In Colorado, a ranch getaway makes the perfect long weekend – The Washington Post | Ad On Picture

It’s a stunning fall day at about 9,000 feet above sea level in southern Colorado. A sweeping sky stretches across the sand dunes, which I ride across on horseback with my 12-year-old son Henry and our guide Amelia, a wrangler at nearby Medano-Zapata Ranch (Zapata for short), while staying for a three-day fall harvest festival. In the distance, the yellowish leaves of aspens illuminate the mountain ridges. The sure-footed horses navigate effortlessly through the dunes. It rained last night and the thick sand bounces underfoot. But Pickles, Henry’s horse, would rather dally. Amelia gives clear instructions – “shorten your reins, look where you want, give her a kick, let her know you mean business” – and Henry speaks softly to his horse as he tries to to advance it.

Earlier, as we crossed the creek bed to approach the dunes, Pickles stubbornly stayed out of the hoof-deep water, testing my kindhearted tween’s resolve. Zapata’s guided horseback rides are not like most commercial activities; We’re not expected to go nose-to-tail because that’s boring. Out here, the entire expanse of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is at our disposal, which means Henry will have to figure it out on his own (but with Amelia’s encouragement).

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I’m tempted to interfere. After all, I’m his mother and a former rider, and I know a thing or two about trail riding. But what 12-year-old would want their mom bossing them around on a long weekend vacation where we’re supposed to be dating? Also, Amelia is the perfect combination of tuition and confidence building and before I know it Henry and Pickles are overtaking my horse and me. We climb the dune, admire the view and descend to the valley floor. When Amelia asks if we want to canter, Henry enthusiastically says yes. Soon we’re speeding through this iconic western landscape and my heart beats with exhilaration and gratitude.

It wasn’t hard to convince Henry to skip a day of school for a long weekend trip with me to the San Luis Valley, 260 miles south of our home in Boulder. With the promise of delicious chef-prepared meals, horseback riding, a stay at a ranch and a night of glamping, he eagerly packed his bag and helped us steer our long drive south over mountain passes and into the barren high desert, a landscape full of Robustness and spiked vegetation, vast plains, massive dunes created by the combination of wind, water, sand and a mountainous barrier. Amenities are scarce; After leaving Salida, the last town with a grocery store en route to our destination in the valley, we drove 62 miles before reaching a gas station.

Moody clouds gathered as we rolled into Rustic Rook Resort on our first night. We found our tent—big enough for two double beds, a wood-burning stove, and an ensuite bathroom—and grilled the steaks and potatoes we’d pre-ordered. They were tender and juicy, although I wish our dinner had included some leafy greens (Henry didn’t mind their absence).

To ward off the cool night air we built a fire in the wood stove and then settled in for the night. Sometime in the early hours of the morning I woke up with a slight cold and wished for warmer beds. Instead, I slipped into my fleece and fell back into a deep sleep. An overnight rainstorm left the countryside wet and fresh, and we grabbed our complimentary burritos and headed to Zapata.

A word about navigating the San Luis Valley: It’s big. Having your own car is essential as nothing comes close to the other. Although Zapata Ranch was only 11 linear miles from Rustic Rook Resort, construction of the connecting road required us to take a detour that added almost an hour to our drive. Luckily, when we got to the ranch, we were able to park the car and forget about it.

In fact, from the moment we set foot on Zapata’s grounds, we pretty much forgot everything that didn’t revolve around ranch life, horseback riding, or eating five-course meals prepared with locally sourced ingredients, including beef and bison raised on the ranch.

Like the other guests who filled the 17-room lodge, we felt like we’d discovered a magical world. I was fascinated by the ranch’s history and mission. The Nature Conservancy purchased the 103,000-acre Zapata Ranch in 1999 from a private owner who had begun a bison restoration program with the goal of creating a genetically pure herd with no bovine DNA. In 2004, the nonprofit partnered with Ranchlands, a private ranch management company, to manage the Nature Conservancy’s 2,000-head bison herd and restore the property to native vegetation through a concerted effort that used cattle grazing, pasture rotation and more.

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In 2009, Ranchlands began accommodating guests at the lodge and annex Stewart House, where Henry and I stayed. I appreciated that the house was a short walk from the lodge and offered an evening digestif walk and he loved that it had a pool table. With a visiting season from March through October, Zapata offers workshops, series, and seminars lasting anywhere from two days to a week. Guests are immersed in the special event they have registered for and also learn about ranch operations through hands-on experiences including horseback riding, touring the bison operation and interacting with ranch staff, including Kate Matheson, the busy ranch manager who patiently answers questions on cattle, bison, the ecosystem and more.

The focus of our weekend was local food and farm-to-table cuisine, while events for the remainder of the 2022 season include a writing workshop with author Pam Houston and bird watching with Birding Magazine editor Ted Floyd. Next season’s programs have not yet been announced, but will likely include classics such as botanical foraging and wildlife photography, as well as more specialized workshops.

Henry and I ended up at “Harvest Weekend” because the ranch had capacity at the time, and from the first bite of my smoked trout salad on our horseback ride, I knew we’d hit the gastronomic jackpot. This was confirmed multiple times, particularly on our first night, when we both melted with delight as we ate the chef-prepared bison and beef sausage course — which came after courses of salad, Mexican street corn and grilled squash, and before the chicken mole and chocolate cake. All dishes were remarkable, prepared in creative combinations and seasoned with local herbs and peppers to deliver a distinctly southwestern flavor.

We ate and ate and ate, and then we exercised and explored the ranch grounds. One afternoon we hiked seven miles to a mountain pass in the national park and preserve, and another we slipped through the ranch cottonwood trees on the short nature trail on the property.

Henry was the only child on the ranch, but the other guests were friendly, and his easy-going demeanor suited them well. He also helped me to see things differently.

On a clear, dark night, he paused and pointed to the brilliant Milky Way and star-studded sky. He put a finger to his lips. In the distance, a pack of coyotes yelped and howled. Henry’s eyes widened in enchantment and he wrapped his arm around mine. Mother-son bonding at its finest.

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

5305 Highway 150, Mosca, Colorado.

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

13254 Lane 5 North, Mosca, Colorado.

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

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

A dog-friendly, restored 1950’s drive-in theater showing nightly movies on the original screen, innovative ranch lodging and yurts with luxurious interiors, and an art installation made from giant roofless 3D-printed adobe structures. Rates from $161 per night.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

11999 Highway 150, Mosca, Colorado.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was established as a national park in 2004 and covers 149,028 acres – 107,342 of which are national parks and 41,686 acres of which form the reserve. The park contains the tallest sand dunes in North America, and the dunes cover approximately 30 square miles. No reservation required. Open daily all year round. The basic entry 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 health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning a trip. For travel health advice information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interactive map of travel advice by destination and the CDC’s travel health advice website.

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