Initially upon seeing the signage north of Abiquiú on U.S. 84, I thought this Ghost Ranch place must be some sort of tourist trap.
Originally from the Midwest — where sites like Carhenge, the Corn Palace and Wall Drug (aptly dubbed by Atlas Obscura as the grandaddy of all tourist traps) dot the map — I've programmed myself to drive right past these shameless diversion. But upon further inspection, I found that Ghost Ranch is no such place.
Scenes from more than two dozen films and television specials have been shot here, and it’s no wonder why. Taking in the majestic views while traversing the expansive ranch in the high desert, visitors feel immersed in a cinematic Wild West setting.
The ranch offers multiple trails that guide hikers along the area's brilliant red, white and yellow cliffs and canyons, with some venturing into U.S. Forest Service land. The longest trail is five miles, which allows for stringing multiple trails together in a day.
During the summer, with little opportunity to find shade, the sun and heat can make for a harsh hike. But as cooler temperatures have made me shy away from the alpine trails I explored in the summer, I've found Ghost Ranch to be a prime fall hiking destination.
Below is an overview of the three longest and most popular trails at Ghost Ranch.
Note: Visitors are asked to check in at the Ghost Ranch Welcome Center before hitting the trails so the ranch staff can account for hikers in the rugged desert setting. There is a $5 site fee for use of Ghost Ranch’s facilities, but this is not a hiking fee or a requirement for hiking.
For a nice, short day hike with easy access and great views, Chimney Rock trail is hard to beat, making it Ghost Ranch’s most popular hike. The 3-mile out-and-back begins near the Welcome Center snakes its way up from 6,500 feet to 7,100 feet in elevation.
The rock tower of the chimney formation becomes visible after an initial climb and the trail continues up a ridge to the top of a mesa, eventually leading hikers to an eye-level view of Chimney Rock just in front of them. A stunning vista of the Piedra Lumbre basin lies beyond the chimney, with Pedernal and Abiquiú Lake in the distance.
The longest hike in Ghost Ranch is also its most fun and rewarding, offering many expansive views from atop the mesa.
The 5-mile out-and-back trail winds its way behind Kitchen Mesa to a valley covered with sagebrush and other high desert plant life. At this point, hikers are surrounded on all sides by colorful cliffs.
This trail is rated as “difficult” in the Ghost Ranch trail guide. This seems to be mostly due to one small section midway through the hike that requires hikers to scramble up rocks through a cleft in the cliff to reach the mesa top. The trail rises from 6,500 feet to 7,100 feet in elevation, though the climb through the cleft is only about 20 or 30 feet.
Once on the mesa top, there are breathtaking views of the Piedra Lumbre basin, with the distinct form of Pedernal in the distance to the south and Chimney Rock to the west. The ground underfoot turns from red to white upon reaching the top of Kitchen Mesa. Scratching your foot over the rocky white surface, it sounds as if the ground below is brittle or hollow. It can produce an eerie sensation if you’re anywhere near the cliff’s edge.
Some of the rocky portions of the trail that can be difficult to follow. To help hikers stay on track there are painted green cans to mark the correct path.
A good trail to follow to try to beat the heat in the summer, Box Canyon trail is a peaceful 4-mile out-and-back hike that is beautiful in any season. A meandering stream, still flowing in November, leads hikers through a canyon setting that offers a much different experience compared to Chimney Rock and Kitchen Mesa trails and their expansive views.
Multiple stream crossings are required, though the water is not very deep in the fall and there are generally stepping stones to avoid getting wet. Near the end of the hike is a fork where two streams meet. The fork to the right leads to a recent rock fall, beyond which is a large pool between steep canyon walls. The left fork leads to a trail that climbs to the top of the canyon and continues along a mesa deeper into U.S. Forest Service Land.