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New Mexico's Resort in the Clouds

July 13, 1986|BILL LYNDE | Lynde is a Cypress, Calif., free-lance writer.

CLOUDCROFT, N.M. — Anybody, or any family, looking for a summer vacation destination catering to interests of all age groups should know about this tiny resort village in the Sacramento Mountains of southeastern New Mexico.

This is no glitzy place. Just old-time tranquillity complete with clear air, tall pines, superb campgrounds, hiking and horseback trails, golf and tennis, plus comfort found at The Lodge, the grande dame of New Mexico resort hotels.

100 miles north of El Paso, Cloudcroft has been in existence 87 years, beginning simply as a logging camp at the rail head. Not too many know that Cloudcroft at 9,000 feet above sea level has the highest golf course and the southernmost winter ski area in the United States. It's a true "cloud in a field," as the name says.

If you can escape the city heat and hysteria for only a long weekend, fly to El Paso. Then drive your rental car the 100 miles to Cloudcroft. Or if it's a family vacation using your own vehicle and camping gear, peel off U.S. 54 at Alamogordo and start the 16-mile climb up U.S. 82, an all-weather road into Lincoln National Forest.

You begin to sense serenity right off. The drive is a steep 5,000 feet above the desert floor, with gentle curves twisting and turning, first through arid land, then through all the vegetative zones between there and Hudson's Bay in Canada: juniper, pinon pines, Douglas fir, white fir and spruce.

Shortly after you see remnants of the last wooden trestle (there once were 58) on the old Alamogordo & Sacramento Mountain Railroad off to the right and break out on top, Cloudcroft's 16-acre village suddenly is there.

Museum and Tennis Courts

The highway is Main Street. You see the churches first, then assorted businesses and schools that are strung out along the road in narrow strips on either side.

There's a tiny museum, the public park with four spiffy California-surfaced tennis courts, then the log cabin chamber of commerce building.

Motels are mostly clustered two or three streets off the highway. Vacation house rentals are available.

The activity centerpiece, especially for those who are well-heeled, is The Lodge. Opened in 1899, burned in 1909, rebuilt on higher ground away from the railroad head in 1911, this Bavarian-style country inn has grown to 52 rooms and survived dozens of proprietors, including Conrad Hilton during three dismal Depression years in the '30s.

Owners Jerry and Carole Sanders took over from the Bonnell ranch people in the spring of 1983. He is a former Los Angeles advertising man who knows the value of sales promotion based on high-quality accommodations and food.

Its golf course, 4,900 yards of it, is exquisitely fitted into the natural terrain of adjacent canyons. The giant lobby fireplace burns brightly on nippy evenings.

Food is tastefully prepared and is reasonably priced. Our New York steak dinner was just $10.95. The ham-and-eggs breakfast cost a surprising $2.95. Two church groups had barged in on short notice for lunch during our stay, but were taken in stride by the cheerful food-service people.

Capital Improvements

Six remodeled dining areas seating 350 have emerged, including an outdoor deck for cocktails or afternoon tea. They all operate under one name, Rebecca's.

The remainder of the capital improvements include redoing all guest rooms by next spring. Two rooms had been completed when we were there, with the pace kept purposely slow to avoid guest inconvenience in the busy summer season.

The antique furnishings are elegant. Lodging prices run from $55 double to family rooms for three or four persons at $80. The honeymoon suite is $110.

In the picture-windowed main dining room and from front bedrooms you can see White Sands. The 225 square miles of gypsum dunes lie 35 miles west. Or climb to the hotel tower and look to hell and gone.

But why not save that for the 25-mile trip down Forest Service Road 64? This dead-ends at Sunspot, N.M., home of the Strategic Air Command Peak solar observatory. The observatory offers free guided tours on Saturdays during summer.

Notice roadside evidence of the A&SM Railroad. Built for logging operations, it terminated at Russia Canyon off to the east, but also was the midwife attending Cloudcroft's birth in 1899.

The line hauled people as well as logs. The wealthy from El Paso were prime patrons of the little yellow-car train and The Lodge at the end of the line.

Camping in Style

If you're into camping, tent or RV style, Cloudcroft has plenty to offer, complete with bears (not too friendly if they are hungry). Seven campgrounds in Lincoln National Forest are within five miles of the village. Water and toilets provided; no electricity; fees run $6 up per day; no charge for just plain ground camping under the trees.

Two campgrounds for large groups, 50 or more, are maintained on a reservation basis. These jumbo campsites can accommodate 250 to 300 persons. If your RV requires hookup, several places are available.

One is Chalet Camper Village. It is five miles east of the village on U.S. 82, has 81 full-service trailer hookups, plus showers, playground, laundry. Yearly space leases are offered for those who cannot stand to leave.

Hiking, of course, is big stuff in the forest. Trails are well built and marked. There's even one for the blind, La Pasa de Encantada.

Art workshops are conducted June through August by 24 specialists in fine art, Western art and illustrative art. If you vacation in August, catch the antique car rally. It's the 9th and 10th of the month and is being held for the first time in Cloudcroft. Pat Hiller, executive director of the chamber of commerce, expects at least 100 cars coming from all points.

Further information: Cloudcroft Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 125, Cloudcroft, N.M. 88317, (505) 682-2733.

Campground reservations: Dan Richters, (505) 682-2537.

The Lodge: P.O. Box 497, Cloudcroft, N.M. 88317, (505) 682-2566.

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