Travel

New Mexico’s Ghost Ranch offers wild beauty tamed long ago by a Boston Brahmin

Cerro Pedernal, a mountain Georgia O’Keeffe painted 28 times throughout her career, looms over Ghost Ranch.
Cerro Pedernal, a mountain Georgia O’Keeffe painted 28 times throughout her career, looms over Ghost Ranch.

ABIQUIÚ, N.M. — An hour’s drive north of Santa Fe lies Ghost Ranch, the land known as Georgia O’Keeffe Country. Here the iconic artist lived out the second half of her life and painted some of her most groundbreaking work, introducing the art galleries on the East Coast to the beauty of her faraway desert.

The bustling dude ranch where O’Keeffe made her home in 1946 is now a thriving education and retreat center. Today’s visitors find the ranch every bit as beautiful as the days of O’Keeffe’s residence, a serene landscape that seems frozen in time. The 22,000-acre ranch is surrounded by beauty on all sides: the Piedra Lumbre’s pink and red mesas, the southern Rockies, and the celestial-blue Cerro Pedernal — a mountain O’Keeffe painted 28 times throughout her career.

Yet Ghost Ranch has not always been such a haven. Before the intervention of a bold Boston woman in the 1930s, the land had been abandoned, rumored haunted by the victims of a pair of cattle-thieving brothers.

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In the late 1800s, the Archuleta brothers terrorized the lawless deserts of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, herding stolen cattle to their hideout in the Piedra Lumbre. Finally, the brutality of Los Animales, as the locals called them, drove them to a feud that left one brother dead. As word of the murder spread, aggrieved ranchers combined forces to kill the last brother left standing. A descendent of the Archuletas filed to claim and sell the homestead, which landed the deed in the pot of a local poker match. The winner of that hand was Roy Pfaffle, notorious gambler and drinker, and husband to the New England transplant, Carol Bishop Stanley.

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Born on Nahant Island to one of Boston’s oldest fishing communities, the young Stanley studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and taught in both Boston and Chicago. Friends of the family invited Stanley to stay at their guest ranch across the country in Kayenta, Ariz. From then on, Stanley rooted her life to the West and its deserts.

When Pfaffle surrendered the Ghost Ranch deed to Stanley, she had already filed for divorce. In 1931, Stanley claimed the deed in her own name, packed up what she owned — including a Steinway grand piano — and moved into the abandoned Archuleta ranch. By 1934, under Stanley’s careful guidance, the headquarters and first guest cottages were opened for visitors. Arthur Pack, cofounder of Nature Magazine, and his family were among the first of these. In Pack, Stanley found a fellow champion of the wilderness and a business partner. Pack was the owner of Ghost Ranch when O’Keeffe came to stay, eventually selling to the Presbyterian Church that oversees it now. Yet it was Stanley’s spirit that set the protection of the land in motion, giving others the chance to appreciate its beauty and wildness for generations to come.

Like any wild place, Ghost Ranch takes a bit of patience to reach. Faraway visitors can fly into the small adobe airport in Santa Fe and shuttle to Ghost Ranch — offered at the Santa Fe Sage Inn — or rent a car and drive the scenic hour. Opting for the larger Albuquerque airport makes for a 2½-hour drive. A car grants travelers access to the extended universe of Ghost Ranch’s geology and history: namely Plaza Blanca and the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, surreal rock formations outside of Ghost Ranch and sites of O’Keeffe paintings, as well as a tour of O’Keeffe’s winter home and studio in Abiquiú.

There is perhaps no better place to be immersed, car or no car, than in Ghost Ranch. Spiritual and creative retreats of all stripes are hosted at Casa Del Sol, a private hacienda just down the road from O’Keeffe’s longtime summer residence. Personal retreat can be found in any of the lodgings available at Ghost Ranch, and in the hospitality and landscape that have lived on.

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And the best way to experience Ghost Ranch is to dive deeply into both. Whether an ambitious hike or a leisurely stroll around the grounds sounds best, check in at the Visitor Center first to grab a map, become acclimated, and leave a name in the hikers’ registry as a community safety measure. The ranch maintains nine trails and paths ranging from 100 yards to five miles, each offering a unique slice of history or geology in the Piedra Lumbre.

The Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology and the Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology, both at Ghost Ranch, shed light on this desert’s prehistoric significance. Once lush and tropical in the Triassic period, the land was home to the pack-traveling dinosaur, Coelophysis, first discovered at Ghost Ranch in 1947.

Guests may be more drawn to art, nature, history, or culture, but Ghost Ranch offers a tour or trail ride to highlight each. By foot, vehicle, and horseback, travelers can visit the sites of O’Keeffe’s paintings, discoveries in paleontology, and landmarks of Hollywood Westerns filmed in the area. Along the path, the ranch’s volunteers tell these histories and other stories — actors who have stayed at the ranch, Annie Leibovitz’s visit to shoot for Pilgrimage — with infectious warmth and flair.

Stay for three days or for a week — it’s hard to go wrong at Ghost Ranch. Drink plenty of water and follow flights of fancy. Admire the lingering scent of juniper. Few places allow the total escape from the everyday that Ghost Ranch does.

And no stay will ever feel long enough.

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Back in Santa Fe, stop in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, smug to have witnessed the sights that most inspired the icon. After a visit to Ghost Ranch, understanding why O’Keeffe and Stanley each devoted their lives to the place will be no stretch of the imagination.

Missy Kennedy can be reached at missy.j.kennedy@gmail.com.