Cross-Country Skiing in Cloudcroft

February 12-16, 2024

All winter I have closely monitored weather reports and road conditions, looking for a window of opportunity to go cross-country skiing. An "atmospheric river" that caused flooding in Los Angeles swept down from the Pacific Northwest on February 9, with forecasts for up to three feet of snow in northern Arizona. But at the last minute, the storm swung well south, delivering its load to the Gila, the Huachucas, the Mule Mountains and even the Organ Mountains. In Silver City, it snowed all day long on Saturday, February 10. In the Sacramentos, where the snowpack had been running less than 30% of normal, the storm released an incredible 29" at Ski Apache. We waited the requisite two days for the roads to clear, and made a beeline for Cloudcroft.

snow in the Organ Mountains

The Organ Mountains in snow. That's not something you see every day!

roadrunner sculpture in Las Cruces

The roadrunner sculpture is way cooler than we thought. It stands 20 feet tall and is composed of old shoes, cell phones, ironing boards, crutches and other recycled materials. It was designed by local artist Olin Calk in 1993. It first stood at the Las Cruces Foothills Landfill. The purpose was to draw attention to our consumption habits, the power of recycling, and how much we toss away into landfills.

tunnel on US 82

Heading up the hill from Alamogordo. US 82 climbs 3000' in 17 miles!

cabin in Cloudcroft

Our little cabin in Cloudcroft was a bit sad, but adequate for our purposes.

parking lot at Upper Karr Canyon

We already knew that the official cross-country ski trails in the Lincoln National Forest just north of Cloudcroft might not be available. On the advice of an agent in the local ski shop, we headed for the "ski area" at Upper Karr Canyon, which is about 500' higher than Cloudcroft. But the parking lot was not plowed. The restrooms were locked. There were no trails, and not a soul in sight. Nothing but a shipwrecked toy hauler. But since we'd made the drive, we decided to give it a go anyway.

The base was 12" of fresh snow. Over a thin crust of ice. Over another foot of snow!

skiing at Upper Karr Canyon

There were scattered snowshoe tracks in the snow, but they disappeared in a few hundred feet, and it was just the two of us, gliding over a thick blanket of fresh snow, sparkling like diamonds.

tiny tracks in the snow

Critter snow heart in honor of Valentine's Day.

canyon deep in snow

We were following the outline of an old forest road that skirted a dry lake and then crossed a ridge and plunged into a deep forest on the opposite side.

scraping the skis

It was 38° sunny, so we experienced the usual icing problems on the warming snow, but the glide wax we purchased after our last expedition was at least partially effective.

Bluff Springs covered in ice

Breaking trail in two feet of fresh snow at 9300' takes its toll, so after lunch we continued south to check out the road to Bluff Springs.

We'd visited before, but the falls covered in icy stalactites was quite a sight!

Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope

No trip to the Sacramentos would be complete without a visit to Sunspot Solar Observatory. The Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope is housed in a 136-foot-tall concrete tower that continues 193 feet more underground to the primary mirror, which is 64 inches in diameter. The entire optical path is kept in a vacuum to eliminate distortion due to convection in the telescope that would otherwise be caused by the great heat produced by focusing the light of the sun.

thermal imaging

An experiment in thermal imaging.

relative size of planets

Relative size of planets, from Mercury to Saturn.

telescope mirror

You can also image yourself in a telescope mirror.

Sierra Blanca

Sunspot Highway affords occasional, eye-popping views of Sierra Blanca, southern New Mexico's highest peak.

Little Apache trailhead

On day 2, we decided to check out Little Apache Trail, just up the hill from Cloudcroft. It was few hundred feet lower than Karr Canyon, which made for very different conditions. Here the snow was 8-10" deep and icy. One hapless snowshoer had broken trail, only to turn back after half a mile, having discovered, as one invariably does, that snowshoeing is just not that much fun. He hiked back, punching a hole with every step.

Deep in the woods on the Little Apache Trail

But past the point of his denouement, it was just us and the snowy, snowy woods. Noone else had touched this trail.

We headed over to Ski Cloudcroft. Locals told us it hadn't been open in years! That was quite a storm.

"Antique" cross country skis on display at Ski Cloudcroft. They look pretty much what I'm currently using!

The Après Ski Scene: French fries and cocoa on the deck at Ski Cloudcroft.

Back at the cabin I discovered I had blown out one of my ski boots — the third such mishap in five years. So no skiing, but it was a fine day to hike the Cloud Climbing Trestle Trail + Old Cloudcroft Highway.

Cloudcroft has quite an interesting history. In the 1890s, the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad was under construction from Alamogordo to the mining town of White Oaks and beyond. Lacking a sufficient supply of timber, the builders decided to extend the line into the Sacramento Mountains to harvest the forests. Completion of the railroad allowed development of a thriving tourist industry in the early 1900s.

My friend Douglas.

Mexican Canyon Trestle is the most prominent remaining structure of the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railway which operated under various names from 1899 to 1947. The curved trestle has an overall length of 323 feet and rises 52 feet above the canyon floor.

It was 3.5 miles, 930'+/- , in a foot of fresh snow. A pretty good workout!

Herds of mule deer roam the streets of Cloudcroft. They have zero fear of humans. By Friday the temperature had climbed into the high 40s, and it was melting fast. Time to go home, but we sure had a blast! Who woulda thunk we could manage 2-3 days of cross-country skiing in southern New Mexico, in the middle of February?