Although Ghost Ranch has been open to the public as a source of recreation for local communities and travelers since the early1900s, there are still many people, both locals and visitors, who don’t know about all it has to offer. It has been known as Georgia O’Keeffe Country for decades, but the beloved artist owned only a tiny portion of the vast 21,000 acres of varied and beautiful terrain. Its colorful Chinle rock formations and mesas are rich in history, dating back to the Triassic period (210 million years ago) when dinosaurs roamed the earth and New Mexico, along with the rest of the U.S., was located near the equator. The sweltering, humid, swampy landscape was home to the Coelophysis (Seel-oh-FY-sis) and other species of small carnivorous dinosaur.
There are two small museums on the property, one dedicated to the archeology of the area, the other to its paleontology. Paleontologists worldwide know Ghost Ranch to be one of the richest dinosaur quarries in the world. There was a “plate” of bones uncovered below Kitchen Mesa, just a short walk from the main buildings. Numerous skeletal remains were unearthed. Crushed together, it’s a jigsaw puzzle of bones, as if a flood or earthquake had caught a herd off-guard and trapped them for all time in the soft, pink rock.
First known as Rancho de los Brujos (Ranch of the Witches), the homestead of Ghost Ranch has a wild and wending history that begins in the late 1800s with the dangerous, cattle-rustling Archuleta brothers. They named it Rancho de los Brujos — which served as a deterrent to anyone curious enough to wander onto the property. The Archuletas stole cattle and livestock and hid them in Box Canyon behind the ranch. The canyon was an ideal corral. It offered no way out without being seen as well as a source of fresh water for the cattle. It is said that those who tried to reclaim their livestock were killed by the Archuletas and buried in the area. The whistling winds blowing up the canyon walls were rumored by locals to be the cries of those unfortunate souls.
By the time Georgia O’Keeffe found her way to the ranch in 1934, it had been sold to Carol Stanley, who gradually sold it off in parcels to Arthur Pack. It was being operated as a dude ranch when O’Keeffe arrived. Pack wrote about his years on this land in two books, We Called It Ghost Ranch and The Ghost Ranch Story. The reclusive O’Keeffe wasn’t keen on the dude ranch idea, but she was happy to install herself in Ghost House for the duration of the summer. In 1940 Pack sold her his own ranch house, “Rancho de los Burros”– and 7 surrounding acres. Now, you can ride horses to the house, along a trail that leads you through the valley, under the watchful eye of Chimney Rock.
Our guide and veteran horseman Robbie Carter was a wealth of information on some of O’Keeffe’s favorite painting subjects. Before we set off he showed us a portfolio of many of her paintings of the area so we could spot them during the ride.
The trail winds around the undulating Lavender Hills, through the bright red pasture O’Keeffe called “My Back Yard,” and past her house that faces her favorite mountain: Cerro Pedernal. She called it her “private mountain,” and she said, “God told me that if I painted it often enough I could have it.”
On horseback I had an elevated peek at O’Keeffe’s summer house and its view. It’s easy to imagine becoming hypnotized by the mountainous table of Pedernal rising above the serene waters of Abiquiu Lake. This house is not open to the public, so I felt lucky to be able to get this close to it. I’m told it remains exactly as she left it.
Beyond the great artists’ pervasive influence on the minds of visitors, today Ghost Ranch is a veritable playground for kids and adult lovers of the outdoors. In 1955, Pack gave the ranch to the Presbyterian Church with the understanding that they would not develop it, ensuring its pristine land remains a natural preserve. The nonprofit organization now offers a plethora of activities including geology, paleontology and archeology tours, hiking, horse riding, art, history, astronomy, archery, spiritual retreats of various doctrines, yoga retreats, and even high and low ropes courses, to mention a few. Guests can choose from an extensive calendar of workshops, classes and outdoor activities throughout the year.
It’s an easy 50-mile drive north of Santa Fe, but an entire day may not be enough to experience it all. No problem – they have lodging facilities from dorm-style to guest suites. There is a cafeteria which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and accommodates both meat eaters and vegetarians with a couple of well-thought-out options. Breakfast is only $8 per person, lunch $10, and dinner $12.
For day visitors there is a $3 conservation fee, which grants you entry to both the paleontology and archeology museums, access to hiking trails and all public areas of the ranch. And the outdoor areas are pet friendly (dogs must be leashed). The fee for commercial tours/groups is $5 per person and the guide is free. If you wish to participate in a scheduled activity, call ahead to let them know you’re coming. (505) 685-4333.
The guides at Ghost Ranch are well-versed in the vast history and flora and fauna of the area, which makes the numerous variety of hikes and trail tours they offer all the more fascinating. You are free to roam around by yourself if you wish, but one word of caution they share is that if you’re hiking unguided, you must sign in at the Welcome Center and sign out when you leave. I would recommend being guided, so you can find your way around to the most interesting points, and learn a lot more than you’d expect, and because it is surprisingly easy to get spun around and lost.
After spending an entire day at the ranch, I returned home with the knowledge that I would sleep like a baby after a lovely, long day’s adventure, and feeling inspired to return to spend more time. Perhaps I’ll take a class, or maybe do a yoga retreat, or just spend a nice quiet weekend away from the bustle of the norm.
What to Bring:
Whatever the time of year, bring a hat for shade, sunglasses, and wear light layers in the summer, such as t-shirt, shorts, and light jacket, and sensible hiking shoes. Remember, that in the summer there may be brief monsoons in the afternoons. For spring, fall and winter the only difference would be your layers are warmer. Always bring water! Chapstick and sunscreen are strongly advised.
For more information and links to Ghost Ranch’s calendar of events, classes and workshops etc., go to: http://www.santafeselection.com/day-trips/ghost-ranch