Are you a budding cowhand?
Irene packs up her saddlebag and sets out for southern Colorado
Last night I awoke to appalling sounds – police sirens, the milk truck barrelling down the street with my dog barking after him and revving motorcycles roaring past. What a difference from the serenity and stillness of the week we had just enjoyed at the Zapata Ranch in the tiny town of Mosca, in southern Colorado.
Just days ago, I had been helping, on horseback, to round up calves, seemingly glued to their mamas, to another pasture – a challenging, yet so rewarding, experience. There were bison just across from us, and hawks soaring into the air. We had breakfasted heartily on multi-grain hotcakes, smoked bacon and steaming hot coffee. The evenings were glorious – inky skies glittering with stars, aspen leaves rustling gently and cool mountain air snuggling us into soft blankets. The only sound was a whinny or two from the horses in the pasture. It truly was paradise.
One of the more unique ranches in North America, bordered by the spectacular Great Sand Dunes National Park and the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range (a range of the Rockies,) the Zapata Ranch is on 103,000 acres, free-roamed by 2,500 bison and a large herd of cattle.
In the American West, guest or ‘dude’ ranches have been around for 100 years or so, when real working ranchers first realized what a lure the cowboy lifestyle was for us ‘regular’ folks. The attraction of the old West is just as, if not more, enticing nowadays, with many of us city and suburb-dwellers so far removed from country life and its pleasures. Today’s ranches help visitors experience the romance, adventure and spirit of the Old West without giving up the basic creature comforts of home (in fact, the ranches typically boast BETTER creature comforts than at home!)
Zapata Ranch stands out from the other ranches of North America, since it is the only one actually owned by the Nature Conservancy, a world-wide non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting our natural environment and wildlife. The ranch is operated by Ranchlands, a company founded by third-generation ranchers, the Duke and Janet Phillips family. Zapata encourages its guests to integrate themselves into daily life on the ranch and to participate in extensive nature programs there. For example, guests can participate in such events as Branding Week (May and June,) Sandhill Crane Photography Trip (the area is renowned as a migratory stop for the cranes, attracting scores of nature photographers annually,) Painting and Photography Workshops, Horsemanship and Roping Clinics and Corporate/Family Retreat Capacities.
Additional daily activities might include helping to move cattle from one pasture to the next (such as I did,) monitoring water levels and grass growth, participate in a traditional spring branding, going for a sunrise horseback tour of the Sand Dunes National Park, go on an interpretive walk to learn about bison, white water rafting down the rollicking Arkansas River, taking an overnight camping trip, or fly fishing for trout on Gold Medal water.
Zapata Ranch’s cabins are cosy, pretty and comfortable. Each guest room is equipped with either two double beds or a single king, and its own private bathroom. The lodge is built on the original Zapata homestead with buildings that date back to the late 1800’s and is surrounded by extensive grounds. The buildings, which include The Lodge, Bunk House and Stewart House, are all restored chinked log and are rustic, yet tastefully decorated in Southwestern design and feel rather sumptuous. Daily maid service and laundry facilities are included in the stay.
Cuisine is a pleasant surprise at Zapata Ranch – with an executive chef who once was head chef for the famed Carnegie Family and had the distinction of catering John F. Kennedy Jr.’s wedding reception. Mike Rosenberg takes his menus very seriously, utilizing the ranch’s own grass-fed beef and bison, along with locally-grown produce. The style is “down-home gourmet” and meals are served family style, which means large platters and bowls passed from guest to guest.
Most ranches in North America are priced as weekly stays with a complete package including lodging, horseback riding with instruction and three meals daily, while many offer children’s programs as well. Zapata does not offer a children’s program, however, but childcare is available for an additional charge. Kids eight and over are free to ride horses at Zapata, while some ranches permit children six and over. When choosing a ranch, check for minimum stays, accommodation classes, type of cuisine, alcohol policy, additional offerings, campout nights and nightly entertainment – that’s where ranches differ most.
At Zapata, there is a three-day minimum. Pricing for a seven night stay is $2,300 for adults, children under seven are $1,840. The price includes all meals, lodging and activities, but not gratuities.
Getting there: British Airways flies directly into Denver, and from there, daily flights go into Alamosa – just 30 minutes from the ranch. For those who prefer to drive, Denver is 4.5 hours away, and there is also shuttle service available.
For more information about the Zapata ranch, click here