Originally printed in SW Aviator Magazine
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 is the gateway to Ski Apache, the Performing Arts, Lincoln National Forrest, casinos, racing, and the rich history of the desert southwest.
Our adventurous crew departed 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.
Flying into Ruidoso was a much greater challenge in the past. the high lodge of ski apache near sierra balnce peak top of the apache bowlThe airport used to be located in a valley with rising terrain on all sides near downtown. The old runway was converted to Hawthorne Suites Resort and championship golf course, which we recommend. The new airport is served by a localizer that brings aircraft to the safety of the mesa to the north. 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 each night. This is a reasonable expense when winter flying. Consider that the warmth of the hanger that saves wear and tear on the engine. Additionally, cold soaked aircraft can instantly accumulate ice during a wet runway take-off. 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 dropped off a 04' 4x4 Jeep Cherokee II at the airport prior to our arrival.
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 www.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 and open 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. Operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe, they are gracious hosts that welcome all visitors to the beauty of the mountain. They offer special programs for children, disabled, and blind skiers. Skiers can check conditions, rates, and explore the virtual trails at www.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 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 district is named for a tiny bear cub found clinging to a burned tree after a devastating forest fire in the area. 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. The crest trail is part of 50 miles of trails in the White Mountain Wilderness area and 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 wheel chair accessible trails and 2-mile day hikes, to the multi-day back country 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 www.fs.fed.us and choosing Lincoln National Forest, or by calling 505-682-2551.
Hiking and skiing do not have to be part of the plan for a rich experience. There are day trips that will pass the visitor in and out history as they explore the area. 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. Mescelaro Apaches eventually drove off the Confederates. With the confederate departure from New Mexico, Colonel Kit Carson brought the 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, it is a short drive the infamous old frontier town of Lincoln.
Hiking and skiing do not have to be part of the plan for a rich experience. 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 to 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 and 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 by 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.
Skiing, hiking, and touring work up ravenous appetites in the high altitudes, but pilots are in luck. How many ski resorts offer 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 like 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! Byline: Dave is a flight instructor with helicopter, single engine, and multiengine ratings. He works with Momentum Interactive, creators of FLITELite.
Feature photo Ski Apache, Lincoln National Forest by Fredlyfish4 on Wikimedia Commons by CC BY 2.0
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