If you ever want to disappear for a while, there’s no better place than the hidden mountain town of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico. It’s so remote that you could drive the lonely interstates 10 or 25 that slice across the seemingly endless desert without ever knowing you’d passed it. Make it your destination, though, and you are in for a treat.
Drive first toward White Sands National Monument and continue to the imposing Sierra Blanca mountain range that serves as the monument’s backdrop. When you arrive at Ruidoso over an hour later, you’ll quickly understand why its 8,000 residents embrace this quiet and isolated corner of the Southwest.
“You can literally hike naked through the woods and not run into anybody,” said Justin Huffmon, director of tourism for Ruidoso, as we stood atop the gypsum sands of the monument on our way into town. Once you step out of the village and its neighboring satellite communities, there’s typically no one around for miles.
On the map, Ruidoso looks like a tough place to get to. But the drive is actually quick — about three hours from Albuquerque and just a bit over that from El Paso, Texas. The best approach is to drive in during late afternoon, just as the sun begins to set. Heading up Highway 70, old truck stops worn by decades of dust and desert sun begin to give way to forested hills. As the sun sets over the forested, snow-capped peaks in the distance, you’ll find yourself distracted by the purple glow of the mountains reflecting the fading evening light and specks of golden rays popping over the horizon.
A town set on the edge of mountain and desert
Don’t mistake Ruidoso’s seclusion for exclusivity. It’s the most welcoming mountain town in New Mexico, free of the gated mega-resorts and Gucci purses you’d find in the Aspens of the world. Steadily growing, Ruidoso has seen an influx of metropolitan expats, including a former professional soccer player from Brazil and a few deep-pocketed old Deadheads — drawn by the town’s laidback attitude and slow pace of life.
The old A-frames and low-rise commercial buildings of midtown house clothing and gift boutiques, gear shops, and pubs where you can cozy up to a local and draw advice on where to spend your next day’s adventure. The people in Ruidoso love to talk about their town, and for every rough edge — there are few — you’ll find a dose of homegrown pride and charm.
“Craft creates more craft,” was a phrase I’d hear Huffmon say repeatedly over the course of four days. Formerly a hub for horse racing and gambling, the new draw in town is Ruidoso’s makers and shakers, feeding off each other as the scene garnishes more attention. There’s a positive, inclusive energy radiating from the breweries and restaurants, and Lost Hiker Brewing Company signifies this spirit perhaps more than anywhere else in town. The taproom, and the brewery that feeds it, were opened by a pair of former school teachers from Austin, Texas, who left the big city for a more relaxed way of life in the mountains.
“We bought a plot of land nearby and knew we’d find a way to get up here permanently,” said co-founder Dan Carey, who runs the place with his wife Jennifer. “The name signifies us being sort of lost in life and finding our home here, as brewers.” The former educators’ brewery is barely a year old, but already you’ll see their brews poured at tap houses around town. That said, their taproom, rich with bluegrassy vibes and live music on weekends, is the best place to savor their beers.
“Liquid tourism” is taking off here, and midtown — the downtown strip running along Ruidoso’s Sudderth Drive — is remaking itself as a hub for local brews, wines, and spirits. Glencoe Distillery is the spot for stronger drink. The bar has a rustic feel to it, kind of like you’re drinking with Clint Eastwood on the set of Honkytonk Man, except for the fact that instead of pounding straight whiskey you’re sipping a barrel-aged Negroni. Wellness tourism — fueled by booze-free drinks — is also part of the boom, personified in the handmade tea blends at Old Barrel Tea Company and Sanctuary on the River yoga studio along the calm waters of the Rio Ruidoso.
Explore culinary traditions shaped by the local harvest
Despite its growth, Ruidoso has never lost sight of its native roots and New Mexican heritage. The southern part of New Mexico is the state’s breadbasket, with plentiful harvests of nuts, beans, and a variety of vegetables and herbs. Chili peppers grow in abundance here too.
In addition to spicing up the cocktails and coloring the landscape in vibrant reds and greens, those chilis means that two of the most seductive words ever spoken together — breakfast burrito — are amplified here like nowhere else. Sacred Grounds Coffee and Tea House is where you’ll find the best in town.
Chilis also infuse the meats at Circle J BBQ, giving it a unique kick not found in the BBQ joints of the South or Midwest, and satisfying the grilled meat cravings of visitors from nearby Texas. The full bounty of the local harvest is on display at Hunt and Harvest, the perfect place for date night and one of the few spots in town where you may want to break out that collared shirt.
The local ski area operates a world away from the corporate resorts up north
Stretched across the nearby Sierra Blanca peak, Ski Apache is the southernmost fully operational ski area in the United States. The terrain is typical of Rocky Mountain resorts, with above-treeline bowls leading into mellow tree runs, complemented by plenty of moguled runs and groomed cruisers as well. Without the name recognition of Summit County or Lake Tahoe, the resort is far from the vacation radar of most skiers and boarders outside of New Mexico and western Texas. While this equals virtually no lift lines, it keeps the Mescalero tribe which operates the ski resort in constant marketing mode, determined to bring their isolated resort the attention it deserves.
Even with the tribe’s determination, the ski area still faces obstacles. Climate change hangs overhead, with opening dates consistently pushed back and a feeling in town that winters are becoming shorter. In June of 2012, the Little Bear fire hit southern New Mexico with a force unlike any the state had ever seen, burning through over 40,000 acres and destroying more than 250 structures. Ski Apache lost three chairlifts and its gondola in the fire.
The tribe, unwilling to let the disaster wipe their iconic ski area off the map, replaced all of the structures that summer — and opened the full mountain for the 2012/13 season. “It was an incredible story of survival and determination,” said Huffman.
Wind is a constant challenge for the resort, occasionally shutting the lifts down completely if conditions aren’t safe to operate them. But the resort is adapting, and year-round activities are a major priority. Ten miles of trails open to mountain bikers during summer months, and hikers have plenty of room to roam both onsite and at nearby trails, including the trailhead to the summit of Sierra Blanca peak just up the road.
Guests craving views of the 12,000-foot peak without breaking a sweat can hop in the gondola for a scenic ride to the top of the ski area. On New Year’s Day in 2015, the tribe opened the world’s highest zip line there, launching gliders from over 11,000 feet and sending them soaring nearly 9,000 feet across mountains and, if eyes are kept open, offering incredible views of the Sierra Blancas.
Ruidoso’s charm comes with out-the-door access to the whole of the Sierra Blanca mountains, the original draw to the area. The town is working to create a connected system of hiking and biking trails which traverse the area surrounding the village, providing year-round access to the mountains not dependent on seasonal weather.
Nearly all visitors want to see the mountains, but not everyone likes to hike, and Ruidoso is working to provide alternative ways to see the sights. Backcountry Attitudes is one example of this, a newly licensed operator of off-road buggy tours that cover the expansive dirt road system running through the high country near town. Guests can drive their own buggy or ride with a guide.
The Old West meets modern Southwestern charm
Ruidoso’s relaxed personality is as rich in Southern hospitality as Southwestern charm, and while you’ll see plenty of the turquoise-heavy imagery that New Mexico is known for, you’ll feel right at home in a pair of cowboy boots or trail shoes. Downtown lodging properties such as Ruidoso River Resort offer walkable access to both midtown and the trailheads leading out of it. Most lodging in town, aside from a row of chain motels dotting the outskirts, is done cabin-style. You’ll find wooden frames, pastoral decor themed around the elk that often outnumber humans in the town, and a host who’ll look you in the eye and shake your hand as they hand you a room key — which, by the way, is likely to be an actual key. This sounds rustic, and in many ways it is — but the fireplace turns on with the flick of a switch and the heat works like a charm.
If you’re coming by air, fly into either El Paso or Albuquerque and rent a car or hit up Shuttle Ruidoso for a lift. Midtown is walkable, but having your own vehicle is a plus because you can head out to the ski area and the region’s trailheads on whim. You can also make the quick day trip along the Billy the Kid Scenic Highway.
This 40-minute journey takes you to Lincoln, the site of the western legend’s famed jailbreak 1881. You can walk by the jailhouse and, if inclined, you can even snap a selfie on the spot outside where he landed after bailing from the jail’s top floor. More of a historic site than an actual town, you’re only an hour from Roswell, and the Old West vibes mix with a heavy dose of paranormal creepiness to create a haunted house-type feel. Settle in for a pint at Bonito Valley Brewing Company to capture this essence in full, as the taproom is set in a house as old as the legend of Billy the Kid himself.
Newcomers are welcome to stay
“We actually want the people who work on laptops to come here,” Huffman said. “We want more bodies in the town.”
Ruidoso has a constant need for labor, as well — workers to fill shifts at restaurants, lodging properties, and cafes. The problem, as in mountain towns across the country, is affordable housing. The city has tried for years to turn an open lot near downtown into “workforce” housing, but the idea faces intense opposition from business owners and landlords worried about a negative impact on property values. Officials are hopeful that the property will be built.
Despite the tight housing market, Ruidoso is still more affordable than many other mountain towns. If you’re looking for a change of pace, or just want to hide out for a while, Ruidoso may be just what you’re looking for.