Ruidoso, about halfway between Roswell and Las Cruces in south central New Mexico, isn’t really on the way to anywhere. Off the interstates and well south of tourist Meccas Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque, it is the somewhere – a small community with some big attractions worthy of being called a destination.
The town itself, tucked into the folds of the Sacramento Mountains, has a resident population of approximately 8,000. However, 67 percent of the houses in the area are second homes. The head count reaches 28,000 when adding in part-time residents and visitors who have discovered the charms of the town, and flock to cultural and recreational activities that many larger cities covet.
Get Out and Get Moving
Ruidoso is a year-round town. In winter, the Apache ski area is a big draw for those who want to ski, snowboard, tube or zip-line down the mountain. Depending on how hardy you are, hiking is always an option – from short walks like the half-mile Alto Lake trail to myriad options in the Lincoln National Forest.
Many of the trails are multi-use. The 18-mile Grindstone Lake Trail, designed by the International Mountain Biking Association, is popular with not only bikers but also hikers and horseback riders. Wildlife and wildflowers, along with the gorgeous mountain scenery, attract photographers.
Brown and rainbow trout are stocked in both Grindstone and Alto Lakes, or land a fly on the bubbling waters of the Rio Ruidoso. Inn of the Mountain Gods offers fishing plus watercraft rentals on Mescalero Lake.
For golfers, the Inn of the Mountain Gods has a championship, 72-hole course with plenty of challenges, including an island fairway across an arm of Mescalero Lake.
In addition, there are several public courses, as well as multiple superb private membership facilities, including one designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr.
For a different form of the sport, the Grindstone Disc Golf Course has 27 holes. This is a heavily wooded course with many hazards in play.
For a hike with a purpose, take a ramble down Sudderth Drive, a long, strung-out street through the midtown area. My first stop was Visions Plaza, a collection of interesting shops: Visions Apparel is a high-end fashion boutique; Klassy Kids specializes in children’s clothing but also caters to moms; Cork and Kettle is a one-stop shop for wines, gifts and gourmet goodies – especially New Mexican products. Also in Visions Plaza is LongCoat Fine Art. You’ll find plenty of Western and wildlife art here, but works by the 22 artists they represent cover many genres. Furniture and decorative pieces, also for sale, provide elegant settings for the many paintings and sculptures.
East, down the street, Mitchell’s Jewelry is a must-stop for those who love fine Native American pieces. Owner Nancy Mitchell is committed to promoting and maintaining the integrity of Native American arts and artists; 85 percent of her jewelry is made by Navajo artists. Mitchell has close ties to her artists, and makes each piece a personal treasure with her stories.
Sacred Grounds Coffee and Tea House carries a wide selection of beverage and bar-related items, but the best reason for my visit was to sit on the back deck – overlooking the Rio Ruidoso – with a glass of wine. This is also a good place for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Their special events calendar is also worth a look for live music and other forms of entertainment.
High Brows, History and Hoof Beats
You don’t really have to be a highbrow type to enjoy the Spencer Theatre – I just like alliteration. On a large swath of mesa northeast of Ruidoso, the Spencer Theatre juts into the sky like a snowy mountain peak, its mica-flecked Spanish limestone glistening against the sky. Inside, the Crystal Lobby is made of 300 hand-cut panes of glass. Chihuly pieces are scattered throughout the building. This project was funded by one woman – Jackie Spencer – who, over a number of years, amassed $20 million to finance the facility.
Although the summer season has not yet been announced, past performances have included everything from Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight to The Full Monty, from choreography to country music.
From the stunning, contemporary Spencer, a drive of approximately half an hour will take you to about a century and a half into the past. Lincoln, New Mexico, is considered one of the most authentic, complete western towns in the country – 17 buildings date back to the 1870s and ’80s – and it has a wild and wooly history complete with shoot-outs on the main street and Billy the Kid. It’s hard to identify the good guys from the bad without a program, but experts at this New Mexico Historic Site walk visitors through the story.
Back in Ruidoso, one of the area’s oldest attractions is Ruidoso Downs. The summer racing season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with simulcasts the rest of the year. The Billy the Kid Casino at Ruidoso Downs offers slot machines and horse betting, but the area’s premier casino is at Inn of the Mountain Gods. The resort features gaming, entertainment and a variety of restaurants.
Southwest of Ruidoso, White Sands National Monument offers a stark contrast to the woodsy, mountain town. The largest gypsum dune field in the world is not to be missed. While the sparkling white dunes are the iconic features, this area is also home to a number of plants and animals. An introductory film and displays in the Visitor Center acquaint guests with the many aspects of the Monument. Activities include photography, hiking and an eight-mile drive into the dunes. Kids and kids-at-heart will want to bring saucers, or purchase one at the Visitor Center, for sledding on the dunes. The trip down a dune is just that: a trip. Sadly, climbing up the dune before sliding down is a lot more work.
For a complete change of pace, check out the spa services at the beautiful Sanctuary on the River, or sign up for one of their cooking classes. The absolute best thing is eating the visual aids! In the class I took, Chef Mashon Swenor prepared a three-course meal. The surf and turf entree consisted of asada-style tenderloin stuffed into roasted poblano peppers, while red trout rolled in cornmeal filled the surf category. Accompaniments included rice with lemon and cilantro, red and green sauces and white crema. Total yum!
The dinner was a great coda to an all-too-short visit. If you plan a trip to Ruidoso, plan to stay long enough to check out the attractions, plus time to just kick back and enjoy soaking in the scenery and breathing the fresh mountain air.
On the drive from Ruidoso to White Sands, you’ll pass a giant pistachio monument south of Tularosa. Stop! This is a fun photo op, and the store there carries all sorts of flavors of nuts and a wide selection of New Mexico-made goodies. Step right up to the pistachio bar and sample the different seasonings. If you leave without bags of these tasty treats, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”