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Spectacular vistas, adventures await pilots

The village of Ruidoso, located in the foothills of the Sierra Blanca Mountains in south-central New Mexico, has been an escape for my family for nearly three decades. The air is cool and clear and begs visitors to enjoy the outdoors to the fullest. If your idea of relaxation includes hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding, skiing, zip lining, attending horse races, or visiting historic landmarks, Ruidoso checks all those boxes.

Ruidoso (shortened from Rio Ruidoso, Spanish for “noisy river”) is a tourism-driven town to be sure. Its official regional population of 20,000 can swell to 85,000 on busy weekends. Quarter horse racing is held in the summer, Ruidoso’s busiest season, as are many regular festivals, music performances, and club rallies that draw low-landers up the mountainside for weekend dining and shopping.

The Sierra Blanca Regional Airport, with an elevation of 6,800 feet msl, sits on a wide-open mesa east of the Sierra Blanca and Sacramento mountain ranges. It’s an easy approach, VFR or IFR, with no dive-and-drive, tree-dodging maneuvers required to put down on one of the two paved runways. The field is nontowered but has a staffed CTAF from 7 a.m. to7 p.m. About 45 aircraft are based at the field, which accommodates everything from singles and twins to Citation and Challenger jets. On some days, military traffic—including C–130s, Black Hawks, and Apaches—uses the airport as part of high-altitude training.

I flew into Sierra Blanca Regional Airport one summer, unaware it was the All American Futurity racing weekend and was awestruck by the collection of big iron (OK, aluminum) on the ramp. Taxiing my 1965 E-model Mooney to the ramp, I felt like I was driving the riding lawn mower that leads a neighborhood Fourth of July parade as I counted the airstairs and turbines.

Approaching the airport, I’ve encountered everything from a formation of fighters returning from an airshow in Texas to a King Air that nearly dropped on top of me as it descended to land. This was pre-ADS-B, so my proximity warning system amounted to seeing the King Air’s belly passing over my Mooney’s windscreen close enough to tell it needed a wash.

The field offers fuel, tiedowns, restrooms, hangars, rental cars, two runways, and ILS and RNAV approaches. Tiedown fees for one night are waived if sufficient fuel is purchased, and for a fee, your aircraft can be hangared for your stay. For short (two hours) trips to town for food or close-in attractions, a courtesy car is often available for pilots who want to avoid renting a vehicle.

Animal prints in the snow remind visitors that they share the outdoors at Ruidoso with native animals and wildlife. Photo by Zach Ryall.
The village is a 25-minute drive south from the airport, with repeated rises and dips in elevation along the way. Ruidoso has plenty of lodging, ranging from rental properties to condos, and hotels to log cabins. You can rough it or pamper yourself. Many of the lodging options have incredible hillside views of the mountains, while other lodging is tucked—think Goldilocks and the Three Bears—into the forest. Speaking of bears, visitors are frequently reminded not to feed the wildlife, which can include bears, deer, wild turkeys, elk, and wild horses. Here are some tips for sharing space with wildlife.

Ski Apache is a Mescalero Apache-run ski resort that offers the closest snow skiing to most of Texas. It beckons tourists to the higher altitudes of over 11,000 feet a little after Thanksgiving and takes the tourism baton handoff from some of the summer activities. If skiing isn’t your thing, you’ll still want to drive the 12 miles up the mountain to take in the views from what feels like the top of the world. The Lincoln National Forest comprises much of the surrounding area and boasts some excellent viewing sites such as Monjeau Lookout, originally built in 1936 as a fire lookout tower. Picnic areas and hiking trails are situated just below the tower.

A family skis at Ski Apache. Photo courtesy of Discover Ruidoso.

During the summer, the ski resort offers gondola rides to the top of the ski lift area, where you can relax in a chair and sun yourself while gazing westward toward the Tularosa Basin and the San Andres Mountains. A ribbon of white expanse thousands of feet below includes White Sands National Park, White Sands Missile Range, and the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated as part of the Manhattan Project.

If gazing at spectacular vistas in all directions doesn’t take your breath away, then skip the gondola ride down and take the zip line. There’s nothing like launching from over 11,000 feet, and screaming (literally) down the mountainside at up to 60 mph for 8,900 total feet of travel. Exhilarating would be an understatement. Alternatively, mountain bike trails can provide a good workout on your way back to the base of the resort.

There is no shortage of good food in and around Ruidoso. Green chiles are synonymous with New Mexico, and if you aren’t already a fan, you might be when you leave. At the Oso Grill, in the little town of Capitan, 10- to 12 miles northwest of the airport, you’ll find what I proclaim to be the best green chile cheeseburger to be had. Judges at the New Mexico State Fair also agreed.

Directly across the street from the grill is Smokey Bear Historical Park, where Smokey himself is buried. The museum is replete with everything Smokey. For those too young to know the story, it was not the hot green chiles that nearly did Smokey in.

The New Mexico State Fair award-winning green chile cheeseburger at the OSO Grill in Capitan, NM. Photo by Zach Ryall.Only a short 12-mile drive east from Capitan is the Lincoln Historic Site, notable as the location of the bloody Lincoln County War in 1878. Famous and infamous wild west characters, including Billy the Kid, Kit Carson, and Pat Garrett, are part of the town’s history. Lincoln is regarded by some as one of the most well-preserved old west towns in the United States. Allow some time to walk the site, which in many regards seems undisturbed since those days.

Also barely a stone’s throw north of the airport is Fort Stanton, established in 1855. Originally built to protect settlers from the Mescalero Apache Indians, it served a variety of roles over the years, including as a tuberculosis hospital for the Merchant Marine in the 1920s, a World War II internment camp, and a women’s prison.

If you’re in Ruidoso for more than a quick turn, a great day-trip is a winding drive south to Cloudcroft, then down the mountainside for the guided sunset tour at White Sands National Park. If you time the hour drive to Cloudcroft carefully, you can arrive at the front of the line for Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue, where everyone leaves stuffed and smiling. At White Sands, you discover that the “sand” really is white, but is actually gypsum, extending for 275 square miles. Sleds can be rented to slide down the dunes.

You can spend a week in the Ruidoso area and barely scratch the surface of things to do. The Ruidoso official tourism website is a great place to start planning.

A nearly-full moon rises over the hills surrounding the Village of Ruidoso. Photo by Zach Ryall.

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