Desperate to get out of the heat, Postcards writer Linda Perkins and her husband Ben set out last summer to explore cooler temps in the state next door. What they found was a gem worth the long drive, with enough facets to explore for future road trips to come.
Traveling northwest from the Piney Woods of Southeast Texas, in the middle of July, it is hard to imagine we could be headed into cooler weather. The humidity gradually turned to arid desert heat – hotter than where we had been–as green scenery began to turn brown.
Ah, the joy of driving through West Texas, where shrub brush and cacti give way to oil derricks pumping “black gold” out of the ground day and night. Giant windmills reach high into the sky, harnessing the wind of the high plains. Somewhere around Lubbock we began to see green again, thanks to expansive irrigation systems watering crops that a century earlier would not have been able to be grown out here.
From desert to wildflowers, and into the mountains
A paper map won’t tell you when you finally cross over into The Land of Enchantment, but the scenery will. I am not sure if it was humans or Mother Nature who planted miles and miles of yellow wildflowers, but it was a beautiful greeting as we entered the state of New Mexico and continued west. We were still over 150 miles away from our destination of Ruidoso, but that seemed miniscule compared to the more than 750 miles we had already driven.
A little over an hour from the Texas border, we stopped in Roswell, New Mexico. Known for being the home of the UFO Museum, there were signs and statues of “little green men” everywhere. They looked out–with big black eyes and their long, thin extremities reminiscent of ET’s pointy finger–reminding us all to “phone home.” Impatient to get into the mountains before the sun went down, we skipped the museum, but put it on a list of things to do the next time we are in the area.
Not very far from Roswell, we began to get a glimpse of things to come. Mountains appeared in the distance, their cool blue hue beckoning us to come closer. Before we knew it, we were enveloped in lush green hilltops and valleys, and the temperature was already starting to drop.
Horse racing, cafes, art galleries and ski slopes
As we drove into town, what immediately jumped out at us was just how much there was to do in the area. We quickly discovered when people say “Ruidoso,” they are really talking about the combined villages of Ruidoso Downs, Ruidoso, and Alto. The area also includes the Mescalero Apache Reservation, which covers over 460,000 acres of pristine land and is home to 4,000 Native Americans, Ski Apache, and Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort & Casino.
Driving in from the east, we were first greeted by the Ruidoso Downs Race Track & Casino. While it is not a fancy track, it’s a busy one, with multiple races each week during the summertime. It is known as the home of the All American Futurity, the richest race in Quarter Horse racing. Inside the track facilities, local vendors sell everything from Native American jewelry to metal Texas signs, a clear signal they are catering to tourists from the Lone Star State. Just across the street, not far from the Walmart parking lot, a farmer and his wife were selling Hatch chiles, which he roasted on-site.
Turning north, it wasn’t long before we arrived in “Midtown” Ruidoso, a quaint and bustling main street comprised primarily of restaurants and cafes, boutiques, art galleries, wineries and brewpubs. With wrought iron lamp posts, fresh flowers, and wine-barrel looking containers concealing the trash cans, it is easy to feel you’ve just found a little mountain paradise.
Our first stop, after checking into our Airbnb, was Sacred Grounds Coffee and Tea House. Billed as a cabin-like coffee shop, it exudes a mountain town atmosphere. The spacious deck overlooks a hillside creek, where it’s not uncommon to see deer and elk roaming by, and a large bar is tended by a certified mixologist whose creations have been featured in national magazines. At the front of a big room set up with tables and chairs for diners, a husband-and-wife country singing duo from Texas, The Hamiltons, entertained the crowd that had gathered to kick back and relax on this cool summer evening. The staff, some of the friendliest people we have ever met, are a mix of locals and transplants ready to share ideas on where to go hiking or to say why they love living here. It all feels like family, a little akin to what was depicted in the 1990’s TV show Northern Exposure
Upon waking the next morning, we were reminded why it was worth the drive across Texas to get here. Walking out onto the porch, it was a scant 55 degrees. The high for the day was estimated to be around 73. We donned our sweaters and jackets and headed off to the mountains.
Treacherous drives and spectacular views, but not much water Knowing there were a couple of lakes in the area, we had brought our kayaks, hoping for some good paddling on our trip. Alas, we are used to kayaking Texas-size lakes, and when we arrived at Alto Lake, Ben described it as “mostly a glorified fishing pond” and not worth unloading our boats for. Later on our trip, we decided to check out Grindstone Lake, which is larger and crowded to capacity on weekends (we went on a weekday). Looking up at the mountains while paddling was nice, but it didn’t hold a candle to the hiking and other activities we enjoyed. The most beautiful water is at the Inn of the Mountain Gods, but their lake is only open for rentals Thursday through Sunday.
If the lakes around Ruidoso are small, the mountains are not. The drive up to Monjeau Lookout – a stone tower completed by the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1940 to serve as a fire lookout tower within Lincoln National Forest – is an adventure in itself. The 5.5-mile gravel road is narrow and steep, with no railing to keep a car from going over the edge.
With my fear of outdoor heights (and being in the passenger seat, the side next to the drop-off), I wasn’t sure if I would make it all the way to the lookout, but at a rest stop a mile from the top, I decided it didn’t make sense to turn around when we were so close. Upon arriving at the tower, I was glad not to have chickened out. The tower itself was beautiful in its own rustic way, and the view was spectacular. I could see why this was a “must-see” recommendation by the locals.
Another treacherous drive worth taking is to Ski Apache, which sits high in the mountains west of Ruidoso, close to the highest peak in the range, Sierra Blanca. The route there is again steep, narrow and windy, but at least it is paved with guardrails. I did notice, however, that some of those rails were bent and broken, leading me to wonder out loud if anyone went over the edge during ski season, when the roads aren’t as navigable as they are in July.
An hour later, Ben and I found ourselves stuck at the top of the mountain with about 30 other people who had ridden the gondola up but couldn’t take it back down due to a thunderstorm rolling in. On the bumpy ride down the ski slope in a pickup truck driven by one of the Ski Apache staff members, I asked the question. Yes, apparently people do occasionally drive off the edge of the mountain in the winter, but the buses from the Inn of the Mountain Gods always make it up and back safely. Good to know, I thought. If I return here to ski, that’s where I’m staying.
The magic of Ruidoso and beyond
What we loved the most about Ruidoso wasn’t just the cool air or the amazing nature, which included seeing a fawn being born in the wild behind our Airbnb. It was the variety of experiences to be had, both in Ruidoso and beyond. In less than a week, we enjoyed live music, incredible dining, kayaking, hiking, and shopping in and around town. We went to the spa and got a couple’s massage. We could have gone horseback riding and gambled too, if that were our thing.
Being Texans who love to drive and explore, our time also included a trip 30 minutes north to the Smokey Bear Museum in Capitan, and an hour south to the White Sands National Monument. The tiny mountain town of Cloudcroft was another quick stop that made our list of places to go back to.
No doubt about it, an 11-hour road trip is a long drive, one we broke up with overnight stays in Austin and Abilene. But if you’re dying to get out of the Southeast Texas summer heat, the road to Ruidoso is worth taking.
Things to See and Do in Ruidoso
- Live music at Sacred Grounds
- Green Chile Cheese Burgers at Hall of Flame Burgers
- Wild horses, deer and elk sightings around town
- Carriage rides through Midtown
- Down home cooking at Alto Café
- Rocky Mountain Christmas
- Mountain Arts gallery
- Noisy Water Winery
- Inn of the Mountain Gods
- Lincoln National Forest
- Monjeau Lookout
- Grindstone Lake
- Ruidoso Downs
- Ski Apache