Saddle up for a getaway in the high desert of southern Colorado

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It’s a beautiful fall day some 9,000 feet above sea level in southern Colorado. A huge sky stretches out from the sand dunes I ride on horseback with my 12-year-old son, Henry, and our guide, Amelia, a wrangler at the Medano-Zapata Ranch (Zapata for short), where we are staying for a festival three-day fall harvests. In the distance, the yellow leaves of the aspens illuminate the mountain ridges. Sure-footed horses navigate the dunes with ease. It rained last night and the dense sand is springy underfoot. But Pickles, Henry’s horse, would rather hang around. Amelia offers clear instructions – “shorten your reins, watch where you want to go, kick him, let him know you mean it” – and Henry talks to his horse in a soft voice as he try to propel her forward.

Earlier, as we crossed the creek bed to approach the dunes, Pickles stubbornly stayed out of deep water, testing the resolve of my good-hearted tween. Zapata’s guided horseback rides are nothing like most commercial operations; we are not expected to ride “nose to tail” because it is boring. Here we have the full extent of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve at our disposal, which means Henry will have to discover it on his own (but with encouragement from Amelia).

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I am tempted to give my opinion. After all, I’m his mother and a former rider, and I know a little about hiking. But what 12-year-old wants his mom to lead him on a long holiday weekend where we’re supposed to bond? Plus, Amelia is the perfect combination of instruction and confidence building, and before I know it, Henry and Pickles are overtaking me and my horse. We cross the dune, admire the view and descend to the bottom of the valley. When Amelia asks if we want to gallop, Henry enthusiastically replies in the affirmative. Soon, we’re running through this iconic western landscape, and my heart soars with euphoria and gratitude.

It wasn’t hard to convince Henry to skip a day of school for a long weekend drive with me in the San Luis Valley, 260 miles south of our home in Boulder. With the promise of delicious chef-cooked meals, horseback riding, a ranch stay, and a night of glamping, he eagerly packed his pack and helped navigate our long drive south through mountain passes and desert, a landscape of rugged, thorny vegetation, vast plains, massive dunes created by the combination of wind, water, sand and a mountain barrier. Amenities are scarce; after leaving Salida, the last town with a grocery store en route to our destination in the valley, we traveled 62 miles before reaching a gas station.

Moody clouds gathered as we drove into the Rustic Rook Resort our first evening. We found our tent – big enough to hold two double beds, a wood stove and an attached bathroom – and grilled the steaks and potatoes we had pre-ordered. They were tender and juicy, although I wish our dinner had also had some leafy greens (Henry didn’t mind their absence).

To ward off the cold night air, we lit a fire in the woodstove and then hid for the night. In the wee hours of the morning, I woke up a little cold and wished for warmer bedding. Instead, I put on my fleece and fell back into a deep sleep. An overnight rainstorm left the landscape damp and chilly, and we grabbed our free burritos and decamped to Zapata.

A word about navigating the San Luis Valley: it’s big. Having your own car is essential, because nothing is close to anything else. Although Zapata Ranch is only 11 miles as the crow flies from the Rustic Rook Resort, construction on the connecting road forced us to take a detour which added nearly an hour to our drive. Luckily, once we got to the ranch, we were able to park the car and forget about it.

In fact, from the moment we walked onto Zapata’s grounds, we more or less forgot about everything that didn’t revolve around ranch life, horseback riding, or five-course dinners made with ingredients. local, including beef and bison raised on the ranch.

Like the other hosts who filled the 17-room lodge, we felt like we had discovered a magical world. I was fascinated by the history and mission of the ranch. The Nature Conservancy purchased the 103,000-acre Zapata Ranch in 1999 from a private owner who had embarked on a bison restoration program with the goal of creating a genetically pure herd without any beef DNA. In 2004, the nonprofit organization partnered with Ranchlands, a private ranch management company, to manage the Nature Conservancy’s herd of 2,000 bison and restore the property to native vegetation through a concentrated effort which used cattle grazing, rotational grazing and more.

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In 2009, Ranchlands began welcoming guests to the lodge and the auxiliary Stewart House, where Henry and I stayed. I appreciated that the house was a short walk from the lodge, providing an evening digestive stroll, and he loved that there was a pool table. With a guest season that runs from March through October, Zapata offers workshops, series, and seminars that last from two days to a week. Guests are immersed in the specialty event they registered for and also learn about ranch operations through a hands-on experience that includes horseback riding, touring the bison operation, and interacting with ranch staff, including busy ranch manager Kate Matheson, who patiently answers questions about cattle, bison, the ecosystem and more.

Our weekend focused on local food and farm-to-table dining, while events for the remainder of the 2022 season include a writing workshop with author Pam Houston and birdwatching with the Birding Magazine editor Ted Floyd. Next season’s programs have yet to be announced, but will likely include classics like botanical foraging and wildlife photography, as well as more specialized workshops.

Henry and I met at “Harvest Weekend” because that was when the ranch had availability, and from the first bite of my smoked trout salad on our horseback ride, I knew we had won the gourmet jackpot. This was confirmed on several occasions, particularly on our first night when we both almost melted with joy eating the chef’s prepared bison and beef sausage dish – which came after dishes of salad, Mexican street corn and grilled squash, and before the chicken mole and chocolate cake. All of the food was outstanding, prepared in creative combinations and seasoned with local herbs and peppers to provide a distinct southwestern flavor.

We ate and ate and ate, then exercised and explored the ranch land. One afternoon we hiked seven miles to a mountain pass in the national park and preserve, and another we slithered through the ranch’s cottonwoods on the property’s short nature trail.

Henry was the only child on the ranch, but the other guests were friendly, and with his laid-back attitude, he fit in perfectly. He also helped me see things with fresh eyes.

On a clear, dark night, he stopped and pointed to the brilliant Milky Way and the starry sky. He put a finger to his lips. In the distance, a pack of coyotes yelped and howled. Henry’s eyes widened in delight and he slipped his arm through mine. Mother-son bonding at its best.

Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colorado. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.

5305 Highway 150, Mosca, Colorado.

A 103,000 acre cattle and bison ranch located approximately five miles from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. All-inclusive stays start at $350 per person, per night.

13254 Lane 5 North, Mosca, Colorado.

A dog-friendly glamping operation with fully furnished canvas tents on wooden platforms, grills, a nightly campfire with free s’mores and endless views. Located approximately 20 miles from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Rates start around $145 per night.

105 E. County Rd. 11 North, Central, Colorado.

A restored, dog-friendly 1950s drive-in theater that features nightly movies on the original screen, innovative ranch accommodations and yurts with luxurious interiors and an art installation of huge printed roofless adobe structures In 3D. Rates start at $161 per night.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

11999 Highway 150, Mosca, Colorado.

Established as a national park in 2004, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve encompasses 149,028 acres – of which 107,342 are national park and 41,686 acres constitute the reserve. The park contains the tallest sand dunes in North America and the dunes span approximately 30 square miles. No reservation required. Open every day, all year round. The basic pass, valid for seven consecutive days, costs $25 per car, $20 per motorcycle/rider and $15 per person for oversized vehicles.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.

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