Adam Springer/Getty Images
Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, New Mexico.

Hannah McKelson  – March 25, 2021

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“I wish you could see what I see out the window—the earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north—the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky . . . pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars—and a feeling of much space—It is a very beautiful world.” 

Much like her renowned artwork, Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1942 letter to the painter Arthur Dove conveyed the rich colors and otherworldly allure of northern New Mexico and the fabled Ghost Ranch, a 21,000-acre property where the Mother of American Modernism spent nearly every fall and summer season until her death in March 1986. 

O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch is nestled between rose-colored striated mountains about an hour north of Santa Fe in Abiquiú, a small town with the sort of remote magnetism that once beckoned the likes of Ansel Adams

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I grew up enamored with O’Keeffe’s work and her intriguing personal life, so when a recent trip landed me in the region for the first time, seeing her beloved home with my own eyes was a bucket list item I couldn’t pass up.

Upon arriving, I was pleased to learn that Ghost Ranch supplements the visitor experience with guided horseback rides led by the property’s ranch hands, who all but moonlight as regional experts and bonafide O’Keeffe historians.

Hannah McKelson

On the Ghost Ranch property.

A brief tutorial on identifying O’Keeffe’s immortalized works in the surrounding landscape was followed by instruction on the basic points of horsemanship—i.e., how to avoid getting ejected from the saddle.

An hour and a half after setting out on the trail ride, we’d learned practically all there was to know about Ghost Ranch’s storied history as a place run by outlaws, a gambling destination for the stars, and a renowned artist’s haven. 

Before our adventure concluded, I asked the ranch hands for their local eatery recommendations. They were adamant that Cafe Sierra Negra was the place to go. 

Named for the neighboring mountain and operated by California expat and Abiquiú resident Melodie Milhoan, the restaurant is known for its mouth-watering weekly specials and first-rate service.

Melodie suggested the fish tacos, and, to put it mildly, they did not disappoint. I have no choice but to betray my native Golden State by admitting that they are, hands down, the best fish tacos I’ve had to date. And from the sound of it, the same quality holds true for all items on Sierra Negra’s menu, bolstered by the steady evolution of Melodie’s culinary experimentation.  

Hannah McKelson

Fish tacos at Cafe Sierra Negra. (Hannah McKelson)

Delicacies aside, one must-see attraction (and arguably Abiquiú’s best kept secret in the realm of the outdoors) is the White Place, a stunning testament to O’Keeffe’s creative inspiration and the exemplification of New Mexico’s remarkable geography. 

A moderate mile-long hike leads visitors to towering sandstone formations that radiate a white glow in afternoon sun. Fortunate tourists arriving closer to sunset will see the White Place awash in gold.

Getting there, however, can be tricky. Call the property managers at Dar al Islam for directions. I’ll confess: Time constraints regrettably prevented me from experiencing the White Place myself, so if you have designs on visiting, make sure to anchor it properly in your itinerary. 

Finally, if art influenced by the same environs that inspired O’Keeffe is of interest, consider planning well in advance—Abiquiú’s Studio Tour is scheduled for October 9-11. 

However you choose to map out your visit, Abiquiú is sure to yield no shortage of creative stimulation. As O’Keeffe once noted, “Out here, half your work is done for you.” 


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