It’s a stunning autumn day at some 9,000 feet above sea level in southern Colorado. An expansive sky stretches from the sandy dunes over which I’m riding on horseback with my 12-year-old son, Henry, and our guide, Amelia, a wrangler at the nearby Medano-Zapata Ranch (Zapata for short), where we are staying for a three-day fall harvest festival. In the distance, the yellowing leaves of aspen trees illuminate mountain ridges. The 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 prefer to dawdle. Amelia offers clear instruction — "shorten your reins, look where you want to go, give her a kick, let her know you mean it” — and Henry talks to his horse in a gentle voice as he tries to propel her forward.
Earlier, as we walked through the creek bed to approach the dunes, Pickles stayed stubbornly out of the hoof-deep water, testing the resolve of my kindhearted tween. Zapata’s guided horse rides are nothing like most commercial operations; we’re not expected to ride “nose-to-tail” because that’s boring. Out here, we have the entire expanse of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve at our disposal, which means that Henry will have to figure it out on his own (but with Amelia’s encouragement).
I’m tempted to weigh in. After all, I am his mother and a former equestrian, and I know a thing or two about trail riding. But what 12-year-old wants his mom bossing him around on a long weekend vacation where we are supposed to be bonding? Besides, Amelia is the perfect combination of instruction and confidence-boosting, and before I know it, Henry and Pickles overtake my horse and me. We crest the dune, admire the view and descend to the valley floor. When Amelia asks if we want to canter, Henry enthusiastically answers in the affirmative. Soon we’re racing across this iconic western landscape, and my heart soars with exhilaration and gratitude.
It wasn’t hard to convince Henry to skip a day of school for a long weekend road trip with me to 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 one night of glamping, he eagerly packed his bag and helped navigate our long drive south over mountain passes and into the stark high desert, a landscape of hardy, prickly 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 valley destination, we drove 62 miles before reaching a gas station.
Moody clouds gathered as we rolled into the Rustic Rook Resort our first evening. We found our tent — large enough to hold two double beds, a wood-burning stove and an en suite bathroom — and grilled the steaks and potatoes that we had preordered. They were tender and juicy, though I wished our dinner had also come with some leafy green vegetables (Henry didn’t mind their absence).
To stave off the chilly night air, we lit a fire in the wood stove and then tucked in for the night. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning I awoke slightly cold and wished for warmer bedding. Instead, I slipped on my fleece and fell back into a deep sleep. A nighttime rainstorm left the landscape wet and fresh, and we grabbed our complimentary burritos and decamped to Zapata.
A word about navigating the San Luis Valley: It’s big. Having your own car is essential, as nothing is close to anything else. Though Zapata Ranch was only 11 miles as the crow flies from the Rustic Rook Resort, construction on the connector road mandated that we take a detour that added almost an hour to our drive. Fortunately, once we got to the ranch, we were able to park the car and forget about it.
In fact, from the moment we stepped onto Zapata’s grounds, we more or less forgot about anything that did not revolve around ranch life, riding, or eating five-course dinners 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 as if we had discovered a magical world. I was fascinated with the ranch’s history and mission. The Nature Conservancy bought 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 2,000-animal bison herd and to restore the property to native vegetation through a concentrated effort that used cattle grazing, pasture rotation and more.
In 2009, Ranchlands began hosting guests at the lodge and in the auxiliary Stewart House, where Henry and I stayed. I appreciated that the house was a short walk from the lodge, offering an evening digestif stroll, and he loved that it had a pool table. With a guest season that runs from March through October, Zapata has workshops, series and seminars that last anywhere from two days to a week. Guests are immersed in whatever specialty event they’ve registered for and also learn about the ranch operations through hands-on experience that includes horseback riding, touring the bison operation and interacting with the ranch staff, including Kate Matheson, the busy ranch manager, who patiently answers questions about cattle, bison, the ecosystem and more.
Our weekend’s focus was on local food and farm-to-table meals, while events through the rest of the 2022 season include a writing workshop with author Pam Houston and birding with “Birding Magazine” editor Ted Floyd. Next season’s programs haven’t yet been announced but will likely include classics like botanical foraging and wildlife photography, and more specialized workshops.
Henry and I ended up at “Harvest Weekend” because it was when the ranch had availability, and from the first bite of my smoked trout salad during our horseback ride, I knew we had won the gastronomical jackpot. This was confirmed multiple times, especially on our first night when we both nearly melted in delight as we ate the chef-made bison-beef sausage course — which came after courses of salad, Mexican street corn and grilled squash, and before the chicken mole and chocolate cake. All of the food was remarkable, prepared in creative combinations and seasoned with local herbs and peppers to deliver a distinctly southwest flavor.
We ate and ate and ate, and then we exercised and explored the ranch grounds. One afternoon we hiked seven miles up to a mountain pass in the national park and preserve, and another we slipped through the ranch’s cottonwoods on the short nature trail on the property.
Henry was the only kid at the ranch, but the other guests were friendly, and with his easygoing attitude, he fit right in. He also helped me see things through fresh eyes.
On a clear, dark night, he paused and pointed overhead to the brilliant Milky Way and the star-spangled sky. He put a finger to his lips. In the distance, a pack of coyotes yipped and howled. Henry’s eyes widened in enchantment, and he looped his arm through mine. Mother-and-son bonding at its finest.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
If You Go
Where to stay
5305 Highway 150, Mosca, Colo.
A 103,000-acre working cattle and bison ranch located roughly five miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. All-inclusive stays from $350 per person, per night.
Rustic Rook Resort
13254 Lane 5 North, Mosca, Colo.
A dog-friendly glamping operation featuring fully furnished canvas tents on wooden platforms, grills, a nightly campfire with complimentary s’mores and endless views. Located about 20 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Rates from about $145 per night.
105 E. County Rd. 11 North, Center, Colo.
A dog-friendly, restored 1950s era drive-in theater that features nightly movies on the original screen, innovative ranch shed lodging and yurts with luxury interiors, and an art installation of enormous, roofless, 3D-printed adobe structures. Rates from $161 per night.
What to do
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
11999 Highway 150, Mosca, Colo.
Established as a national park in 2004, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve encompasses 149,028 acres — 107,342 of which are national park and 41,686 acres of which make up the preserve. The park contains the tallest sand dunes in North America, and the dunes span roughly 30 square miles. No reservations required. Open daily, year-round. Basic entry pass, which is good for seven consecutive days, is $25 per car, $20 per motorcycle/rider and $15 per person for oversized vehicles.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.