IT’S NEARLY 4 A.M. in the Chama River Canyon, which means it’s time for the morning vigils at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, near Abiquiu. I launch myself out of my cozy guest chamber, bundle up, and shuffle down a moonlit dirt road toward a stately adobe chapel. The night is silent, though a vibrational current of stars is busy above. I stop for a second, taking in the layered stillness of the coral-and-cream-streaked cliffs flanking me on both sides. My eyes blur at the beauty.
I’m in an Abiquiu state of mind, I think later, peacefully leaving the Benedictine retreat where I’ve read, hiked, chanted psalms led by monks in the Gregorian tradition, and otherwise spoken to no one for two days. I point my truck down bumpy Forest Road 151 and drive along the river, listening to a radio station that’s somehow thematically playing a dharma talk from Santa Fe’s Upaya Zen Center. (It’s Sunday, after all.)
I pass hikers on the Continental Divide Trail and head into the expansive Piedra Lumbre Basin, part of a 1766 land grant where the landscape and the shimmering waters of Abiquiu Lake are centered by the southern presence of Cerro Pedernal, known as Tsee p’in in Tewa. Both names mean “flint mountain” or “flaking stone mountain.”
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Georgia O’Keeffe, the valley’s most famous transplant, was obsessed with it, painting Pedernal at least 28 times from her perch at Ghost Ranch. The mesa’s flat head, rising to an elevation of 9,862 feet, resembles a long knife when viewed from the north or south. It has been a landmark and spiritual touchstone for people over the past thousand years.
“Abiquiu is a cosmic village,” says santero, author, archaeologist, and resident Charles M. Carrillo in Lesley Poling-Kempes’s 1997 book Valley of Shining Stone. The 1829 starting point of the Old Spanish Trail to California, it’s a place of pilgrims and passersby. A deep, complex past surrounds Abiquiu’s present, from the skeletons of the first Triassic dinosaurs, discovered at Ghost Ranch in 1947; to the Ancestral Puebloans who set Poshuouinge on a high mesa above the Río Chama around 1400; to the 18th-century Spanish colonists who built the village of Santa Rosa de Lima, of which only earthen walls remain. The Piedra Lumbre’s capacity for spiritual pockets of experience is found at the 59-year-old monastery, located 29 miles northwest of the Abiquiu post office, and at Ghost Ranch, where generations of bold-face names and regular people have sought solace and inspiration.
More devotional stops are farther south. Just off the Abiquiu Plaza, O’Keeffe’s home and studio remain nearly as the artist left them in 1986, a study in one woman’s monastic commitment to capturing the landscape. Nearby, in two separate moradas, members of the Penitente Brotherhood pray with the exact same alabados their ancestors brought from Durango, Mexico, 300 years ago. Just across the river, the Dar al Islam Mosque and educational center occupies the same grounds as Plaza Blanca, the White Place, a stunning natural cathedral of the gigantic light-gray rocks that make up the Abiquiu Formation. The setting regularly and literally snatches the breath of hikers.
“If you visit the monastery, Ghost Ranch, and the White Place, then you know there is something that seekers feel here,” says Poling-Kempes. The author of Ghost Ranch and Ladies of the Canyons has lived in Abiquiu for nearly 50 years, but she still feels the same awe at the landscape as she did in the 1970s, when she was a college student working at Ghost Ranch. “It’s a pristine place, for the most part, and people long for that.”
ARTHUR NEWTON PACK (1893–1975), ONE OF THE first Anglo Ghost Ranch owners, writes in his memoir about meeting in the 1930s with an elderly Hispanic woman who was born in the ranch’s Ghost House. She told tales of the witches and spirits that gave the place its original name, Rancho de los Brujos—or las Brujas, depending on whom you ask. A winged cow soared down the cliffs at dusk, the woman said, and anyone who saw it would die. She said her father had been one of the infamous Archuleta brothers, cattle rustlers who hid a cache of gold somewhere on the property. Her uncle killed her father in a dispute over the money, holding the women hostage until they found the chance to sneak away. A posse hung the uncle and his compadres from a massive cottonwood tree that still stands on the ranch.
An air of mystery still hangs over the landscape when I visit the ranch, on a sunny day in mid-December, to take the O’Keeffe Landscape Trail Ride. It’s a mellow horseback journey through the painter’s inspirational spots, including Pedernal, a dead cedar that O’Keeffe called Gerald’s Tree in a 1937 painting, and the vibrant rock faces portrayed in her 1940 painting Red and Yellow Cliffs, which serve as the ranch’s backdrop.
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Other features of the property include a ramshackle, 1800s-looking cabin that was built for the 1991 film City Slickers, and an iconic Western horizon you might recognize from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or Silverado. The ranch’s Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology and Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology provide a good grounding of the people and prehistoric creatures who once roamed the Chama River Valley; the library is a haven for the families and individuals who retreat to Ghost Ranch for rest, relaxation, or creative workshops.
When I ask Tolga, the wrangler who accompanies me on the trail ride, where he lived before Abiquiu, he cracks a smile. “I’m from where all cowboys come from,” he replies. “New York City.”
Abiquiu attracts all kinds, Zach Hively affirms to me over coffee at Bode’s General Store. At the 130-year-old mercantile, gas station, gift shop, and camping supplier—which serves as a way station and reliable breakfast burrito pit stop for travelers, hikers, fly-fishers, river rats, and locals—Hively tells me his origin story as a resident and business owner. In 2019, the Albuquerque-raised writer moved to the area and started Casa Urraca Press, which publishes New Mexico poets Margaret Randall, V.B. Price, and Anna C. Martinez. The openness of the landscape, he felt, gave him artistic license to start a creative business there, even though he knew not a soul when he arrived. “You can make really close personal connections here,” he says, despite the relative isolation of the 150 Abiquiu residents counted on the 2020 census. “I still have people who come up to me and remember the first public reading I did here. Everyone remembers one another.”
The social event of the year happens in October, with the Abiquiu Studio Tour. For three days, artists throughout the basin open their studios, so visitors can stop by on self-guided driving tours. Last fall, I mounted the steps to the house and studio of Charles Carrillo and his wife, Debbie, a micaceous potter who received a lifetime achievement award from the Santa Fe Spanish Market in 2014.
“It was Debbie’s family’s ancestral home,” Carrillo says of the seemingly ancient building on a hill near the south side of the Abiquiu Plaza. “Her grandmother built that house starting in the late thirties, on top of a ruin of another room block that had been built in the 1760s.”
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Locals refer to the part of the plaza where the house is situated as Moqui, a Spanish word for Hopi people. Carrillo uses that detail to weave a colorful tapestry of the diverse Genízaro people who made a lasting settlement in Abiquiu starting in the mid-1700s. The Genízaros, who originated as Indigenous captives and slaves of Spanish colonists, counted ancestors among the Hopi, Tewa, and Great Plains tribes. They built a stronghold of their multicultural heritage in Abiquiu, using land grants awarded by the Spanish crown in exchange for their defense against Apache, Comanche, and Navajo raids.
The complexity of the land’s history is dizzying, and it invites you to stay more than a day to absorb it all. Curious visitors can contemplate in secular fashion from a courtyard room at the Abiquiu Inn, or at one of the Grand Hacienda’s luxe suites overlooking Abiquiu Lake. I’ve had metaphysical experiences during fireside suppers in campgrounds that line the Río Chama along Forest Road 151, and while winding through the wooden Stations of the Cross on an alternate path toward the Monastery of Christ in the Desert.
The monastery’s guestmaster monk, Brother Chrysostom Christie-Searles, tells me he’s made two attempts now to climb Cerro Pedernal. “One was thwarted because of rain,” he says. “I got close. The second one was thwarted because of misinformation, not knowing how to get to the very top. So, on a third try, I should be able to mount it.”
His mission to summit the landmark strikes me as holier than O’Keeffe’s, who called Pedernal her “private mountain.” “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it,” the artist once claimed.
I prefer to view Brother Chrysostom’s quest through the centuries-old lens of St. Theodore, who I read during my stay at the monastery. “The monk is one whose gaze is fixed on God,” he wrote. These words, for me, break Abiquiu’s divine landscape wide open to understanding.
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OUT AND ABOUT IN ABIQUIU
Commune with nature.
Hike the half-mile National Forest Service trail at Poshuouinge to view the remnants of an Ancestral Pueblo settlement, nearly three miles south of Abiquiu on US 84. Stop into the office at Ghost Ranch for a trail map to Box Canyon, Chimney Rock, or Kitchen Mesa, hikes of varying difficulty and length that afford heavenly vistas. Check out nearby slices of the Continental Divide Trail, which features views from the mesas overlooking Ghost Ranch. Contact Dar al Islam to register and receive the gate code, which allows access to Plaza Blanca (the White Place). Respectful hikers can get the lay of the land on a moderate one-mile trek.
Commune with art.
Reserve a tour of the Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio, which begins with a stop at the Georgia O’Keeffe Welcome Center. The center features rotating, beautifully curated free exhibits about the artist’s art and life in Abiquiu. Starting April 11, catch Around the World with O’Keeffe, about the impact of international travels on her personal style and home design. On the second weekend in October, grab a map for the Abiquiu Studio Tour, which includes nearly 30 open artists’ studios.
Find God, or a little peace.
Contemplate the church ruins and calvary cross at Santa Rosa de Lima, the area’s original Spanish settlement off US 84. Celebrate the saint’s feast day, August 23, with an on-site Mass and procession to the village of Abiquiu. Reserve a two-night minimum stay at Monastery of Christ in the Desert, where guests can participate in scheduled prayers and services in the Abbey Church, and dine—silently!—on meals prepared by the monks. (Their new greenhouse should be complete this spring.) Stop into a service at Santo Tomás mission church on the Abiquiu Plaza during Holy Week in April, where Charles Carrillo (hermano mayor of the local Penitentes) says he’ll grant visitors a tour of a local morada. The Abiquiu Inn, Las Parras de Abiquiu, the Grand Hacienda, and several Airbnbs in the area offer more secular lodgings. Get in touch with Dar al Islam to learn about educational workshops, retreats, and other Islam-focused programs. Peruse the daily activities and weekly calendar at Ghost Ranch to design a retreat that fits your mindset.
Bode’s green chile cheeseburgers and other prepared foods enjoy well-deserved hype from hungry travelers, campers, boaters, and hikers. Don’t miss the green chile stew, daily specials, and Sunday brunches at Café Sierra Negra, a popular performance and gathering spot for local artists. Find a larger menu of comfort food and upscale entrees at Café Abiquiu, at the Abiquiu Inn. Mask up to order from the patio window at Mamacita’s Pizzeria and you’ll be rewarded with a New York–style pizza made with love by no-nonsense owner Marta Uribe, who also takes good care of the local cats that haunt the place. Get a white pie with garlic and green chile to go, then take it over for a beer and some pool at Los Caminos Bar, next to Mamacita’s.
Buy a memento.
Shops at Bode’s, Abiquiu Inn, and the O’Keeffe Welcome Center offer locally made soaps, lotions, art, crafts, and books about Abiquiu and its residents. Check for pop-up art shows at the inn. Bosshard Gallery and Historic Mercantile sells a selection of international art and artifacts. Nest maintains a cool collection of gifts, books, art, and jewelry in an off-the-beaten-path setting. Visit Purple Adobe Lavender Farm for an herbal fix, whether from lavender iced tea, bath salts, or healing salves.