When most people think of New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache Reservation, they think of Geronimo, Cochise and Mangas Coloradas. And rightfully so; the reservation does comprise part of the Mescalero, Chiricahua and Lipan Apaches’ treasured homelands, and descendants of those celebrated 19th century leaders still make their homes here.
But there’s much more to this 463,000-acre reservation, which rises like a verdant fist from the surrounding New Mexico desert. Pocked with clear blue lakes and streams, cloaked in pine forests and capped with snow, this hidden gem might be one of the Southwest’s best-kept secrets.
1. Ski (and Bike!) Apache
During the winter months, tourists from across the Southwest and Mexico converge on Ski Apache, the southernmost ski and snowboard area in the United States. Owned and managed by the Mescalero Apache tribe, Ski Apache boasts more than 750 acres of skiable terrain and 10 lifts, including three quads, five triples, a handle tow, a conveyer lift and even a gondola. There’s a sledding area, too.
With a base elevation of 9,600 feet and a top elevation of 11,400 feet at “the Gazebo,” the resort has a vertical drop of nearly 2,000 feet, and its 55 runs cater to beginners, intermediate skiers and experts. You’ll find wide greens, comfortable-cruising blues, expert areas like bump runs and a large bowl, and a snowboarding terrain park with jumps, tubes and rails.
The area receives more than 15 feet of snow per year and has snow-making capabilities. And, thanks to its geographical location, it just might have some of the best skiing (and snowboarding, and sledding) weather on the continent.
If you’re planning a summer visit, you can ride the gondola to 11,400 feet and enjoy beverages or a meal at the Yurt Cafe; hiking is another favorite summer pastime here. The resort also has added 5.5 miles of mountain-biking trails with grades between 6 and 8 percent. They run from 11,981-foot Sierra Blanca Peak, which crowns the ski area, back to the base.
2. Championship Golf
Less than 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the Mescalero Apache Reservation has roughly nine months of great golfing weather. The Inn of the Mountain Gods Championship Golf Course, designed by Ted Robinson, features an island fairway, fast-breaking greens, views of Sierra Blanca, Mescalero Lake and thick pine forests. Guests can take advantage of the clubhouse and pro shop, as well.
Golf Digest rated the course No. 23 on its list of “Top 40 Casino Golf Courses.” Golf Week proclaimed it “one of the top 50 golf courses nationally,” and Travel and Leisure said it’s “the most underrated golf course in the Southwest.” It also received the M&C Gold Tee Award for three consecutive years.
With this golf course, the tribe’s Inn of the Mountain Gods resort is recognized as one of the first Native American properties to combine the sport with casino gaming. The 18-hole course opens for the season in April; hotel guests can reserve tee times up to three months in advance.
3. Big Game Hunts
For those who wish to try their hand at big-game hunting in the Mescalero Apache Reservation’s mountain valleys and subalpine landscapes, the tribe operates hunting expeditions for bull and cow elk, bear and wild Merriam turkeys — in keeping with its longtime goal of maintaining healthy populations on tribal lands.
The “Spring Gobbler” hunts for wild turkeys are scheduled for mid- and late April. Bull elk hunts are in September, with cow elk hunts taking place in three waves in October, November and December. Guests can hunt bear in early August.
Hunting packages include lodging, field meals, permits, weapons, horses and processing. For hunters who would rather bring their RVs, limited space is available at the hunting lodge.
4. Camping, Fishing & Boating
The Mescalero Apache Reservation welcomes the public to camp and fish in three of its recreational areas. The first, the Mescalero Recreation Area, is located 5 miles west of Ruidoso and also is known as the Eagle Creek Lakes Recreation Area. It has primitive campsites for tent enthusiasts and RV hookups for those who seek a more comfortable camping experience, and the two lakes are stocked for anglers.
Rio Ruidoso Recreational Area, located just outside Ruidoso, is also known as Upper Canyon or Ruidoso Cabins Recreational Area. It features developed campsites (but no RV hookups), and the river is flowing with rainbow trout. Then, on the reservation’s south side, there’s the Silver Lakes Recreation Area, with its stocked 10-acre lake, primitive and developed campsites, RV hookups and convenience store.
Boaters are welcome to launch on Silver and Eagle lakes, and camping and fishing permits are available at recreation areas’ entrance stations. Other great fishing spots: Carrizozo and Eagle creeks, the Grindstone Reservoir and Mescalero Lake. At Mescalero Lake, you can purchase your permit at the Inn of the Mountain Gods or, during the summer months, at the inn’s boat docks.
Stocked with 20,000 trout annually, 100-acre Mescalero Lake can be fished daily from sunrise to sunset. And if you don’t have a boat, you can rent kayaks, canoes, rowboats and paddle boats at the boat docks.
The tribe encourages anglers to practice catch-and-release methods (barbless hooks are recommended) unless the fish will be a meal. The bag limit is three fish on the river and six at the lakes.
5. Fourth of July Celebrations
Each year, the Mescalero Apache Reservation welcomes visitors to attend its Fourth of July celebrations. Not only do the annual festivities incorporate a parade, rodeo and pow wow, guests are invited to silently observe the traditional puberty rites for young women. The coming-of-age ceremony is the tribe’s largest and one of its most sacred; after four days of dancing, it culminates on the Fourth of July in the predawn hours. No cameras are allowed at the special ceremony.
While in Mescalero, make sure to visit the outstanding Mescalero Cultural Center at Chiricahua Plaza on U.S. Highway 70. Open daily, it features historic photos, artifacts, clothing, crafts and exhibits that share the history and culture of the tribe.
6. Meet Smokey
Although it’s not on tribal land, a visit to the Mescalero Apache Reservation wouldn’t be complete without a side trip to Capitan, just 19 miles away. It’s home to the Smokey Bear Historical Park, the final resting place for the world-famous bear.
Because Smokey was, in fact, a real bear. In spring 1950, soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas, came to New Mexico to help fight the 17,000-acre Capitan Gap fire in the Lincoln National Forest. There, they found a little black bear cub who had climbed a tree to escape the inferno; his paws and hind legs were burned. The national news picked up the story, and Smokey became a celebrity. He lived at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. until his death in 1976.
Established three years after Smokey’s death, the historical park incorporates indoor and outdoor exhibits, a 10-minute film and educational programs in an outdoor amphitheater. Also on site: a playground, picnic area and Capitan’s original train depot. The park is open daily, and admission is just $2 for adults and $1 for children ages 7 and up. Children under 6 are free.