The stunning canyon and cliff country of New Mexico’s Ghost Ranch has ensnared some of the greatest artists of the 20th century for good reason. Ansel Adams captured the landscapes on his large-format cameras. The most famous female artist of the 20th century, Georgia O’Keeffe, made the ranch her home for the last decades of her life.
I could see why she found the space so inspiring and why filmmakers continue to gravitate toward locations in the area. While I was there a short time on a press trip, it was long enough to experience the power of the scenery and get a sense of adventure. I’d like to join those who return often to learn in workshops and rejuvenate at retreats. Here are 17 reasons to visit Ghost Ranch during your New Mexico vacation, inspired by my press trip experiences and subsequent research.
1. Follow Georgia O’Keeffe’s Footsteps
Georgia O’Keeffe painted the hills, bones, and stone walls relentlessly and over decades at Ghost Ranch. She said that she worked at her home in Abiquiu but Ghost Ranch was where she lived. Fleeing the pressures and distractions of New York City, Georgia first visited friends who lived in New Mexico and then returned often.
This broad and barely accessible land gave her the space to focus on drawing and painting. Inspiration sprang from long walks exploring the canyons, rock formations, and distant mountains. I found that the very things which drew O'Keeffe to the remote landscape remain for the rest of us to enjoy. The current owners work to preserve both her legacy and the country that captured Georgia's heart.
2. Immerse Yourself In Local History
Ghost Ranch wasn't always so tranquil. At one time in the early 1800s, it was feared as Rancho de los Brujos (Ranch of the Witches). People disappeared in the recesses of the stone formations that tower over the broad plains of the region. However, the frightening reputation was more by design than nature. Two bandit brothers, violent to their dusty boots, stole livestock and horses from nearby ranches then hid the animals in nearby Box Canyon until they could be sold. Anyone who came looking for their missing animals went missing themselves.
The subterfuge lasted until one brother was murdered in anger and his wife fled to the nearest village. She inspired a posse to find the survivor. Hanging Tree, which still stands over a small cabin in the center of the ranch, earned its name before the villagers returned home.
Carol Bishop Stanley eventually opened the acres to the public as a dude ranch and changed the name. Other families came and went until Georgia O'Keeffe landed there. By the time she passed, the dude ranch had become a retreat and adventure center. The energy of peace and contemplation still reigns over the rugged acres.
3. Enter The Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape
My introduction to Ghost Ranch was with a guide and motorbus ride to actual locations of O’Keeffe’s paintings. The enthusiastic guide expertly pointed out O’Keeffe’s favorite spots. It was thrilling to get off the bus and stand close to the same vistas framed in O’Keeffe’s masterpieces then get a glimpse of her home from a distance. There was ample time for questions as well.
Our guided walk took me through O’Keeffe’s backyard and past many of her painting locations. This activity is limited to eight guests, which makes it easy to learn about the history, plant life, geology, and culture of the area. I was glad to be wearing my walking shoes and to have filled up my water bottle before the trek. A fountain with filtered water is available inside the Visitor Center.
4. Spend A Wednesday With O’Keeffe
One of the highlights of this area is a chance to see O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu. There are Wednesday tours with pre-registration which start at the O’Keeffe Welcome Center near the Abiquiu Inn. While I couldn’t take pictures inside, it was still a thrill to walk through O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu house and have lunch before joining the O’Keeffe Landscape tour at Ghost Ranch. The tour returns to the Welcome Center, which has a great gift shop and screens a historical video.
5. Make The Most Of Art Intensives
Clay, glass, and other artistic workshops are offered as seasonal Art Escapes at the ranch. I spent a few hours one evening learning about painting and pastel with local artist Diane Arenberg and wished I was staying longer for her immersives. Most of her sessions run from a weekend to a week long. Other classes include Composition, Plein Air work, and critiques that culminate in a Masters' Show. The classes are held in the ranch’s Art Center. For more information, check the Ranch schedule.
6. Pay Your Respects At The Pack Memorial
One morning, I took a short walk from my comfortable lodging along the mesa trail behind the Ghost House to a stone memorial dedicated to Arthur and Phoebe Pack. Arthur Pack owned the ranch in its early days and negotiated with Georgia O’Keeffe on the sale of his first house. He bequeathed the ranch to the Presbyterian Church in 1955.
7. Take To The Trails
There are nine trails that crisscross the ranch campus. I wandered the land before the day's activities began. On my return trip, I’ll be certain to take the Kitchen Mesa Trail, a challenging five-mile loop with 600 feet of elevation. It rises to a lookout with views of the Piedra Lumbre basin and Mount Pedernal in the distance. Box Canyon Trail is an especially tempting four-mile round-trip trail that rises 500 feet while winding back and forth across the property’s central stream. The most popular trail to Chimney Rock is a challenging three-mile round trip walk that rises about 600 feet to the sculpted pinnacle.
8. Experience Retreats And Landscape Meditations
There are two labyrinths on the Ghost Ranch site. I found the main labyrinth near the central road along a path that begins at the Arts Center Building. The stone spiral is a tool for contemplation drawn from many traditions across the world. It was a lovely practice as the dawn’s light illuminated Orphan Mesa. There’s a second labyrinth at Casa del Sol. It weaves uniquely in and out of the Piedra Lumbre landscape. I also passed a ceremonial water wheel set along the trail between the Arts Center and the main labyrinth.
9. Enter A Karesansui Garden
As a fan of Japanese landscape design, I was thrilled to hear about this garden created of rock, gravel, and stone, which abstractly represent water and the elements. Typically, this type of garden is found near residences of Zen abbots. This Karensansui space is not allied with a residence but set independently near the main labyrinth at Ghost Ranch.
10. Visit A Monastery
The Monastery of Christ in the Desert is an autonomous abbey following the Benedictine traditions. It’s a quiet space with a guesthouse for private retreats. Both men and women are welcome to join the monks at Mass in the Abbey Church. Religious and artistic articles are available in the gift shop. The monastery is 15 miles northwest of Ghost Ranch.
11. Explore A Mosque Near Abiquiu
For over 40 years, Dar al Islam, a non-profit Islamic organization, has been committed to cultivating understanding, compassion, and empathy among non-Muslims and Muslims alike. The campus, which is near Abiquiu, hosts retreats and meetings in buildings designed by the world-renowned architect Hassan Fathy. Visit Dar al Islam’s website to arrange a visit. I was thrilled to discover that the Dar al Islam property contains The Black Place and The White Place, two paintings by O’Keeffe.
12. Tour The Ruth Hall Paleontology Museum At Ghost Ranch
Perhaps the ancient monsters that frightened the first inhabitants of Ghost Ranch were dinosaurs. Georgia O’Keeffe created notable paintings from more recent bones she collected at the ranch, and just north of the property is one of the best-known digs in the Northern Hemisphere. I could imagine joining one of the dig workshops and discovering remnants of creatures over 200 million years old. One new species, a small archdinosaur, was named Effigia (O’Keeffe’s Ghost). Even if you can’t join a dig, it’s exciting to get close to the bones and equipment inside the ranch’s small museum.
13. Anthropology Comes To Life In The Ranch Museum
The Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology, adjacent to the Ghost Ranch Visitor Center, is named for the woman who led a group of students to the world-class discovery of the largest collection of Gallina artifacts in the world. The museum displays other artifacts from Paleo Indian people who lived here 10,000 years ago in addition to current creations. It’s a small exhibit, but I was excited to learn about the ladies of the canyon via vintage pictures and artifacts from local pioneering women, including Ghost Ranch founder Carol Bishop Stanley.
14. Take A Trail Ride
Two ranch rides are inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe -- the Landscape Trail Ride and the Sunset Trail Ride. Riding a gentle steed through the low brush was a quiet joy. We stopped for pictures with the cliffs behind us and rode past O’Keeffe’s low adobe home. Our guide filled us in on the area’s history and colorful stories as we loped along. I’d love to return for a private ride up into the foothills one day.
15. Enjoy Water Fun
When the lifeguard is on duty, ranch guests can escape the desert heat in the immense, unheated pool next to the dining hall. I was there for cool fall days, so the pool wasn’t open. If I were there during the summer months, it would be such fun to kayak or canoe Abiquiu Lake. Swimming lessons and hikes can be arranged as well.
16. Challenge Yourself On A Ropes Course
As I entered the Ghost Ranch Property, we passed a loose grid of tall posts slung with ropes. High- and low-rope and wall-climbing activities are available during the summer when staffing allows. It’s easy to imagine how fun teamwork and problem-solving adventure courses can be.
17. Indulge In Self-Care And Body Work
Ghost Ranch’s nationally certified and licensed massage therapists offer integrative bodywork, massage, and spa treatments daily. Appointments must be made at the Welcome Center in advance. The treatments would make a welcome conclusion to long hikes and adventures at Ghost Ranch.
From a pure country experience to an artful retreat, I can see returning again and again for a Ghost Ranch vacation.