3 Day Getaways / Explore The Outdoors

Ghost Ranch, Ancient Ruins and Arches: 3 Days In Northwest New Mexico

Day 1: Denver to Abiquiu

On the way to New Mexico, I turned off of I-25 and took the scenic route. It’s about a 5.5 hour drive from Denver to Abiquiu, a small town northwest of Santa Fe. On the drive, I passed through San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado. It was established in 1851. It was Palm Sunday, so I stopped to walk the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross, which I had done two other times ironically on Easter and close to Christmas, when I wrote the blog Shrine of the Stations of the Cross at Sunset. Palm Sunday was a beautiful, but windy day. I took about 20 or 30 minutes reflecting as I walked to the top. The bronze statues really are powerful and I was glad to get a few moments truly walking in my faith.

I always think it’s fun to stop on a state line. When I stopped at the “Welcome to New Mexico” sign and tried to take a selfie, well, windy was an understatement.

The route I drove took me to the edge of Taos, across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and past Ojo Caliente historic hot springs. It was hard not for me to stop at these wonderful places, but I had to been to all before and on a mission to explore a new part of New Mexico for me. As I got into Abiquiu (pronounced Ab-E-cue like barbecue) I saw a sign for a lavender farm so I turned down the dirt road. Bummed it was closed I headed on to the Georgia O’Keeffe Welcome Center. I hadn’t made reservations for the night because I was debating between the Abiquiu Inn or Ghost Ranch, the more rustic of the two. The inn is next to the welcome center. Ghost Ranch is 13 miles out of town and I decided to drive out there before making a decision. It was about 4:30pm and I made a small detour to explore the historical part of Abiquiu to check out Santo Tomas el Apostol, the Roman Catholic Church established in 1740, and the galleries in the John Bosshard Tribal and Traditional Arts complex.

When I got to Ghost Ranch, I decided on going with rustic and booked a room. They have several options including dorm rooms with shared bath, semi-private, and private with bath. I opted for one of the rooms with a bathroom up on the mesa for the stellar view.

I quickly dropped off my stuff in my room in the Tumbleweed building and headed back into town to gas up at Bodes. Gas stations are few and far between in northwest New Mexico so I try not to get below a half tank. Along the way, I stopped at an overlook for a great view of the Rio Chama.

Ghost Ranch offers dinner, but since I don’t eat meat my choices were limited there. Figuring I would have more choices in town, I opted for Cafe Abiquiu in the Abiquiu Inn. I would have loved to try their sangria, but the small restaurant can’t serve alcohol on Sunday so I went for the rosemary lemonade, which was delightful. I zeroed in on the blue corn fried trout cakes with the chipotle cream sauce on the side. The trout with grilled asparagus and polenta corn cakes was light and delicious. I loved the New Mexican twist of blue corn on the lightly fried trout. I’d saved a little room for dessert and debated between the chocolate piñon tart or New Mexico pistachio sundae. I went for the sundae and made a valiant effort but could only eat half of it. With a full tummy I wandered into the gift shop and enjoyed puttering around looking at the huge selection of gifts, clothes and hats. I looked down at the time and realized I had to hustle to get back to Ghost Ranch to catch sunset.

I got back in time to watch the sun drop down behind the rugged landscape. With the last beams of light I explored the “City Slickers” cabin from the 1991 movie. The golden glow on the rock walls was stunning. My last stop as I drove the dirt road back to my room onto of the mesa was to say howdy to the horses in the corral. I settled into my room and easily read myself into a blissful slumber in the quietness and darkness of the ranch.

Day 2: Ghost Ranch to Chaco Canyon

The next morning I woke up before the sun but decided to let it rise a little before hitting the Chimney Rock Trail. The morning air was crisp and there was a light breeze as I hiked the 3-mile round trip trail. I thoroughly enjoyed started the day with a great hike (Check out blog: Hiking to Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch).

Before hitting the road I grabbed a coffee at the Trading Post and walked over to explore the Ghost House, which dates back to around 1880.

It was about a 2.5 hour drive from Ghost Ranch to Chaco Canyon. Not long into the drive, I was blown away by the beauty of Abiquiu Lake so I pulled over in the last of 3 overlooks. On the drive the scenery changed from jagged rock walls to forest to vast desert.

The last 13 miles of the drive was a gravel dirt road, with the last 4 miles being washboard dirt road to Chaco Culture National Historic Park. This place had been on my radar for awhile, especially after exploring so many ancestral puebloan sites like Mesa Verde National Park and Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado. All of the sites in the region tie back to Chaco Canyon where ancestral puebloan people flourished between 850 and 1250 A.D. As soon as I hit the paved road in the park, my tire pressure light came on. “Uh oh, maybe just a little air leaked out like it does when there’s a quick temperature changes,” I told myself and hoping that was the case since I was without cell service and far from a tire place. That would be wishful thinking as one of my tires would go flat later in the parking lot of Pueblo Bonito. Before then I stopped to look at Fajada Butte rising over 300 feet above the valley floor. The imposing figure in the vast landscape had astronomical significance to the ancestral pueblo (Chaco Anasazi) people. How I would love to see the two spiral petroglyphs carved on a cliff face on top of the butte. As sunlight passes on the equinoxes and solstices dagger-shaped beams of light appear to mark the change of season.

I didn’t have a whole lot of time before the 1:30pm guided tour I was going on so I headed over to the visitor center to chat with rangers and get some information on the ruins. The first ruins, Una Vida, were right behind the visitors center. Una Vida is Spanish for “one life.” It is one of the earliest pueblos in Chaco Canyon and is the fifth largest. It is mile round trip, with an addition quarter of a mile to see some petroglyphs. Of course I had to do the short, steep climb to see those!

I drove over to the next ruins and quickly looked at Hungo Pavi, an unexcavated great house. The meaning of the name is still unknown but one Hopi translation is “Crooked Nose.” It’s most likely a mispronounced or misspelled name of a Hopi village. Underneath the wind-blown sand and vegetation that’s grown up around it, there are 150 rooms, a great kiva and an enclosed plaza.

I got to Pueblo Bonito a few minutes before the free guided tour started. Pueblo Bonito is considered the most important site in the canyon. I was actually surprised how many other folks were there for the tour. There must have been about 30 for the 30 minute tour. Pueblo Bonito is the largest most excavated building in Chaco Canyon. As you walk up to it, you immediately notice it’s immense size. Pueblo Bonito was the “first time to see a complex society form” in the canyon and all of the Southwest our guide Olivia told us. It took about 400 years to build. We start at newest corner and walked around to enter the pueblo in the oldest section. You can’t help but notice the huge pile of boulders. In 1941, “Threatening rock” came tumbling down damaging 65 rooms and demolished 30 rooms. It’s possible this was a trading center since so many pieces of turquoise, pottery and other trade items were found. In one room alone, 55,000 pieces of polished turquoise were found. I was struck by the number of kivas, or circular ceremonial sections of the pueblo. It was far more kivas than I had seen at any other ancestral puebloan site in the southwest. I also found it interesting how you went through so many small doors into room after room almost like a maze when I wandered around after the tour. I kept thinking how easy it would be to get lost. Why the people settled here in the desert, not close to a big water supply, is still unknown. If you visit, you may feel a strong emotional connection like I did. Perhaps they built here in a pilgrimage to a mecca of sorts. According to oral traditions, it was a sacred place with several Navajo and Pueblo clans and ceremonies originating in Chaco Canyon.

In the back of mind I kept thinking about my tire, which I noticed was a little lower than the rest. When I got back to my car, the tire was flat. Thanks to a guy named Greg from Seattle, I had help putting my spare on. That changed the rest of my visit to Chaco Canyon. Instead of exploring more ruins, I headed back to the visitors center for help. After being assured I could make it over the rough dirt road on a donut, I headed off to Farmington to go to the tire place one of the ladies in the park gift shop found for me. The park closes at 4 p.m. unless you are camping and time was quickly ticking away. I knew I didn’t want to be the last car on the road in case I had any issues. I hadn’t planned on going to Farmington, but it ended up being an interesting twist to my road trip. I got to Peerless Tires 4 Less in Farmington at 5:45pm, 15 minutes before closing. The guy helping me found a piece of metal that was the culprit for my flat tire. In 10 minutes they patched my tire, checked the others and sent me on my way for the grand total of $16. I couldn’t believe it!

I made the decision to stay in Aztec, about 10 minutes or so from Farmington. I found the hotel closest to the Aztec Ruins National Historical Park and was pleasantly surprised by the Presidential Inn & Suites. The staff was wonderful, my room was comfy and it was really quiet. I head off in search of food and grabbed a wine margarita and spinach enchiladas at Rubia’s Fine Mexican Dining then called it a night after an eventful day.

Day 3: Aztec

The next morning when I was getting ready to leave the hotel I chatted with the general manager because I was curious about the 300 arches in the area and Bisti Wilderness Area. He advised me not to go into Bisti alone because it’s very easy to get lost or disoriented in it. Duly noted and I decided to save the badlands of New Mexico for another trip. With that I set out to explore two arches then two ruins. He told me not to miss the lesser visited Salmon Ruins since I was going to be about 2 miles from it on the scenic route I was taking back into Colorado. Later that day I was really glad he said that.

I went first to Rock Arch, the largest arch opening near Aztec. The gal who checked me into to my hotel the night before had given me an Aztec Arches pamphlet with directions to several of the over 300 sandstones arches. Most of the dirt road is fairly easy, until the last 1.3 miles which is rutted out but still passable in an SUV. I was able to drive almost right up to the arch. For a closer look, I hiked down a short slope using my trekking poles for extra traction in the loose sandy dirt. I saw a couple of petroglyphs but was saddened to see the graffiti of names and initials others had carved in the sandstone near them.

Next I head to Cox Canyon, also known as Anasazi. It’s considered the most spectacular arch in the Aztec area with 125-foot vertical rise. This one takes some effort to get to since the trail is not easily marked. There are some cairns (rock mounds to mark trail) but you really have to be on the lookout. After a little searching I found the 6-foot ladder carved into to sandstone for the first climb where I got a glimpse of the arch, so I knew I was heading in the right direction. The second climb was about 15-feet and took a little more maneuvering. I could see the full arch as soon as I finished that climb. Of course I didn’t stop there. I hiked up to the base of the arch and the view was fantastic. With the drive time, you need about 2-2.5 hours to explore both of these arches. I had just scratched the surface of the arches dotting the landscape.

I could have spent all day driving dirt roads and heading into canyons in search of arches. But I also really wanted to visit Aztec Ruins National Monument and explore the Aztec ruins over 900 year old. The structure weren’t built by the Aztec Indians. Instead, Spanish explorers commonly used the term “Aztec” to describe ancient sites. These were built by ancestral puebloan people from the late 1000s to the late late 1200s, as the Chaco Canyon community was diminishing. By the early 1100s Aztec West was the largest great house anywhere outside of Chaco Canyon. I bought one of the trail guides and thoroughly enjoyed walking around and even into some of the ruins. I was intrigued by the architecture including how one wall was built so the sun would rise along it on the summer solstice and the sun would set along it on the winter solstice, along with the use of green stone within some walls for some unknown reason. It took me about an hour to tour the ruins.

It was about an 15 minute drive to the Salmon Ruins near Bloomfield. They let you borrow a guidebook or you can buy one for a couple of bucks like I did. There are 21 markers in this great house community along the banks of the San Juan River. As I was wandering around, I noticed a peacock. That was definitely something I was not expecting to see. Guess it’s a neighbor.

After exploring the ruins, I headed over to check out the George Salmon homestead, established in the 1890s. You can still go in and out of the bunk house by the corral. My time was getting short but I took 15 minutes to walk around Heritage Park to see structures like the Trading Post, a pit house and structures used by Navajo and Apache Indians like hogans (ceremonial buildings), a ramada (shade structure) and sweat lodge.

From the Salmon Ruins, I headed out Highway 64 towards Dulce. I loved taking the “road less traveled.” The landscape was stunning and the drive was peaceful, including a quick stop to check out the Monastery of Our Lady of the Desert from a distance. I had no idea there was a monastery in remote northern New Mexico! Shortly after Dulce, I made the turn north and headed for Pagosa Springs and on back to Denver. I left northwest New Mexico wishing I had more time…and a list full of adventure for my next visit back to Chaco Canyon.