On the O’Keeffe Trail

Riding horseback just might be the best way to see Ghost Ranch.

My horse—a big-boned, bombproof Norwegian fjord named Pooh—picked his way neatly down the sandy trail into the arroyo, gathered himself, and powered up the other side. Ahead, our trail string’s guide, Robb Carter, reined in his horse and turned in the saddle as the others caught up at our fourth stop on the two-hour Georgia O’Keeffe Trail Ride and Tour.

The painter’s low adobe home sat to our left. A high rampart of red, orange, yellow, and gray cliffs punctuated by isolated sandstone chimneys loomed on our right. “We’re in Georgia O’Keeffe’s backyard,” Robb said, a grin stretching his mustache wide. Ahead of me, Kathleen Redwing took a breath and said to her daughter, “This is it!” She grandly swept her hand toward the cliffs and dry red hills spread around us.

I was riding with Robb, his assistant wrangler, Rachel Perry, and three women named Kate. The mother-daughter duo Kathleen, from Toronto, and Kate, who lives in Aspen, were big O’Keeffe fans who came to Ghost Ranch specifically to immerse themselves in the landscapes she painted. They’d never been to New Mexico before, and the visual delights of the ranch’s painted desert were making a big impression.

Horses make the perfect means of transport here, not just for the working-ranch atmospherics but because they carry you at just the right speed to soak in the grandeur. They watch where they’re going, while you watch the scenery.

We stopped a moment. I stretched my feet out of the stirrups and rubbed Pooh’s burly neck. He’d have liked to snack on the blue grama grass, lush and green as Ireland—well, almost—from recent rains.

Turning to Kate and Kathleen, who radiated as much pleasure about the horses as the landscape, I asked if Ghost Ranch met their expectations.

“Oh, it’s spectacular!” daughter Kate said. “Being out in the elements like this, it’s even more than I expected.”

“The sky is so blue,” Kathleen chimed in. “You could never anticipate this beauty.” She paused a moment and turned her thoughts back to O’Keeffe: “She was a brave woman in every aspect of her life.”

Ghost Ranch outdoor education coordinator Robb guides riders of all abilities— nobody seems to call them dudes anymore—single file along the meandering trails crisscrossing the ranch’s “home” pasture. He had met us at the airy barn, where we gathered for a brief orientation. Rachel leafed through a book, showing us paintings of locations we’d soon see. Then she and Robb gave basic instruction in handling our fjords or quarter horses, slipped their bridles on, fitted helmets to each of us, helped everyone mount, and led us out the gate. The horses swung their haunches down into a deep arroyo, which we followed briefly before climbing out and half-circling around the base of the ranch’s signature Chimney Rock.

In comfortable—and secure—western saddles, we ambled up and down red hills and wove among the juniper, cholla, four-wing saltbush, and bunchgrass. First we paused to admire the barren mounds that O’Keeffe painted as Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills. The horses stood quietly as we gazed on the scene and recalled the painting Robb had showed us from Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place before the ride. (Disclosure: My sister, Lesley Poling-Kempes, is coauthor.) Sure enough, there was the hill and the very tree, preserved nearly 80 years later by the arid climate. In another spot, we relaxed in our saddles while Robb explained how O’Keeffe lay down here to paint.

To hardcore O’Keeffe fans, this is the Sistine Chapel.

The painter kept a house on Ghost Ranch for 40-some years. From 1955 on, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) owned the 22,000-acre ranch, running it as an adult study center, letting locals graze cows on the pastures, and guarding the artist’s privacy. O’Keeffe would wander the red, yellow, and purple hills under the magnificent cliffs, picking up stray animal bones and skulls, contemplating her favorite mountain, Pedernal, on the southern horizon, and setting up her easel to paint.

Here she conjured the sublime Ladder to the Moon, the cheerfully haunting Deer’s Skull with Pedernal, and the nearly abstracted full-frame Red and Yellow Cliffs.

I find these and her other ranch paintings the most satisfying of her work, not just because Ghost Ranch is my own favorite place, but because O’Keeffe captured its emotional impact while reimagining the dramatic landscape in spiritually charged, sensually rendered forms. It’s the place, and it’s the place idealized.

And it’s an ideal place for a trail ride.

Trail-Ride Roundup
Trail-riding outfits around New Mexico offer forays into a wide variety of terrain. Here’s a selection of experienced wranglers who can have you saddled up and on the trail in no time.

GuideThe Brazos Cliffs loom over the trail at Fishtail Ranch in Chama.

ANGEL FIRE
Roadrunner Tours Owner Nancy Burch takes up to 25 riders at a time into the Carson National Forest of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for outings from one hour to all day. She also offers breakfast and dinner rides and gold-panning adventures. There’s no weight limit for riders, children are welcome, and all ability levels are accommodated. Open daily year-round, but call for availability. Rates: $45 for one hour, $75 for two hours, $95 for three hours, and $180 for all day; call for pricing on specialty rides. Elk Horn Lodge, 3377 Mountain View Blvd.; (575) 377-6416; rtours.com

CERRILLOS
Broken Saddle Riding Company Harrold Grantham’s smooth-gaited Tennessee walking horses and Missouri fox trotters take riders to three scenic overlooks in the Cerrillos Hills State Park, south of Santa Fe. Weight limit of 225 pounds, must be age eight or above, and all ability levels accommodated. Open every day including Christmas. Rates: From $60 for 1 1/4 hours to $110 for three hours. 26 County Road 59A; (505) 424-7774; brokensaddle.com

CHAMA
Fishtail Ranch Cool mountain air, tall pines, a rushing river, and gorgeous views of the stunning Brazos Cliffs await up to 30 riders at a time. Wranglers start you in the round pen on a registered quarter horse, then you head for the hills on 1,000 acres of private land, starting at 8,000 feet. Weight limit of 250 pounds, must be at least 10, all ability levels accommodated. Open Memorial Day to Labor Day, 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Rate: $50. Approximately nine miles south of Chama on U.S. 84; (575) 588-7884; leeweiss@fishtailranch.com; fishtailranch.com/TrailRides.html

LAS CRUCES
Corralitos Ranch Sprawled over 290 square miles of wide-open country, this ranch offers groups of two to six riders the chance to explore prehistoric caves, historic mines, and even dinosaur tracks. Weight limit of 250 pounds, all ability levels accommodated, must be older than seven. Open daily year-round. Rate: $20 per hour. 16 miles west of Las Cruces. Call to make an appointment and get directions. (575) 640-8184; corralitostrailrides.com

RUIDOSO
Grindstone Stables Guided one-hour rides for the whole family wind past Grindstone Lake and then climb to the top of Townsend Ridge. All ages and children older than five can ride solo. Open seven days a week, Memorial Day to Labor Day, weekends and holidays thereafter; call first, but walk-ins welcome. Rate: $30. 523 Resort Drive; (575) 257-2241; grindstonestables.com