It’s hard to imagine that many ranches in New Mexico have a more varied or colorful history than Ghost Ranch. Its story features everything from dinosaurs to cattle rustlers, Georgia O’Keeffe and the ghost of a giant rattlesnake.
Ghost Ranch is a 21,000-acre education center and retreat not far from the village of Abiquiú in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico. Take a massive leap back in time, however, and this area, along with what is now the American Southwest, was very different.
About 200 million years ago, it was all located close to the equator, at which time it had a warm and monsoon-like climate. And back then, dinosaurs roamed across the area now occupied by Ghost Ranch. In 1947, the paleontologist Edwin Colbert discovered more than a thousand well-preserved fossilized skeletons of a small dinosaur called Coelophysis in a quarry on the ranch. Further discoveries in the last two decades have only cemented the ranch’s reputation among paleontologists worldwide.
Dinosaurs weren’t the only one to call the area home. Around 10,000 years ago, the Paleo Indian cultures of the Chama Valley lived on the land now occupied by the ranch. After them came the Athabaskans, followed by their descendants, the Navajo and Apache.
Then came the Spanish settlers and, in the late 1800s, the notorious Archuleta brothers. These cattle-rustling brothers claimed the land and built basic cedar-and-adobe structures for their homes. They then set about stealing cattle and hiding them in the box canyon.
To help keep prying eyes away from their base of operations, they began to spread the rumor that the land was haunted by evil spirits (a rumor that may have dated back to the Navajo). The ranch became known among locals as Rancho de los Brujos, or Ranch of the Witches. Cursed or not, one brother ended up killing the other during an argument about gold, after which a group of locals arrived at the ranch and promptly hung the remaining brother from a tree. And so ended the Archuleta brothers.
In 1928, the ranch changed hands after being lost in a game of poker. The new owner officially named it Ghost Ranch. It was then purchased in 1936 by Arthur Pack, a wealthy American naturalist and writer who founded the American Nature Association and Nature Magazine. It was Pack’s glowing reviews of the area that enticed Georgia O’Keeffe to visit. The artist soon fell in love with the ranch and began to divide her time between it and New York. She eventually bought a small piece of the ranch, before later moving to the nearby village of Abiquiú.
Arthur Pack gave the ranch to the Presbyterian Church in 1955, and the church continues to run it as an education center and spiritual retreat to this day. But despite the presence of the Presbyterians, certain ghostly legends stubbornly refuse to die.
The most persistent of these legends is that of Vivaron, a mythical 30-foot rattlesnake spirit that is said to live under Mesa Huerfano (Orphan Mesa) at Ghost Ranch. Vivaron’s standing was enough to inspire the name of a whole new species of rauisuchid (an extinct group of crocodile-like archosaurs), fossils of which were found during an excavation at Ghost Ranch. The new rauisuchid, Vivaron haydeni, was officially recognized and named in 2016. And the large reptile, which measured up to 18 feet long, doesn’t sound all that different from the ghost of Vivaron. Spooky.