Preparing for an African Safari

It’s such a huge bucket list trip for me that I don’t know how to express what a big deal this is. I’m still pinching myself. Getting ready for a safari: insurance, health concerns, and what to bring: luggage options, and packing list

Cub with full grown male lion
Lions. Cub checks out dad. Photograph, Krylov1991 – iStock Photos.

We’re going to Zambia on safari!¬†

It’s such a huge bucket list trip for me that I don’t know how to express what a big deal this is. I’m still pinching myself.

Ten years ago, a dear colleague who taught at my college talked about his trips to Africa with his wife. They’ve been so many times now, they’ve lost count. Bob told me — when you’re able to go on safari, we’d say, take Robin Pope.

Zebra sighting. Walking in the bush in Zambia.
Zebra sighting. Walking in the bush in Zambia. Photograph courtesy of Robin Pope Safaris.

Robin Pope grew up in Zambia in the 1960’s. He began doing safari work in 1975, and ten years later, launched his own business, Robin Pope Safaris with his first camp at Tena Tena. In 1991 Robin Pope began offering walking safaris — the very first of their kind in Africa. Today, the company has ten different camps and lodges they either own or use to put together a variety of safari options tailored to their guests’ interests.

I signed up for the Robin Pope Safari (RPS) newsletter, never thinking we could really be able to do a trip to Africa. Every week, the “It’s Monday” newsletter came in. Some weeks I had the time to read it, and I would daydream about what they were doing. It’s one of the happiest things that arrives in my email inbox each week.

Last fall, my sister Carolyn and I started talking about doing a safari trip in Africa. We both did research, looking at many companies, and finally decided we liked Robin Pope best for us. Deciding factors for choosing Robin Pope Safaris: very small safari groups, great reviews, beautiful camps and lodges, variety of itineraries offered, and of course, the advice from my friends Bob and Andrea.

Overview video of Robin Pope Safaris:

I was very interested in Robin Pope’s walking safaris, but since my daughter Catherine is only eighteen, we could not do a complete mobile walking safari (must be 21 years old). We could, however, do a three day bush camping experience in the Luangwa area as part of our trip. Catherine is a girlie girl– I look forward to seeing how this goes! ūüôā

Room at the Tena Tena camp of Robin Pope Safaris.
Room at the Tena Tena camp of Robin Pope Safaris. Photograph courtesy of Robin Pope.
Luangwa River Bush Camp with Robin Pope Safaris.
Bush camping with Robin Pope along the Luangwa River. Photograph courtesy of Robin Pope.

We’ll be on safari for 12 days in Zambia, with three nights each at the RPS permanent camps: Tena Tena, Luwangwa River Camp, and Nsefu — all very luxurious and comfortable. I am perhaps most excited about the three nights we’ll out doing mobile bush camping. I can hardly wait!

Videos from Robin Pope Safaris on their camp at Tena Tena and mobile bush camping:

Health Concerns, Travel Insurance, and Medical Evacuation Insurance for Africa

Health and safety while traveling abroad need to be, must be, high our priority list.

Before choosing our African safari, we visited the U.S. Department of State to review current information on the countries we were considering. Look up the country you are considering on the government website, and the State Department lists all requirements for entry (visas) and exit, current health information and suggested vaccinations, and any security concerns. Visit the State Department website for information on any country you might visit.

To get vaccinations, consult your own physician first –It’s imperative to know whether you have other health issues you need to discuss before getting vaccinations. If your doctor does not do this kind of vaccination work, he or she may recommend where you should go.

Live oral Typhoid vaccine. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Live oral Typhoid vaccine. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

I used¬†Passport Health¬†that has locations around the United States. Downside to using Passport Health: to use your health insurance, you will have to put in the claim yourself afterwards — ¬†Passport Health will not do this. You will pay them upfront, and vaccinations are expensive. My sister, who lives in Austin Texas, found that Austin Regional Clinic has a travel medical RN on staff, and they do take insurance. It’s worth doing some internet homework to see what your local options are.

Catherine gets a shot
Catherine takes her medicine :). While shots aren’t fun, vaccinations for travel in Africa are crucial.

Update: My daughter Catherine and I visited Passport Health yesterday. With her vaccination records, the only shot she needed was Tetanus. Medication for Malaria is oral; I pick that up at the pharmacy tomorrow. We opted for the oral version of the Typhoid vaccine because it will remain effective for up to five years, while the shot only lasts two years.

I was the unlucky one ūüė¶ — I needed three shots: Tetanus, an update for measles/mumps/rubella, and Hepatitis A. Today, I feel like a mule kicked my left arm!

Other questions to consider: Do you have medication that has to be kept cool?

My sister does — an injectable medicine. Although it can be unrefrigerated for several days, we couldn’t go two weeks.¬†We contacted Robin Pope Safaris on this question, and they have refrigeration and ice everywhere we will stay. Talk to your safari company ahead if this is a concern for you. ¬†*** Update: Robin Pope Safaris were great about providing space in the refrigerator in the permanent camps, and an ice chest when we were doing full-on bush camping. Very easy, and Carolyn had no problems. One note: if you use syringes, either bring a sharps container to dispose of the needles with the camp staff before you fly home, or bring the needles back out with you.

The next question: what if you become ill just before or during your safari?

Perhaps the single most important purchase you’ll make prior to any trip is your insurance purchase. I think reading through the page from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) may be one of the most important three minutes of time you can take before traveling abroad anywhere:¬†Travel Insurance, Travel Health Insurance, & Medical Evacuation Insurance.

Travel insurance is ALWAYS an important consideration when you’re taking a trip, particularly an expensive one. You just don’t know whether something beyond your control will occur that will prevent you from taking the trip.

I’ve¬†purchased trip insurance directly from both¬†Allianz Global Assistance¬†and¬†Berkshire Hathaway¬†in years past. Both have great reputations, and each company’s website makes it super-easy to get an immediate quote. ¬†Like always, do your homework, read reviews, but these are two good companies as a starting point. When you’re doing research for your safari, be sure to get insurance quotes from a couple of companies because this is definitely part of your trip cost, and you want to be aware of it upfront.

We also bought air medical transport insurance through MedJet Assist. If something happens while you’re abroad and you are hospitalized, they will¬†arrange medical transport for you to get you to your home hospital. There are different purchase options — you can buy it for a single trip, or enroll in an annual membership program, which is what I did since I travel often. There are many medical evacuation insurance options out there to review and consider. Others possibilities to review: Allianz Medevac, IMG Sky Rescue, Frontier MedEx, and American Express.

Because American insurance companies rarely cover treatment in hospitals outside the US, patients may have to pay thousands of dollars upfront before getting treatment. Medical travel insurance isn’t that expensive, and it’s such a risk to travel without it.

From the CDC:

“Although travel health insurance will cover some health care costs abroad, the quality of care may be inadequate, and medical evacuation from a resource-poor area to a hospital where definitive care can be obtained may be necessary. The cost of evacuation can exceed $100,000. In such cases, medical evacuation insurance would cover the cost of transportation to a facility where adequate care can be provided. Medical evacuation companies may have better resources and experience in some parts of the world than others; travelers may want to ask about a company‚Äôs resources in a given area, especially if planning a trip to remote destinations. The traveler should scrutinize all policies before purchase, looking for those that provide the following:

  • Arrangements with hospitals to guarantee payments directly
  • Assistance via a 24-hour physician-backed support center (critical for medical evacuation insurance)
  • Emergency medical transport to facilities that are equivalent to those in the home country or to the home country itself (repatriation)
  • Any specific medical services that may apply to their circumstances, such as coverage of high-risk activities

Even if an insurance provider is selected carefully, travelers should be aware that unexpected delays in care may still arise, especially in remote destinations. In special circumstances, travelers may be advised to postpone or cancel international trips if the health risks are too¬†high.” — From the CDC website, article by Rhett Stoney

If you have pre-existing conditions will you be covered by trip insurance? This information from Allianz on this question is typical, but you want to read and understand this issue with each insurance company you consider.

Elephant sighting in the Luangwa River preserve.
Elephant sighting in the Luangwa River preserve. Photograph courtesy of Robin Pope Safaris.

Packing for an African Safari

Now the trip is imminent and we’re working on packing.

Packing for a safari in Africa brings a whole new meaning to concept of traveling light. How heavy I pack varies widely depending on the trip. When I camp, things are pretty simple. When I go to Europe, I never manage to pack quite as light as Rick Steves recommends — I mean, I’m a woman. I like clothes and shoes.

My family is launching off on the biggest trip, in terms of distance to travel, that we’ve ever made. And we will carry less clothing and stuff than we ever have in the past.

Pelican hard case 1560LFC for camera and laptop. I considered this — great case, but simply won’t work on the safari I’m going on. Pelican 1560LFC Laptop Case With Foam

To complicate things further, the US has banned laptops, tablets, and camera equipment¬†in carry-on luggage coming from Turkey and some middle eastern countries. This happened months after we booked our air. We are flying Emirates business class through Dubai, something we are very excited about doing, but it means that ¬†I’ll have to check my camera gear and laptop on the flight home.

Pelican cases for laptops, cameras and video equipment have a great reputation (Pelican 1560LFC Laptop Case With Foam), but won’t meet the requirements for the Proflight¬†Zambia flight¬†we’ll take from Lusaka to Mfuwe. I may invest in a Pelican case soon though, because I expect to see similar bans on laptops and camera gear coming for all overseas flights in the near future.

Luggage must be soft sided. Duffel type bags recommended.

  • Checked luggage limit: 15kgs (33 lbs.)
    • Total dimensions of luggage may not exceed 157 cms. (61 inches) Add the length, width and height of your luggage to obtain its total dimensions.
  • Carryon 5 kgs (11 lbs)
  • Proflight Zambia will allow passengers to share weight allowances (which means between my sister, myself, and my daughter, we’ll share 45kgs for checked bags and 15 kgs of hand luggage. This will help with our camera gear. Check to see whether your flight company allows this).

Camera crews that come into Africa often buy extra seats on the airline to accommodate additional heavy luggage.

Tenba Shootout 24L backpack. Capacity: 1-2 DSLRs with 4-6 lenses, plus flash and accessories.

I’ve opted for¬†a Tenba 24L backpack for my DSLR. It will come with me on the airline on the way there, and travel back as checked baggage. I’ve owned a Tenba messenger bag for my camera for over two years now. It’s rock solid and looks as good as it did when I bought it. You’ve gotta love bags like that. ** — I’ll report back after the trip on whether is was successful. Update: This worked perfectly! I checked it on Emirates for the flight back to the United States, and all of my camera gear arrived home with no problems.

My daughter and I are each bringing a Patagonia 60L Black Hole Duffel. I’ve had the smaller 45L version for awhile, and love how tough and protective it is, while being very lightweight. Here are a variety of duffels to consider, some with wheels, from Patagonia, The North Face, High Sierra, and Eagle Creek, that might work on your African safari.

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel bags in the 60L size.
Patagonia Black Hole Duffel bags in the 60L size. 15-oz 900-denier 100% polyester ripstop (50% solution-dyed) with a TPU-film laminate and a DWR (durable water repellent) finish. Bluesign approved.
Original packing list, per person: Updated July 11, 2017: Revised packing list, post-trip
  • 3 sets bush colored safari outfits: shirt + pants (or shorts)
  • 2 sets evening camp clothes: long sleeved shirt + pants (1 set worn on plane)
  • 7 pair undies
  • 2 bras (1 worn) — we did sports bras
  • 4 pair socks
  • 2 sleep shirts
  • 2 pairs shoes (one worn)
  • small flashlight
  • sunscreen
  • bug repellent
  • extra pair of vision glasses
  • broad brimmed hat
  • sunglasses
  • Jacket (carried on flight)
  • toiletries and makeup
  • medications
  • copy of passport
  • copies of travel insurance
  • binoculars
  • Small daypack (we used REI Flashpacks 18L and 22 L that squash down to nothing)
  • 4 sets bush colored safari outfits: shirt + pants (or shorts)
  • 1 sets evening camp clothes: long sleeved shirt + pants (1 set worn on plane) *** No one “dressed up” for dinner in our camps, they simply donned clean clothes post shower. Review your itinerary. If you are going to Livingstone, you might want something dressier. Check with your safari company.
  • 7 pair undies — you will need to wash your own underwear
  • 3 sports bras (1 worn) — you will need to wash your bras, which take longer than undies to dry.
  • 5 pair socks
  • 2 sleep shirts
  • 2 pairs shoes – hiking boots and tennis shoes (one worn)
  • small flashlight
  • sunscreen
  • bug repellent
  • extra pair of vision glasses
  • broad brimmed hat
  • 2 pair sunglasses
  • Jacket (carried on flight)
  • toiletries and makeup
  • medications
  • copy of passport
  • copies of travel insurance
  • binoculars
  • pair of sandals or flip-flops
  • Small daypack (we used REI Flashpacks 18L and 22 L that squash down to nothing — these were perfect, both on our walking safari days, and for game drives)

Colors to avoid: black and blue colors attract Tse Tse flies. Do not wear any camouflage — only the military wears this. White — not a great idea; it gets dirty easily, stands out in the bush, and may attract mosquitoes. No bright colors OR light colors for bush walking — it’s best not to stand out if you’re looking for animals. White and cream stick out like sore thumbs in the bush, and should be avoided. Stay with khakis, natural greens like olive, and sand colors. Bring flat, comfortable walking shoes. Hiking boots are not necessary on drive-only safaris, but if you are doing ANY walking, you should have hiking boots that protect your ankles from often severely uneven terrain. Additionally, if you are in parts of Africa with thorn trees, those thorns can easily puncture the sole of regular tennis shoes. Seek advice from your tour operator for specific guidelines.

Most safari companies will not wash underwear, so be prepared to wash it yourself.

Never used packing cubes? This video on eBags Ultralight cubes shows why this packing strategy works so well.
Never used packing cubes? This video on eBags Ultralight cubes shows why this packing strategy works so well.

I have used packing cubes to organize my luggage for years. It makes SO much difference whenever I’m looking for something — particularly in a duffel, where otherwise your clothes and toiletries quickly become a jumbled mess. Since weight is a major consideration, a bought a set of the ultra lightweight eBags cubes — that way I am still organized, but I know the cubes haven’t taken much of my weight allotment. Update: These Ultralight cubes were perfect! During our bush camping, they moved camp every night, which meant we had to be packed every morning VERY early. The cubes made it a snap to put things back together quickly.

Obviously, it is extremely important that you really know how much your luggage weighs. This is not something you want to guess at — the “gee, it seems light enough” gage is not good enough. If you do not own a luggage scale, get one. They aren’t expensive, and it just makes so much sense. Luggage scales by eBags, Travelon, Lewis N. Clark, Victorinox, and others.

We’ve practiced packing, and we are as prepared as we can be. I’ll update this article upon return from Zambia with lessons learned.

Silhouette of giraffe on the savannah at sunset
Photograph, Kanoke_46, iStock Photos.

*** I have affiliate marketing relationships with eBags, Amazon, and Allianz¬†but this will never affect my reviews of products. If it’s a mediocre or shabby product, I’m going to tell it like it is. If you buy a product or service by clicking on an affiliate link, I will get a small commission, at no extra cost to you, my reader. This helps support the writing and photography work I do. Many thanks!


Ghost Ranch

In the great wide open places, I can see the forever.

The sky enfolds you, and then you are inside it. Whatever small place you came from is no more because you are part of that sky and the big beyond, and the rest isn’t important.

When the Spanish first rode into this valley in northern New Mexico, they called it Piedre Lumbre — the shining stone.

Behind Chimney Rock, looking across the valley towards Cerro Pedernal. Photograph, iStock Photos.

In the great wide open places, I can see the forever.

The sky enfolds you, and then you are inside it. Whatever small place you came from is no more because you are part of that sky and the big beyond, and the rest isn’t important.

When the Spanish first rode into this valley in northern New Mexico, they called it Piedre Lumbre — the shining stone. Ghost Ranch is a part of territory known as the Piedre Lumbre land grant.

In March, I visited Ghost Ranch on a day trip from Santa Fe. I was so immediately taken with the physical beauty of the valley that I stayed two days, then returned a month later for a full week. Once the red rocks are part of you, you will always go back, always seek out these places.

Panoramic view, looking towards the red rock formations at Ghost Ranch.
Panoramic view, looking towards the red rock formations at Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

On my first night¬†back, I spent time thinking about where I wanted to shoot at sunrise, and decided on the cabin which has been used in a number¬†of films. I set my alarm for early — then made the mistake of hitting the snooze button. Twice, I think. Then it was rush, rush, rush!¬† Make quick coffee, grab my gear, and hit it.

Grey morning light, coffee threatening to splash out of the paper cup, and I drive down off the mesa. But I want to see that first warm light break across the grass. To see the light on the little cabin and the Pedernal.

It was a damned cold morning, but you can’t manipulate camera controls with your gloves on. Just doesn’t work. Oddly, after shooting for thirty minutes, my fingers were so frozen they didn’t work anyway. I sat on my hands in the car for a few minutes and drank cold coffee.

I got back out, and went back at it for another twenty minutes before heading to breakfast.

Early morning sun hits the cabin, the mountain Cerro Pedernal in the distance.
Early morning sun hits the cabin, the mountain Cerro Pedernal in the distance. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
City Slickers Cabin on Ghost Ranch at sunrise, Pedernal mountain in the distance.
Here’s the cabin again, this time in color. Photograph, Ann Fisher

This shot was my favorite. I liked the way the cabin’s roof line and chimney ran along with the Pedernal and the mountains lining the horizon.

The black and white version (above) worked best for me, but the color image is good as well, the grass golden in the morning light — and the whole thing seeming much warmer than it felt!

I love the editing process — dumping everything into the computer and having a look in LightRoom.

But here’s the trick. You only get to pick one picture. Maybe two. I remember the days of watching a neighbor’s slide show from a trip. Some of you know what I’m talking about — when you had to sit and watch 200 slides. Seemed like 20,000. Let me slit my wrists with a dull butter knife! No one wants to see all of those pictures — I don’t care where you went! Pick¬†a small group of images that tell the story.

So, what is Ghost Ranch?

It’s surprising how few people know anything about Ghost Ranch.

I was talking to someone the other day who didn’t know who Georgia O’Keeffe was. “I’ve just come back from Ghost Ranch.”

“Was it scary?”

I cocked my head to the side. “No . . . you know — it’s the place that Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted.”

“Who is Georgia O’Keeffe?”

I blinked. As someone with a degree in Art History, I forget that knowledge of artists, even major ones, isn’t a given. So I told her, and looked up several paintings on my phone so that she could see.

“Oh, yeah. I’ve seen that one before.”

Seen that one before . . .

Ram's Head with Hollyhock-Hills. Georgia O'Keeffe. 1935.
Ram’s Head with Hollyhock-Hills. Georgia O’Keeffe. 1935.

The history of Ghost Ranch is a rich one — whether you want to talk about the dinosaurs that roamed here in the Triassic period, the native peoples who lived here before the arrival of the Spanish, or the murderous, cattle-rustling Archuleta brothers of the late 1800’s when the property was known as the Rancho de los Brujos — Ranch of the Witches.

Ansel Adam's photograph of O'Keeffe painting inside her car on Ghost Ranch.
Georgia O’Keeffe painting in her car at Ghost Ranch. 1937 photograph by Ansel Adams, who was a good friend of O’Keeffe’s.

The two museums on the ranch, Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology, and Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, help tell the stories of the dinosaurs and the native peoples who lived on this land. For the soap-opera stories of the cattle rustlers, you could take the History Tour, or pick up the Ghost Ranch book by Lesley Poling-Kempes from the trading post.

By the time Georgia O’Keeffe first found her way to Ghost Ranch in 1934, it was owned by Arthur Pack and operated as a dude ranch, much to O’Keeffe’s chagrin.

Georgia was so taken with the landscape that she put up with the dudes and dudettes, renting a little cottage the first year, and then the house called Ranchos de los Burros which was further removed from the other guests. O’Keeffe finally bought the house and the few acres around it from Arthur Pack in 1940.

Later in his life, Arthur Pack donated Ghost Ranch (over 21,000 acres) to the Presbyterian Church, and it has operated retreat center for more than fifty-five years.

The House I Live In. Painting, 1937. Georgia O'Keeffe.
The House I Live In. 1937. Georgia O’Keeffe.

So, you’re making a trip to New Mexico, and you want to tour the house where Georgia O’Keeffe lived?

Which one?¬†There¬†is definitely some confusion about the difference between Ghost Ranch, and the O’Keeffe houses.

You can visit O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu, but only on a guided tour through the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. If you want to do the Abiquiu house tour, contact the Museum the minute you know you’re going. I’ve been to New Mexico twice in two months, and still have not gotten to see the house.

O’Keeffe’s house at Ghost Ranch is owned by the O’Keeffe museum as well, but is not currently open to the public. At some point in the future, the Museum indicates it will be, but there is no firm date set. You can see her Ghost Ranch house from a distance on one the the O’Keeffe tours.

Photograph of the real landscape O'Keeffe used for Red Hills with Pedernal
O’Keeffe walked through the red hills in her “backyard” almost daily when she lived at Ghost Ranch. Following in the artist’s footsteps is a wonderful experience. Red hills with Pedernal in the background. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds. 1936. Georgia O'Keeffe.
Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds. 1936. Georgia O’Keeffe.

O’Keeffe Landscape Tours

In 2004, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum put on an exhibition called Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place. A book by Barbara Buehler Lynes of the same name was also published in 2004.

Public interest in being in the landscapes that the artist painted grew.

Suddenly people were showing up at Ghost Ranch wanting to walk into the painting landscapes, which was both good and bad. Great because Ghost Ranch needs the income that visitors bring, and dangerous in the potential for destroying the red hills O’Keeffe painted.

The solution? Restrict public access to the O’Keeffe portion of the ranch. Why? If thousands of visitors go tromping up, over, around and through O’Keeffe’s red hills, they will no longer look the her hills. Footprints in this dry landscape take months, sometimes years to disappear.

O'Keeffe Landscape tour
Walking into O’Keeffe’s landscapes and having a chance to photograph her painting locations was an amazing experience. This is my favorite tour at Ghost Ranch.

I applaud Ghost Ranch for working to preserve this special place. There are only three ways to see this part of the ranch: on horseback, on a small shuttle bus, or on a walking tour. These tours limit impact by either staying on the gravel road (shuttle bus), or following two standard, single file paths. The walking tour is limited to eight guests, and when I was there, only ran twice a week.

O'Keeffe Landscape tour looking towards yellow cliffs
O’Keeffe Landscape small bus tour at Ghost Ranch. This tour takes you closer to the yellow and white cliffs that O’Keeffe loved so much.

Each tour is a little different — obviously — but so is what you’ll see. I went on the shuttle bus tour three times. Yes, three. The light and clouds were different each time. Then I took the walking tour. Maybe next time, I’ll saddle up and head out on the trail ride . . . Read more about the O’Keeffe Landscape tours and horseback trail riding on the Ghost Ranch web site.

If you are only at Ghost Ranch for the day, the bus tour or the trail ride are your best options, since they run every day, and in the busy season, several times a day. On the bus tour, guests get out at several stops to take photographs

Georgia O’Keeffe and her relationship with her lover/mentor/husband/promoter Alfred Stieglitz is a fascinating part of the artist’s life.

Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe. c. 1939. Ansel Adams
Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. c. 1939. Ansel Adams

If you don’t know much O’Keeffe and Stieglitz,¬†there are a couple O’Keeffe biographies from which to choose. Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle is my favorite. Another to consider is Full Bloom by¬†Hunter Drohojowska-Philp; this one a very full biography, but I find the writing style dull.

I also recommend watching the 2009 film Georgia O’Keeffe, starring Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz, and partially filmed at Ghost Ranch. It is as well done as a two hour bio-pic could be, in my opinion. O’Keeffe lived to be nearly one hundred years old, and this film would arguably have made a better mini-series to do justice to her life. I found Jeremy Irons particularly brilliant as Stieglitz.

Joan Allen as O'Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz in the 2009 film, Georgia O'Keeffe.
Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz in the 2009 film, Georgia O’Keeffe.

Ghost Ranch Goes Hollywood

If you think that parts of Ghost Ranch seem familiar to you, well, you’re probably right.

Between 1985 and 2016, ten major motion pictures filmed in New Mexico used Ghost Ranch as a filming location. This doesn’t mean the entirety of each film was shot here; the amount of Ghost Ranch footage varies in each picture.

Movie Poster from all the movies filmed at Ghost Ranch
Ghost Ranch is a popular filming location. Here are the movie posters for Silverado, Young Guns, City Slickers, Wyatt Earp, All the Pretty Horses, Missing, 310 to Yuma, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Magnificent Seven.
Byung-hun Lee at the Ghost Ranch City Slickers Cabin. Magnificent 7 film.
South Korean star Byung-hun Lee, shows off his mad knife throwing skills in The Magnificent Seven. Note the Ghost Ranch cabin in the background.

Movies that used Ghost Ranch as a location for for scenes include: Silverado (1985), Young Guns (1988), City Slickers (1991),Wyatt Earp (1994), All the Pretty Horses (2000), Missing (2003),  310 to Yuma (2007), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Cowboys & Aliens (2010), The Magnificent Seven (2016).

If you’re a movie buff, Ghost Ranch does give a Movie Location Tour, but it is by reservation only. Be sure to call a week or more before your visit to make the arrangements so you don’t miss out while you’re there. Summer is Ghost Ranch’s busiest season, so I’d plan even further even out if that’s when you are going to visit.

You do not need to go on the Movie Location Tour to see the City Slickers cabin (in the photographs above). That site is right off the dirt road leading into Ghost Ranch — so very easy access.

Day Trip

Ghost Ranch makes a great day trip from either Santa Fe or from Taos. I warn you,¬†it’s very hard to leave Ghost Ranch after spending a single day, but it’s better than not seeing this beautiful place at all. From Santa Fe, it took me about one hour and fifteen minutes to reach Ghost Ranch. Google Maps show a drive time of 1.5 hours from Taos to Ghost Ranch. You’ll pay a $5 Conservation fee at the Welcome Center that gives you access to the ranch and the museums.

I’d plan on a full day. Read about the hikes, tours, and museums, and call ahead to reserve space if you choose to do a tour.¬†Plan to have lunch (12:00 – 1:00) at the ranch, and possibly dinner as well, to give you as much time as possible to explore this special place.

View toward Kitchen Mesa from the Matrimonial Mesa hike at sunset, Ghost Ranch New Mexico
View toward Kitchen Mesa from the Matrimonial Mesa hike at sunset. Photograph, Ann Fisher.


Hiking at Ghost Ranch is a favorite past time for many people. Read about the different hiking trails on ranch’s website, and choose one that suits your abilities and time. Use the sign in sheet at the Welcome Center before you go and after you return. Borrow a walking stick.

Retreats and Workshops

Ghost Ranch has a full set of retreat and workshop offerings that run all year long. Whether you’re interested in spiritual retreats, an art, photography, or writing workshops, outdoor adventure, you almost certain to find one that you’d enjoy.

Accommodations and Food

You can stay at Ghost Ranch overnight — which I heartily recommend. There are a range of room types, some with shared restrooms, many with private restrooms. They also have a campground with spaces for both RVs and tents.

Room in the Coyote building on the upper mesa at Ghost Ranch.
Room in the Coyote building on the upper mesa at Ghost Ranch.

What are the rooms like? They are basic, but clean and comfortable. You need to remember this is a retreat center, not a hotel, and certainly not a resort. There are no televisions or in-room phones, and the only wi-fi at Ghost Ranch is in the Library. When you come here, it is to be with and in the amazing landscape.

One important thing to note: the rooms have heaters, but are NOT air-conditioned. In the summer, temperatures in the day are hot, but cool down to around¬†60 ¬įF (15.5 ¬įC) the evening (check average temperatures and rainfall for Abiquiu here).

What did I think about the rooms? I stayed two nights in March (Aspen building), and loved Ghost Ranch so much I returned for a full week in April (Coyote building, upper mesa). I had a sitting room and a bedroom. I was very comfortable, and I loved sitting outside my room in Coyote on the upper mesa and watching the sun go down while I had a drink. I will certainly return and stay again.

View of the Coyote building on upper mesa, Ghost Ranch.
View of the Coyote building on upper mesa, walking back up from breakfast. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Personally, I would have a difficult time handling the heat in the summer. I like to retreat to my room during the afternoon, particularly in hot climates, to read, edit pictures, and write. I couldn’t do this here in the summer. I think the evenings would be fine, since the temperatures drop to near 60 ¬įF, the windows are screened, and there are small fans. If lack of AC is a problem¬†for you, then consider staying at the Abiquiu Inn.

The Dining Hall at Ghost Ranch serves three meals a day in a cafeteria set up. The menu changes daily. You buy meal tickets at the Welcome Center, and you can eat at the Dining Hall, even if you’re just at Ghost Ranch for a day trip.¬†Meals are served for ONE hour only. Be sure you get the schedule at the Welcome Center, and be there, or be square!

The food is good, and there is plenty of it. The menus change daily. At dinner, the hot food line includes two main meal offerings, one of which is always vegetarian, along with vegetables. If you have problems with gluten or soy, or are vegan, please call Ghost Ranch directly to find out what options there are. At lunch, the main food line may have sandwich makings, or it may be a hot meal. There is always a good salad bar, and I saw vegetable proteins and cheese available each day I was there.  At breakfast, the hot food line may feature an egg dish, or perhaps pancakes. There is always oatmeal, and cold cereal. At breakfast, the salad bar turns into a fruit bar that also has yogurt.

What more can I say? I found Ghost Ranch to be one of the most beautiful parts of¬†New Mexico. I know I’ll return many times to this special place.

View towards the mountain Pedernal from the Kitchen Mesa hike at. Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Erin Vanelle
View towards the mountain Pedernal from the Kitchen Mesa hike at. Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Erin Vanella.

** It’s important to note that while the Presbyterian Church owns Ghost Ranch, it no longer contributes financially to support it. The Ghost Ranch Foundation is now responsible for care, preservation, and maintenance of the ranch and its facilities. Through out this article, I have linked to books at the Ghost Ranch trading post. If you are thinking about purchasing books on Ghost Ranch or Georgia O’Keeffe, please consider buying from the ranch website. To find out more about the Ghost Ranch Foundation, link here.