The Enchanted Forest Cross-Country is one of those places—one of those experiences of place—that not only lives up to its seemingly outdated name (in an age of manufactured forests that are neither enchanted nor enchanting) but offers what forests have been offering up for eons in fable after fable after myth after play after fantasy after epic, from Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Harry Potter: the possibility of liminality and transformation, wonder and awe. And downright fun.
Not at all as intense or risky or exhilaratingly fast-paced as the downhill skiing and snowboarding at Taos or Santa Fe (or even Ruidoso and Sandia Peak), what Enchanted Forest provides is the chance to slow down and smell the ponderosa. “We’re a groomed facility,” says charmed owner Geoff Goins. “That means we break up the hard pack. We pack out snow. We set up the routes and clear and patrol the trails. We put all our effort and energy into creating a place where you can just ski. There’s something really freeing about that.”
Situated just three miles east of Red River on the Carson National Forest, Enchanted Forest is New Mexico’s largest full-service cross-country ski area, with over 30 kilometers of trails groomed for both classic and freestyle skiing, and 18 kilometers of trails groomed just for snowshoeing (plus a few other trails earmarked especially for people who want to bring along their dogs).
Enchanted Forest was founded in 1985 by Goins’s father-in-law, John Miller, a Texan who spent his summers in Red River, on land his father bought in 1935. Miller came up with the idea for his winter wonderland while attending a cross-country convention at California’s Royal Gorge, the mother of all Nordic ski areas in the U.S. Until that moment at Royal Gorge, Miller and his wife, Judy, had been operating Red River’s Powderpuff Mountain, a mom-and-pop–style beginner’s ski area. In addition to his Powderpuff gig, Miller had also been leading backcountry ski tours for years.
But his Royal Gorge epiphany told him that if he were to plot a route and groom a trail (or more) through Carson National Forest, they would come. So he returned to New Mexico, took out his compass and set out over the forest’s old logging roads. He also applied for a permit with the U.S. Forest Service, who just happened to be wanting to do something constructive with their forestland right at that moment. Enchanted Forest is now the state’s largest cross-country ski spot, attracting more than 3,000 visitors a year.
Groomed with one side tracked for classic cross-country skiing (diagonal stride skiing) and the other side smoothed for snowshoeing and freestyle skate skiing (which uses a motion similar to that used by ice skaters), Enchanted Forest has lessons for beginning, intermediate and advanced skiers. There’s a full-service rental and service shop in the warming hut/snack bar, as well as a second warming hut along the trail system, plus picnic areas here and there.
At 9,800 feet above sea level, the area boasts an average of 230-plus inches of snow every year, and last year it accommodated upwards of 300. Nevertheless, New Mexicans, particularly Albuquerqueans and Santa Feans, continue to call up Goins and ask if he’s gotten any snow. Duh? “The local people don’t believe there’s snow up here,” says Goins, a native of Washington State who’d never been to New Mexico or its mountains before meeting his future wife, the Millers’ daughter Ellen, at Mt. Rainier in the summer of 1989, when she’d gone up to work at Snoqualmie Pass. “I was 21, she was 27,” recalls Goins. “When she told me about her parents and their place here, I got a job from her dad working here before we got engaged.”
Mystified as to why New Mexicans who live at lower elevations wouldn’t think that a place 2,000 to 3,000 feet higher up wouldn’t get any snow, Goins nonetheless responds with a knowing sense of, You’ll see, just come up here. You’ll see. “We also get a lot of questions about our base,” says Goins, again in disbelief. “But once you get everything covered up, the base doesn’t matter. Not for cross-country skiing. Not for snowshoeing.”
Having encouraged his in-laws into retirement last year, Goins, along with Ellen, only wants to enhance the enchantment wherever possible. How, though, can you top the already inviting snowdrifts that swirl around the aspens and the pines? How do you photoshop into existence views like those of Wheeler Peak (New Mexico’s highest point, at 13,161 feet) or Gold Hill or Touch Me Not Peak? How do you beat the experience of seeing unorchestrated elk and deer and coyote in their natural element? What you don’t do is, you don’t Disneyfy it. You don’t try to artificially enhance what’s already naturally spectacular. What you do do is, you give people easier, better, safer access to all that great stuff that’s already there.
So. Having brought in the same state-of-the-art groomer used at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games, Enchanted Forest offers visitors smooth skating lanes and a firm durable track for skiing on. But there’s also yurt camping, candlelight walks, pulks (Scandinavian sleds for pulling along the kiddos), a New Year’s Eve potluck, and headlamp snowshoe tours, as well as the ever-popular Luminaria Ski Tour on Christmas Eve (featuring a three-kilometer trail lined with 600 farolitos, so people can ski or snowshoe by candlelight and, when they’re done, feast on hot cocoa and s’mores) and the Just Desserts Eat & Ski on February 25 (when guests can ski to any or all of three different stations and try desserts that have been brought up to those particular places by local restaurants).
Goins relies mostly on word of mouth and a cast of diehard regulars to attract folks to the area, and in the past three to four years, the internet and the various social networking media have given Enchanted Forest a big boost in visibility, if not attendance. After the UNM ski team spent the weekend training there in mid-November, they posted pictures of themselves doing their thing at Enchanted Forest on their Facebook page. By the next morning, it had made the front page of Norway’s largest online skiing magazine.
Goins recalls the remarks of one recent newcomer lured to the Forest by a friend. “She said, ‘Why pay for cross-country skiing? I don’t get it.’” Here, again, he’s got that knowing sense (You’ll see. Just wait. You’ll see.) in his voice. “Then she went out there. And she got it. She loved it. Because here, you can just ski. We have 14-foot–wide trails. You’re on a high plateau. You have these fantastic views in every direction. There’s wildlife. There’s no worry about getting lost. People have that sense of security up here.”
All of which allow people to just be—where they are, who they are and in one of the more magical places in the state.
The Enchanted Forest is three miles east of Red River on NM Highway 38 in the Carson National Forest. 575.754.6112. enchantedforestxc.com.
Story by Devon Jackson