After a difficult 3-day journey from the east coast, our anticipation grew as we wound our way through the Piedra Lumbre basin on Route 84. The setting sun illuminated the red cliffs that line the road leading to Ghost Ranch. A tease of what’s to come. Nestled at the mouth of a canyon, the sprawling ranch is set against a stunning backdrop of iron-rich cliffs and multi-colored mesas.
A wood gate adorned with the iconic skull marks the entrance to Ghost Ranch. A signal, among many others, that we’ve arrived.
Decades of Inspiration
For more than three hundred years, Ghost Ranch has attracted people to the high desert of northern New Mexico. It has a rich, storied history that includes Spanish colonists, cattle rustlers, ghosts, wranglers and dudes, and more recently, nuclear scientists, movie stars, and artists. While their reasons for visiting have varied, they’ve all found inspiration at Ghost Ranch.
The current incarnation of the ranch came to be when owners, Arthur and Phoebe Pack, gifted the 21,000-acre property to the Presbyterian Church in 1955. Since then, the church has built an inclusive retreat and education center. Visitors from around the world come to create or to restore their spirit. More than 200 workshops are offered each year; topics range from plein air painting and pottery to geology and paleontology.
If you’ve heard of Ghost Ranch, it’s likely because of the American Artist, Georgia O’Keeffe. Her beautiful depictions of the high desert landscape brought fame to the ranch. From her first visit in 1934 and for decades after, she lovingly painted the surrounding mesas, mountains, arroyos, and cottonwoods.
But she is just one of many who has found inspiration in the rock and light that fill this valley. Each year, thousands visit the ranch. But despite its popularity and many guests, Ghost Ranch retains a sense of intimacy. The canyon walls and mesas feel close, both physically and spiritually. You feel as if you belong and that they also belong to you. After a couple days, the trails throughout the ranch became familiar and I felt at home in the canyon.
Ghost Ranch invites quiet reflection. Guests walk the paths quietly with their eyes riveted to the surroundings. Scattered throughout the grounds are chairs and benches that allow you to soak in the spectacular landscape. It’s not uncommon to find someone perched on a bench, painting the multi-colored Orphan Mesa or the cottonwoods that line the creek bed.
Cerro Pedernal, a 9,862-foot butte in the Jemez mountain range, towers over the Piedra Lumbre basin like a silent, dark sentry. Views of Pedernal can be found from almost every corner of Ghost Ranch. Clouds frequently hover over the butte and shroud it in darkness. While the valley glows at sunset, light never seems to reach Pedernal’s slopes. A favorite subject of O’Keeffe, she painted Pedernal many times throughout her life. She loved it so much that she is quoted as saying “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
Like O’Keeffe, I felt drawn to the dark mountain. Always present, it silently watched over us as we explored the valley.
Hiking at Ghost Ranch
There are nine trails that traverse Ghost Ranch. Some of the trails (Pack Memorial, Mesa, and the On a Lark) are short and meander through the main building complex. As you explore Ghost Ranch, you’ll use these trails on a daily basis. The Pack Memorial and Mesa trails take you to the top of the small mesa that is within the canyon, which is a great vantage point to view the valley. If you’re up for a longer hike and want to explore the depths of Ghost Ranch, I recommend hiking Matrimonial Mesa, Chimney Rock, Box Canyon, or the Kitchen Mesa trail. Visit the Ghost Ranch website for more information on how to access these trails. Also, when at the ranch, the information desk can give you a printed aerial map to aid your hike.
Chimney Rock Trail:
This short 3-mile roundtrip hike is the most popular trail at Ghost Ranch. It’s easy to see why. The trail climbs from 6,500 to 7,100 feet to the top of a butte that provides stunning views of the Piedra Lumbre basin, including Abiquiu Reservoir.
Ominous clouds in the distance made me hesitant to hike the trail, but I’m so glad that I did. The first half mile was gray and gloomy, but then the wind broke apart the clouds and radiant light shined on the valley. While the storms put a damper on some of our explorations, they also blessed us with magnificent rainbows, stunning cloud formations, and an unforgettable sunset.
In my next article, I’ll share more about the habitat types and plants at Ghost Ranch.
A short trail that starts behind the dining hall quickly immerses you in the rolling red mounds that are at the foot of the sandstone cliffs. The trail weaves through the mounds and climbs to the top of several, giving you up-close views of the Orphan Mesa and the Piedra Lumbre basin. While close to the ranch, once you cross the arroyo and enter the red mounds, you forget that the ranch is nearby. I hiked this on two occasions and saw only one other person.
I recommend hiking this trail at the end of the day. As the sun sets, the mounds glow a fiery red and bath you in the reflected light. Because it’s so close to the ranch, you can easily stay to watch a famous New Mexico sunset and head back before it’s too dark.
Plan Your Visit
Ghost Ranch offers a variety of accommodations to visitors. Throughout the grounds are small cabins or larger dorm-style housing. For those of you traveling with an RV, they also have a campground. Nestled in a small box canyon, the campground has both full hook-up sites and dry sites. If you’re looking for more privacy, you should opt for a dry site. They’re set further back in the canyon among the trees. The full hook-up sites are located in the middle of the campground and you can pull through several of the sites. They don’t offer as much privacy, but in early May, we had the campground almost to ourselves.