In the great wide open places, I can see the forever.
The sky enfolds you, and then you are inside it. Whatever small place you came from is no more because you are part of that sky and the big beyond, and the rest isn’t important.
When the Spanish first rode into this valley in northern New Mexico, they called it Piedre Lumbre — the shining stone. Ghost Ranch is a part of territory known as the Piedre Lumbre land grant.
In March, I visited Ghost Ranch on a day trip from Santa Fe. I was so immediately taken with the physical beauty of the valley that I stayed two days, then returned a month later for a full week. Once the red rocks are part of you, you will always go back, always seek out these places.
On my first night back, I spent time thinking about where I wanted to shoot at sunrise, and decided on the cabin which has been used in a number of films. I set my alarm for early — then made the mistake of hitting the snooze button. Twice, I think. Then it was rush, rush, rush! Make quick coffee, grab my gear, and hit it.
Grey morning light, coffee threatening to splash out of the paper cup, and I drive down off the mesa. But I want to see that first warm light break across the grass. To see the light on the little cabin and the Pedernal.
It was a damned cold morning, but you can’t manipulate camera controls with your gloves on. Just doesn’t work. Oddly, after shooting for thirty minutes, my fingers were so frozen they didn’t work anyway. I sat on my hands in the car for a few minutes and drank cold coffee.
I got back out, and went back at it for another twenty minutes before heading to breakfast.
This shot was my favorite. I liked the way the cabin’s roof line and chimney ran along with the Pedernal and the mountains lining the horizon.
The black and white version (above) worked best for me, but the color image is good as well, the grass golden in the morning light — and the whole thing seeming much warmer than it felt!
I love the editing process — dumping everything into the computer and having a look in LightRoom.
But here’s the trick. You only get to pick one picture. Maybe two. I remember the days of watching a neighbor’s slide show from a trip. Some of you know what I’m talking about — when you had to sit and watch 200 slides. Seemed like 20,000. Let me slit my wrists with a dull butter knife! No one wants to see all of those pictures — I don’t care where you went! Pick a small group of images that tell the story.
So, what is Ghost Ranch?
It’s surprising how few people know anything about Ghost Ranch.
I was talking to someone the other day who didn’t know who Georgia O’Keeffe was. “I’ve just come back from Ghost Ranch.”
“Was it scary?”
I cocked my head to the side. “No . . . you know — it’s the place that Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted.”
“Who is Georgia O’Keeffe?”
I blinked. As someone with a degree in Art History, I forget that knowledge of artists, even major ones, isn’t a given. So I told her, and looked up several paintings on my phone so that she could see.
“Oh, yeah. I’ve seen that one before.”
Seen that one before . . .
The history of Ghost Ranch is a rich one — whether you want to talk about the dinosaurs that roamed here in the Triassic period, the native peoples who lived here before the arrival of the Spanish, or the murderous, cattle-rustling Archuleta brothers of the late 1800’s when the property was known as the Rancho de los Brujos — Ranch of the Witches.
The two museums on the ranch, Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology, and Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, help tell the stories of the dinosaurs and the native peoples who lived on this land. For the soap-opera stories of the cattle rustlers, you could take the History Tour, or pick up the Ghost Ranch book by Lesley Poling-Kempes from the trading post.
By the time Georgia O’Keeffe first found her way to Ghost Ranch in 1934, it was owned by Arthur Pack and operated as a dude ranch, much to O’Keeffe’s chagrin.
Georgia was so taken with the landscape that she put up with the dudes and dudettes, renting a little cottage the first year, and then the house called Ranchos de los Burros which was further removed from the other guests. O’Keeffe finally bought the house and the few acres around it from Arthur Pack in 1940.
Later in his life, Arthur Pack donated Ghost Ranch (over 21,000 acres) to the Presbyterian Church, and it has operated retreat center for more than fifty-five years.
So, you’re making a trip to New Mexico, and you want to tour the house where Georgia O’Keeffe lived?
Which one? There is definitely some confusion about the difference between Ghost Ranch, and the O’Keeffe houses.
You can visit O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu, but only on a guided tour through the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. If you want to do the Abiquiu house tour, contact the Museum the minute you know you’re going. I’ve been to New Mexico twice in two months, and still have not gotten to see the house.
O’Keeffe’s house at Ghost Ranch is owned by the O’Keeffe museum as well, but is not currently open to the public. At some point in the future, the Museum indicates it will be, but there is no firm date set. You can see her Ghost Ranch house from a distance on one the the O’Keeffe tours.
O’Keeffe Landscape Tours
In 2004, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum put on an exhibition called Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place. A book by Barbara Buehler Lynes of the same name was also published in 2004.
Public interest in being in the landscapes that the artist painted grew.
Suddenly people were showing up at Ghost Ranch wanting to walk into the painting landscapes, which was both good and bad. Great because Ghost Ranch needs the income that visitors bring, and dangerous in the potential for destroying the red hills O’Keeffe painted.
The solution? Restrict public access to the O’Keeffe portion of the ranch. Why? If thousands of visitors go tromping up, over, around and through O’Keeffe’s red hills, they will no longer look the her hills. Footprints in this dry landscape take months, sometimes years to disappear.
I applaud Ghost Ranch for working to preserve this special place. There are only three ways to see this part of the ranch: on horseback, on a small shuttle bus, or on a walking tour. These tours limit impact by either staying on the gravel road (shuttle bus), or following two standard, single file paths. The walking tour is limited to eight guests, and when I was there, only ran twice a week.
Each tour is a little different — obviously — but so is what you’ll see. I went on the shuttle bus tour three times. Yes, three. The light and clouds were different each time. Then I took the walking tour. Maybe next time, I’ll saddle up and head out on the trail ride . . . Read more about the O’Keeffe Landscape tours and horseback trail riding on the Ghost Ranch web site.
If you are only at Ghost Ranch for the day, the bus tour or the trail ride are your best options, since they run every day, and in the busy season, several times a day. On the bus tour, guests get out at several stops to take photographs
Georgia O’Keeffe and her relationship with her lover/mentor/husband/promoter Alfred Stieglitz is a fascinating part of the artist’s life.
If you don’t know much O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, there are a couple O’Keeffe biographies from which to choose. Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle is my favorite. Another to consider is Full Bloom by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp; this one a very full biography, but I find the writing style dull.
I also recommend watching the 2009 film Georgia O’Keeffe, starring Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz, and partially filmed at Ghost Ranch. It is as well done as a two hour bio-pic could be, in my opinion. O’Keeffe lived to be nearly one hundred years old, and this film would arguably have made a better mini-series to do justice to her life. I found Jeremy Irons particularly brilliant as Stieglitz.
Ghost Ranch Goes Hollywood
If you think that parts of Ghost Ranch seem familiar to you, well, you’re probably right.
Between 1985 and 2016, ten major motion pictures filmed in New Mexico used Ghost Ranch as a filming location. This doesn’t mean the entirety of each film was shot here; the amount of Ghost Ranch footage varies in each picture.
Movies that used Ghost Ranch as a location for for scenes include: Silverado (1985), Young Guns (1988), City Slickers (1991),Wyatt Earp (1994), All the Pretty Horses (2000), Missing (2003), 310 to Yuma (2007), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Cowboys & Aliens (2010), The Magnificent Seven (2016).
If you’re a movie buff, Ghost Ranch does give a Movie Location Tour, but it is by reservation only. Be sure to call a week or more before your visit to make the arrangements so you don’t miss out while you’re there. Summer is Ghost Ranch’s busiest season, so I’d plan even further even out if that’s when you are going to visit.
You do not need to go on the Movie Location Tour to see the City Slickers cabin (in the photographs above). That site is right off the dirt road leading into Ghost Ranch — so very easy access.
Ghost Ranch makes a great day trip from either Santa Fe or from Taos. I warn you, it’s very hard to leave Ghost Ranch after spending a single day, but it’s better than not seeing this beautiful place at all. From Santa Fe, it took me about one hour and fifteen minutes to reach Ghost Ranch. Google Maps show a drive time of 1.5 hours from Taos to Ghost Ranch. You’ll pay a $5 Conservation fee at the Welcome Center that gives you access to the ranch and the museums.
I’d plan on a full day. Read about the hikes, tours, and museums, and call ahead to reserve space if you choose to do a tour. Plan to have lunch (12:00 – 1:00) at the ranch, and possibly dinner as well, to give you as much time as possible to explore this special place.
Hiking at Ghost Ranch is a favorite past time for many people. Read about the different hiking trails on ranch’s website, and choose one that suits your abilities and time. Use the sign in sheet at the Welcome Center before you go and after you return. Borrow a walking stick.
Retreats and Workshops
Ghost Ranch has a full set of retreat and workshop offerings that run all year long. Whether you’re interested in spiritual retreats, an art, photography, or writing workshops, outdoor adventure, you almost certain to find one that you’d enjoy.
Accommodations and Food
You can stay at Ghost Ranch overnight — which I heartily recommend. There are a range of room types, some with shared restrooms, many with private restrooms. They also have a campground with spaces for both RVs and tents.
What are the rooms like? They are basic, but clean and comfortable. You need to remember this is a retreat center, not a hotel, and certainly not a resort. There are no televisions or in-room phones, and the only wi-fi at Ghost Ranch is in the Library. When you come here, it is to be with and in the amazing landscape.
One important thing to note: the rooms have heaters, but are NOT air-conditioned. In the summer, temperatures in the day are hot, but cool down to around 60 °F (15.5 °C) the evening (check average temperatures and rainfall for Abiquiu here).
What did I think about the rooms? I stayed two nights in March (Aspen building), and loved Ghost Ranch so much I returned for a full week in April (Coyote building, upper mesa). I had a sitting room and a bedroom. I was very comfortable, and I loved sitting outside my room in Coyote on the upper mesa and watching the sun go down while I had a drink. I will certainly return and stay again.
Personally, I would have a difficult time handling the heat in the summer. I like to retreat to my room during the afternoon, particularly in hot climates, to read, edit pictures, and write. I couldn’t do this here in the summer. I think the evenings would be fine, since the temperatures drop to near 60 °F, the windows are screened, and there are small fans. If lack of AC is a problem for you, then consider staying at the Abiquiu Inn.
The Dining Hall at Ghost Ranch serves three meals a day in a cafeteria set up. The menu changes daily. You buy meal tickets at the Welcome Center, and you can eat at the Dining Hall, even if you’re just at Ghost Ranch for a day trip. Meals are served for ONE hour only. Be sure you get the schedule at the Welcome Center, and be there, or be square!
The food is good, and there is plenty of it. The menus change daily. At dinner, the hot food line includes two main meal offerings, one of which is always vegetarian, along with vegetables. If you have problems with gluten or soy, or are vegan, please call Ghost Ranch directly to find out what options there are. At lunch, the main food line may have sandwich makings, or it may be a hot meal. There is always a good salad bar, and I saw vegetable proteins and cheese available each day I was there. At breakfast, the hot food line may feature an egg dish, or perhaps pancakes. There is always oatmeal, and cold cereal. At breakfast, the salad bar turns into a fruit bar that also has yogurt.
What more can I say? I found Ghost Ranch to be one of the most beautiful parts of New Mexico. I know I’ll return many times to this special place.
** It’s important to note that while the Presbyterian Church owns Ghost Ranch, it no longer contributes financially to support it. The Ghost Ranch Foundation is now responsible for care, preservation, and maintenance of the ranch and its facilities. Through out this article, I have linked to books at the Ghost Ranch trading post. If you are thinking about purchasing books on Ghost Ranch or Georgia O’Keeffe, please consider buying from the ranch website. To find out more about the Ghost Ranch Foundation, link here.