Junebug Day 9: Ghost Ranch

June 22, 2012

Gentle readers: I think you’ll find this was worth the wait…it took awhile to get a chance to edit all of the beautiful photos and several video clips from my hike at Ghost Ranch last week. And this isn’t quite all yet…there is still one last post forthcoming from Operation Junebug.

Chimney Rock (click image for slideshow)

On the penultimate day of Operation Junebug, the Little Sand fire drove me south from Pagosa Springs towards Santa Fe. I’ve driven this route a few times now, and had pondered, noticing the beautiful colors of the rocks, stopping in to hike at Ghost Ranch. That ranch now occupies 21,000 acres which are part of the old Piedra Lumbre or “Valley of the Shining Stone” land grant of almost 50,000 acres from the King of Spain to Pedro Martin Serrano in 1766.

Ghost Ranch History

The history of this parcel is interesting; I read all about it in a copy of Lesley Poling-Kempes’ Ghost Ranch, which I bought at the Welcome Center. The ranch used to be known locally as Rancho de los Brujos or “Ranch of the Witches” because it was homesteaded by two Archuleta brothers who used the narrow canyon as a holding pen for their cattle rustling operation. They were unfriendly to locals and suspected of murdering passersby. In the end one of the brothers killed the other over some hidden gold from the sale of stolen cattle. The dead brother’s widow and daughter fled the area and locals moved in and hanged the remaining Archuleta brother and his henchmen.

Several decades passed and in the 1920s the location was developed as a dude ranch by Carol Bishop Stanley, who later partnered with and eventually sold out to Arthur Pack, a noted conservationist. He donated the ranch to the Presbyterian Church in 1955 and it has been a retreat and conference center ever since. The ranch is most famous as artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s summer home for decades, the area serving as the inspiration for many of her paintings.

I knew there were several hiking trails at Ghost Ranch which were open to the public, but they were shut down in the summer of 2011 by area fires. Fires are again ravaging areas of Colorado and New Mexico this summer, but at this time the trails at Ghost Ranch were open and would serve as a substitute for my intended hike along the Piedra River trail 100 miles to the north.

Ghost Riders

Registration and Lunch

A two-hour drive southeast on US 84 took me from the smoke-hazed mountains around Pagosa Springs to the Ghost Ranch gate, decorated with the ox skull emblem associated with the Ranch. O’Keeffe was drawn to animal bones as subjects and the skulls of horses, cows, and the like for many years served as a marker for the turnoff for the ranch back when this area had nothing but rough dirt roads. One of O’Keeffe’s neighbors at the Ranch, a Navajo named Juan de Dios, had a pet steer and she made him promise to give him the skull whenever it died. He followed through on the promise, she sketched it, gave the sketch to Arthur Pack, and that became the logo for the Ranch.

Soon after entering you see a wood cabin to the side of the road, left over from when the movie City Slickers was filmed at the ranch in 1991. The unpaved road leads a mile northeast towards the striped cliffs of the narrow canyon where the main facilities are located. I immediately spotted Chimney Rock, the target for my first hike, and when I parked at the Welcome Center two young ladies on horseback rode by, stopping over at the Dining Hall.

Registering to hike for a day at the ranch costs $3, but clearly the whole place runs on the honor system. Although almost everyone wore badges as attendees for various conferences, no one ever asked to see my receipt or ticket, even when I went to the Dining Hall to join in the cafeteria-style lunch, for which I’d paid an extra $7. The ranch serves thousands of meals each week and my lunch of area-grown vegetables and chicken was tasty.

Video of the Riders

Outside the ladies were practicing with their horses and, as I walked over to the Chimney Rock trailhead, I passed the colorful statue Ghost Ranch Ponyscapes by Claudia Tommen, Pomona Hallenbeck, and Leonard Morfin at the Ranch’s Agape Center. It is decorated with the image of Cerro Pedernal, the sharp and narrow mesa jutting up 12 miles southwest of the Ranch, of which Georgia O’Keeffe said, “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”

Chimney Rock Trail

I walked over to the Chimney Rock trailhead, where a cholla cactus was in bloom. My target was in plain sight, but its outsize proportions made it seem closer than it was; it was over a mile walk from the trailhead up to the formation. The trail led through a gate and then made a steep climb to a higher level, from which I shot a panorama illustrating how the ranch buildings are nestled down in the canyon and thus detract less from the views.


Still higher up I shot a 360-degree panorama, showing Chimney Rock, the mesa next to it tapering off to form the western edge of the canyon, the mesa protruding through the ranch, the Kitchen and Orphan mesas on the east side of the canyon, and the open view across the Piedra Lumbre with Cerro Pedernal projecting upward in the distance beyond the shining waters of the Abiquiu Reservoir.

The view out across the Piedra Lumbra was truly beautiful, as were the colorful layers of stone exposed by the ravine. The trail led up beside the ravine, providing a sweeping view down it of the mesas forming the eastern side of the canyon and the strip of green down below from the Rito del Yeso, the little stream which provides the water making a ranch here in the desert feasible.

The Piedra Lumbre

I passed through an upper gate and climbed up to the top of the mesa, the last section of which eroded away to form Chimney Rock. Now I had a higher sweeping view across the Valley of Shining Stone of the Jemez Mountains, with the twin stubs of Chimney Rock looking out across at the tilted linear top of Cerro Pedernal. Someone had constructed a little pile of stones up here.

Up here I could get a view of the mesa cliffs on to the northwest of Chimney Rock, below which Arthur Pack built his Rancho de los Burros, which he later sold to Georgia O’Keeffe for use as a summer home. The Bob Johnson home, built by one of the Johnson & Johnson heirs, is also down there.

More Chimneys

I crossed a narrow saddle of rock between remnants of the mesa near Chimney Rock, peering down into the chasm, to make my closest approach to the formation. There I shot another large panorama and a separate view across the Piedra Lumbre.

The beautiful cliffs to the northwest had stunning colors and their own collection of smaller chimneys.

Chimney Rock Trail Videos

Video Panoramas

I shot some video panoramas from this beautiful walk.

I also appreciated the shadows slowly gliding across the Valley of Shining Stone, washing up and over the mesas at Ghost Ranch. Here’s a timelapse video of the cloud shadows; please forgive my lack of a tripod while filming.


Drummers Video

Strolling Across Campus

I descended the trail and crossed the campus, drawn by sound to one of the conference groups where some were drumming in the shade of a giant tree. I ventured into the Welcome Center for a much-appreciated ice cream bar, which I consumed outside on a free chair under one of the trees. I then walked past several casitas, small houses for guests. There are many more rooms higher up on the mesa. I walked past the rebuilt Ghost House, which dates back to the Archeluta brothers in 1881, the last of whom ended his life being hung from a tree outside. Now that I know the history of this place, on my next visit I shall venture inside the historic structure.

Kitchen Mesa

I was following my map and trail signs far up one of the ranch roads to the Box Canyon trailhead, which adjoins the Kitchen Mesa trailhead, a trail I look forward to traversing in the future. I passed Kitchen Mesa itself, with its side dimple, and passed the trail leading off to climb it. I passed by little Navajo-style hogans built under the direction of Jim Hall, the late great director of the Ghost Ranch Conference Center. They don’t rent these out – they are very short and small and you’d feel rather ascetic if you stayed in one.


Box Canyon Trail

At last I reached the gate for the Box Canyon trail. Ahead of me was the edge of the mesa, below which is the ranch’s Camposanto, a memorial area set below this striking prominence. There is a prominent curving wall of plaques with an altar and there are also numerous individual sites scattered about the area.

I followed a marker out of the Camposanto area to the first of a series of coffee can trail markers, under the pipe taking water from the Rito del Yeso to the irrigation pond and through a gate to follow the Rito del Yeso’s carved channel along the very narrow box canyon.

A sign pointed out an eagles’ nest tucked into a slot high up into the canyon wall. A landslide tumbled large boulders all over the creek bed near and around a small pool. I approached a huge rock and was startled when a large young black man came bounding and sliding over the rock, landing a few feet in front of me. We both laughed and I remarked he had made quite an entrance! He was with a group of conference-goers who were returning from their hike up the canyon.

A long knotted rope was anchored on the large rock to allow hikers to scramble up and down it to continue the hike. I posed on the rock with the rope. It doesn’t look that steep in the photo, but without the rope I’d never attempt crawling up its smooth flat face: that rope was about as close as I get to rock climbing.

Box Canyon

The canyon walls were jagged from erosion through here, with fallen trees and boulders in the narrow channel. And then I reached the scooped-out end of the box canyon. It took some navigating about the rocks, but I could climb around to the level oasis at its head. The scene was like a smaller and drier version of Hemmed-In Hollow in Arkansas.

A large flat rock, which I first posed upon to provide some scale, was a welcome spot to rest and enjoy a drink as I craned my head to look around this hollow and gaze up at the tall trees above me. I then made my way back down the channel of the Rito del Yeso, deviating at one point to follow a side channel, which led past stone portals looking down into the irrigation system.

A Promise to Return

As I walked back to my car, I stopped to shoot a cholla cactus bloom in front of Kitchen Mesa, promising myself that in some future summer I would return to Ghost Ranch and hike the Kitchen Mesa trail. I was tired but happy after seven miles of more strenuous hiking than I had expected, still up high at 6,500 to 7,000 feet of elevation. I passed the Agape Center, pondering how the welcoming people I’d met here illustrated that concept in their love of this place and their love for others. Ghost Ranch is truly a special place, way out there in what Georgia O’Keeffe called the Faraway Nearby. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in love – of places and people.

A Promise

The Luxx

The Luxx

I drove south to Santa Fe. The road felt like it was descending all of the way from Abiquiu, but the terrain map says otherwise. A couple of the blocks from the historic Plaza was the Luxx Hotel & Casitas, an obscure boutique hotel I’d selected because of its privacy and access to downtown. For parts of the day there is no one on duty at this hotel, although Alex was there in the interior courtyard to check me in that evening. The rooms are left open when unoccupied, allowing you to browse the corridors and see the individualized décor in each one. Mine had an African theme with zebra and leopard prints, grasses, and warm colors throughout. I noted the desk where I’d no doubt spend much time blogging during my two-night stay.

The Plaza

I showered and dressed to walk over to the Plaza, where the Vintage Car Club’s Cruise Night was underway. A yellow Triumph was catching everyone’s eye and there was dancing on the pavilion. I strolled over to La Fonda‘s La Plazuela for some delicious fajitas and a sopapilla, content in my plan to not drive the car at all on my next and final tour day of Operation Junebug. I’d spend Saturday enjoying Santa Fe…on foot.

Plaza Dancers Video

Click here for a slideshow from this day hike

Junebug Day 10: On Foot in Santa Fe >

< Junebug Day 8: Silver Thread Scenic Byway

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
This entry was posted in day hike, photos, travel, video. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Junebug Day 9: Ghost Ranch

  1. Greg S. says:

    What an outstanding way to start the morning at the office….living vicariously through your post. The girls and I love your quality pics and shared commitment to get out there and we’re looking forward to your next update.

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