The typical question when you sit down for a meal in northern New Mexico is “Red, green or Christmas?” That’s red chile, green chile or both. After several meals from Albuquerque to Santa Fe and on to Abiquiu, I discovered that I like green chile best because it is made with fresh peppers that, no matter how hot, still taste like they came from a garden.
As iconic as New Mexico chile is, that’s not what my husband David and I came for. I came to revel in the landscape. I came to breathe in the wide open spaces. I came to inhale sage and juniper deep into my lungs and my being. I came to feel the depth of a place that has been inhabited for millennia, with layers of civilizations and cultures that sit on top of each other like the layers of sedimentary rocks that hold their secrets. And I came to be bathed in the golden light of a New Mexico autumn.
It’s no accident that our trip took place during the last two weeks of October. Eddie Soloway, a superb landscape photographer, terrific photo teacher and Santa Fe resident, scheduled our Abiquiu photo adventure for the peak of fall color, just before winter descends on the mountain tops and wends its way into the valleys.
Before joining Eddie we gave ourselves a week in Santa Fe to pay our respects to the altitude, 7,200 feet. This trip was something of a do-over because the altitude had me in its crosshairs during our July 2021 New Mexico trip, and I didn’t want that to happen again. So this trip started slow and easy, lingering over breakfast conversations at Casa Culinaria and exploring museums before hitting any trails.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe was a must-see since our photo tour would be based in Abiquiu, O’Keeffe’s New Mexico headquarters for 35 years. Wandering through the museum past paintings both fresh and familiar, I thought about how she had the vision to simplify what she saw.
O’Keeffe’s isolated skulls, clouds and mountain tops vibrate in their frames until they are seared into our consciousness. I wondered if it was still possible to see the landscape with fresh eyes, informed but not constrained by her vision.
Lured by the light
Temptation is a dangerous thing. Aspens glowing in the late afternoon sunshine? Sunset from a mountain top overlooking the Rio Grande Valley? A camera ready to go? Only 16 miles from Santa Fe? Oops, it’s 10,000 feet high. I was doing OK with the altitude in town, so I was willing to give it a try. Besides, we were driving, not hiking.
The Aspen Vista Trail is two miles short of the slopes at Ski Santa Fe. We wound up and up into the Sangre de Cristos, the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. I hoped that the trailhead faced west and that we would get a good show. We were not disappointed.
The aspen stood straight and tall, displaying their white bark. Some of the leaves had already turned brown and fallen, but most were still there, showing off for us. Each turn of my head was like looking through a kaleidoscope, leaves and light arranging and rearranging themselves in patterns against an electric blue sky.
As afternoon faded into evening, the golden leaves took on an amber hue, just before the sky itself caught fire.
Ancient secrets under the leaves in Frijoles Canyon
If we could have seen through the trees from the Aspen Vista point across the valley past Santa Fe, we would have been looking directly west into Bandelier National Monument. Visiting Bandelier was on my “do-over” list from our last trip.
Once we left Santa Fe, it was clear that we were in pueblo country. I grew increasingly excited as we passed turnoffs to the Tesuque, Nambe, Pojoaque and San Ildefonso pueblos. For whatever reason, maybe a long-ago trip to Mesa Verde in Colorado, I expected to see a dusty, dry tabletop expanse. Unlike Mesa Verde, however, this ancient community located itself deep in the canyon near stands of conifers and cottonwoods, where it had dependable water from Frijoles Creek.
Magical light led us through golden tree tunnels along a relatively flat trail. We passed stone remnants of what archeologists describe as multi-story, multi-family buildings, as well as stone circles left from the kivas used for religious ceremonies. Looming above the valley, pockmarked red and tan cliffs of compacted volcanic ash rose from the canyon floor like Manhattan skyscrapers along Fifth Avenue.
As we looked more closely, we realized that the larger holes were dwellings carved out of the canyon walls. It is estimated that human activity in the area dates back at least 10,000 years and that approximately 500 people lived here as recently as the 1400s. No one knows for sure why the villages were abandoned. The best guess is drought. People from San Ildefonso believe that their ancestors abandoned their original homes in Mesa Verde and later at Frijoles Canyon due to drastic environmental changes. Today’s nearby pueblo communities feel a deep connection with the ancient peoples of Frijoles Canyon.
Suddenly the trail took a turn, and we were greeted by steps. Lots of steps. And thankfully, sturdy handrails. I stopped thinking about taking pictures and concentrated on climbing for an up close and personal look.
David braved the ladder to take a look inside one of the former cave homes. I only made it far enough for a quick peek, where I saw a smoke-smudged ceiling over a tiny room. Apparently many of the canyon dwellings had additional attached adobe rooms.
Back at the main Pueblo Loop Trail, we could have gone further to enjoy the breathtaking scenery and discover more ancient ruins. Instead we wandered back slowly through the golden cottonwoods.
Photography in O’Keeffe Country
With Aspen Vista and Bandelier as delicious appetizers, we headed north to Abiquiu to meet Eddie Soloway and our photo tour.
Friends often ask why we like photo tours. They tend to take us to places we haven’t thought of going, or might not have access to otherwise. Traveling with committed photographers and an expert mentor helps us see in deeper ways. And we don’t have to worry about an impatient tour guide rushing us away from a glorious sunset.
Headquarters was the Abiquiu Inn, where we woke up under a bower of golden light each morning. The combination of late fall cottonwoods and the sun’s early morning rays sent arrows of joy straight to my heart. I could barely contain myself from capturing one glowing leaf after another.
Winter, however, had other thoughts. A day that started sunny and bright turned to a light snow whipped by a biting wind just as we arrived at the red-rock canyon Georgia O’Keeffe painted so often. Behind us, storm clouds swirled around Cerro Pedernal, another of O’Keeffe’s iconic subjects.
My hands were so cold they could barely grip the camera or turn the dials. I felt like I was in a surreal snow globe.
But David and I and our companions kept shooting as long as we could, trying to capture the moment—horizontal snowfall against red rocks and ghostly tree snags.
We made a hasty retreat to Bode’s, part gas station, part restaurant, part hardware store, part gift shop, where we warmed up with pre-made burritos.
In apparently typical New Mexico fashion, the storm moved on before we finished lunch. An hour later we were chasing sunlit views of the cottonwoods along the Rio Chama.
The spirit of Ghost Ranch
No trip to northern New Mexico is complete without a visit to Ghost Ranch, the western landscape Georgia O’Keeffe introduced to the world. Her summer house on the property is off-limits to tourists, but the views she painted, hiking trails and much more are available to visitors for a modest day fee. Today the 22,000-acre property is owned by the Presbyterian Church, which uses the facilities as a conference and workshop center.
In the 13 miles between Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, the terrain rises into a grand plateau rimmed by wind-sculpted cliffs and fanciful outcroppings. It is a dry land, dependent on trickles of water. The spring-fed Rito del Yeso irrigates the Ghost Ranch area, attracting animals and people seasonally for eons. Literally.
One of Ghost Ranch’s claims to fame is as a renowned fossil site, which visitors can explore at the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology. Local people discovered skeletons that resembled snakes 15 to 18 feet long. They didn’t know how to explain what they found, so they ascribed those mysterious bones to a monster named Vivaron. With stories about Vivaron circulating, no one was willing to settle the area until the Archuleta brothers homesteaded the valley in the late 1800s.
The Archuleta story is a meandering tale of thievery and murder. They were cattle rustlers, so the monster myth served their business model well. During those years, their place was known as Rancho de los Brujos, ranch of the witches. Ultimately they lost the ranch, which changed hands several times until it was won in a poker game by Roy Pfaffle. He deeded the ranch to his wife, Carol Stanley, who built five cottages and began its transformation into a dude ranch for the wealthy. Ghost House, one of the Archuleta’s two adobe structures, still stands. The last Archuleta brother was hanged from a nearby cottonwood for his misdeeds.
By the time O’Keeffe arrived at Ghost Ranch in 1934, it was owned by Arthur Pack, editor of Nature Magazine. Guests included members of the Johnson and Johnson Family, the Rockefellers and Charles Lindbergh. What used to be a bumpy all-day excursion for them is now an easy drive for us.
We relished a long afternoon playing with our cameras, inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe and her eye for isolating detail and Eddie Soloway’s encouragement to follow the light. We meandered along the Rito del Yeso, watching the play of light through the leaves and reflected in the water.
We stayed until sunset framed Cerro Pedernal.
Our last stop in O’Keeffe Country was Plaza Blanca, the White Place. After our color-saturated days, it was disorienting to be in a place whose principal attraction was sculpted formations of eroded white volcanic ash. Think sand castles on steroids, stretching up to a deep blue sky. It was obvious that massive water and mud flows had molded this place millennia ago.
I was overwhelmed by the possibilities. Do I concentrate on the gigantic shapes looming above me? Or do I bend down to capture the life growing among the rocks?
How I envied O’Keeffe’s ability to come back again and again to refine what she saw. I would have loved to stay for one long day and watch the sun traverse the contours of this otherworldly place.
Walking out, this quiet moment of Zen presented itself right in the middle of the trail.
On our last morning in Abiquiu, David and I wandered the dirt road behind the inn to capture the golden light once more. I was reminded of my long-held belief: If you don’t look, you can’t see.
Remember that New Mexico question at the beginning: red, green or Christmas? The answer, of course, is gold.
Credits and thanks
To buy tickets to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe or reserve a spot on the tour of her Abiquiu home, contact the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Tour tickets go on sale annually for the entire year, so inquire early.
Check out the National Park Service website to learn more about Bandelier National Monument. It’s definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.
Abiquiu Inn is a wonderful place to stay near Ghost Ranch, whether you are on a photo tour or exploring on your own.
Ghost Ranch is open to the public for a modest daily fee. They also host an array of workshops and programs.