Taos, N.M.: Snow and Sights

Taos, N.M., offers more than skiing magical mountains. Your family will love exploring the history and culture that make this town an artists' paradise.

"Where's the snow?" Charlotte, our seven-year-old daughter, asked on our first morning in Taos. We'd gotten in late the night before. Out our window at the Fechin Inn stretched the landscape we'd traveled 12 hours from Boston to see: the red desert and the turquoise sky.

In the distance, the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range looked like little wrinkles on the horizon. We were in a magical place. Taos combines history and wilderness, spectacular scenery, layers of different cultures and the chance to ski at a world-class resort in the morning and explore one of America's oldest settlements in the afternoon.

It was March. Charlotte, my husband Throop and I pulled on our long underwear, not really sure if we were going to need it, and went to eat. At 7 a.m., the inn's adobe breakfast room was filled, reassuringly, with other families in ski suits.

Skiing Options

Taos sits on a high plateau ringed by mountains; there are four ski areas within 50 miles of town. Avid skiers, we headed for the most famous: Taos Ski Valley (505-776-2291), about 18 miles north of downtown Taos. During the half-hour drive, we crossed the flat Taos plateau and rose into the mountains. The landscape changed from sagebrush to spruce and fir, from sprouting bulbs to snow.

At last, we arrived at the resort. It was small, compact and replete with restaurants, lodges and shops. We parked our car, climbed onto a shuttle truck and strapped on our skis at the base of the lifts.

"At Taos, everybody goes to ski school," friends who've skied Taos for years told us. "Everybody. Parents and kids."

Although Charlotte, a veteran of unhappy classes, was initially skeptical, we soon discovered why Taos's Ernie Blake Ski School is consistently rated top in the country. There were no lines, lots of assistants and, best of all, kids who were comfortable on skis got to take practice runs before class began. Throop and I arranged to pick Charlotte up for lunch, and she hopped on the chair lift.

By noon, Charlotte was glowing; she had made a friend and skied black bumps, and she couldn't wait to show us. At the top of the lift, she tore off down the mountain. Throop and I had to cruise to keep up with her. The snow was perfect. The slopes were divided between groomed runs and hair-raising, steep moguls. In the warm sun, we skied all afternoon.

Artists Inspired

On the drive back to downtown Taos, a few thin clouds gathered, and a rainbow circled the sun. "I love that sky!" exclaimed Charlotte, who wants to be an artist. "I want to paint it." She was in good company. Artists have been coming to Taos for more than a century to paint the red sandstone, the enormous sky and the strata of Native American, Spanish and Anglo cultures.

Throughout the week, we skied at Taos Ski Valley in the morning and returned to downtown Taos in the afternoon. At the Millicent Rogers Museum (505-758-2462), we pored over displays of Navajo and Pueblo jewelry, Hispanic artifacts and Hopi and Zuni kachina dolls.

The museum is a fine introduction to Taos' complex history. At the Hacienda Martinez (505-758-1000), we saw the rugged conditions in which a Spanish family lived in the 1800s. A few miles out of town in Ranchos de Taos, we found the San Francisco de Asis church; its red adobe buttresses stood in dramatic contrast to the sky.

The Kit Carson Home and Museum (505-758-0505) introduced us to the mountain man period of Southwest history — and the painful issue of how white settlers treated Native Americans. The trapper and scout Kit Carson was my hero when I was growing up, but he also rounded up the Navajos and herded them against their will from their ancestral lands into the Bosque Redondo, a barren outpost in eastern New Mexico. "Why do people do things like that?" Charlotte asked.

On the last day of our trip, we walked across a bridge that spans the Rio Grande and looked deep into a 650-foot gorge. The universe, according to Native American legend, is layered. Humans inhabit only the place where earth and sky join.

"I don't want to go home," Charlotte said. None of us did. Like the bands of rock in the gorge, Taos revealed itself in layers. In a week, we'd only begun to see its wonders.

Best of Taos

Best Places to Stay: The Fechin Inn (800-811-2938), two blocks from Taos Plaza, is not only pretty, but also has a filling breakfast buffet. The Quail Ridge Inn (800-624-4448) is 14 miles from Taos Ski Valley.

Best Family Restaurants: At Doc Martin's Restaurant in the Historic Taos Inn (505-758-1977) children can try small portions of contemporary Southwest dishes or order plain spaghetti. Casa Fresen Bakery (505-776-2969) has delicious pastries and sandwiches. La Luna Ristorante (505-751- 0023) has great pizza.

Best Ski Store: Taos Ski Valley Sportswear Ski & Boot Company (505-776-2291) stocks everything you need and, worse, everything you want.

Best Sledding: Join local families at the U.S. Hill in Carson National Forest. From Taos, drive 12 miles south on Route 518. Call 505-758-6200.

Best Sleigh Ride: Taos Indian Horse Ranch gives 30-minute rides in horse-drawn troikas (giant sleighs). Prices include munchies, hot drinks and storytelling. Call 800-659-3210.

Best Cross-Country Skiing: The Enchanted Forest Cross-Country Ski Area. Call 505-754-2374.

Best Snowmobiling: Native Sons Adventures! offers guided snowmobile adventures for families. Drivers must be age 16 and up. Call 800-753-7559.

Please note that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.