Discover 21,000 acres of enchanting mystery at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico
Tucked against the dramatic backdrop of northern New Mexico’s vast and towering landscape lies the legendary Ghost Ranch. A place whose 21,000 acres of red rock canyons, mountain vistas and bucolic lowlands are bathed in a rich precolonial cultural history dating back through 8000 years of habitation. There are few other places anywhere in the west whose pedigree in history is as genuine, mysterious or as notable as the Ghost Ranch’s. Open year round, the ranch’s iconic entrance gate has been welcoming travelers for well over 55 years.
I came to the Ghost Ranch this past winter on a friend’s recommendation. She had visited the Ranch many years ago for a spiritually therapeutic retreat, leveraging the sublime landscape to ease a busy mind. As a fan of the southwest, I was certain that I would like the place, but there would be no way for me to forecast how much I would succumb to the people and landscape of the Ghost Ranch by the time I left.
Not far from the towns of Abiquiu, Taos, and Santa Fe – the Ghost Ranch is part historic western dude ranch, educational campus, religious retreat, scientific centerpiece, art enclave, and comfortable getaway. I had no idea that such a deceptively modest place could offer so much in so many ways to so many people – all while maintaining its original authenticity and rustic patina. My experience there would be quick, but it would be studded with a tapas style sampling of much of what the Ghost Ranch has to offer.
Day 1 at Ghost Ranch
My stay kicked off with a quick meet and greet with the welcoming staff at the Visitor’s Center. From there we walked over to visit each of the Ranch’s two museums where curators would help me peel back several layers of interesting legacy. It wasn’t long before I realized just how deep the ranch’s scientific contribution goes, or that some of the West’s most iconic artists once called this place home, or that the Ranch’s own history would be so richly textured with mystery, intrigue and rebirth.
Between the two, the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology is designed for dinosaur enthusiasts young and old, and features many of the excavated skeletons from the ranch’s very own population of Triassic age dinos. Named Coelophysis – it is a theropod that lived approximately 203 to 196 million years ago. It was a small, slender-built, ground-dwelling, carnivore, that could grow up to 10 ft. long. So important was the discovery, that the ranch continues to operate as one of the Nation’s key Triassic archeological sites, with some of its 500+ pits still active in the academic community.
After the museums, I was whisked away for a walking tour of the campus’ dozen or so buildings. Our first stop was at the oldest building on the property. Here is where the Archuleta brothers, who were law breaking cattle thieves in the 1880’s built their home and based their illegal operations out of. They originally named the area “Ranchos De Los Brujos” or Ranch of the Witches, hoping it would bolster rumors of evil spirits haunting the valley and discourage their neighbors from snooping around (the name would later evolve into Ghost Ranch when it changed hands). It wasn’t long before one of the brothers got a little greedy and double crossed the other, leading to his untimely death. Now a murderer, the remaining Archuleta brother was eventually tracked down by the law and hung in front of his own house… hence the name, Ghost House. And yes, you can stay in the Ghost House if you are so inclined.
After the walking tour we boarded a small bus and took off for an hour long guided exploration of the grounds surrounding the campus – retracing the paintings of the artist and ‘Mother of American Modernism,’ Georgia O’Keeffe. While the Ghost Ranch has certainly inspired many artists over the years, it arguably had the most impact on O’Keeffe and her work. Already a well-known American artist at the time, it was New Mexico’s landscapes, many of which she painted while at the Ghost Ranch, that she later became internationally famous for. Knowledgeable visitors can look around and identify many of the scenes she painted. Red and gray hills like those across from the roadside park south of the Ranch headquarters were frequent subjects. Kitchen Mesa at the upper end of the valley is an example of the red and yellow cliffs she painted many times. Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain to the south, was probably her favorite subject. “It’s my private mountain,” she said. “God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it.” And of course, the Ghost Ranch logo, used on everything from stationary to T-shirts, was adapted from an O’Keeffe drawing the artist had given to Arthur Pack in the 1930′s.” So inspired by the area that she would eventually leave New York and move to the area permanently in the late 1940’s.
With the dinner hour quickly approaching, I met with the staff again and joined them for dinner at the ranch’s large communal dining hall. We had a well prepared meal of fresh greens and traditional green chili posole and shared a table with a couple of ranch hands, a tour guide, the Director of Marketing and a few tourists for casual conversation about the day’s experiences. It seemed that everyone, whether they were longtime residents or just visitors, shared a similar enchantment by the beguiling landscape. After dinner I departed for a quick nighttime hike – taking in a diamond encrusted night sky and the calm, quiet space.
We stayed in the Library Building. Built in the 1930’s by Robert Woods Johnson of Johnson & Johnson fame, their family vacationed here often during the years when the place was a guest/dude ranch. Authentically southwest in its decor, the room was comfortable and was outfitted with two queen beds and its own private bath. Accommodations at the ranch vary from historic originals like my own to newer quarters built atop the mesa behind the campus. The Ghost Ranch’s accommodations, while basic, offer many options depending on your taste and needs. All however are thoroughly clean and completely restful.
Day 2 at Ghost Ranch
We woke to another gorgeous New Mexico morning. Breakfast was served in the Dining Hall and was more than adequate to prepare us for the day’s highly anticipated horseback ride. The hour+ long guided horseback ride would take me across Matrimony Mesa beside the Ranch – advertised excitedly by the staff as a genuine treat. In the late morning sun, our group gathered at the stables where we met our guides and horses. The guides were extremely friendly, vastly knowledgeable about the area, and first rate horse handlers who loved their jobs as much as they loved the animals.
Casually trotting along the trail, with commanding views of the campus below to our right and the massive sweeping vistas of red stained cliff-faces to our left, we learned more about the Ghost Ranch’s history. Keeping us to the highlights – the guide mentioned that the Ranch was originally part of the Piedra Alumbre (Shining Rock) Land Grant, given to Pedro Martin Serrano from the Spanish King Charles III in 1766. For the next hundred years the land was generally used for cattle grazing, game hunting, and trade routes. After the cattle rustling Archuleta Brothers in the mid 1800’s, the Ranch would change hands several more times – once even through a lost poker bet. Our guide continued the story through the 1940s, 50s and into the present where we learned that the ranch has also been used in several Hollywood movies including City Slickers, Cowboys and Aliens, No Country for Old Men, 3:10 to Yuma, an Indiana Jones movie, and the 2016 Magnificent 7 remake. We eventually looped our way back to the stables, dismounted in a fashionably novice technique, thanked our trusty steeds for their labor, and bid a fond farewell to the guides.
By the time we reached the end of the ride, my time was coming to a close. I shared one last meal with the staff, thanked everyone for their hospitality, said my goodbyes to the Ghost Ranch’s stunning surrounds and made my way back home. No longer than 5 minutes down the road, I felt the tidal pull of the Ghost Ranch on my psyche. The people, property, landscape, history, and art all combine in a unique way there, creating something indescribably special and real.
Find out more
To learn more about the Ghost Ranch or book reservations on classes, retreats, tours and accommodations, be sure to visit their website or call ahead. You can also discover more information about the Ranch’s famous dinosaurs, horseback rides, Georgia O’Keeffe’s life there, and info on the Ranch’s numerous hiking trails.