How the Mescalero Apache Turned a Remote Rockies Reservation Into a Tourism Mecca

The resort has two ziplines: The Apache Eagle ZipRider, a 2,668-foot glide across Lake Mescalero, and the Apache Wind Rider ZipTour, a three-leg tour that begins at 11,489 feet above sea level in elevation and spans nearly 9,000 feet, reaching speeds of up to 65 miles per hour. (Courtesy Mescalero Apache Tribe)

This article was originally published pre-pandemic in our June 2019 tourism issue.

When the legendary Tribal chairman Wendell Chino (1923-1998) first proposed opening a ski resort on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in the early 1960s, no one took him seriously. The idea of a Tribal-owned and operated ski resort on an Indian reservation where the average income hovered well below the national poverty line seemed risky, at best. For starters, no one in the Tribe — including Chino — had ever skied.

But the opening of Ski Apache (then called Sierra Blanca Ski Resort) in the southern Rockies of New Mexico was a smash hit. Soon after, Tribes across the country began adopting Chino’s “red capitalism” philosophy and started working to develop their own economies.

Under Chino’s leadership, the Mescalero Apache subsequently added a 273-room Inn of the Mountain Gods, a 148-acre manmade lake, a 100-acre championship golf course, a hunting lodge, a casino and numerous other ancillary businesses to support the Tribe’s long-term economic vision. Described as a “small business empire,” the success of the Mescalero Apache has become a model for modern Tribal tourism, economic development and diversification across the country.

“Wendell Chino was a visionary who saw that the Mescalero had vast natural resources on their lands that they could leverage and manage on their own for the benefit of their people,” says Mark Van Norman, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and former executive director for the National Indian Gaming Association who is now in private practice. “He led the way in leasing Forest Service lands for the benefit of the Tribe, establishing the tax identity for Tribal corporations and the regulation of hunting and fishing on Tribal lands, which was a precursor that led to the Cabazon [California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians] decision. The Mescalero were the tip of the spear for Tribal sovereignty in the 20th century and their legacy lasts to this day.”

Today, the Mescalero Apache Tribe of New Mexico have achieved near full-employment on their reservation and remain one of the most successful Tribal Nations in the country. With tourism and gaming as the centerpieces of their economic development, the Tribe is continually striving to develop new strategies and businesses to add to their portfolio, according to the Tribe’s leadership.

“We’re providing jobs to our community and a great experience for our guests,” says Gabe Aguilar, vice president of the Mescalero Apache Tribe. “We want to be a one-stop shop, offering something for everyone who comes to visit our homelands.”

The resort includes a 273-room Inn of the Mountain Gods (Courtesy Mescalero Apache Tribe)

Get Outside

Located in the Sierra Blanca mountain range, Ski Apache is the southernmost major ski area in the United States with 11 lifts and 55 trails, ranging from beginner to advanced. The resort also includes the 273-room Inn of the Mountain Gods (IMG), and a 100-acre Ted Robinson-designed championship golf course that has been ranked by Golf Digest as one of the top 25 casino golf courses in the country. 

“We’re pretty blessed with the natural beauty of the mountains and water and we operate year-round,” says Frizzell Frizzell, Jr., chief operating officer of Inn of the Mountain Gods. “We’ve worked hard to make Mescalero a place for the whole family to come, so the kids can stay busy while their parents can also enjoy themselves.”

In addition to golf and skiing, IMG offers a panoply of bars, restaurants, entertainment and outdoor activities for every age group, including two ziplines: The Apache Eagle ZipRider, a 2,668-foot glide across Lake Mescalero, and the Apache Wind Rider ZipTour, a three-leg tour that begins at 11,489 feet above sea level in elevation and spans nearly 9,000 feet, reaching speeds of up to 65 miles per hour. The Wind Rider has the highest launchpoint and is the third longest zipline tour in the world.

The 148-acre Mescalero Lake also offers a wide variety of options for every traveler, including fishing, boating, pedal boating, stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking. Guests can buy a fishing permit and can either buy or rent fishing equipment from the hotel or the boat house. The lake is stocked with trout and is open year-round.

With 5.5 miles of trails, hikers can choose from trails ranging from .25 miles to all-day hikes to the summit of Ski Apache. Mountain biking enthusiasts can either bring their own or rent a bike and hitch a ride on New Mexico’s only gondola to the top of Ski Apache to take in the spectacular scenery under the summit of Sierra Blanca on the way down to the base.

Other outdoor activities include big game hunting packages for elk, bear and turkey. Bull elk packages include lodging at IMG Resort & Casino, choice of weapon, hunting permits, all meals, guides, horses, standard skinning and processing, and more. Additionally, Mountain Gods Stables offers hour-long trail rides for adults and children 8 and older. Reservations are recommended and are required for those wishing to ride longer than an hour.

“You’re not going to be bored at Mescalero,” says Frizzell. “No matter your age or skill level in the outdoors, we have something for everyone.”

Located in the Sierra Blanca mountain range, Ski Apache is the southernmost major ski area in the United States with 11 lifts and 55 trails. (Courtesy Mescalero Apache Tribe)

Bring the Kids

Both the Inn of the Mountain Gods and Ski Apache have plenty to keep the kids busy. From Memorial Day through Labor Day Weekend, IMG offers a supervised Kids’ Summer Program on Saturdays for kids 5-12 years old. Activities include arts and crafts, indoor and outdoor activities, games, movies, special themed activities, prizes and lunch or dinner.

Ski Apache also offers a supervised Adventure Camp for kids ages 4-10 that includes the trainer zipline, hiking, tee ball, scavenger hunts, disk golf, arts and crafts, and more.

On Sunday evenings, IMG has Sunday Under the Stars offering free family-friendly movies on the lawn after dark. 

In June, IMG will host the Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament for ages 7 to 70, where people of all ages and experience levels can compete on four-players teams matched by computer. The tournament also raises funds for local charities.

After Hours

For the grownups, Mescalero Entertainment also attracts top musical and comedy talent from across the country, including rapper/singer Snoop Dogg, whose June show sold out in less than a week. Other upcoming acts include comedian Jeff Foxworthy and country artists Charlie Pride, Lee Brice and Chase Bryant.

Additionally, in 2018 the Mescalero Apache Tribe added a full-service salon and spa at the Inn of the Mountain Gods, offering massages, skincare, body treatments, mani/pedis, make-up, hair design and waxing for individuals and couples. Frizzell said that the 5,000-square-foot spa was developed in-house and designed with a distinct Mescalero aesthetic.

“We’re very proud of our new spa,” says Frizzell. “We did all of it ourselves, because we have talented people with great vision and taste who did a spectacular job, and it’s been a big success.”

Frizzell, who has been COO for the Inn of the Mountain Gods for eight years, says that the economic opportunities provided by the Tribe’s businesses have impacted not only the quality of life for the Mescalero, but also their neighbors.

“We are the biggest economic engine in the region, but for us, it’s about more than having a job. It’s about being part of something that is bigger than ourselves and something that benefits and protects our people,” he says. “The goal is to provide the economic means to sustain our community, including homes, education, fire protection, programs for our elders and children. All of our money goes right back into our Tribe, and that’s what drives our whole operation.”