Cool off in Cloudcroft
At 9,000 feet elevation, the mountain village has long been a
popular summer getaway and winter haven for desert dwellers
Story by Lisa Kay Tate
Story by Lisa Kay Tate
As summer temperatures climb, desert dwellers in the El Paso Southwest begin making their own climb to the cooler climate of nearby Cloudcroft.
“Cloudcroft is a great destination to cool off,” Cloudcroft Mayor Dave Venable said in an interview during the first major hot spell of the 2017 summer. “Yesterday in Alamogordo, I think it was around 106 degrees, and here it was 81.”
Cloudcroft (an English term for a clearing covered in clouds) is still a young community in terms of New Mexico history. The village began in the late 1890s as a result of the building of the Alamogordo-Sacramento Mountain Railroad. The train was the sole means of transport to Cloudcroft until the mid-1940s when the first highway to the village was created, and by 1948 the train service ceased.
For more than 20 years in the early 20th century, Cloudcroft was also home to a baby sanatorium to treat infants ailing from heat-related dehydration or stomach problems. The site of this old “Baby San” was later turned into a summer camp area for children.
Today Cloudcroft is still very much a quaint mountain village boasting a permanent population of around 900, with thousands of seasonal visitors who come to camp, hike, bike, golf, ski, take art classes or just enjoy the peace and quiet 9,000 feet above sea level.
Despite their common popularity as mountain getaways from the hot dusty cities of the surrounding Southwest, Cloudcroft has maintained a very different identity from nearby Ruidoso. While Ruidoso has shops, restaurants and art galleries lining its main streets, and an economy that often rises and falls with the annual snowfall at nearby Ski Apache, Cloudcroft seems to rise above the trappings of a tourist destination.
According to local business owners, village representatives and residents, Cloudcroft maintains its charm by staying true to itself, keeping businesses locally owned, maintaining the neighborly feel of small town life, and encouraging guests to appreciate the simplicity and serenity that the village offers.
“In my opinion, you will never find a village, town or city as friendly, as open or as welcoming as the people of Cloudcroft,” Venable said. “The number one thing I hear from visitors is ‘Wow, what a friendly, friendly town.’”
Creating a place to escape the summer heat, experience outdoor adventures or discover historic sights are just a few of the ways Cloudcroft residents retain what they call “The Most Enchanting Part of the Land of Enchantment.”
The changing landscape
One of the top attractions of Cloudcroft is the drive itself. The trip up U.S. Highway 82 begins just north of Alamogordo on the eastern edge of the Tularosa basin, a desert expanse that’s largely occupied by White Sands Missile Range as well as White Sands National Monument. The roadside scenery quickly changes from scrub bushes surrounded by desert sand to increasing thick forests of pines and aspens.
Along the way are popular landmarks such as the historic railroad trestle, the Old Apple Barn and the Cloudcroft Tunnel and adjacent overlook.
The Old Apple Barn, part of the area since 1941, is located in Mountain Park, a small community that shares its post office with High Rolls, about halfway between Alamogordo and Cloudcroft. High Rolls, best known for its summer Cherry Festival and fall Apple Festival, is also part of the charm for Sacramento Mountain visitors. A growing number of small galleries and gift shops add to the roadside appeal, often selling wares by local artisans. The Apple Barn is also expanding, opening up adjacent cabins for boutiques and other gift shops on weekends.
Between High Rolls and Cloudcroft is one of the most famous historic sites: the Mexican Canyon Trestle. The trestle was part of the Alamogordo-Sacramento Mountain Railroad, which carried passengers and freight from the desert to the piney hills of Cloudcroft, climbing nearly 5,000 feet on a trip of less than 20 miles from Alamogordo.
According to “Cloud-Climbing Railroad,” a book by Dorothy Jensen Neal, the railroad’s impressive trestles included guardrails to keep derailed trains from jumping off the trestle, and the untreated lumber used in them was replaced every three years.
“Curves as well as trestles made possible the trail into the clouds,” Neal wrote. “With grades often of six percent and scenery of intrinsic beauty, its route afforded a thrilling episode and fascinating points of interest.”
This train line has been abandoned since 1948, but the remnants are still a frequently photographed attraction. The most visible remainder of that historic railroad is the trestle, which now has a well-maintained overlook cared for by the Cloudcroft-based New Mexico Rails-to-Trails Association. The non-profit NMRTA volunteers seek to turn the abandoned railroad lines in the Sacramento Mountains “into multi-use, multi-access recreational trails,” according to the group’s website.
NMRTA hopes to combine the old railroad trails with other trails in making a 68-mile loop from “Cloudcroft to Sunspot to Oliver Lee Memorial State Park to Alamogordo to La Luz to High Rolls and back to Cloudcroft.” Brochures and maps of current trails are available on their website, as well at the Trestle Recreation Area.
Once in town is another roadside stop along U.S. 82, the Sacramento Mountains Museum & Pioneer Village. The log cabin museum includes models, exhibits and photographs of the Cloud-Climbing Railroad, histories of other families and individuals significant to the village’s past, and replicas of a pioneer-era general store, an active chapel and other structures. The museum hosts several events throughout the year, including a lecture series, annual “Old Timers Reunion,” festivals celebrating music, art and wine, and seasonal activities such as a Haunted Village.
Village Clerk Jeri Turri said Cloudcroft offers guests a chance to get away from the franchises and chain attractions of a larger community, but still show both first time and return visitors a full spectrum of getaway opportunities from shopping and dining, to outdoors adventures.
“We have many of the same features some larger resort-style destinations offer, but we keep our community’s own, unique character,” she said.
An outdoor adventure
Bri Jonnes of High Altitude Outfitters, a popular shop for outdoor, camping and mountain biking enthusiasts, said visitors to Cloudcroft don’t come with any high expectations for entertainment. Instead, she said they come to get away from the “hustle and bustle” of life.
“They come here to camp, to get away from the noise, and to enjoy nature,” she said. “They know that we are small and quaint.”
The small-community, mountain atmosphere makes it easy for many first-time visitors to take on several of the area’s activities or see some of its popular sites.
“If you’ve never been to Cloudcroft I’d suggest checking out the Tunnel and its swimming holes, the numerous miles of trails to hike and bike,” she said. “Bluff Springs is always a cool spot, the Trestle is awesome to hike and view, and you must stop by the little shops and spend a little money.”
Outdoor recreation is a year-round business in Cloudcroft, with hiking and mountain biking trails not only of the NMRTA trail system, but throughout the Lincoln National Forest recreation area, fishing at sites like Silver Springs Fish Pond, and winter sports like ice skating at the Cloudcroft Ice Rink, and casual skiing and inner tubing at Ski Cloudcroft.
Ski Cloudcroft opened in 1963, and often takes advantage of its artificial snowmaking abilities when natural snow is not available. It does offer both skiing and snowboarding, as well as ski lessons for all levels.
In the warmer months there is golf at The Lodge on its course that was for its first 50 years the highest golf course in North America at 9,000 feet elevation. Although it no longer has that designation, it is still listed at the 7th highest course in the world.
High Altitude, located on Cloudcroft’s “downtown” strip, Burro Avenue, appeals to those who love the outdoors. It carries what Jonnes calls an “an eclectic mix of goodies” from mountain bikes to imports and clothing. Like most of Cloudcroft’s businesses, it is a local business, not part of a larger franchise or chain.
“Every shop is unique and you’ll definitely find some goodies,” she said.
The outdoor adventure continues after dark, as Cloudcroft is also a destination for stargazers. The area has several observatories, including Astrophysical Research Consortium’s Apache Point Observatory in nearby Sunspot. The observatory is run by New Mexico State University, and although tours of the facilities are not offered to the general public, they do have a Visitors Center with several informational displays open seven days a week during daylight hours. The National Solar Observatory also has an observatory on Sunspot.
The Lodge, Burro Avenue
Cloudcroft’s best-known and oldest attraction is The Lodge Resort and Spa, built in 1899, by the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railway.
The original Lodge burned down in 1909, but was soon rebuilt at its current location in 1911. This location was a popular getaway for famous guests from military leaders like Pancho Villa, to Hollywood celebrities like Judy Garland and Clark Gable. Gable and Garland even marked their visit by carving their names on the wall of the Lodge’s tower, and visitors can still ask for the key to enjoy the tower view themselves. It was managed in the 1930s by Conrad Hilton, of Hilton Hotel fame. The Lodge is also known for its longest “resident,” a red-haired ghost named Rebecca. Rebecca is so beloved by the hotel, her image is depicted throughout the facilities, and the restaurant is named for her.
The Lodge’s owners for the past two-and-a-half years are husband and wife team Joe and Lanna Duncan, who are in the business of renovating and revitalizing historic properties. The Duncans also own other historic hotel properties such as Hotel Paisano in Marfa and the Hotel El Capitan in Van Horn, both historic Trost properties. They said they were fortunate to be able to purchase and renovate such a landmark resort such as The Lodge.
“People love the historic authenticity, the heritage and the altitude as a place for a peaceful getaway,” Joe Duncan said. “It’s always around 25 degrees cooler here than in El Paso.”
He said they are slowly and steadily in the process of renovating all the necessary “moving” parts of the resort without sacrificing its historic appeal.
One of the things Duncan feels makes Cloudcroft such a popular destination, is something it doesn’t have: an exciting and lively nightlife. The leisurely pace allow the resort’s own front desk workers to spend more time helping guests, as well as more time for the guests to relax with out an overabundance of busy attractions. He said return guests know they can expect the resort and its restaurant’s staff and fare to always be first class.
“People come out here as a place to get away from the busy streets and noise,” he said. “Our restaurant is still our most popular feature, and people can come up here for lunch or dinner.”
Even with the upscale appeal and popularity of The Lodge, the village of Cloudcroft is still a very casual, easy-going atmosphere. The serenity of the mountain community attracts artists and art lovers as a peaceful setting to be creative.
Burro Avenue contains the bulk of Cloudcroft’s galleries and shops, and has seen some growth recently with the addition of some new storefronts. The village’s strict sustainable growth codes ensure that all new buildings, including homes, honor the natural landscape and the small-town ambiance of the community.
Some of the merchants and galleries on Burro Street include Cloudcroft Gallery, Cloudcroft Trading Post, The Bear Track, and several shops located in the Burro Street Exchange. However, visitors who venture from the avenue will find other locally owned stores and restaurants such as the Bird House and Off The Beaten Path, Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue and Big Daddy’s Diner.
Both visual and performing arts in Cloudcroft have an inclusive family appeal. Cloudcroft Light Opera Company, has been bringing live, free all-ages melodramas to Cloudcroft’s Zenith Park Pavilion for 26 years during summer months, and the group also helps present Santaland events during the holiday season.
The area’s most popular live music event is the BAMM (Bad Ass Mountain Music) Festival, held each June at Ski Cloudcroft, where concertgoers can camp overnight on site on a first come, first serve basis. The festival highlights area bands in a variety of genres and features artisans, and event favorites like the annual beard and ‘stache contest, and piñata bash.
Summer is a peak time for visiting artists in Cloudcroft. Ann Beacht has participated with the Cloudcroft Art Workshops, which brings distinguished artists to teach art in Cloudcroft each summer.
“Cloudcroft has a long history of bringing art to the mountains—nearly 70 years,” she said. “A majority of the students in Cloudcroft Art Workshops come from the Southwest, but the organization attracts participants from all over the country.”
The week-long workshops run June to August in the village’s “old brick schoolhouse,” which also serves as Cloudcroft’s library and community center. Each week offers a different class, and a variety of media is offered such as oil painting, watercolors, pastels, mixed media and many others.
Beacht noted that the village also has the very active Cloudcroft Art Society.
“This year that group has undertaken a big project of painting Southwest and mountain scenes onto the town’s Dumpsters,” she said. “What a creative solution for less-than-attractive but necessary objects scattered throughout the village.”
A sense of community
Jonnes of High Altitude said she loves not just the altitude but also the community attitude of Cloudcroft. She can count on fellow residents to lend a helping hand when needed, and most don’t worry about whether their doors are locked.
“We are small, we know each other and help each other out when in need, we love our forest and want to keep it ‘local’,” she said. “It’s interesting to see people move up here with big dreams of making it just like what they are running from (big city life), but it doesn’t work out for the right reason and they move back to the city. Mountain life isn’t for everyone and that will keep us small always.”
For Jonnes, however, the mountain life is ideal. “I love that I can walk outside and hear birds, see wildlife and go for a hike or bike ride right from my house,” she said. “If we want to go camp for a night, so be it! I love this hidden gem of a place and lifestyle that it entails. Our forest is so diverse and big, I love exploring new areas and finding new little hangouts.”
For Cloudcroft Mayor Venable, “The charm of Cloudcroft is really its people. Coming here is like coming home.”
Venable, who has traveled extensively throughout the United States in his political career, said he always feels proud to tell people about his community, and encourages everyone to visit.
“I try to always tell people we have a treasure up here,” he said. “You need to come here and experience it for yourself.”
Seasons in the clouds
Cloudcroft’s Chamber declares the village is “9000 Feet Above Stress Level,” and this applies to events and activities throughout the year, but particularly in the milder spring and fall months. Here’s a peek at some of the village’s main seasonal events:
• Christmas Tree Lighting: Early December along Burro Avenue
• Santa Land: Weekend after Thanksgiving, and in mid-December in Zenith Park
• New Year’s Eve at The Lodge: Dec. 31 at The Lodge Resort and Spa
• Mardi Gras in the Clouds: February or March throughout town.
• Mayfair: Memorial Day weekend
• Run Through the Clouds 10K: June starting at Zenith Park
• Summer Art Workshops June through August at “Old Red School House”
• BAMM Music Festival — Mid June at Ski Cloudcroft
• Fiesta in The Clouds: June at Sacred Heart Church
• High Rolls/Mountain Park Cherry Festival: Third weekend in June in High Rolls
• Mountain Music: July at the Sacramento Mountains Historical Museum
• Cloudcroft July 4th: Weekend of Independence Day throughout the village
• July Jamboree ArtFair: Second Weekend in July in Zenith Park
• Art & Wine in the Cool Pines: August at Sacramento Mountains Historical Museum
•Trails & Rails Run: August at the Trestle Recreation Area
• Labor Day Hoopla: Labor Day Weekend along Burro Avenue
• Lumberjack Day: Mid-September at Zenith Park
• Aspencade Tours: Early October departing from the Forest Service parking lot
• High Rolls Apple Festival: second weekend in October in High Rolls
• The Haunted Village: Late October at Sacramento Mountains Historical Museum
• HarvestFest: Late October along Burro Avenue
For more events, contact the Cloudcroft Chamber of Commerce
at (575) 682-2733, cloudcroft.com or on Facebook.
Copyright 2017 by Cristo Rey Communications