scarf one down on a patio table. buchicafecubano.com
San Luis Valley Brewing Company
Constructed in 1897, the San Juan Building in downtown Alamosa was transformed into a modern brewpub in 2006 thanks to the talents of local artist, designer and sausage producer Kris Gosar. Plan a pit stop at this bustling small-batch brewery to taste test its classic and seasonal brews (if you’re not the one driving of course) paired with the Local Sausage Sampler featuring three of Gosar’s own homemade sausages served with sauerkraut, pita bread and stone ground mustard. slvbrewco.com
El Prado, NM
Have the perfect pre-arrival, early-bird dinner at this rustic roadhouse where husband-and-wife chefs and owners Wilks and Colleen Medley whip up modern gastropub fare. A favorite among locals, it opens at 4 p.m. daily (closed Sundays and Mondays) with a happy hour through 6 p.m. — often with live music. Small plate highlights include the Ahi Tuna Tartare Tostada and Crispy Blackened Shrimp Tacos with a New Mexico Shepherd’s Pie and Shrimp & Grits as can’t-miss mains. The Medley’s also operate the best wine shop in town right next door so you can stock up for your Taos Ski Valley stay after you eat. medleytaos.com
Arroyo Seco, NM
On your way to or from Taos Ski Valley, stop in the tiny, funky town of Arroyo Seco to fuel up with a bagel sandwich (go for the Lox Works — overstuffed with cream cheese and topped with sweet pickled onions, tomato and capers) or the classic Breakfast Burrito with green chile. But the Taos Cow is known for house-made ice cream in a rotating menu of all-natural and creative flavors like lavender, pistachio white chocolate and lemongrass. taoscow.com
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