Glowing red and burnt orange cliffs rise high above the valley at Ghost Ranch. These shining stones define the basin called the Piedra Lumbre. In this dramatic landscape, Ghost Ranch hosts retreats and workshops throughout the year and welcomes visitors to hike its trails. Although the area became famous through the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe beginning in the 1930s, the cultural history of the land goes back much farther.
The Tewa people of San Juan Pueblo call the place T'ibuhu'u, which refers to a low, round place for a winter dance, according to Lesley Poling-Kempes in her book "Ghost Ranch." In this book and others, Poling-Kempes explores the history of the region. Her most recent book about the area, "Ladies of the Canyons," is the subject of a new exhibit that opened this month at the Ghost Ranch Museum.
In describing the history of the area, Poling-Kempes recounts the story of the Archuleta brothers who lived in the canyon in the late 1800s. The brothers were cattle rustlers. In order to keep their operations secret they were rumored to have killed travelers who passed through their land. "Stories began to circulate in the local communities about missing persons … about cries and whispers echoing into the night from the cliffs … The place was soon renamed Rancho de los Brujos - the Ranch of the Witches," according to Poling-Kempes.
The name evolved to become Ghost Ranch. In 1929, ownership of the ranch passed to Carol Stanley, whose husband won it in a poker game. She remodeled some of the original buildings and established the first guest ranch here. The Pack family from Princeton vacationed at the ranch and eventually purchased it from Stanley. The family acted as stewards of the land, while expanding the guest ranch facilities.
Georgia O'Keeffe first visited Ghost Ranch in 1934 and said it was "perfectly mad-looking country - hills and cliffs and washes too crazy to imagine, all thrown up in the air by god and let tumble where they would. It is certainly as spectacular as anything I've ever seen … " according to Poling-Kempes. Seeking solitude and desert landscapes to paint, O'Keeffe lived here off and on from that summer, until the end of her life in 1986. She owned a house on 10 acres and over time, contributed to the ranch's financial sustainability through various means. The Ghost Ranch logo is based on a drawing that O'Keeffe did of a cow skull found here.
Kitchen Mesa Hike
When you arrive at Ghost Ranch, check in at the Welcome Center. There is a $5 fee that helps support the upkeep of Ghost Ranch. You can pick up a map and get information about the hikes. The Box Canyon Trail is currently closed for repairs. Other trails of varying length are available including Chimney Rock and the more challenging Kitchen Mesa.
The trailhead for Kitchen Mesa is located past the dining hall near the arts center. Follow the dirt road a short distance and turn left at the Kitchen Mesa Trail sign. Cross the Arroyo del Yeso and make the gentle climb up through the sage and cholla-covered landscape. You are surrounded on all sides by the towering Entrada Cliffs with their layers of red, deep rust, buff and gray. The various layers were deposited over millions of years, including during times when the area was covered with a saltwater inland sea. Climb up through the juniper forest. On a recent hike, I saw a deer in the section sheltered against the large boulders that have tumbled down from the rocky cliffs.
The trail continues up and passes under the quarry where Coelophysis dinosaur bones were first found in the 1880s. Researchers discovered that the bones belonged to a dinosaur that stood four to six feet tall and was a quick, lightweight predator, now known as Coelophysis. The scientists identified this small dinosaur as a precursor to the giant dinosaurs that would follow in the Jurassic period. Subsequent discoveries of large quantities of these dinosaur bones made the ranch famous in the 1940s. Bones of the Coelophysis - now the New Mexico state dinosaur - can now be seen at the ranch's Museum of Paleontology.
After leaving the quarry cliff side, the trail enters the upper valley and rolls over the rocky landscape in a moderate climb. It approaches a rock face at the far eastern end of the canyon and begins a steeper climb up toward the cliff. Watch for the rock cairns and green cans that mark the trail.
The way steepens here. This is a challenging part of the trail and the path is faint in places. Look up above you to locate the chute that leads to the top. The way is narrow and requires some focus to find foot and hand holds to climb up about 15 feet.
Several people on the trail turned back before attempting this section. Although I was able to make the scramble up, my dog refused to go up the steepest part. If your dog is agile and used to climbing, he might be able to navigate it. This day, a friend stayed with my dog and I scrambled up to the top.
The trail turns south and follows the edge of the mesa. Cross the arroyo, and climb up over a section of rounded rock that brings you to the top of Kitchen Mesa. From the climb to the cliff top, the hike continues another mile, before coming to a network of trails that lead to overlook points along the gritty grey top layer of cliff. From here, there are spectacular views to the flat-top Pedernal and the buildings of Ghost Ranch spreading out below. At the top, it is quiet except for the wind and the faint cry of the ravens circling just under the cliff. The whole hike covers almost five miles and there is an elevation gain of about 600 feet from 6,500 to 7,100 feet.
On the return trip, you may see the setting sun cast its long rays onto the cliff sides, lighting them with a fiery amber glow.
Daytime highs are predicted to be in the 60s in the coming weeks, with plenty of sunshine. Desert temperatures can change quickly when the sun sets or if a storm does move in, so be prepared for changing conditions. Dressing in layers can help you adjust as the temperature can fluctuate dramatically over the course of the day. Sturdy hiking boots are helpful to navigate the rocky sections. Other than the early crossing of the Arroyo del Yeso, there is no water on the trail, so bring plenty with you, as well as high energy snacks or lunch to eat at the top.
Lodging and meals
All visitors are welcome to have breakfast, lunch or dinner in the dining hall. Passes can be purchased at the Welcome Center. Overnight lodging and camping are available.
The 21,000-acre Ghost Ranch was donated to the Presbyterian Church in 1955 and has been expanded and used as retreat center. In the past, the national organization helped subsidize operations here. Since 2006, however, no financial backing has been provided and the ranch requests that all visitors pay a $5 conservation fee to help maintain the miles of roads and fences and the 49 buildings on the site. The fee gives visitors access to the hiking trails, museums, and the grounds. Call (877) 804-4678 or visit ghostranch.org for more information.
From Taos Plaza, go north four miles to the intersection with the Taos Ski Valley Road and U.S. 64. Turn left, drive seven miles and go across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Turn left again at the West Rim Road and go just over eight miles to the intersection with State Road 567. Turn right and drive through Carson; a total of nine miles to U.S. 285. Turn left and drive south about eight miles to the turn for State Road 111 at El Rito. Turn right and go approximately three miles and take a slight left onto State Road 554. Continue through El Rito to State Road 84. Turn right and drive west 17 miles. Look for the Ghost Ranch sign on the right. A right turn here leads to a dirt road. Follow it a mile-and-a-half to the Welcome Center. There is a gift shop, café, restrooms etc. here.
Cindy Brown is the author of the "Taos Hiking Guide," available at local retailers and at nighthawkpress.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.