“In the early 70s there were none,” Ski Apache General Manager Roy Parker said.
The potholes are gone, thanks to a $1 million resurfacing project. But old-timers remember the early days when it was a dirt road all the way to the top.
“That’s when it was really rough,” Parker said. Fred Pavlovic, director of the Ski Patrol at Ski Apache, said that some people claim that they liked it that way, even though the going was “pretty darn slow.”
Let’s take a ride up the mountain. You’ll get some great views, and - if it’s winter - when you get to the top, you’ll have some great skiing.
Ski Run Road, alias Highway 532, turns off Mechem about five miles north of Ruidoso. From that point, the road climbs 3,000 feet in 12 miles.
About half a mile after the turnoff, you can see the remains of a second ski area that was open for several seasons during the 1970s. Two stone gateposts on the left mark the entrance, and the remains of a lift can also be seen. Lack of snow was the area’s downfall.
“That elevation is about 7,200 feet, and that’s way too low,” Parker said. “The absolute minimum for snow at this latitude is 9,000 feet.”
A mile farther is the turnoff for Monjeau lookout. Locals call this flat, open area “Edelweiss.”
At about mile 2, the road enters a narrow valley, with Eagle Creek flowing on the left. The valley opens out again at the entrance to the Eagle Creek Campground, a facility run by the Mescalero Apache tribe. The original dirt road ended at this point until the construction of the ski area in 1961. The parking area on the right is a handy place to stop and put on chains if weather conditions require them.
Here’s where the road really begins to climb. At about Mile 4 is the Little Horseshoe switchback. On the left, you get the first good view of the 12,003-foot notched peak of Sierra Blanca.
At Mile 6, you’re halfway there. Loosen your grip on the steering wheel and enjoy the beautiful view of the wooded valley below.
A half mile later, there is a pullout at the switchback that’s marked with a big arrow. This turn is called the “Texas Bend.”
“When there’s snow on the road, it’s about this point that people get stuck,” Pavlovic said. “It’s a sharp turn, so people slow up, which is a natural thing to do. But if they don’t downshift, or if they slow up too much, then they’re stuck. And I guess a lot of those cars have Texas license plates.”
Looking across the valley, you can see the stone tower, built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, at the top of Monjeau. This switchback, the northernmost point on the road, is always shaded in the winter, so watch for ice.
At Mile 8, look up again. You can see the road crisscrossing the mountain.
At Mile 8.5 is the switchback called “Axle Bend,” which someone with a can of spray paint renamed “Axle Rend.” Roy Parker reports that the original turn was even sharper, and that a lot of trucks broke axles during the construction of the ski area. It’s still, he said, “the toughest of the bunch.”
It’s also an area that frequently drifts shut.
“Some mornings it’s drifted shut and it takes the maintenance crew three or four tries to get around it,” Parker said.
After Axle Bend, you can see the Capitan Gap in the distance, the place where a singed little bear was found clinging to a tree after a forest fire. The cub became Smokey Bear, symbol of fire prevention. Monjeau Peak is in the foreground.
About Mile 9, you pass through a small grove of aspens. These trees grow after a fire or other soil disturbance, according to Richard Edwards, forester with the U.S. Forest Service.
“They’re called a ‘pioneer species,’” Edwards said. “There was a fire on Sierra Blanca, possibly 100 years ago, and the aspens were the first trees to grow back. In this area, you only see them above 8,500 feet.”
At Mile 9.5 is another switchback, Cat House Turn. This is a point at which I have personally bounced off the guardrails on a downhill trip in a snowstorm. Its unusual name doesn’t refer to any mountainside hanky-panky.
At Mile 10 is Windy Point, with a large parking area on the left. It’s a good place to stop and get your blood pressure back to normal. When you step out of your car, you’ll understand how it got its name. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying the panoramic view.
With the help of the posted signs, you can locate Monjeau Lookout and the Capitan Mountains. The runways of Sierra Blanca Airport and the white wedge of the Spencer Theater are visible. If you have good eyes, you can pick out Alto Lake and the long blue roof of the Swiss Chalet. The town of Ruidoso is tucked into the valley on the right.
Back on the road, the next switchback is Indian Turn. You’re soon in the midst of a large aspen grove, a spot that is spectacularly golden in autumn. Just past Mile 11, you get a first glimpse of the runs of Ski Apache on the left.
And now you’ve made it, all the way to the top. But not quite - you’re only up to 9,700 feet. To see the other side of the mountain, with White Sands in the distance, ride the gondola up to 11,400 feet. (No skiing required. After admiring the view and having a hot chocolate at the snack bar at the top, you just ride back down.)
In spite of the road’s dangerous appearance, there has never been a fatality.
“We’ve had a lot of people go off the road and a lot of accidents,” Parker said, “but no one’s ever been killed. There’s a certain fear factor, and I think that keeps the accide
nt rate down. People pay more attention - most people aren’t sleepy when they’re driving it.”
“The state takes good care of the road in the winter,” Pavlovic said. “We’ve got a wonderful maintenance crew. Usually by the time the skiers are coming up, the road’s clear.”
The snow is plowed on to the downhill side, so it makes a sort of cushion for errant vehicles. Not that you really want to try it.
Over the years, there’s been talk of installing a tram that would eliminate the need for the road.
“The state highway department thought they could save money if they didn’t have to maintain the road,” Parker said. “I told them to talk to the tram people. It would cost $30 to $40 million to build a tram like that.”
The people who work at Ski Apache and most of the people who ski there enjoy the road. Parker figures that he’s driven it about 8,000 times.
“I would hate to not have to make that trip every day,” Parker said. “That’s half the fun of working here. The only time it’s more fun is when it’s snow-packed.”
Ready to go back? Remember, it’s all downhill from here.
Tips for Driving the Ski Run Road
1. Always stay on the right hand side of the road, particularly when going around corners. Don’t hang on the inside - there are a number of blind turns.
2. Don’t cut the corners short on the inside. If you don’t have four-wheel drive, always have chains, and put them on before you desperately need them.
3. Drive in the same gear going down that you used going up. It will help control your speed and you won’t burn up your brakes. If the car is an automatic, use a lower gear.
4. Keep a safe distance behind other vehicles.