Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 13, 2017

© Katie Loewen

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Home on the range

At this Colorado ranch, the bison roam free and there's plenty of wrangling and relaxing to do until the dinner bell rings

Anyone who still dreams of being a cowboy or cowgirl, of riding the range as bison graze on high-desert grasslands and red-tailed hawks soar overhead, should saddle up and hit the trail at the Zapata Ranch in southern Colorado.

Located in the San Luis Valley, between the snow-capped peaks of the San Juan Mountains and the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Zapata Ranch is a working bison and cattle ranch set on 41,685 hectares of meadows, wetlands and cottonwood groves.

Here you can hop on your horse and gallop alongside real-life wranglers, kicking up dust and helping to maintain the herd. Or, if you’re more of a novice, have your horse walk at a leisurely pace while you enjoy the fresh air and watch others work. Either way, you’ll end your day in the main lodge, a historic log structure that dates back to the 1800s, waiting for the cook to ring the bell and the dinner — slow-simmered bison is a specialty — to begin.

A family affair

Owned by The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit US environmental group, the Zapata Ranch is run by the Phillips family, third-generation ranchers. The idea is to preserve the habitat and support sustainable ranching practices, while also offering guests a chance to enjoy an eco-Western experience. Duke Phillips is the patriarch of the family, but on the week in May when I visited, it was his daughter Tess, 26, who was running the show.

“The guests can come here and have gourmet meals, nice rooms and a massage,” she explained, “but they can also go out and work with the cowboys. Or they can team up with a wrangler and ride at their own speed.”

First established by Mexican settlers in the 1860s, and bought by the Nature Conservancy in 1999, after a short-lived plan by Japanese investors to turn it into a golf course, Zapata Ranch is handled year-round by a close-knit group. There is Tess and her sister Julie, 20, who is the head wrangler; Kate Matheson, a wrangler originally from London, England; Mike Rosenberg, the cook, who was once personal chef for the Carnegie family and catered JFK Jr’s wedding; and David Leach, who is Tess’s husband and handles marketing and other business.

Other people come and go, including dad Duke and mother Janet, who also run the Chico Basin cattle ranch near Colorado Springs, as well as two more Phillips kids, Duke Jr and Grace. The result is a casual and relaxed atmosphere, and sitting down for gourmet chow at the huge dining table in the lodge is bound to bring to mind Bonanza’s Ponderosa, albeit with a lot more women and everyone better looking than Dan Blocker (who, you might recall, played Hoss).

Ride ’em high, ride ’em low

Meanwhile, there are 2500 bison on the ranch, and for the most part they spend their time as a wild herd. In October there is a roundup; hired hands from across the community come in to assist and 400 bison are culled for the fall sales.

It’s a “symbiotic relationship,” according to Tess, since the bison, get a place to exist unperturbed, grazing and fertilizing the land. Bison once numbered in the tens of millions but were nearly wiped out by the end of the 1800s; today there are about 500,000 bison in North America. The ranch also conserves the land for the other animals that live there — elk, pronghorns and coyotes; great horned owls, eagles and waterfowl; and snakes, lizards and insects, including a species of tiger beetle found nowhere else on earth.

And it’s a good arrangement for vacationers, who help subsidize the conservation by paying for the ranch experience. Guests can stay for as little as three days or for as long as they want. For most people, the highlight of the visit will be the riding, no matter what your level of horsemanship.

Our motley crew consisted of a few of us who had some knowledge of horses, a few more who had never been on a horse, or at best had been on a pony ride, and one woman who was petrified of horses in general and forgot to bring jeans, or long pants of any type, and rode, very slowly, while wearing shorts and ludicrously stretched knee socks.

In the end, all of us enjoyed it, and only one of us managed to actually fall off his horse (luckily, he rolled when he hit the ground, dodging the cactus, and was back up in his saddle in minutes). And you really do have to blink to remind yourself that the spectacular Colorado backdrop — plains, mountains, big blue sky — is not a painting or a gigantic movie screen.

Sand dunes, mountain peaks

Our ride was only a few hours long, but there are a lot more options, depending on what you want to do. One excellent day trip is to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, which you can see on the horizon and which is a few hours away. The park covers 854 square kilometres and has the tallest sand dunes in North America. You can also summit any of the six bordering 4265-metre peaks, camping overnight.

If you are eager to roll up your sleeves and get some work done, you can help with the daily ranch duties: moving bison to fresh grounds, fixing barbed-wire fences, monitoring the irrigation flow. There are 60 horses on the ranch for guests to ride, a mixture of breeds but mostly quarter horses. Guests are paired with a couple of horses, based on their abilities, and you can also improve your horsemanship in one-on-one lessons with a wrangler.

Likewise, the ranch has a choice of accommodations. There are five rooms in the main lodge, called the Zapata Inn; five bunkhouses, which are log cabins with bathrooms (one is a “suite,” with a separate living room and a stove); the Stewart House, with five rooms, a fireplace and a kitchen; and the swanky Stagecoach House, which has two large, rustic and well-appointed rooms.

Bison need personal space

One final word about the bison you’ll see on Zapata Ranch: while they are peaceful creatures, they don’t like to be disturbed, especially if there are calves with them, and they will charge if they feel threatened. (YouTube has plenty of “Bison attack!” videos, and more people in Yellowstone Park are hurt each year by bison than by bears.) And while they can weigh over 900 kilos, they can also run up to 64 kilometres per hour — faster than a horse.

So in other words, stay on your horse and admire these glorious, iconic herbivores from afar, remembering a time when there were more of them in North America than people.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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