Kicks on 66, Day 8: Climbing Kitchen Mesa at Ghost Ranch

July 5, 2014

The eighth day of our big summer vacation was the climax. Or should I coin the term “climbmax” since we ascended Kitchen Mesa at Ghost Ranch?

Day 8 Map (click map for slideshow)

My first hikes at Ghost Ranch in June 2012 were stunning, and I outlined the history of the property in that post from two years back. I loved both the Chimney Rock and the Box Canyon trails, but did not have time to try the third major trail, which leads up to the top of Kitchen Mesa. A year later, I took Wendy out to the ranch, and our hike in Box Canyon was her favorite out of all of the different hikes during our first year of dating. So it was obvious that we had to go out to Ghost Ranch this time to hike together up Kitchen Mesa, the rounded and candy-striped mesa looming over the main buildings.

Hikes with Wendy at Ghost Ranch

We knew the hike would be challenging for us, since we are acclimated to an elevation of 700 feet above sea level, and this four-hour hike through hot desert terrain would climb from 6,500 to 7,100 feet. That included a 15-foot scramble up a cleft in the mesa to reach the top, and the uneven terrain meant we actually had a total ascent of over 1,200 feet.

So we got around early to hit highway 84 north for the 63 mile drive up to Ghost Ranch. We stopped along the way in Española for breakfast at a McDonald’s. We reached the ranch by 9:00 a.m. and checked in, paying the minimal day use fee. A friendly docent warned us about the cleft we would have to navigate to reach the mesa top and provided directions to the trailhead, which is adjacent to the trailhead for the Box Canyon hike we did last year. This time we avoided the long roadside trudge from the Welcome Center to the trailheads by driving around to park at them.

Our hike

As we headed out, our target was directly ahead, backlit by the morning sun. We climbed to a hillside which offered a panoramic view north across the greenery of the Rito Del Yeso arroyo. To the right was the mesa below which one will find the ranch’s Camposanto area, which we had seen the previous year along our Box Canyon hike.

Panorama of Camposanto area

Dinosaur Quarry

We crossed over into the ranch’s dinosaur quarry in the red siltstones and mudstones laid down 205 million years ago in the Late Triassic Period, the beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs. Back then this area was about 1800 miles farther southeast of its present location, putting it near the planet’s equator. 95% of the fossils found were of the small carnivorous dinosaur, Coelophysis. It was 6-10 feet long and weighed 50-100 pounds.

Panorama of the dinosaur quarry

Helpful signage explained the layer cake we saw in the rocks around us. The grey layer atop the cliffs is the Todilto Formation of saline sediments deposited by an inland sea in the late Middle Jurassic Period. The orange and yellow cliffs below it are sand dunes of the Entrada Formation, laid down in the Middle Jurassic about 160 million years ago. The rosy-colored mudstones and siltstones of the cliff base are the Chinle Formation deposited about 205 to 230 million years ago. It was in that period that hundreds of Coelophysis were buried, probably in a flash flood.

Another sign explained that David Baldwin discovered bones in 1881 and mailed them to paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, who had been through the area earlier and named the fossils Coelophysis bauri. Coelophysis means “hollow form” and refers to the lightly constructed bones, while the rest of the name honors Georg Baur, a German morphologist. In 1947 a field crew discovered a dense bonebed of hundreds of skeletons in the area and excavated large blocks of rock, each containing numerous whole and partial skeletons. In 1981, a century after the initial find, the blocks were collected by various institutions.

It was while Wendy and I were crossing a dirt ridge in the quarry, breathing heavily in the thin and hot air, that a petite tanned mother with two children merrily scampered by. They would go up to the top and be on their way back down even as we low-landers were still slowly ascending the mesa. Rather than being discouraged at our relative difficulty, I took heart that if they could make it up there, then we surely could!

Wendy by a big chunk out of the mesa

A Slow Climb Towards the Cleft

We passed the narrow tip of the northern edge of the mesa as we continued to climb the valley to the east of it. We passed interesting rocks. A rather intimidating chunk of the mesa had fallen away and rolled down, squashing a tree beneath it. The impact with the tree had cleaved off a massive wedge from the chunk of rock.

Spying a narrow vertical slot in the mesa, I teased Wendy by saying we would be scrambling up through it. Of course we could have never managed that. We passed a crude natural amphitheater in the side of the mesa, which reminded me of a much smaller yet similar rockfall at Osage Hills near Bartlesville and the immense Echo Amphitheater near Ghost Ranch.

We steadily climbed in the heat, taking breaks in which Wendy teasingly made some pointed comments about my idea of fun. The beautiful views kept us going. We steadily climbed a ridge of dirt and rock toward the mesa top and suddenly spied the mother and her children clambering down the side toward us. They must have just exited the cleft.

Beautiful views

The Cleft

Their appearance made it easier to spot the way up, but the ranch does have a series of green-painted coffee cans all along the trail to provide guidance. Soon we reached the 15-foot-high chimney cleft we had to climb. Wendy had me pause to pose, and then we made the ascent. It wasn’t as terrible as I had feared, although we did have to go slowly and use all four limbs.

The Cleft

Mesa Top Overlooks

We followed the trail across the mesa top and reached the first overlook. Venturing out there provided a stunning view southwest across the Piedra Lumbre. To the north of the Cerro Pedernal mesa, which Georgia O’Keefe was so fond of painting, was a storm cloud spilling rain onto the desert. I hurried over to the edge to shoot a panorama, with the greenery around the Ghost Ranch buildings far below to my right. Farther to my right I could see the eroding layers of the mesa, with the grey saline sediments on top and the compressed orange and yellow sand dunes below that.

Overlooking the Piedra Lumbre

Selfie atop Kitchen Mesa

We celebrated with a selfie before following the trail northward along the mesa top to where a small grey promontory of sediment marked the second overlook.

I ventured out to shoot another panorama but found the view a ways back, which included the overlook platform, to be just as interesting. Wendy posed at the overlook for me, and then I posed nearby for her before we headed on toward the tip of the mesa.

Second overlook

The surface changed to the grey saline sediment. Being surrounded by that surface seemed unearthly and strange; Wendy described it as a lunar surface. She was fascinated by the white rocks with black veins and the mica glittering in the sun. A lizard scuttled by, and the final overlook we enjoyed provided a sweeping view of the ranch buildings below and the green vegetation along the course of the Rito del Yeso creek.

Ghost Ranch Panorama from Kitchen Mesa

Back Down We Go

The rain was approaching; it was time to head back. We traced our way back across the mesa top to the cleft and carefully descended. We were glad to be headed downslope in the heat, passing cholla cactus blooms. Wendy had frozen water in our bottles back at the hotel, a great idea which provided us with cool water throughout the hike. As we passed the huge chunk of rock beside the trail we’d seen earlier, with shattered wood beneath it, I speculated about which cleft in the side of the cliff it had come from.

Returning to the trailhead

As we walked, we were bracketed by storms. Dark clouds to the east produced a few flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder, while approaching from the west was the rain storm. Up on top of the mesa, where I could get cell phone reception, I’d checked the NOAA Radar US app and knew the storm to the east was moving away, but the one from the west would eventually arrive over Ghost Ranch.

Nearby storm

We returned to our car, and raindrops began spattering down as we cleaned up and drove back over to the Welcome Center for restrooms and ice cream. A tour was leaving, taking folks to the settings of various paintings by Georgia O’Keefe to compare what they would see with what she captured on canvas. We should take that tour some summer. As we neared the end of today’s trail, I spied the top of Chimney Rock jutting up above the countryside. Although I hiked over to it in 2012, Wendy has not been on that trail.

So we shall certainly return to enjoy the hospitality of the Presbyterians who make these wonders accessible to all. I close this remembrance of our visit with a shot of cholla blooms in front of the distinctive flat top of Cerro Pedernal. Georgia O’Keefe painted that mesa many times:

It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.

In a way, she got that wish; Georgia’s ashes were taken to the top of Cerro Pedernal and scattered there.

Cerro Pedernal beyond the cholla blooms

Tower on the former capitol

Capitols of Santa Fe

Tired but happy, we returned to Santa Fe and relaxed before heading out for an early dinner. Wendy clearly wanted more of those “best tamales EVER” at Tomasita’s, and we found it was already crowded at 4:15 p.m. The food was great, and we enjoyed people-watching. To walk off our dinner, we ventured over to see the state capitol.

We’d passed through the original capitol of these lands, the old Palace of the Governors on the plaza, a few days earlier. And we had repeatedly passed the “Bataan Building”, with its distinctive tower, on our way to and from the plaza. It opened in 1900 as a cheap replacement for an expensive territorial capitol, which had burned after only a few years of use. The simple three-story box with a modest silver dome grew over the years, and the dome was replaced by the 105-foot tower in 1950. But in 1966 a very different capitol building superseded it, and the old capitol became the Bataan Memorial Building, named to honor members of the 200th Coast Artillery that served bravely – and met a tragic fate – during the infamous battle and subsequent “Death March” of 1942, in the Philippines.

Wendy with the roses

We were curious to see the adjacent replacement capitol, which is quite inconspicuous. As we negotiated the sidewalks to reach it, Wendy discovered another small rose garden, this one nestled amidst the government buildings. She was impressed by the height of several of the bushes. I was more interested in the panels on the nearby Education Building, which had figures in extreme poses.

The grounds of the capitol itself have been described as, “a lush 6.5-acre garden boasting more than 100 varieties of plants, including roses, plums, almonds, nectarines, Russian olive trees, and sequoias.” But the areas we saw appeared neglected and unappealing. We came across Michael A. Naranjo’s Emergence sculpture, which I am not fond of; it makes me think of a game with a hula hoop. We also saw Doug Hyde’s Buffalo Dancer, which was squat and somewhat comic to me.

Having fun with the boys

I was equally cranky about the new state capitol, a three-story roundhouse which is unique among state capitols and hopefully will stay that way. Wendy, however, was in a playful mood. Inspired by our plan to see flamenco dancing that evening, Wendy stuck a rose in her hair and posed by Glenna Goodacre’s sculpture of two boys playing tug of war with three girls.


When planning this vacation, I had considered a performance of Carmen at the Santa Fe Opera. But the tickets were quite pricey, and a long four-act Italian opera hardly seemed in the southwest spirit of our trip. So I was happy to see a listing for Entreflamenco‘s performance in the Maria Benitez Cabaret Theatre at The Lodge at Santa Fe. I had never seen flamenco dancing except on video, and was hoping for an enjoyable evening. Wendy was interested yet skeptical. As it turned out, the performance was riveting, and we were so close to the action that we could see every detail, even the sweat flinging and feathers flying off the incredible dancers.

The stars of the show were Antonio Granjero and Estefania Ramirez. Wendy described Antonio as, “a macho Fred Astaire on crack” with his incredible speed and dramatic gestures and poses. He presented as cocky, powerful, and intense. His performance with Estefania began in an embrace, with graceful movements and then a walk apart on the stage to begin their foot-stomping and elaborate separate dances, to finally end in another embrace. His solo finale included incredibly fast and precise foot tapping and much more. Wendy wrote, “He worked like hell and then swaggered to the foot of the stage, nodded to the audience, and said ‘Hey’, followed by huge applause.”

Estefania Ramirez was incredibly intense, with a slight grin only fleetingly crossing her focused face. One dance was in a white dress with red fringe and Wendy aptly described her performance as, “Sassy, intense, very sexy, and confident.” In her guajira performance, she flicked a fan open and closed and back and forth with incredible precision, a very long skirt flipping and swinging. I could barely imagine someone even walking in such a dress, let alone dancing so energetically. Eventually two other female dances joined in, their movements precisely matching her lead.

There were altogether three other female dancers besides Estefania. A blonde resembled Scarlett Johansson, another dancer was slightly reminiscent of Frida Kahlo, and the third was very Indian in appearance and a bit less sheltered in her expressions. All four female dancers danced together near the start of the show, dressed in wonder-bread-like dresses with bright colorful fringed shawls.

Each of the dancers took his or her performance very seriously, and occasionally we spotted some modern moves in the mix. The experience was intense and emotional, with us sitting in the very front, only a couple of feet from the edge of the stage. Wendy said she could smell the sweat as they performed their intricate high-intensity dances with perfect timing and the flicking of precise gestures. She commented, “Our sweat from the hike at Ghost Ranch was nothing compared to the amount pouring off the dancers.” It was not at all off-putting, but made the experience all the more intense to see, up close, how hard they pushed their bodies in their demanding art.

Syncopated clapping by fellow performers accentuated the beat, and we enjoyed the emotional singing by Roberto Lorente and Francisco Orozco “Yiyi”, who also played the drums. Jose Vega Jurado and Alex Jordan were the fine guitarists. It was a delightful evening we shall never forget, and if you are ever in Santa Fe, you should see Entreflamenco in that cabaret. Sit up front!

This fun-filled day was the climax of our trip; we would spend the next day relaxing as we recovered. One more post will close out this travelogue along Route 66.

Click here for a slideshow from this day

Days 9-11 of Kicks on 66 >

< Day 7 of Kicks on 66

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.

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