Ramblin' Round Ruidoso

15 Discoveries in a Charming Year-Round Retreat

First-time visitors to the friendly mountain resort of Ruidoso are often stunned by the dramatic beauty of the landscapem surrounded by the Lincoln National Forest, with 12,000-foot Sierra Blanca, southern New Mexico's highest peak, dominating the skyline.

That’s partly because Ruidoso flies under a lot of people’s radar, even though regular vacationers are intensely loyal—and probably don’t want too many people to know about it. Well, apologies to Ruidoso fans, but this charming town just has too much going for it to keep the secret.

In summer, mountain men and mamas take to the hiking and biking trails, saddle up for horseback riding, fish area lakes, or tee it up at a superb selection of golf courses. In winter, snow hounds head for Ski Apache, run by the Mescalero Apache tribe, and the Ruidoso Winter Park is a snowy playground for sledding and tubing.

Ruidoso is a pleasure to wander, with its peaceful alpine atmosphere sassed up by Old West spirit. It’s a town of horses and bears. The latter are carved in wood, and were inspired by Smokey Bear, the famous cub found in nearby Capitán. You can buy one to take home, in any size from tuck-it-under-your-arm to larger-than-life.

Ruidoso’s name means “noisy river,” for the Río Ruidoso, which tumbles from Sierra Blanca peak down to the Hondo Valley. The Ruidoso River Trail in the center of town is an easy quarter-mile walk beneath shady ponderosa pines, and a great place for kids to let off steam. Speaking of kids, even youngsters get excited about history here in Lincoln County, where Billy the Kid made his mark.

Although everyone agrees that the correct pronunciation of Ruidoso is roo-ee-doh-so, you’ll hear plenty of locals waxing lyrical about ree-oh-doh-so. And many visiting Texans lilt an a on the end instead of an o. In this easy-going town, however you say it, there’s plenty to enjoy.

Spencer Theater
Arriving at the Spencer Theater is as much of a spectacle as the performance itself. The Antoine Predock architecture echoes glacial peaks with stark white angles cutting against an enormous blue sky, and inside the Crystal Lobby, the vibrancy of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures takes your breath away. Some shows offer a pre-performance buffet in the lobby—the perfect opportunity to check out Chihuly’s 14-foot-high Sunset Tower. Entertainment ranges from ballet and opera to touring Broadway shows, and this summer’s varied program includes the play Steel Magnolias, the Miss New Mexico Pageant, The Kingston Trio, and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Reserve a place on one of the regular free theater tours for a glimpse backstage, including the Signature Hall, covered wall to ceiling with autographs and exuberant drawings by past performers. 108 Spencer Road, Airport Highway 220, Alto; (575) 336-4800; www.spencertheater.com

Books, Boots, and Boutiques
Easy-to-stroll Sudderth Street in midtown Ruidoso offers a host of specialty stores. In just one block you can browse Books Etcetera, pick up New-Mexico-landscape–inspired stoneware at White Mountain Pottery, try on Native American jewelry at Apache Trading Company, find treats at Misty Mountain Gourmet, and peruse gifts and hand-painted glass at Rainwaters. Further along Sudderth, Rustic Diva’s flirty fashions get you into the cowgirl spirit, but won’t look out of place back in the city. Cut a dash two-stepping in cute embroidered cowboy boots, or go for Western dazzle in embellished jeans and sparkly belts.

Ruidoso River Museum
This collection of curiosities has something of interest for everyone. See celebrity memorabilia from stars ranging from Elvis and Liberace to Angelina Jolie, and a case of crowns and tiaras, including one of Marie Antoinette’s. Items of wonder include a dinosaur egg, a giant narwhal tusk, a mastodon molar, Mayan effigies, and a 120,000-year-old fossil cave bear. A room dedicated to the Lincoln County War displays Billy the Kid memorabilia, including Pat Garrett’s sheriff badge. The X-Files fans might like the alien exhibit, featuring items from the show’s sets. 101 Mechem Drive; (575) 257-0296; www.ruidosorivermuseum.com

Peña’s Place
On Sunday mornings at Peña’s, regulars order the Eggs Benedict weekend special without even glancing at the menu. I opted for a breakfast burrito, just to taste Jimmy Peña’s tomatillo sauce. I consider myself a tomatillo connoisseur, and this tangy beauty is right up there with the best of them. When Jimmy’s not cooking, he’s carving, fashioning the beautiful, turquoise–inlaid wooden tables in the cafe and the alabaster bears lined up on the windowsills. Peña’s Place has just seven tables plus a patio— but despite its humble size, it’s full of heart. Open for breakfast and lunch. 2963 Sudderth Drive; (575) 257-4135

Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino
Less than 10 minutes from midtown Ruidoso, the Inn of the Mountain Gods is set in a stunning location on the Mescalero Apache reservation. Even if you’re not staying at the inn, it’s worth a trip to enjoy views over 100-acre Mescalero Lake. It’s a prime venue for concerts by household-name entertainers (Grammy Award winner Alison Krauss performs on June 19), and offers a championship golf course, fishing, and other outdoor activities, as well as Las Vegas–style gaming. Dining options include Wendell’s Steak and Seafood Restaurant & Lounge, with lake and mountain views, and the popular Gathering of Nations Buffet. 287 Carrizo Canyon Road, Mescalero; (800) 545-9011; innofthemountaingods.com

Dreamcatcher Cafe
The rustic split-level courtyard is a sweet spot to sip a pint from a great range of New Mexico beers on tap (try the richly refreshing Rio Grande Outlaw Lager) and watch the world go by. Outdoor heaters warm the tables on cool evenings, and the scent of piñon and juniper logs crackling in the fire pit adds to the atmosphere. 2629 Sudderth Drive; (575) 802-2222; http://dreamcatchercafe.com

Flying J Ranch
Mosey along to the mock Western town of Bonita City for the Flying J Ranch Chuckwagon Supper and Western Show, six nights a week in summer beginning May 26. These popular evening events include kids’ pony rides, panning for gold, a pistol-shooting range, and time to browse the gift shops on the boardwalk, before the gunfight breaks out on Main Street. Fill your boots at the chuckwagon dinner, then sit back for the Flying J Wranglers stage show. 1028 State Hwy. 48, Alto; (575) 336-4330; www.flyingjranch.com

The Adobe Fine Art
he handsome building was once a post office; now it’s a gallery that puts its stamp on the Ruidoso arts scene with a great selection of jewelry, paintings, and sculpture. Check out works by local artists, including the luminous paintings of former Miss New Mexico Janice Jones Loverin (above), still-lifes by artist-in-residence Denise Imke, and Old West sculptures by Ken Payne, the nationally recognized bronze artist, who passed away this year. 2905 Sudderth Drive; (575) 257-5795; www.theadobefineart.com

Landlocked
The atmosphere in this cabin-meets-casa–style restaurant is as suited to a romantic date as to a family dinner. Steaks and seafood are the specialties; Chef Shaun Seymour, above, embraces flavors from Thai to Texan, from paella to pasta with pink vodka sauce. The Black Angus ribeye is tender heaven, rubbed with rosemary and garlic. I’m still dreaming about the chunky artichoke-spinach dip appetizer, served warm with freshly made yellow and blue corn chips. One portion is plenty for two, and pairs perfectly with Landlocked’s own crisp light beer. 441 Mechem Drive, 575-257 9559

Tina’s Cafe
Tina Greene bustles out of the kitchen to offer a warm welcome, then she’s back to whipping up her signature tamales. Her green chile chicken tamale plate is worth every ounce of the praise it earns from locals; be sure to order your tamale or burrito smothered with her fantastic green-or-red chile sour- cream sauce. Fresh-baked desserts include Green Chile Apple Pie filled with a deliciously gooey caramel sauce to cut the heat. Tina’s Cafe is tucked back by the river, a cozy spot for breakfast and lunch, with a brick fireplace adding to the homey atmosphere. In summer, sit out on the patio overlooking the river below, watch the ponderosa pines sway in the breeze, and cool off with a glass of lavender lemonade. Tina serves early dinners on Friday and Saturday in summer, with live music. 522 Sudderth Drive; (575) 257-8930

Riding and Racing
Hit the trail on horseback for an hour-long ride with Grindstone Stables through the Lincoln National Forest. Riding is one of the most popular activities for Ruidoso visitors, and even though the majority of the stable’s wannabe cowboys have never ridden before, they soon giddyup on “user-friendly” horses. Kids aged five and upwards hoof it on their own steeds, younger tots ride with an adult. Rides are a reasonable $30 per horse. If you’re more jingle than jockey, winter horse-drawn sleigh rides from Thanksgiving through the holidays are a great way to enjoy the Christmas lights. Or catch the summer thoroughbred and quarter-horse racing at Ruidoso Downs where general admission is free. The All American Futurity, on Labor Day, is the world’s richest quarter-horse race, a $2.4 million purse in 2012 over a fast and furious 440 yards. Grindstone Stables: 523 Resort Drive; (575) 257-2241; www.grindstonestables.com. Ruidoso Downs Race Track: 26225 U.S. Hwy. 70, Ruidoso Downs; (575) 378-4431; www.ruidownsracing.com

Billy the Kid National Scenic Byway
This 84-mile circular drive follows the trail of New Mexico’s most notorious outlaw, as well as other iconic spots of the Old West. Locations en route include the Billy the Kid Visitor Center in Ruidoso, as well as San Patricio in the the Hondo Valley, where Billy liked to hang out during the Lincoln County War. Plus Fort Stanton, the frontier outpost once commanded by Kit Carson, and the Old Courthouse in Lincoln, where Billy made his famous escape in 1881. www.billybyway.com

Win Place and Show
Cowboy hats are optional, but if you wear yours you’ll fit right in at this honky-tonk bar and lounge. The locals grew up dancing here, and there’s still a good mix of ages strutting their stuff on the dance floor. Pop in to soak up the ultra-authentic atmosphere, listen to the band over a margarita, and maybe pick up some new two-stepping moves. 2516 Sudderth Drive; (575) 257 9982

The Lodge at Sierra Blanca
Overlooking the Links at Sierra Blanca Golf Course on one side, with views of Sierra Blanca peak on the other, the Lodge is an inviting, comfortable place to kick back at the end of a long, fun-filled day. A stone fireplace adds to the ambiance in the atrium lobby and bar, and an indoor pool keeps the kids happy. Suites have a two-person whirlpool tub, fireplace, and balcony or patio, and every room or suite has a microwave and a fridge—very handy for leftovers from Ruidoso’s restaurants, which seem to serve only two portion sizes: Large and Huge. 107 Sierra Blanca Drive; (575) 258 5500; www.lodgeatsierrablanca.com

Hubbard Museum of the American West
This Smithsonian-affiliated museum is not a difficult spot to locate: Look for the horse sculptures rearing and galloping out front. The Hubbard is home to one of the largest collections of horse-drawn vehicles in the U.S., and it’s intriguing to inspect the antique buggies, wagons, and early fire engine that our ancestors considered state-of-the art-conveyances. Kids can clamber over a wagon and play in a tepee. Changing exhibitions include the second Biennale Grande, a juried fine-art competition honoring contemporary visual arts of the American West. It runs until July 15. 26301 Hwy. 70 W.; (575) 378-4142; www.hubbardmuseum.org.