Tiny Red River, N.M., makes summer bearable with outdoorsy beauty

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

GREEN ACRES | Even in summer, the lush greenery of the Red River makes for breathtaking mountainscape. (Photos by Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

By the look of it, Red River, N.M., could be an Alpine village accidentally misplaced in the American Southwest, Spots of Bavarian architecture and décor combine with a frontier utilitarian quality. You’d expect in the winter months that the town’s three-dozen-plus lodges and hotels would be occupied with skiers — the slope, which rises 10,350 feet above sea level, is in the midst of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southern tip of the Rockies. But even now, it’s a draw.

Locals have gotten away from calling summer and fall the “off-season,” preferring terms like “second season.” It’s not just posturing, either. Even in June, there were “no vacancy” signs on many of the lodges and the restaurants were hopping at dinnertime. When the snow melts, this is still a gloriously clean mountain village and a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors away from the stifling Dallas temperatures.

About 100 miles from Santa Fe (with the new American Eagle direct flight from DFW, not a bad route), Red River is deliciously remote — an 11-hour drive from Dallas on a good day. The drive from Santa Fe offers lovely mountain vistas and even a breathtaking gorge. It’s a great mood-setter for a mountain retreat.

Red River tops the noon position on the Enchanted Circle, an 83-mile scenic loop that links the resort ski villages of Taos Ski Valley, Angel Fire and other resorts in northern New Mexico. Taos, once the mystical arty center of the area, has become increasingly commercial and less charming — a fate that has not befallen Red River.

Consider: Aside from a Best Western-affiliated lodge, not a single business in the town is part of a chain. That means no Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts or Kroger. (The nearest Walgreen’s is 45 miles away — in Taos, natch.) For city slickers, that can seem like retail hell, but (especially if you don’t live there year round) it makes for a true “getaway” vacation. You make do.

And making do is part of the fun. Like many resort towns, there are a disproportionate number of boutique stores, activity centers and restaurants dotting Main Street and its environs.

(“Environs” is an exaggeration: All of downtown is just one mile long, and the town is only three streets wide — High and River are the other two.) You can walk almost anywhere you need to, and even by car you’re never more than 90 seconds from anything. It’s Mayberry in the mountains.

Not even Mayberry. With only 450 residents, it’s easy to get to know the entire town pretty quickly. People are friendly here, from the waiter who used to own a business in Deep Ellum to the Jeep guide who’ll wave you down on the street a day after your tour.

Although fishing, hiking and rafting are popular draws in the summer, a Jeep tour through New Mexico Adventure Company is an ideal introduction to the overwhelming physical beauty of this region. The three-hour open-car ride takes you to the top of Greenie Peak, the highest point in the state accessible by motorized vehicle. Even in summer, the horizon is flush with greenery, except for still-snow-capped mountains in the distance. It’s a bumpy, exhilarating way to kick off a vacation.

Although you’re nowhere near the beach, bring pretty of sunscreen — you’ll need it on the chair lift ride to the top of the Red River Ski Area. About 30 minutes each way in an open-air bench, it’s not for the faint of heart, but the glorious scenery is worth overcoming your acrophobia. From the top you can hike down or just explore until you’re ready to head back down. At base camp, stop at the Lift House Bar & Grill, a fun, friendly pub with beer and mouthwatering burgers

That’s by no means the only place to eat, though. Sixteen restaurants will keep you well-fed with good but not extravagant food. Don’t call Sundance’s cuisine Tex-Mex — this ain’t Texas, and they’re proud of their New Mexican green chiles here, nestled among the tasty enchiladas.

GOLDILOCKS OPTIONAL | For rustic but comfortable accommodations, rustic Three Bears Lodge is just right.

Just the name of Texas Reds Steakhouse signals the town’s close ties with the Lone Star State. Try the hearty, well-priced ribeye and a delicious, fresh cobbler for dessert. They do up the Wild West cliché here, albeit it with tongue in cheek. Complimentary peanuts are meant to be shelled and discarded on the floor, Walt Garrison-style; the menu resembles an old newspaper (and has some actual news on it). I half expected a cowboy to come in, order sour mash and shoot up the varmint who looked funny at his gal.

For breakfast or brunch, the Mountain Treasures Gallery and Coffee Bar is a quick and courteous stop, with all pastries made in-house, including savory kolaches, turnovers and cinnamon rolls, plus a refreshing latte. For a bigger sit-down meal, Old Tymer’s is a diner out of a history book, with a single blueberry pancake clocking in at the size of a hubcap; you could feed a family of four on what I couldn’t finish. Maybe my favorite stop though: The Candy Shop, where they sell homemade fudge to break any diet.

Rustic Three Bears Lodge is truly a cabin in the woods — if that cabin had DirecTV. Spacious, hardwood-floored accommodations are basic but useful (a full kitchen for cooking). You won’t need air conditioning — just open the windows to allow crisp mountain air to oxygenate you and keep you cool. (The high on my June visit was 79; the low was 40.) The owners, Chris and Debbie, toast marshmallows and have a kind of redneck happy hour most nights.

If you wanna walk into town after sunset, live bands perform along the strip many nights, but the beautiful quiet of the mountains? That’s really music to my ears.



ACCOMMODATIONS Three Bears Lodge, 301 Main St. 3BearsRR.com.
ACTIVITIES New Mexico Adventure Company, 220 E. Main St. Bighorn Sports.us/NMAC. Red River Ski Area (and Chair Lift), 200 Pioneer Road. RedRiverSkiArea.com.
DINING Lift House Bar & Grill, 200 Pioneer Road. Mountain Treasures Coffee Bar, 121 E, Main St. MountainTreasuresGallery.com. Old Tymer’s Cafe, 210 E. Main St. Sundance, 401 High St. Texas Reds Steakhouse, 406 E. Main St. TexasReds.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 16, 2010.