In southern Colorado, there are two canyons in the Sangre De Cristo mountains where the wind pushes sand beneath them in such an intense and persistent manner that great dunes are formed. All year long, they’re eroded and maintained in an endless cycle of air and mineral, forming a stunning and unique ecotone. It’s part alpine, part desert, part grassland, and its name is Zapata Ranch.
I traveled here already keenly aware of how this bioregion nestles itself into my soul. It’s always been that way. There’s something about the dry crisp air, the contrasts of color, and the people living resiliently on the edge of an ecology that is both full of life and ready to destroy.
At the base of these iconic dunes is Zapata – a ranch deep in the West that we’re lucky to have protected and lovingly stewarded by wranglers, ranchers, and scientists. It’s protected in perpetuity by way of the Nature Conservancy, who purchased it over 25 years ago along with a resident herd of bison. Zapata’s doors are open, with horses ready to saddle and a landscape inviting us to read its story.
We packed our field lunches and gear, and saddled up a group of horses to take us out. I got my first cue for pace here on the ranch when I met my horse, Cinco, who’d been carrying people through Zapata Ranch for years. Cinco proved to be a good match for me. He knew the way and was used to new people, which meant that besides keeping him from browsing the vegetation too much, my job was minimal.
Behind the wrangler we could sit back, be carried, and observe — and there was a lot to see. Bison freely roam this ranch; they’re here to regenerate the grasslands. From horse height, I started to notice their presence – large tracks in the sand, grassy beds turned and flattened, and old wallows and dust baths much too large to be made by anything else. Soon, we found a herd. Through our binoculars, we could see the matriarchal groups and their yearlings; iconic, calm, and perfectly at home.
Being on the back of a horse was quiet. So often I’m hiking, route-finding, carrying a heavy pack, and having to put the pieces together from eye level about what’s happening on the ground. On Cinco’s back I was above the tracks, able to observe a longer pattern story, to relax and sink into the landscape’s unfolding.
It’s amazing what you can see when you show up for Zapata’s ecological orchestra. We rode through the sand seeing the leaves of the narrowleaf cottonwoods changing, dropping, and being ground into the sand. We found elk migrating from the high alpine through the sandy creek beds ready to winter in the lowlands, and saw porcupines work their ways through the treetops. We covered miles on horseback – a modality that allowed for full landscape immersion, and pursued our love of nature through detail at every scale. Through our binoculars we could take it all in — scrub jays perched on the backs of the bison, mule deer antler tips in the tall grass, bull elk moving their herds. Though a visitor, Zapata welcomed me like I’d always had a place here, perfectly amongst the harmony of things.
There’s a rhythm to being on the Zapata Ranch. It’s the same sway as the horse that knows the trail, and the wind that moves the sand. For a little while, it’s a deep ecological respite, and an antidote to modern life.