Many municipalities in America are named for weather phenomena: Sun City, Ariz., and Snow, Okla.; Winter, Wis., and Spring, Texas; Cyclone, Penn., and Tornado, W.Va.
Two towns in New Mexico — Angel Fire and Cloudcroft — share that distinction, their names derived from early observations about the sky under which they repose.
Angel Fire, population 1,052, is a relative newcomer as a New Mexico municipality, only taking shape in the 1960s as a resort area providing a variety of outdoor activities, such as hunting, fishing and skiing.
The area was first populated by nomadic Native American tribes who, according to legend, were so taken by the stunningly brilliant reds and oranges of the morning and evening skies, which lit up Agua Fria Peak (one of the state’s highest mountains), they called the location “the fire of the gods.”
Centuries later, Franciscan friars passed through and renamed the area “the place of the fire of angels.” The current moniker, Angel Fire, was coined in 1845 by frontiersman Kit Carson.
In 1864 Lucien B. Maxwell, the most prodigious land grant owner in U.S. history, acquired full rights to 1.7 million acres of Angel Fire, which at the time consisted only of pasture and Indian hunting grounds.
Three years later, gold was discovered on nearby Baldy Mountain, triggering the influx of 7,000 fortune hunters within a year’s time. Maxwell was unable to evict the trespassers, who established a rowdy mining town and engaged in violent skirmishes for decades with private landowners.
In 1918 two ranch owners constructed a dam on the Cimarron River and stocked the resulting lake with trout, attracting not only fishermen but also entrepreneurs who leveraged the natural beauty of the place into a modest tourist destination.
Two investors from Texas purchased 23,000 acres of the original Maxwell Land Grant to develop a resort community, which they dubbed Angel Fire. Construction began in 1966 on ski trails, a nine-hole golf course and lakeside accommodations. Further development continued apace, and the population grew more than 1,000%, from 93 residents in 1990 to 1,048 in 2000, where the census count has hovered since.
Every Father’s Day weekend, the town hosts a festival, releasing hot-air balloons against the fiery sky at sunrise.
Cloudcroft, a village of 713 residents in the Lincoln National Forest, sits at 8,676 feet, one of the highest elevations in the United States.
At such an elevation, clouds often quite literally settle at ground level, depicting the image inherent in the name: “a pasture for the clouds.” The name, suggested by a rail line survey crew in 1898, was also bestowed to promote the majestic beauty of the location near a summit in the Sacramento Mountains.
In 1899, a year before the railway reached Cloudcroft, developers built accommodations for the anticipated tourists. The Pavilion consisted of a dining room, kitchen, parlor, entertainment hall and 40 tents set on wooden platforms. The Lodge, an upscale alternative to The Pavilion, was also constructed.
Before the rail line arrived in 1900, tourists arrived by stagecoach. When the railroad was completed, a depot was built next to The Pavilion, and the village busied itself welcoming the three trains that arrived each day.
In 1909 and twice during the 1920s, The Lodge burned down and was rebuilt each time according to the original blueprints.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, visitors included Clark Gable, Judy Garland and Gilbert Roland. Other notables included Mexican Revolutionary general Pancho Villa and hotelier Conrad Hilton.
Before long, though, automobiles outstripped passenger railways in utility and popularity, and the Cloudcroft rail line slipped into disuse. Passenger service stopped in 1938, and the last freight train rumbled into town in 1947. Tourism migrated to town along Highway 82, Cloudcroft’s main thoroughfare.
Cloudcroft hosts three annual festivals featuring local arts and crafts, live entertainment and family activities and competitions: May Fair, held Memorial Day weekend; July Jamboree, held the weekend after July 4; and Oktoberfest, the town’s yearly farewell to the traditional tourist season.