When a storm leveled a family-favorite ski spot, the community rallied to save it
By Julian Dossett
When a storm leveled a family-favorite ski spot, the community rallied to save it.
The windstorm that lay waste to the forests above Red River in December 2021 erased the picture of the forest ridges that Ellen Miller-Goins had held in her mind since childhood. “It was heartbreaking,” says MillerGoins, co-owner of Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
Mountain living poses trials and hardships that city folk rarely consider, and combatting winter storm damage is common. “We might get 30- or 40-mile-an-hour winds during a snowstorm,” says Geoff Goins, Enchanted Forest co-owner. “And we expect to have a couple dozen trees come down. No big deal.” But no one foresaw the disastrous storm that arrived 10 days before Christmas one year ago.
“The guy on top of the pass at Bobcat Pass Wilderness Adventures has a wind gauge up there, and it goes up to 115 miles per hour — he said it went to 115 and sat there,” Goins says. The high ridges covered with Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, aspens, and ponderosa and bristlecone pines took the wind head-on. Healthy pines 20 inches in diameter snapped like matchsticks under the gale-force winds. Forest trails that Ellen, Geoff, and their crew had carefully tended for decades disappeared in a night. “It was unprecedented,” Goins says. “Like nothing that we’ve ever known about happening up here before.”
The storm devastated Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area outside Red River, 106 miles northeast of Santa Fe. Since 1985 the ski area has offered snowshoeing, groomed trails for cross-country and skate skiing, and, more recently, yurt rentals off the trails. The familial atmosphere and scenic surrounds have drawn fans who kick and glide along the trails and gather for annual events, such as the worth-the-calories Just Desserts Eat & Ski, which pairs a 5K course with indulgences from local restaurants, and a Christmas luminaria tour, where skiers and snowshoers can traverse the trails by candlelight.
The ski area comes by its family-friendly atmosphere naturally; it’s been run that way from the start. Miller-Goins’ grandfather and a few great uncles bought land in the upper Red River valley in 1934. Later, Miller-Goins’ father spent his summers trekking through the valley and the rest of the year back home in Texas. By the early 1960s, her parents were living in Amarillo, where her father had grown weary of his desk job at a gas company. “He always described it as working at a building with a windowless office,” says MillerGoins. “And it was just soul crushing.”
So in 1963, when Ellen was 2 years old, John and Judy Miller moved to Red River with three small children and another on the way. John got a job as an assistant manager at the town’s downhill Red River Ski & Summer Area. “We all grew up in the ski business,” Miller-Goins says. The Millers partnered with another family to purchase their own downhill, beginners’ ski area in 1970. They dubbed it Powder Puff Mountain and ran it for the next nine years. Red River Ski Area bought Powder Puff and kept it going a few years in the 1980s. Its short run earned it, along with John and Judy Miller, a spot in the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame.
After Powder Puff, the family opened Miller’s Cross Country Ski Tours, a backcountry ski business, where Ellen and her father foot-packed a path to teach backcountry skiing. It was fun, Miller-Goins says, but the business didn’t produce return customers. “Backcountry skiing is harder because it’s not a nice surface, like groomed trails are,” Miller-Goins says. “People would love it, but they wouldn’t ever do it again, which is not a sustainable business.”
The Millers’ experience skiing groomed trails at a ski conference inspired their path forward. John Miller decided to transform the land on a plateau above Red River — a landscape he knew well from years on its trails — into a cross-country ski area.
THE HIGH RIDGES COVERED WITH DOUGLAS FIR, ENGELMANN SPRUCE, ASPENS, AND PONDEROSA AND BRISTLECONE PINES TOOK THE WIND HEAD-ON. HEALTHY PINES 20 INCHES IN DIAMETER SNAPPED LIKE MATCHSTICKS UNDER THE GALE-FORCE WINDS.
Even with customers coveting groomed trails at Enchanted Forest, running a ski business in a rural area is never easy. “You have to have some sort of crazy gene, I guess,” Miller-Goins says. While most larger ski areas have machines to make snow, to pad slopes when the weather isn’t conducive to carving turns, Enchanted Forest is a small operation with tight margins, so buying a snow machine was never in the equation. “It’s like snow farming,” Miller-Goins says. “You’re just completely at the mercy of the weather, and you have to do creative things to deal with the fact that the weather doesn’t always cooperate.” Before the devastating storm, their largest worry was always whether it would snow.
On the evening of December 14, 2021, Miller-Goins remembers listening to the wind pick up. “It was all night,” she says. “That morning, even more.” The first sign of trouble arrived at base camp. Ellen, Geoff, Ellen’s sister Mary, and Mike, a longtime employee, hiked to the end of the area and back to survey the damage. It took them almost six hours to pick their way through less than 5 miles of forest.
Thousands of downed trees covered Enchanted Forest’s trails. The ridge, previously thick with towering fir and spruce, was utterly changed: the sky and distant ridges were now clearly visible above the wreckage of the toppled forest. “That day the emotional response was . . . we can’t [continue],” Miller-Goins says. “It just seemed insurmountable.”
The owners faced impossible costs to remove the trees and reopen the trails. But the community rallied. Miller-Goins started a fundraising campaign that garnered more than $30,000 to add to their insurance funds. Friends and skiers who’d visited for years volunteered their time to clear trails alongside the Enchanted Forest crew. They managed to open a portion of the area on Feb. 2, just eight weeks after the storm. “The outpouring of love and support from people, either financially or physically, was just unbelievable,” Miller-Goins says.
A retired teacher in Taos and longtime Enchanted Forest employee named Bob Blair was central to the restoration efforts. “I had no idea that I [would] become a lumberjack at age 76,” Blair says. He, along with others who’d grown to love the ski area over the years, spent weeks clearing trees to keep the business alive. “It’s very meaningful for the family,” says Blair. “They’ve been involved with it, basically, all their lives. They had skis on their feet as they were learning to walk.”
Now Enchanted Forest is gearing up for this year’s season. “It’s still a ski area,” Goins says. “We’ve got all the ski trails and snowshoe trails open on the northern side. However, he adds, “we still have a lot to do, and it might not all get done this year.” It will take decades before the forest returns to the familiar picture Miller-Goins held in her mind’s eye. But less than a year after the storm, a small but healthy understory of saplings has sprouted amid the patchwork of fallen trunks. Julian Dossett is a writer living in Santa Fe. He’s also written for “New Mexico Magazine” and “Desert Exposure.”
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