On the Rooftop of New Mexico
10 things you’ll see from the summit of Kachina Peak.
From the obvious to the obscure, there’s a lot to see when you’re standing at 12,481 feet, the pinnacle of Kachina Peak. And while this might be one of the easiest alpine summits to reach on skis, cresting the top of New Mexico is no less significant. At this height, uninterrupted views paint the landscape, extending from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the south to the belly of Colorado in the north to the geological details directly under your feet. Next time you reach the summit of Kachina, see if you can spot all 10 objects that make our list.
Spend any time at Taos, and you’ll inevitably hear the name a lot. The highest point in New Mexico, Wheeler Peak stands at a proud 13,161 feet, two miles southeast of Taos Ski Valley. Once christened as Taos Peak after the town itself, it was renamed in 1950 after Major George Montague Wheeler, an instrumental explorer and cartographer who surveyed a 350,000-square-mile swath of the American West in the late 1870s. The hill is often mistaken for Mount Walter, a neighboring sub-peak to the north, because of its smaller summit prominence and close proximity.
Tibetan Prayer Flags
Kachina Peak has long been considered a spiritual microcosm, and celebrating its energy is not uncommon. A few strands of colorful prayer flags, strung by various guests over the years, greet any hiker who makes the optional 31-foot bid to its summit. Traditionally used in the Himalayas to bless the surrounding mountainsides, the prayer flags spread good will and compassion with the slightest breeze, benefitting all who make the short hike.
Perhaps the most notable thing to see is the lack of anything at all. A collection of wilderness areas surrounds the Ski Valley on all four sides, legally preserving the forested mountains from future development and ensuring they’re biologically intact. The 19,661-acre Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area sits to the east and south; an additional 48,764 acres of sacred Taos Pueblo land is protected south of that; and the 45,000-acre Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Area claims the north and west.
When Kachina Lift opened in Winter 2014–15, the fixed-grip triple seater condensed an iconic, 50-minute hike and 1,600-foot ascent into a five-minute ride to the top. Though some bemoaned the loss of their favorite hike, the summit’s accessibility has since enabled more expert skiers and riders to experience the majestic zone—a plan that Taos Ski Valley founder Ernie Blake had initially outlined in 1965. And for the dedicated bootpacker, Kachina remains hikeable from Highline Ridge.
Great Plains of Texas
Squint far enough to the east on a clear day and you’ll spot the flatlands of the Texas panhandle—an unusual sight for Rocky Mountain skiers who typically heed the call of “going West.” The Great Plains sit about 150 miles from Taos Ski Valley as the crow flies, the grassy geography a far cry from the alpine topography in the foreground.
Wilderness and wildlife go hand-in-hand, which is why you’ll spot the classic Rocky Mountain mammals like bighorn sheep and marmots clamoring on nearby ridges. Canines also regularly find their way to the top of Kachina: power hounds and avalanche dogs both on the hunt for snow. Occasional shark sightings have even been reported, with snaggletoothed rock outcroppings ready to take a bite out of p-tex bases thanks to Kachina’s exposed and weather-prone face.
Sangre de Cristo Mountains
The Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains glow with impressive red hues during sunrise and sunset. And though you likely won’t catch a glimpse of the Southwest alpenglow during resort hours, soft morning sun still tints them in whimsical light. Drawn by the romantic lure of the brilliant colors, artists have flocked to this 250-mile-long sub-range of the Rocky Mountains for over 100 years, including painter Georgia O’Keeffe, writer D.H. Lawrence, photographer Ansel Adams and countless other artists who were inspired by the mountains’ enchantment.
Colorado is home to 58 peaks that jet above 14,000 feet—an altitude that hold significance among both mountaineers and mountain enthusiasts. The horizon to the north of Kachina is stamped with a number of Colorado “14ers,” including Blanca Peak (el. 14,345 feet), the highest peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s met by nine other Colorado 14ers in the same range: Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Kit Carson Peak, Challenger Point, Humboldt Peak, Culebra Peak, Ellingwood Point, Mt. Lindsey, and Little Bear Peak.
Before you head up Kachina, stash a small keepsake in your pocket. A metal, weatherproof chest is tucked among a cairn of rocks at the summit, filled with trinkets and curiosities—a cache of mementos left behind by people to commemorate reaching the very top. Also included: a notebook and pen, used for logging the names of said visitors. Just don’t expect to ask where it’s located. Half the reward is finding it yourself.
Keir Green or Dave Hahn
Local legends by their own right, you’ll likely see one of the two veteran ski patrollers atop Kachina Peak on any given day. Seemingly one with the mountain, their presence adds over six feet to the summit elevation, bringing the altitude closer to 12,487 feet.