For centuries, the lush San Luis Valley in Colorado has been a home for wildlife, livestock and humans. Today, a 103,000-acre guest ranch owned by the Nature Conservancy is ensuring its future with sustainable grazing while preserving the land
By Will Grant • Photography by Wynn Myers
The San Luis Valley is the only true desert, by annual precipitation, in Colorado. Between the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Range to the east, the valley is a north-south wedge of arid sagebrush flats, high-desert scrub and wide, sandy playas. On the east side of the valley, below the spires and serrated ridgelines of the Sangre de Cristos, prevailing westerly winds have piled up about a million years’ worth of sand into a Sahara-like dune field known today as Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
From a geological perspective, few other valleys in the world feature the kind of landscape seen in the San Luis Valley. From a cultural perspective, no other does. The Ute Indians called the valley home and hunted bison on the wide plains. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers entered the valley from the south and established the oldest town in Colorado, San Luis, along with the state’s oldest church, just north of the town of Antonito.
Today, the best place to see and experience vestiges of the valley’s ancient character is Zapata Ranch, a 103,000-acre working guest ranch abutting Great Sand Dunes, owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed by the Colorado-based land management company Ranchlands. “The land has supported human habitation for a long time, and that’s what we’re doing here,” says Duke Phillips, CEO of Ranchlands. “We think that the land and the people can thrive together. We’re managing the ranch in that way.”
The headquarters of Zapata Ranch sits under the twisted limbs and dappled shade of a cottonwood grove. The log buildings, originally built in the 1920s, bear much of the same designs and floor plans as their original form. But what’s most striking about the ranch, what distinguishes it from every other grazing operation in the valley, is the ecological preservation of the pastures and grazing lands. Through a land stewardship program designed to restore the valley’s late history, Ranchlands is trying to exemplify the notion of sustainable grazing and land preservation.
The Zapata Ranch is actually two ranches: the Zapata Ranch on the south end and the Medano Ranch to the north. On the Zapata Ranch, about 200 cows, 45 saddle horses and 2,000 bison graze the grasslands and desert scrub. On the Medano Ranch’s 50,000-acre pasture, the herd of free-roaming bison dig their wallows, browse the sandy plains and generally live as they did when the Utes stalked them before the Spanish arrived. Once a year, in late October, the ranch culls about 500 head of bison. But other than that, the herd is left to restore the landscape to its natural, post-Pleistocene form.
The Nature Conservancy bought Zapata Ranch in 1999 and opened it to guests in 2009. Most people visit the ranch between the end of March and October. In the winter, the valley is often one of the coldest places in the state. Even in the summer, the climate can be cool.
Jessie Hallstrom is a native of San Diego, California, and has been working at the ranch for the past three years. On a late August morning, Hallstrom is wearing a down parka as we walk through the bison handling facilities on the Medano Ranch. The facilities, she says, were designed for the humane handling of the animals. In fact, the methods of Temple Grandin — renowned animal psychologist and professor of livestock behavior and welfare at Colorado State University — were an influence in the building of the corrals, chutes and holding pens.
“The squeeze box is the best example of Temple Grandin’s influence; it’s like a swaddle,” says Hallstrom, standing on a catwalk over the alley where, in about a month, the bison herd will thunder into the corrals to be vaccinated and about a quarter of them culled for maintaining the correct stocking number on the ranch. “Working the bison is a very special time of the year on the ranch.”
Inside the ranch headquarters, about 12 miles south of the corrals, Kate Matheson oversees the daily guest ranch operations. Matheson wears a flat, black buckaroo cowboy hat and black jeans. She looks the part — including having a cattle dog at her feet — but she’s not a Colorado native, and she didn’t grow up on a ranch. She’s from England and still retains a staunch British accent. She helps nurture Zapata Ranch’s role in Colorado preservation as a modern grazing operation open to the public and accessible to those who want to learn and be a part of Colorado’s distinct ranching heritage.
“By being in nature and immersed in day-to-day life, we find that no matter where you’re from or your background, you are inspired by the beauty of the ranch,” Matheson says. “More often than not people leave the ranch feeling like old friends and part of the Zapata family with an insight into the importance of the preservation of these precious lands.”
The Zapata Ranch offers 15 rooms and a total of 23 beds. Guests can partake in nearly every aspect of ranch life: moving cattle, herding bison, surveying the pastureland and even fixing fences. The ranch also has a naturalist for interpretive trips into the surrounding areas and riding programs for those interested in trail rides to Sand Dunes National Park or through the bison herd. The hospitality aspect of Zapata serves to expose the public to, what many believe, is the future of rangeland management.
“Our guest services at Zapata Ranch revolve around programs based on experiencing and learning about nature and how ranching takes care of the natural resources that support it,” Phillips says. “This partnership is creating a new model for managing ranches in the West in a way that balances economics, conservation and building bridges between urban communities and the natural world, which support our work. Field days, workshops on grazing planning, monitoring, plant identification, are offered to the public and our constituencies.”
One of the ecological features of the ranch that’s probably most responsible for drawing the herds of bison and, in turn, the Utes, the Spanish and the Anglo settlers, is the grass pasturage. Even in late August, when the playas and flats are umber with the ending of summer, when the monsoons have ceased and the sun shines without shade or filter from clouds, the ranch’s grama and salt grasses are vibrant green. The whole of the San Luis Valley will be dry as tinder, but thanks to an underground aquifer, the ranch still carries its livestock on fresh grass.
“The grass is sub-irrigated,” ranch manager Brett Haas says. “The water doesn’t flow to the surface, but it reaches the grass.”
There are still places around the American West where the unique character of the land intersects with culture to form a time-space continuum that will carry, if properly cared for, the people, the animals and the environment. The east side of the San Luis Valley is such a place, and Zapata Ranch has dedicated itself to sharing that with the public.
“We ranch in many of the same ways that those before us from the beginning ranched. We remain faithful to the old ethic that if we take care of the land, it will take care of us,” Phillips says. “The major difference between us and our forefathers is that we invite people to come share our way of life so that we can join together to better protect the precious resources under our care.”