By Dave Simeur
High above the Permian Basin, Sierra Blanca dominates the landscape. This is the last white-capped sentinel on the southern extreme of the Rocky Mountains. The alpine meadows between the “White Mountain” and El Capitan are the home of Sierra Blanca Regional Airport (KSRR). This airport is the gateway to Ski Apache, Lincoln National Forest, casinos, the arts, hiking, camping, and the rich history of the desert southwest.
Our adventurous crew flew to KSRR for a weekend skiing getaway in N1918J, “Miss Juliet,” a turbocharged Cessna 310R. Owners love to christen their aircraft for a variety of reasons. Miss Juliet is aptly named. This airplane looks like a beautiful long legged woman. From the outside she roars. The turbocharged 310HP engines scream with power and precision. On the inside, the fit and finish are so accurate, she actually purrs like a European sports sedan. Miss Juliet is unlike anything else I have ever flown. With the turbos pulled back, we cruised over the top of the 12,003’ peak and circled for a first-hand ski report. Our excitement grew seeing that every lift was busy taking skiers to powdery slopes. The valley opened up below for the easy approach to the airport. Runway 30 is perfectly aligned with the White Mountain, guiding pilots with a Mayan precision that greeted ancient astronauts.
In the past, flying into Ruidoso was a much greater challenge. The old airport was located in a valley near downtown Ruidoso, with steeply rising terrain on all sides. That runway is gone now, replaced by the Hawthorne Suites Resort and a championship golf course. The new airport is served by a localizer that brings aircraft to the safety of the mesa to the north of town. Flyers have the choice of tie downs, covered spaces, or hangers. The FBO crew really knows how to take care of visitors, so we put Miss Juliet to bed in the comfort of a hanger for $40 a night. This is a reasonable expense when winter flying, since the warmth of the hangar saves wear and tear starting the engine. Additionally, cold-soaked aircraft can instantly accumulate ice during a wet runway take-off -- an important consideration in the mountains. KSRR is served by Enterprise rental car agency (1-800-RENTACAR). We suggest skipping the toll free number and calling Lisa Pruitt direct at 505-257-1154 for personal service. Lisa had a 2004 Jeep Cherokee 4x4 waiting for us upon our arrival at the airport.
Leaving the airport for the slopes, visitors pass the Spencer Theatre for the Performing Arts. Commissioned by the late Jackie Spencer Morgan and designed by Albuquerque architect Antoine Predock, the abstract limestone pyramid is a work of art in itself. This facility anchors the performing arts in the community, and contains the largest collection of Chihuly glass sculpture in the world. It offers first-class presentations of music, theatre, and dance. The center offers free tours Tuesday and Thursday at 10 a.m. with certain exceptions. Information for the performing arts center is available at spencertheater.com or by calling 505-336-4800. In the shadow of Sierra Blanca support for the arts runs as deep as the valley carved by the Rio Ruidoso River. Artists from around the world make their homes here, and have opened galleries that line the main street. While walking the shops is fun, it will have to wait; Ski Apache is our ultimate destination.
Miss Juliet’s speed allows an afternoon of skiing before settling into accommodations. The ski area is about a half-hour drive from the airport, culminating in winding switchbacks up the mountain that are not for the faint of heart. Cutting back and forth, incredible vistas treat the passenger, but the driver is definitely IFR, focused on the task at hand. Plentiful wild turkeys and mule deer casually watch drivers negotiate the turns from the woods. As you crest the hill, the topography of a great ski area becomes immediately apparent. Prevailing westerly winds are lifted on Sierra Blanca’s back, and dropped over a sharp crest into a massive bowl that traps the cold moisture. This produces a localized snowfall, and protects the snow base during warmer days. The ski area’s 11 lifts and 55 trails are open from Thanksgiving to late March, 8:45 to 4:00 daily. The resort is owned and operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe, who are gracious hosts welcoming all visitors to the beauty of their mountain. Ski Apache offers special programs for children, disabled, and blind skiers. Skiers can check conditions, rates, and explore the virtual trails at skiapache.com.
How is the skiing at Ski Apache? Obviously, it depends on the snowfall. When copious amounts of new powder assault the hill, this is the place to be (as of this writing 24 inches of new snow are falling). Most skiers on the hill have a skill level from beginner to intermediate, so more advanced skiers have the moderate to aggressive slopes nearly to themselves. The crew of Miss Juliet felt like we had our own “private” ski resort, even on a Saturday in the height of the season. This raises another question, how can a pilot complain about any snow that is a 35-minute flight from El Paso? After a flawless morning flight over picturesque landscape, having ski tips over the slope an hour later was so surreal; it felt like an out of body experience. The clean air, trees, and snow fueled the perennial pilots’ thought, “Does it get any better than this?”
But what is there to do in Ruidoso when there is no snow? The ski lodge is 50 yards from the start of the Crest Trail. This is one of the thousands of challenging, high quality hikes (consider the altitude) in the Smokey Bear Ranger district of the Lincoln National Forest. The crest trail is part of 50 miles of trails in the White Mountain Wilderness area, which follows the spine of Sierra Blanca and passes the tops of the gondola and Apache Bowl lift lines. From the Crest Trail vista, thousands of square miles open up in a panoramic sight. To the north, the towns of Capitan and Lincoln surround the Capitan Wilderness area. The hiking in the two wilderness areas varies from wheelchair accessible trails and 2-mile day hikes, to the multi-day backcountry trips that nearby New Mexico Military Institute uses to forge young cadet’s resolve. Information about the hiking in this rugged area is available at fs.fed.us and choosing Lincoln National Forest, or by calling 505-682-2551.
The Smokey Bear Ranger district is named for the tiny bear cub found clinging to a burned tree after a devastating forest fire in the area in 1950. Rangers tended to the bear’s burns and named him “Smokey.” As we all know, Smokey became the living symbol of fire prevention, and received so much fan mail that he eventually had to have his own zip code. After living in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. for 26 years, Smokey passed away and was returned to the Village of Capitan (a scenic 45-minute drive north of Ruidoso) to be buried at what is now the Smokey Bear Historical Park. The Historical Park, operated by the New Mexico Forestry Division, includes a visitor’s center, playground, picnic area, and, of course the final resting place of Smokey. Visit emnrd.state.nm.us/smokeybear for more information.
Hiking and skiing do not have to be part of the plan for a rich experience in Ruidoso. There are day trips that highlight the area’s colorful history. Our favorite is to follow the Rio Bonita east to the Tinnie Silver Dollar Saloon for a gourmet lunch. On the way visit Fort Stanton. The frontier post changed hands during the civil war, from a Union to Confederate post. Mescalero Apaches eventually drove off the Confederates. With the Confederate departure from New Mexico, Colonel Kit Carson brought war and defeat to the Apaches. He relocated the tribe to the Bosque Redondo Reservation on the Pecos River, but after several years, the tribe was allowed to return the White Mountain.
After exploring the Fort, visit the most infamous spot of the old frontier, the town of Lincoln. In 1877, an Englishman named John Tunstall came to Lincoln and set up a general store to try to break the cattle monopoly of Lawrence Murphy. The result of the competition was the assassination of Tunstall, the bloody Lincoln County Wars, and the birth of a legend that turned William Bonnie into Billy the Kid. Veterans bloodied in the Civil War and freed from the discipline of the Army populated the historic town of Lincoln. Their zeal erupted into violence that claimed the lives of many residents. Reenactments set the mood when visiting the Flying J Ranch chuck wagon dinner and western show (505-336-4330). If you would like assistance setting up a great vacation contact the Lincoln County Tour Company (888-527-1017) and let them handle the details.
Thinking about where to stay in Ruidoso has to start with the Inn of the Mountain Gods. Recently rebuilt into a spectacular resort, it sits on a lake at the foot of Sierra Blanca. The hotel is attached to Casino Apache, and features a golf course, convention center, and nightclub (innofthemountaingods.com, 800-545-9011). In the town of Ruidoso, the Ruidoso Downs Track and Billy the Kid Casino offers excitement that peaks during racing season. Local condos and hotels offer a wide variety of choices (we like the Hawthorne Suites Resort, 866-211-7727). Finding a place to stay should start at ruidoso.net or the excellent lodging information listed on skiapache.com.
Skiing, hiking, and touring work up ravenous appetites in the high altitudes, but pilots are in luck. Name a ski resort that offers a green chile cheeseburger. Ski Apache does. Other fine fare waits at the bottom of the mountain. After all of the skiing, getting a great meal in town is the easiest part of the trip. The absolutely genuine Circle J BBQ is a personal favorite. The Circle J boys are always hard at work splitting wood, and stoking the fire to create the best smoked BBQ in town. We took ours to go, since we came prepared for this trip with wine tightly packed into ski boots for safe transport.
How many ski trips, sunsets, and fresh mountain mornings can one aviator take? Always one more -- see you at KSRR and Ski Apache!
Dave Simeur is a flight instructor with helicopter, single engine, and multiengine ratings. He works with Momentum Interactive, specializing in instructor support, Component Skill Simulation™, and interactive flight training software, including a weight and balance program for the C310R. You can see the software or contact him at Momentum-i.com.