Your Next Ranch Vacation Is Beside a Dark Sky Park in Colorado

At this remote working ranch, the bison roam in a spectacular setting of mountains, a national park, and an International Dark Sky Park.

Rider on horseback in San Luis Valley, Colorado.

Explore the huge San Luis Valley on horseback at Zapata Ranch.

Courtesy of Zapata Ranch


The vibe: Relaxed and remote working ranch for outdoor explorers

Location: 5303 State Hwy. 150, San Luis Valley, CO | View on Google Maps

Book now: Website


The AFAR take

Zapata Ranch is so low key you could easily drive right past its gravel entry road near the lonely tail end of a highway leading to a small, remote national park. And that’s the point: Location, privacy, and space are the true luxuries of this all-inclusive ranch. Sheltered among tall cottonwoods in the vast San Luis Valley of south-central Colorado, Zapata Ranch is circled by mountains—some as high as 14,000 feet. It’s a working ranch with cattle, bison, and horses on more than 100,000 acres where guests ride horses, hike or fly-fish, and soak in the scenery while strolling the property. If your room has windows facing north, you have views of the dramatic Sangre de Cristo range (topped with snow when I visited in late March) plus the tawny slopes of Great Sand Dunes National Park a few miles north. What’s more: The Nature Conservancy owns the ranch, and conservation and stewardship of the land are a key priority. “Green” here is not simply banning single-use plastic (although that’s done, too).

Who’s it for?

Nature lovers looking for a low-key retreat from urban life. The ranch is ideally located for adventurous travelers who want to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, known for its towering dunes (some up to 750 feet high, the tallest in North America). You can walk on the dunes, ride them on a sand board or sled, and even camp on them (with backcountry permit). While Zapata caters to horseback riders, it offers active options for those not interested in riding, including a roster of events spring through fall (see “Things to do”). The ranch doesn’t advertise; word of mouth referrals from repeat guests keep the ranch thriving and expanding its special events.

The lodge at Zapata ranch shaded by tall cottonwoods

The main lodge, build in the 1920s, includes a dining room with a large fireplace.

Photo by Kate Matheson

The location

The lodge has a national park that is also an International Dark Sky Park in its backyard. At an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet, with no towns nearby, guests at the ranch can enjoy the night sky in starry solitude. (The nearest large city, Colorado Springs, is about a three-hour drive away.) That high elevation means very cold winters, so the ranch is closed to guests from November through February.

Spacious rooms in the bunkhouse include clawfoot bathtubs.

Spacious rooms in the bunkhouse include clawfoot bathtubs.

Courtesy of Zapata Ranch

The rooms

Three ranch buildings house a total of 15 guest rooms in the main lodge and bunkhouse (both built in the 1920s) and the more modern Stewart House. The accommodations are plenty comfortable with inviting deep, clawfoot bathtubs and top-quality toiletries from the Los Poblanos lavender farm in New Mexico. This isn’t the place for those who like their tech: Rooms have no TVs or phones, and Wi-Fi reception is iffy. My rooms in the rustic log bunkhouse were spacious (larger than my apartment) with original wood beams (mine included a welcome rocking chair and wood-burning stove). The ranch was full the weekend I visited because it was hosting a viewing of sandhill cranes at wetlands a hour away, but full in this case meant about 30 people.

Stewart House, a five-minute walk from the main lodge, is especially good for a group getaway; its five bedrooms have one-, two-, and three-bed options.

Single-night stays are available on a limited basis (and do not include riding). Ranch vacations have a three-night minimum.

Wrangler on horseback with cattle

This working ranch has a herd of cattle, in addition to bison at its next-door ranch, Medano.

Courtesy of Zapata Ranch

Things to do

Programs range from a weekend to a week. The 2023 schedule includes two one-week writing workshops with Pam Houston (author of a best-selling collection of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness) July 23–30 and September 3–10 this year. Each September, two Harvest Weekends showcase local ingredients, including bison tenderloin, trout from a nearby river, and produce roasted over wood grown on the ranch, to enjoy outdoors. Other programs this year include a natural fabric dyeing workshop, art classes that focus on horses, and horsemanship courses for riders at various levels of experience. “Women, Horses, and the West” explores the literary West through such authors as Willa Cather and Annie Proulx. For those seeking wellness, relaxation and yoga retreats are on offer.

Spring bird-watching tours may include experts from the Bird Conservancy who offer insight on such topics as water issues affecting the wetlands that migrating birds rely on. Those looking to see hundreds of sandhill cranes have their best chance in March. There are twice-per-week tours of Zapata’s sister ranch, Medano, where a herd of some 2,000 wild bison roam 50,000 acres of high plains desert dotted with cottonwood groves and watered by two springs. The Medano tours include a visit to the specially built facility where the wild herd gets assessed each year through vaccinations, DNA testing, and microchipping.

Long table with outdoor diners on benches for Harvest Weekend meal

Harvest Weekends in September are ideal for dining alfresco on the bounty of food produced locally.

Courtesy of Zapata Ranch

The food and drink

All meals are included and rely on the ranch’s own beef, bison, and vegetables, as well as produce from the local Valley Root Food Hub. Red or white wine is served at dinner. If you need a martini or old-fashioned at the end of the day, it’s BYOB. While meat is the star here, this vegetarian ate very well with fresh salads and inspired preparations of mushrooms and potatoes. Lunches to go are packed in reusable tins and paper bags. During warm weather, you can eat outdoors at picnic tables on the wooden deck shaded by cottonwood trees. Otherwise, meals are served in a sunny dining room in the main lodge.

Staff and service

Friendly, knowledgeable, and happy to help guests and talk about the ranch and locale.


The partnership with the Nature Conservancy is unique: The Nature Conservancy owns Zapata and the adjacent Medano Ranch, as well as the bison. Ranchlands, a family ranching business that promotes rangeland preservation, manages Zapata. (Its other ranch at Chico Basin, about 160 miles away, nearer Colorado Springs, offers more hands-on ranching activities for experienced riders.) Both ranches are included in the National Register of Historic Places.

To further promote stewardship of land in the American West, Ranchlands this May has launched the Collective, a membership program with three levels. Collective members get behind-the scenes access to Ranchlands and “a community of thoughtful, passionate individuals who are hell-bent on learning about ranching, collaborating, and initiating lasting environmental change.” Among the perks are stays at the Paint Rock Canyon Ranch in Wyoming and other properties that are not yet open to the general public.

Pat Tompkins has written for AFAR about books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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