What We Love
- Guests can have a hands-on ranching experience with the Zapata's bison herd
- The biodiversity of the area, from high desert to alpine forest
- Thanks to its partnership with the Nature Conservancy, there’s a real focus on sustainability and conservation. Read up on the Ranchlands Preservation that Zapata Ranch is situated on
- Chef Mike Rosenberg’s inventive takes on Western classics in the dining room
What To Know
- The ranch is popular for corporate retreats
- While luxury services such as massages and yoga are available, the emphasis here is on rugged outdoorsy pursuits
- Children are welcome
- There’s a four-night minimum stay; all stays are from Sunday to Thursday
Owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed by Ranchlands, this 103,000-acre working bison ranch is fetchingly set at the foot of the Sangre Cristo Mountains in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. While the accommodations in the picturesque 1800s log cabin–style main lodge are stylish and cozy, (think potbelly stoves and wood fireplaces), the principal allure here is getting out into the great outdoors to do everything from fly fishing to hiking to horseback riding. Guests wanting an even more hands-on experience can join the wranglers as they go about their working day. Back at the ranch, you’ll find that all that fresh air works up an appetite. That’s where chef Mike Rosenberg, who has worked with the Kennedy and Carnegie families, comes in. He dishes up such family-style classics as biscuits and gravy, bison steaks and fruit pies to hungry cowboys and -girls.
In the Area
When you’re not on horseback, ride a different kind of beast: Colorado’s famous whitewater rivers. Family-run Independent Rafting, located in Salida, an hour north of the ranch, offers full and half-day tours in places like Brown’s Canyon and Royal Gorge. Take a fly-fishing expedition with the Solitary Angler, whose fishing trips include the Culebra River, a pristine waterway in an emerald-green valley. Let someone else take the wheel for a while by taking a leisurely ride on the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, which runs daily during the summer season between the towns of Alamosa and La Veta through the scenic San Luis Valley.
How to Get There
In celebration of our son's new job my husband and I took him to Zapata Ranch for a 3-night stay during March 2019. This was a second visit for my husband and myself. We have come to love this place and deeply appreciate the caring and knowledgeable people who work here.
The staff really wanted us to have a great experience and we did. In advance of our visit we were sent a form to fill out so an itinerary of activities could be organized around our interests. As a result of the information we provided our time was well organized by people who are highly trained and experienced in guest services, conservation and ranching.
Full day 1: Following an excellent orientation to our horses we rode through the Great National Sand Dunes Park and Preserve at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It was a privileged, exquisite and adventurous ride.
Full day 2: We viewed Zapata's bison herd on horseback and learned about how it is managed as a “conservation herd". Afterwards we spent time with a great naturalist who drove us to see the Sandhill Cranes and other birds.
Around these activities, per our request, we spent every extra minute we could photographing the Sand Dunes and a full moon.
One cannot write about Zapata Ranch without mentioning the extremely talented and creative chef. The food was consistently amazing, and every meal earned 5 stars in our experience.
Our stay was perfect. Zapata Ranch is surrounded by beautiful mountains and the wide-open San Luis Valley. Horses, bison wildlife and old homesteads are abundant. Rich in history, it is a protected and interesting place where ranching and conservation meet. We brought home wonderful memories and we can't wait until we can come back.
I visited Zapata with my wife, infant son and mother (as babysitter). It was spectacular. We loved the diversity of scenery for riding, the quality of the guides and horses, the excellent facilities (very comfortable, clean and nice without excess "luxury"), the tremendous food from a very talented young chef from LA, and the quality of the other guests (a great mix from around the world there to ride as well as visiting researchers and conservationists). The guests made the communal dining a joy.
But more than anything, the riding and scenery was second to none and will be the reason we return (hopefully next summer).
During this August visit there was a guest from Germany who stated that she has gone to many cattle ranches, and what sets Zapata apart is the ability to ride fast and free like The Lone Ranger (ok, the later part is mine). She noted that many other ranches do not allow that for various reasons, including the terrain. My experience is more limited - this my second ranch - but I concur, my basis also including emailing other places to see if loping is permitted. My prior cattle ranch experience was heavenly. But the only place to run like the wind was in a very large, almost football field size ring (McGinnis Meadows).
Over 50,000 acres, plus riding along the gorgeous Great Sand Dunes National Park, Zapata has lots and lots of ground for trotting and cantering.
Weekly, Zapata moves the mooers to another pasture. Participating in that was an amazing and memorable experience, often me alone with like a billion cows (many with cat genes) to “try” and guide them in one direction.
Summarily, from a pure riding experience, this can’t be beat.
A solo traveler, I was surprised that Zapata assigns one wrangler per guest(s) for riding activities. One night I asked others if they wanted to merge, and we did, our posse growing to a family of four from Italy, two gals from Germany, a woman from LA (Great Britain roots) and me. Much more fun.
As for the remaining items, everyone there is incredibly nice. My bunkhouse room was clean and big. The lodge area is fairly basic and ordinary looking. A massage is an option, which was enjoyable. Also, although guests will see plenty of bison (and elk, deer, etc.), the closest will get is about 100 yards, though one day as we were leaving the area in trucks, a herd of bison were on the road, wishing us a good day...in buffalo.
Spoiled by The Food Network quality of McGinnis' dishes, Zapata’s was awful. Scrambled eggs and bacon every morning for breakfast (yawn), and other than the last evening which was tasty (ribs), I could not eat the dinners. Often they featured bison (or pork that was undercooked, as that is how its done there), and bland side dishes. One night they had lasagne...that contained bison and pork (I mean, really?). I mentioned to them they needed to have a second option for guests not into gamey protein. (I was not alone in this opinion.) One night I had a P&B sandwich, another evening turkey. For the money spent, would expect more.
The plus is I ended up losing weight :0)
Overall, for the riding experience I highly recommend, and will give 5 stars despite the food.
I spent a three-day weekend with my 17 year old son at Zapata Ranch with the goal to be outdoors and do some horse riding. I rode a lot in my youth; my son has only ridden a couple of times.
The first day we were on our horses for seven hours, riding through the prairie rounding up 200 pieces of cattle!!! One of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had. We were six guests and six wranglers. The wranglers were very good at coaching my son, who made great progress, and making us feel safe at all times.
The second day we rode for four hours in the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Breathtaking! A combination of The Little House in the Prairie and South Moroccan sand desert. They split us up in small groups (just my son and I), each with a wrangler. My son learned to galop. And galloping we did a lot!
We had planned more activities, but cancelled them because we were contented and exhausted.
While the ranch house and rooms don’t have the amenities of a five star hotel, the food and hospitality are excellent, you sleep well (occasionally woken up by the howling of the coyotes) and the wranglers, cook and other personnel are truly fantastic.
In short, the nicest, most exhilarating nature experience ever.
My husband and I truly enjoyed out stay at the Zapata Ranch. The wranglers were amazing! The entire Zapata staff was great and they were all invested in making sure that we enjoyed our time on the ranch. Great vacation spot!