Georgia O’Keeffe had two great loves in her lifetime; one was photographer Alfred Stieglitz and the other, New Mexico. Overall, the Land of Enchantment was kinder to her. The artist first visited New Mexico with her sister in 1917. It was pretty much love at first sight.
Ghost Ranch sits in the south end of the Colorado Plateau in the Piedra Lumbre (Shining Stone) Basin about an hour and a half northwest of Santa Fe. It’s set amidst glorious rock formations from the Chinle Formation of the Triassic Era (over 200 million years ago). The ranch, dating to 1766, was established by a land grant to Pedro Martin Serrano from the King of Spain. Legend has it that at one time, horse rustlers lived on the ranch and hid their plunder in the canyon. They wanted to keep the curious out, so they started a rumor that there were ghosts and witches there. It became known as El Rancho de los Brujos (Ranch of the Witches), later it became known as Ghost Ranch. In its heyday, the dude ranch attracted such luminaries as the Rockefeller family and Philip Wood Johnson (Johnson and Johnson) whose two-story house still stands. Georgia O’Keeffe first discovered Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch in 1934 and began to spend summers there. In 1940, she bought Rancho de los Burros, the Ghost Ranch house she’d rented for years. In 1949, she moved to Abiquiu full time living both at the ranch and the village home she bought in 1946 and restored.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tour:
The Ghost Ranch’s Ghost Ranch’s Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tour begins in the main building. Participants view a short film and then set off to tour some of the places Georgia O’Keeffe made famous through her drawings and paintings. As the tour goes past the ranch’s many juniper trees, the knowledgeable guide explains how these evergreens fascinated the artist. Continuing on, you learn about the Piedra Lumbre Basin and the rock formations here. (The quarries at the ranch have been a rich source of prehistoric fossils and skeleton finds including Coelophysis, an alligator-like reptile from the Triassic Era, discovered in the area in the 1880s.)
As the tour continues, the guide points out places O’Keeffe painted. You’re able to compare the raw landscape to her impressions of it viewing prints of her work juxtaposed with the real thing. She was drawn to the colors of the land and the rich play of light that is characteristic of New Mexico. The tour passes her house, it’s the closest you can get to this structure, off limits because of its fragile condition. One of the places that most moved her in New Mexico was Mount Pedernal the view from her backyard. She loved this flat-topped mountain that rises so majestically from the high desert floor. She is often quoted as saying “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 did and she gave it to us. And she gave us more of the haunting landscape that marks this part of New Mexico. From her base at Ghost Ranch she traveled around the area in an old Model A Ford going to places such as the Black Place and the White Place, both immortalized in her drawings and paintings. By the end of the tour, hopefully, you will have a greater understanding of O’Keeffe and her work.
While at Ghost Ranch, be sure to visit their two museums. The small Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology is home to a model of Coelophysis and fossils from the ranch’s quarries. The other tiny gem here is the Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology. Learn about the over twelve thousand years of habitation in the Gallina-Chama-Rio Grande drainage. This area was home to a succession of peoples from early hunter-gatherers, to the later Basketmakers to the more recent Pueblo peoples. The museum also displays works by contemporary Native American, Spanish and Anglo artists and artisans who carry on the traditions of the various cultures that have lived in the area.
If you are a Georgia O’Keeffe fan, there are three things you will want to put on your Santa Fe itinerary: a trip to the museum that bears her name, a tour of her Home and Studio in the village of Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch’s Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape tour. This tour can be done on foot, in a small bus or on horseback. Reserve early, this is a popular offering. You visit the Home and Studio and Ghost Ranch on the same day. When you’re done, you may be as big a fan of the area as she was. Looking back at age 92, Georgia O’Keeffe had this to say, “When I got to New Mexico- that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country.” And it still is.
Authors’ notes: For more on Georgia O’Keeffe read about the home and studio tour of her Abiquiu village home.
We were guests of Ghost Ranch for the Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tour. Their generosity did not influence this post in any way.