I could see the final remnants of the storm burning away under a cascade of radiating sunshine slipping between wisps of cloud and the jagged peaks of the mountains 30 miles away. This was my first glimpse of "The Enchanted Circle", and I was so enamored by the panorama in front of me that I parked my Subaru rental haphazardly along the shoulder of the road, grabbed my camera gear, and climbed up on to the roof of the Outback to capture the moment. It was early September, and New Mexico was nearing the end of its monsoon season, a time during which prevailing winds typically shift direction and bring with it a change in the weather. For the desert southwest, that change often means rain.
The drive from Denver had been really nice, with Colorado's Front Range flanking me to the west as I drove south along Interstate 25 for the first few hours on the road. I even drove through some southern Colorado peaks once I got off of the Interstate, before settling into the high plains along Route 159, the road that would lead me into New Mexico. The weather had been pleasant, and the views of some of America's highest peaks were more than enough to wash away the stresses that I normally associate with air travel and car rentals. All of this is to say that when I caught my first glimpse of New Mexico's highest mountains I wasn't exactly hurting for some scenery, which makes the impact of that skyline all the more profound. It was one of those moments that will forever be burned into the retina of my mind's eye, and I hadn't even driven across the state line yet.
Angel Fire is a small mountain village located in New Mexico's Rocky Mountains roughly 50 miles south of the Colorado border to the far north of the state. The resort town is a part of New Mexico's "Enchanted Circle", a national scenic byway that encircles the state's highest summit, Wheeler Peak at 13,161 feet. This 83-mile loop, one of the American Southwest's most beautiful drives, also includes Taos, Red River, Eagle Nest, and Questa. A region once economically driven by mining operations is now largely a tourism and outdoor recreation-based economy, and with Angel Fire bike park staking its claim as one of North America's best, mountain bikers are positioning themselves throughout the Enchanted Circle as a force for good.
Angel Fire is a relatively young bike park, at least technically speaking. While lift access for daily mountain bike operations has been around for less than a decade, the mountain that sits 2,000 vertical feet above the Village of Angel Fire has history with bikes that dates back to the late 1980s, when the very first Chile Challenge took place on these steep and gnarled slopes. Since then, Angel Fire has played host to several Pro GRT events, a World Cup, and a thriving local series of downhill and enduro races. Its reputation as one of America's fastest and most technical bike parks is well earned, and while the needle continues to move here, there are a few things in particular that stand out to me: for a big mountain with a high profile, the operations team here is decidedly small, and while the terrain is well known as world class, it was the low key and inviting culture that struck me the most.
"It's all about that green trail." Clay Kimsey says with a smile creeping up his cheeks.
"Yeah?" I asked, a bit surprised by this admission.
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"You can go and build a technical trail. That's super easy. But if you can't the family in; if you can't get everyone to join and only one parent gets to ride while the other has to take the kids somewhere else to find some fun, then we're missing something there, right? Everyone should be able to enjoy the bike park. You get that green trail that a larger number of bikes can suddenly get people down the mountain safely and now the whole family can come. Mom or dad can bring their Trek Session 29er and smash some trails later in the day. Now the whole family got to start the day together and have a good time. So I think the easier terrain is what opens it up, really, for everyone."
Clay is the rental shop manager at Angel Fire, and is also in charge of events and partnerships for the resort. The native Texan has been here for more than 5 years and has helped Angel Fire in a number of ways, including the development of one of the country's most reliable and impressive rental shops. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these guys offer a more comprehensive combination of service and retail operations than many local bike shops in many other parts of the country. Although it's probably worth noting that is likely due to the plethora of broken bikes that tumble off of the slopes and into the shop. Going back to my earlier surprise at his comment about the importance of a green trail. I didn't disagree at all, but instead found it rather refreshing to hear those sentiments coming from a place that has seen noted success directly connected to its reputation as a destination capable of pushing most riders to their limits. Many riders will roll their eyes whenever this topic comes up, as if the development of easier trails somehow diminishes the credibility or ferocity of a bike park.
"A bike park needs to be well-rounded and versatile," Clay tells me. "It needs to have the smoothest, flattest green trail, with no berms that you've ever seen. And it needs to have the stuff that looks nearly impossible, because that's the diversity that the bike park brings in. Something for everyone. Earlier this year, an older couple - maybe 65 - wanted to give it a shot. They did a lap on the green trail, came down and were like What an amazing experience! We might not be able to get back here every year, but we're going to remember this one for a while.
Clay is more than familiar with life at a high profile bike park, having spent several summers working at Whistler's little known operation. When an opportunity presented itself to relocate to Angel Fire full time in 2014, Clay jumped at the chance.
"I realized that mountain lifestyle is where I wanted to be. And that's why I moved here full-time and left Austin. In my time, I've seen us really buy into the evolution of our mountain. We've always been known as a super gnarly destination, and all of that stuff is still here. It's a big reason why I made the move myself. But if you want to find yourself on a trail where you can just rip some cutties down and find some flow, we now have that as well. We're not really very close to anyone, so people have to work to get here. We just want to make sure they are getting everything they can hope for once they're here."
The Rio Grande is a jagged gouge deep in the Earth just past the halfway point to Santa Fe.
There are seemingly as many goods below the surface as there are above.
Texas has acted as a feeder market for Angel Fire from the start. As massive a swath of land as the 2nd largest state in America is, Texas doesn't have much in the way of alpine opportunities. As a result, Angel Fire and the rest of the Enchanted Circle have become a favorite destination for residents of the Lone Star State
, more specifically the Austin area. While many of those seeking an adventure in the mountains are often here for the weekend, there are some changes afoot when it comes to those looking for a more permanent change.
"It's absolutely affected my business in a positive way." Tara Chisum says. Tara is the owner of Angel Fire - based real estate company Chisum Realty Group located at the base of Angel Fire Bike Park. Having spent her childhood growing up in the tiny mountain town of 1,400 people, Tara left for a stretch but returned 11 years ago and hasn't looked back, in part due to the shift taking place among her clientele. "I don't know that I can give you specific numbers that correlate to mountain biking, but I will tell you hands down we have buyers that are buying for the mountain bike park, and for the mountain biking opportunities. A lot of the Austin demographic is they are fluent enough to buy a vacation home. They're young enough to be fit and enjoy mountain biking. And they're in a city that's crowded enough, that they need to and want to get outdoors and have that piece, and they're in tech industries primarily so they can work from here. It used to be an older buyer that was buying for their kids and their grandkids, and now it's the younger generation buyer that's buying for themselves."
Historically speaking, Angel Fire's real estate market has just kind of floated along without a lot of growth or significant change in any way. Within the last 3 or 4 years, however, they've gone from being a buyer's market with an over supply and very little demand, to a balanced market and trending towards a seller's market, as supply continues to diminish and demand continues to increase. I asked Tara if it would be reasonable to assume that this shift was due in part to the bike park.
"I think it's reasonable to say, but it's certainly not trackable." she tells me. "There are some other factors that came into play, like the pricing in Angel Fire. We didn't have the price drop in 2008 or even 2010 like everyone else when we really should
have as a vacation home market. It didn't happen in Angle Fire until 2015. But to be honest, the demand coming into Angel Fire can't just
come from prices. People have to know about Angel Fire, they have to want to come here when they vacation, they have to decide that they want to make it go from a weekender to a vacation homeowner, or full-time resident. So that demand has to be pushed by the amenities that we have and the values that we have as a community. I think that the bike park is a huge percentage of what the community has. We've always been the 'family ski area', we've always had the golf, we've always had the access to the mountains and the hunting and fishing and all of that. But the bike park has come in and certainly contributed to the interest, to the general awareness. And then once people get here and see what we're all about, well..."
There are many architects behind the growth and development of the mountain bike community around Angel Fire, as well as obviously the bike park itself. Hogan Koesis was at the forefront of helping transition the lift-served operations from event-based to a summer standard on the mountain, and his protege Patrick West has taken the torch and run with it. In addition to being one of the single most stylish riders I have ever ridden with, Patrick brings ample talents as a trail builder to his job as the bike park's Operational Manager, and more importantly is keenly aware of the big picture implications that come with the growth of a world class operation. Like Clay, Patrick is a Texas native who cut his teeth as a trail builder in Snowshoe, West Virginia for a while before joining the Angel Fire team in 2012 as the trail crew supervisor under Hogan's guidance. While the first half decade of his time at Angel Fire might have been spent primarily with a shovel in hand or behind the wheel of a backhoe, Patrick now has to split his time between the dirt and in front of his computer, helping the rest of the Angel Fire team develop and execute their 5 year plan.
"So yeah my day to day task is to sit in the office for a few hours." he tells me over margaritas at El Jefe, across the upper lot from the lift. "There are a lot of emails. It's not as fun as I'd like, but it's mandatory to keep the bike park moving progressing. After that, I spend about four or five hours usually out on the trails. I'm able to do machine work still. Typically a season would be three, four hundred hours on a machine. I'd say right now maybe at a hundred hours on a machine."
Here's some context for you: Angel Fire Bike Park offers just over 2,000 vertical feet of elevation relief, with 33 trails that add up to roughly 60 miles of riding. A lot of those trails are steep. And rocky. And hard to get to. In addition to Patrick, he has a crew of 5 other trail crew members with help from the bike patrol. Let's call that a limited crew size at best. I asked him how such a small group of people can produce such amazing results on a mountain of this size.
"A lot of passion for one," he tells me. "You gotta be passionate for what we do here. You're not just coming here and doing this for the fun of it. So I'd say passion is the biggest thing. But planning is huge, so every Springtime we sit down and develop a whole year plan. We probably accomplish a quarter of this plan through the whole season. We're really ambitious as far as what we want
to do, but what we actually can complete is typically a bit less. With such a small crew, we need to really have a plan for each day, each week, and each month. That's just a requirement here."
For Patrick, it's easy to stay passionate about a place that you love, and his love for Angel Fire runs deep.
"This is my home." he says between sips. "This is where I belong. It's the land of mañana. That's New Mexico: The land of tomorrow. Nobody's in a rush, and I've gotten used to that. I came from Houston where there was so much hustle and bustle, so it took me some time to get used it. Here you can just breathe, you know?"
That carries over into the park as well.
"It's a very relaxed, diverse group of riders here." he says. "We have people that can ride as hard as anybody in the world, others who are just getting started, and everyone is just having the time of their lives. There just seems to be a lot of respect for others here. It doesn't matter if you're a shredder or first timer down to the hill, everybody has the same respect for everybody. We're all human beings. When I leave here and I go other places I catch a glimpse of that "bro culture" or whatever you want to call it, and that can make people feel uncomfortable. Things can get really hectic at some other bike parks. I love coming back home, because I can always stop and take a deep breath. Plus I think that the people here are just nicer."
Bike parks present a really awesome opportunity for riders to come and test the boundaries of their own perceived limitations. The red tape is far less intricate than what is found on public lands, and they often present progression for those seeking it on a silver platter. But bike parks bring with them a bit of a perceived
barrier of entry for many uninitiated riders. Lift costs aside, there is a prevailing culture that can often intimidate people when looking at these operations from afar, or when pulling into a bike park lot for the first time. That trepidation is often predicated on their own fears of what may lie ahead aboard the bike, but the fear of being judged plays a role as well. One of Angel Fire's most beautiful elements, besides of course the landscape that surrounds this place, is that the lowest common denominator for everyone is the simple joy of riding bicycles down mountains, which immediately puts everyone on equal footing from the moment they arrive. That's quite an accomplishment considering the storied and gnarly history of this place, and the logistical challenges that come with so much steep and raw terrain. But this little-town-that-could at the bottom of a big mountain has figured it out.
"I could do this business so much more easily," Tara Chisum tells me as we wrap things up in her office. "And with so many more profits in a bigger city, people think I'm crazy for doing this business here. But honestly my husband and I, we came for the small town community with access to the mountains and we stayed for the mountain biking. We were not mountain bikers when we got here. We skied and we hiked. We were ready to establish roots and so forth. Once we got into mountain biking and once we got exposed to the whole mountain biking community and culture, it made our own town that much more attractive for us. I think we would've gotten antsy and would eventually have moved on to the next mountain town had it not been for mountain biking and this bike park. I mean, in a small town like this, I meet people on the chair lift in the summertime that become long friends. They come from all over the country and different parts of the world. Mountain biking has kind of exposed this world to me in this very easy way, where I don't have to go travel to meet people and be exposed to a bigger community; they come here to us."Angel Fire mountain biking trails
Local KnowledgeBike Shops:
There isn't really much in the way of shops in and around town. However, the shop at the park is more than enough. In fact, I'd say that Clay and his team are more thorough and detail oriented than most bike shops I've been to.Favorite Eats:
Again, you're landlocked in rural and mountainous New Mexico, so temper your expectations in town. I enjoyed my dinners at El Jefe, and had a really solid meal at Element's, which is a part of the country club. But your best bet is to do your own cooking and take your meal outside. It'll be an all time "dinner with a view".Area Digs:
Camping is a popular choice here, with free camping adjacent to the bike park and hotel lots. I stayed at the Lodge at Angel Fire Resort, and really dug it. I could pedal to the lifts, grab a coffee and a breakfast burrito in the morning, and soak in the pool and hot tub after a day or riding.Local Mountain Bike Club: The Del Norte Mountain Bike Alliance
serves Taos County as a powerful voice for area riders, and work with local land managers to help elevate the voice of mountain bikers in the region.Brice's Key Tips:
1: June 22, 2019 will see the return of a really unique and cool event to the slopes of Angel Fire: The Red Bull Burner
. From the resort: After resting dormant for nearly a decade, Angel Fire Bike Park & Red Bull will reignite the Burner in Summer 2019. The legendary gravity fueled endurance event will be set off on The Summer Solstice. Testing riders physical & mental fortitude in both team & solo formats, The Return of the Burner will be the must attend event of the summer.
2: Angel Fire is a big mountain, and it's altitude is worth noting. Coming from sea level, I personally found myself short of breath for the first day or two of just riding laps at the park. The base of the mountain starts just below 9,000 feet and climbs up to nearly 11,000 at the top of the lift. Riding backcountry in the region can be even more taxing on your system, so be sure to give yourself time to acclimate, and please drink lots of water.
3: Bike choice: Long travel everything. Whether it's a single crown bike with a slack head angle and a stretchy wheelbase, and/or a full DH rig, you're going to want some real estate to play with when it comes to suspension. I did some one-stop-shopping on my Firebird all week, which I found to be nearly perfect. The backcountry climbs were long and steady so I wasn't suffering on the 170mm beast, and the trips down hit hyper speeds at times. Obviously Angel Fire's reputation of steep and deep is alive and well, and I would have enjoyed a full on DH bike for a bit of it, but all in all, I was just glad to have something beefy and stout to ride.
4: Angel Fire has a well known, highly regarded reputation as one of North America's premier bike parks. One would think that a massive team of trail builders might be responsible for the care and design of such a place, but the truth is that there are 5-6 people in total who manage this decidedly daunting task. If you bump into Patrick West or any member of his team, give them a high five, buy them a beer, and let them know they're efforts aren't going unnoticed.