Santo Tomas church in Abiquiu. photo by George Morse with teh Valley Daily Post
Weekend Getaway: Abiquiu
By George Morse
(Editors Note: A print version of this article appeared in the Valley Daily Post and Los Alamos Daily Post weekly print editions on Aug. 28 of this year)
Just north of Espanola, the small community of Abiquiu is known throughout the world as the home of the late artist Georgia O’Keefe. Her world famous paintings that feature the stark landscapes of Northern New Mexico have spread the name of Abiquiu across the globe. So much so that Abiquiu and the countryside surrounding it have been referred to as “O’Keefe Country.”
There is much more to Abiquiu and the surrounding landscape. This is an ancient land. The multi-colored cliffs, fantastic rock spires, imposing canyon walls and ponderosa pine-topped mesas are the work of time and the elements. Eon after eon, millennia after millennia, wind, rain, sun and snow slowly carved out the landscape we now see. Year after year, century after century, layers of sediment were deposited and the solidified into the different colored bands of rock. Ancient oceans and active volcanoes were once part of the landscape. The bones of creatures that once roamed the area are buried in the rock layers around Abiquiu.
Long before O’Keefe came to Abiquiu, humans had found this area to be inspiring and life-giving. Native Americans established pueblos along the Rio Chama, which supplied life-giving water and irrigated their crops. The small village of Abiquiu was established in the 1730’s. Many of the early residents of were “genizaros.” These were Native Americans that had been raised in Spanish households and converted to Christianity. Their families still reside in the village and maintain their close relationship to the land and their faith.
The land around Abiquiu has inspired and nourished generations of families and individuals. Discover for yourself the unique character and attraction of this area, the same attraction that drew O’Keefe to live here.
The road to the Abiquiu area is US Highway 84/285 from Espanola. Just north of Espanola, the road splits and US Highway 285 heads to Ojo Caliente. You are now on Highway 84. About 13 miles north of Espanola on the left hand side of the highway is a turnoff and parking area that will allow you to access the largely unexcavated ruins of Poshuouinge pueblo. Poshuouinge means “Village above the Muddy River.”
Ruins of Poshuouinge Pueblo as seen from the overlook above. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post
A ½ mile trail from the parking area leads to the ruins and ends on top of a hill overlooking the site. Looking down on the ruins and the green fields that line the Chama River below them, you will understand why the early inhabitants chose this site as a place to live. From the top of the hill, you will see majestic views of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and the cottonwood tree-lined valley of the Chama River. It is a fine introduction to the Abiquiu area.
From Poshuouinge, there are several options. Returning to Highway 84, you can turn right, backtracking south to the turnoff to State Road 554 and El Rito on your left. After crossing the Chama River, an immediate left-hand turn puts you on County Road 155 that runs along the east bank on the river.
Chama River. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post
After about three miles in 155, look for a right-hand turn just past a 20 miles-per-hour road sign. There is a high gate with the words “Dar al Islam” inscribed on it. This is a dirt road and after several hundred yards the road will fork. The left fork leads to the Dar al Islam Mosque and Islamic education center. Constructed in 1981, the domed mosque is a fine example of adobe architecture in the Moorish tradition. Commercial photography is not allowed and the center hosts retreats during the summer during which visitors are not allowed.
The right fork in the dirt road leads to Plaza Blanca, also known as the “White Place.” Famous as the subject of one of O’Keefe’s paintings. There is a small parking area and a locked gate at the end of the road. You can walk past the gate through a stile on the left-hand side. From there, hiking trails will take you to a wonderland of slot canyons and fantastic rock formations carved from the white sandstone. One could spend the better part of the day exploring the nooks and crannies of the “White Place.” Please respect these fragile formations and marvel at the time and the elements that went into creating the beauty before your eyes.
Plaza Blanca, also known as “The White Place”, a favorite spot for O’Keefe to paint. Photo by George Morse with the Valley Daily Post
Returning to 155, you should once again backtrack, turning left and getting back on Highway 84, where you will turn right and are once again heading north. After a little over one mile, look for a right-hand turn and a small sign for a dirt road that leads to the Purple Adobe Lavender Farm. Established in 2004, the Farm grows 15 varieties of lavender and July is a good time to visit because the lavender is blooming and filling the air with is fragrance. The Farm has a small gift shop selling lavender products and a café serving dishes made with lavender.
Purple Adobe Lavender Farm. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post
Just past the Lavender Farm on Highway 84 in the Abiquiu Inn and Café Abiquiu. Here is where you need to stop if you want to take a tour of O’Keefe’s home in the nearby village of Abiquiu. Tours of the home depart from here. The tours are arranged by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. Reservations are needed for these tours and can be done by visiting the museum website or calling (505) 946-1000.
Getting back onto Highway 84 heading north, you’ll come to the village of Abiquiu. On your right will be Bode’s General Store and on your left will be the Abiquiu Post Office. Bode’s has been a fixture in Abiquiu since 1893 and is the place to fill up with gas, pick up groceries, snacks and fishing supplies It’s a good place to grab a bite to eat and drink. They are famous for their green chile cheeseburgers.
After leaving Bode’s, cross the Highway and take the road past the post office and up the hill into the village of Abiquiu. The center of the village is the Santos Tomas Church (pictured at the top of this story), founded in the mid-1700’s. The beautiful, adobe-style church is the center of a large open plaza. Across from the church is the Pueblo de Abiquiu Library and Cultural Center. This is a great place to learn more about the village and the history of Abiquiu.
On a hill overlooking the village is the Penitente Morada. The Penitentes are an extension of the Hermandad (Brothers) and in the absence of a priest performed religious and social services in the small villages of Northern New Mexico. They are still active today. Penitentes still check on the physical and spiritual needs of village residents. Please respect the sanctity of their Morada and do not take pictures past the sign that says “No cameras.”
Leaving Abiquiu and heading north again on Highway 84, you’ll pass green irrigated fields and vineyards until you start climbing up along a canyon wall. After several sweeping turns, you’ll be able to see Abiquiu Lake. Created by damming the Chama River, the startling lake sits among spectacular scenery in stark contrast to the arid landscape.
Abiquiu Lake and Sero Perdonal Peak. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post
The lake is a magnet for water-related activities. On busy summer weekends, motorboats, water skiers and jet skies will crisscross the surface of the lake. There is good fishing for smallmouth bass and walleye in a spectacular setting. There are many developed campsites at the Lake, which is managed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. During the winter, flocks of geese and a gathering of bald eagles call the Lake home before migrating north in the spring.
Driving past the Lake on Highway 84, you’ll begin to enter the beautiful and distinctive red rock cliffs that now dominate the landscape on the right side of the Highway. On your left, the distinctive flat-topped mountain is Cerro Pedernal, which is featured in a number of paintings by O’Keefe. The 9,862-foot peak is capped by volcanic rock and is a popular hike for those in shape for the challenge
Rock formations near Ghost Ranch. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post
About 11 miles north of Abiquiu and soon after encountering the first red cliffs, there will be a right-hand turn leading to Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center. This is where O’Keefe first fell under the spell of Abiquiu and Northern New Mexico.
O’Keefe first visited the Ranch in 1934 and eventually purchased a small house and some land on the ranch where she spent her summers. She eventually moved into the village of Abiquiu in 1949.
The ranch sits at the base of the red sandstone cliffs. It is now owned by the Presbyterian Church. There are two small museums on the property. One is a Museum of Anthropology that features exhibits of the Native American and Hispanic cultures of the area.
The other is a Museum of Paleontology. The area around the Ranch is a treasure trove of fossils, including the remains on dinosaurs that one roamed the area. In 1947, a complete skeleton of Coelophysis dinosaur were unearthed near the Ranch. In 1981, the Coelophysis was designated as New Mexico’s state fossil. A cast of the skeleton is on display at the Museum, along with other fossils unearthed from the area.
New Mexico’s State Fossil at the Ghost Ranch museum. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post
There are several hikes that begin at the Ranch to some of the prominent landmarks and natural wonders found in the area. The Ranch offers guided hikes and you may also do them on your own after checking in at the Welcome Center. The Ranch offers horseback rides to its guests. Throughout the year workshops, retreats and festivals focusing on a variety of subjects are offered.
Leaving Ghost Ranch and again heading north on Highway 84, after two miles look for a sign pointing to a left turn to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. You are now on Forest Road 151. The road to the Monastery is 13 miles of dirt road that enter the Chama Canyon Wilderness. The Chama River flows through a beautiful canyon lined with the same red rock cliffs and multi-colored rocks that surround Ghost Ranch. The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Floating down the river in rafts, canoes and kayaks is a popular activity in the summer. Wildlife like elk and deer is abundant in the area.
Several hiking trails can be accessed along Forest Road 151, including the Continental Divide Trail. The Divide trail runs from Canada to Mexico. You can access the New Mexico portion of the Divide Trail at Skull Bridge, which crosses the Chama River about eight miles down Forest Road 151.
Another five miles past Skull Bridge is the Monastery. Day visitors are welcome and overnight visits can be reserved.The solitude and peacefulness of the area, augmented by the beauty of the surrounding canyon walls, lends oneself to spiritual reflection as to what it all means.
Monastery of Christ In The Desert. Photo by George Morse with the Valley Daily Post
Returning to Highway 84, just one mile north of the turnoff to the Monastery is the final stop on our tour around Abiquiu. On the left tucked into the cliffs is Echo Amphitheater Carved out of the multi-colored rocks into a natural bowl shape, this natural echo chamber is just a short hike from the parking area. Ther are campsites available and it’s a great place to stop for a picnic lunch. There are restrooms with water available.
Echo Amphitheater. Photo by George Morse for the Valley Daily Post
A few tip to those wishing to explore the area around Abiquiu. Many of the roads that lead to the destinations covered here are dirt. Most are passable in two-wheel drive vehicles under dry conditions. Make sure your tires are properly inflated and your shock absorbers in good condition.
Summer thunderstorms are common in the area. Under wet conditions on some dirt roads, it may be best to pull over and wait until the rain stops and the road dries out. Heavy downpours can lead to flash floods, some of which can be damaging and even dangerous. Do not drive through running water. You don’t know how deep it is and it takes surprisingly shallow flows to move a vehicle.
When hiking be sure to bring some water along with you. Insects are not usually a problem, but sunscreen would be beneficial to have.
There is much more to see and discover around Abiquiu. To find out more about the destinations covered here, visit their websites online. Most importantly, get out and explore this fascinating area that literally lies on the doorstep of the Espanola Valley.