CDT 2021: Day 37, Ghost Ranch to Harris Bear Spring

Ain't but one way out

Walking through Ghost Ranch

There wasn't much traffic on the highway near us, so I had no problem sleeping last night.

My tent and quilt were covered with condensation when I woke up this morning. Zigzag had the same problem. We usually wait to lay out these items to dry when we stop for lunch but decided to hang them to dry before we left our campsite.

DateThursday, May 20, 2021
WeatherIncreasing cloudiness, with mid-afternoon thunderstorm; temperatures from the mid-40s to mid-60s
Trail ConditionsAlternating between gravel roads and difficult trails; becoming muddy after a rainstorm
Today's Miles16.1
Trip Miles559.5

We had extra time this morning because Ghost Ranch wasn't open to day guests until 9 a.m. While our gear was drying in the sun, I explored the area to kill time. Everything dried quickly, and we were ready to go long before opening time.

We calculated how long it would take us to walk to the ranch's Welcome Center and left when we could arrive at 9:00.

Entering Ghost Ranch

After crossing U.S. Highway 84, we walked through the entrance gate at Ghost Ranch. This was where we attempted to get a little shelter two days ago, hunkering down against a shed during a torrential thunderstorm.

Seeing the shed reminded me of those couple of hours when we were pounded by a cold, driving rain while trying to keep the gusty wind from blowing away our groundsheets. In the moment, the storm felt like one of legendary proportions.

Actually, Ghost Ranch is a place known for several legends. One is told about a 30-foot rattlesnake spirit named Vivaron. When fossils of a crocodile-like carnivore were found nearby, the creature was given the name of the mythical snake.

A flying saucer sticker on a cattle crossing sign

I'm not aware of any legends at Ghost Ranch involving flying saucers, though scenes for the movie Cowboys and Aliens were filmed here. Still, I laughed and wondered if there were claims of UFO sightings. Someone had put a sticker of a flying saucer on a cattle crossing sign as we entered the ranch.

City Slickers cabin

Just beyond the sign stood a cabin in a picturesque setting. It was used in scenes of another movie, City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance.

Other movies shot on location at Ghost Ranch include 3:10 to Yuma, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Wyatt Earp, and Silverado.

Zigzag leaves the Ghost Ranch Welcome Center

When we walked up to the welcome center, an employee was outside to check for registrations. She couldn't find us on her list. We started to pull out our phones to show her we had paid the fee yesterday, but she waved us on. She said she might not have an updated list, which seemed odd, but at least we weren't hassled about it.

We didn't stay long at the welcome center. I bought an ice cream bar for a few extra calories and refilled my water bottle.

People were milling around outside, waiting for one of the tours that are given here. Many tours are focused on the life and works of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, who lived on and near Ghost Ranch for much of her life.

Ghost Ranch has guest accommodations, a library, recreational facilities, and two museums, one dedicated to paleontology and the other to anthropology. It was owned for many years by the Presbyterian Church. That affiliation ended in 2017 when it was turned over to an independent foundation.

Several fossils of dinosaurs, reptiles, and fishes from the Triassic era have been found at Ghost Ranch. I would have liked to stay long enough to take a tour and visit the museums.

Taking a long break for sightseeing would be nice, but there are practical reasons that make such a stay difficult. Our food supply is limited and calculated for the time we need to reach the next town. A bigger limitation is the amount of time necessary to walk to Canada. I have to stay mindful of my use of time on the trail.

Walking through Ghost Ranch

I filed away my thoughts of touring the museum for a possible trip to New Mexico in the future and began walking through the ranch. The Ghost Ranch Alternate went through the central grounds of the facility, past buildings used for activities and guest accommodations.

Zigzag and I had a little difficulty following the route because it wasn't marked for CDT thru-hikers. Several roads intersected along the way and added to the confusion. We had to consult the Guthook app several times.

A sandstone bluff at Ghost Ranch

We found the correct road and followed it to the open desert. Large bluffs stood ahead. These were frequent subjects of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of the New Mexico landscape.

Entering a narrow canyon at Ghost Ranch

The route eventually left the road, although the basemap on the Guthook app showed the trail was still on a road. The trail became narrow and overgrown in places as it entered a narrow canyon.

Cairns were placed along the way to help navigate this section, but it was still difficult to follow.

Zigzag scrambles over rocks

Soon, we were scrambling over rocks. The trail was beginning to feel like we were following a section of the Appalachian Trail in Maine.

Walking deeper into the canyon

As we continued deeper into the canyon, I began to sense this was not the trail. Although we had started through the canyon on a marked footpath, the canyon was becoming more narrow. A footpath was still there but was gradually becoming invisible. Then we came to what appeared to be a dead end. We couldn't find any way to climb out.

Finally, I stopped to check my app again and discovered we had somehow wandered off the correct route. This was infuriating because we had intently followed cairns and a footpath.

While I was checking the app to see how to get on the correct path, I looked at comments for clues about where we went wrong and what we needed to look for to get back on track. I found one comment that was both funny and helpful. It was posted by Dixie, who is known to many hikers for her YouTube channel.

"There is a stream flowing through here. Also, at 12.7 of the Alternate you'll turn left at a blue coffee can and then follow Blue paint on rocks," she wrote. "If you continue straight and don't turn at coffee can, you'll end up going over a rock slide and realizing you're at a dead end in a canyon. Ask me how I know."

Zigzag walks back

"Thanks, Dixie," I said to myself, "but I don't have to ask."

Knowing now that we failed to see the coffee can, Zigzag and I turned around and backtracked to find the can. All the way, I saw the same footpath we had followed. I felt less annoyed about missing the turn when I saw this was an obvious trail. It just wasn't the right one.

An arrow made of rocks points the correct direction

When we found the coffee can, we could see how easy it was to miss. It was placed away from the trail. Besides, coffee cans are not typically used for marking a trail.

Zigzag and I collected a few rocks from the nearby stream and made an arrow to point in the correct direction.

Looking into the deep canyon

From the coffee can, the trail began a steep climb out of the canyon. In the first half-mile, I looked back and saw where we had mistakenly entered the narrowest part.

Clouds begin to form ahead

Once we were out of the canyon at the end of the climb, the trail flattened to cross a plateau. Looking ahead, I saw large clouds forming. I wondered if we were in for another big thunderstorm this afternoon.

Looking back where we came from

Zigzag and I stopped for lunch at a spot that offered a little shade. We then followed the trail as it started another steep climb.

We could now look back and see where we started from this morning at Highway 84. The Jemez Mountains ran along the horizon.

A tall butte stood to the left of our view and nearly 14 miles away. It is called Cerro Pedernal and has some geological and historical importance to the area. The word pedernal is Spanish for flint, and this is where native peoples who lived in the area from around 1050 to 1300 collected chert to make tools.

Cerro Pedernal was another frequent subject of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings. Her ashes were scattered on the butte's top after she died at age 98 in 1986.

Climbing a rough road as clouds darken

By 2 p.m., the clouds I watched build this morning had become dark and filled more of the sky. I began to hear thunder rumble in the distance.

It wasn't long before rain began to fall. The rainfall wasn't nearly as heavy as the day before yesterday and didn't last as long.

Walking on a sandy road

After the rain stopped, the clouds didn't completely clear away, but the temperature quickly shot up.

Zigzag and I followed the Ghost Ranch Alternate as it took one of many roads that crisscrossed through this area. Then we noticed one of these roads split to take a slightly lower elevation that was parallel to the trail. Our topographic map's contours showed the other road had fewer ups and downs before reconnecting with the trail. This looked like a good alternative to the alternate route, so we decided to take it.

A shortcut back to the trail

The lower route worked as planned until we came to a dead end. The map showed the road continuing, but it didn't exist beyond the dead end. This was the second time we had run into a dead end today.

We backtracked for about a half-mile before spotting an old road that also didn't appear on the map. It went up a ridge, and we guessed it connected to the trail. We took a risk of running into another dead end by following the old road. The climb was steep in spots, but eventually, it put us back on the real alternate route.

Aspen with a muddy ground

The rest of the afternoon was spent crossing stands of aspen, fir, and pine trees. In several long stretches, the trail was covered in thick mud.

Muddy shoes

The mud was like clay and adhered to the bottoms of our shoes. It collected pine needles and grass with each step. Walking became difficult and annoying because the mud reduced my traction.

The mud build-up forced me to stop several times to scrape it from my shoes, but as soon as I started walking again, more collected on the soles. This went on for more than two miles.

Finding Bear Spring

We found Bear Spring at 7:30 p.m. Knowing it wasn't proper to camp near a water source, we decided to look for a place away from it to pitch our tents first, then return later for water. It took several minutes to find a suitable spot.

After setting up my tent, I took a different route back to the spring. When I found a trail on the way, it took me a few seconds to realize this was the CDT. I didn't think we were so close to where the Ghost Ranch Alternate rejoined the trail.

Later at night while lying in my tent, I heard thunder rumble in the distance. I wondered if another thunderstorm would pass over us. The moon remained bright, though, and the storm never reached us.

Ain't but one way out
I ain't goin' out the door
Ain't but one way out, baby
I ain't goin' out that door
I want you to raise your window once, now
Let me ease out real slow


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.