See Bison at Zapata Ranch

Go on a bison tour on the vast 100,000-acre bison ranch right next to the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.  

 By Tori Peglar

Rolling up against Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is Zapata Ranch, The Nature Conservancy’s breathtaking 100,000-acre property. The conservancy purchased it in 1999 with two goals: to protect its natural assets [the ant-like flower beetle is found nowhere else in the world] and to demonstrate how bison and cattle operations can co-exist with conservation. It partners with Ranchlands, a for-profit organization that runs large-scale ranching operations with a conservation bent. 

Zapata Ranch is home to 2,000 wild bison and 200 cows. Located minutes from Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve entrance, it offers bison tours to the general public, along with workshops and boutique ranch-based stays. The bison tours involve climbing into the ranch vehicle with a tour guide and driving out to see the bison, as well as the Bison Barn where all bison pass through once a year in the fall. Along the way, you’ll stop at the historic Medano Ranch headquarters, a cluster of barns, houses and outbuildings, some dating back to the 1870s. 

Born and raised in England, Kate Matheson works as Ranchlands guest operations and marketing manager at Zapata. We caught up with her at the ranch to learn more. 

It sounds like Ranchlands implements conservation, hospitality and ecotourism programs while running cattle operations. Tell me more. 

Ranchlands is a for-profit, but we have a nonprofit wing to educate young people in land management. This model is very important for both sides- not just for using animals for conservation and improvement of the health of the land but to be financially sustainable and preserve the western lifestyle. You don’t have to be a non-profit to educate people on the ground when you’re riding with them, doing leatherwork with them or even showing people the beauty and wildness around us.  

What does it mean to run a ranch sustainably?

There’s no point having a sustainable program for grasslands if you cannot financially support it. Sustainability goes from the staff to the cattle to how you bring people into it. You have to have an element of all these things. [The ranch sells its Angus cattle, but the bison herd is a conservation herd. It only sells bison when the herd goes over its carrying capacity number of 2,000. Excess bison are sold to private ranches or sent to Ranchlands’ other properties.] 

How can people get involved in the work at Zapata Ranch?

You can do your part by taking one of our workshops, staying at the ranch or buying items like a leather purse in our online store. At Zapata, we even have a cattle branding week with 120 calves. We teach guests how to give shots and flip calves. We want to involve people in whatever way we can even if they don’t step foot on the ranch. 

What’s your average day like?

It’s never dead here. Jessie [Hallstrom, Zapata sales and marketing coordinator] gave a bison tour this morning. She does all the reservations, bison tours, helps me move the cows in the winter and more. The chef is off today, so I am going to make dinner tonight for guests. I’ve got fencing to fix before I go into the kitchen. I have to go check on the bulls to make sure they are by the water source we want them near. I also have some emailing to do in advance of The Nature Conservancy event I am going to attend in New York City. 

You visited the West for the first time when you were 27. It sounds like it was a transformative experience.  

I fell in love with it immediately. I have been into horses all my life and for Europeans, the West still holds all the magic and romance it always has. It’s the space. We don’t have it. It’s just a bit more wild here. It’s mythical and romantic. And that feeling still exists for me after all the years I have been here. 

What do you love most about your job? 

Everything - all the different moving parts. The ranch is a moving part, whether there are people here or not. Then there is the weather. I love change, having to adapt. It’s also the community, the preservation aspect, the conservation aspect and how people are looking at these places that could someday disappear. I love contributing to something much bigger, playing a part in something much bigger than myself. 

What do guests tell you after they’ve stayed at Zapata Ranch?

Everyone leaves here having learned something, having experienced something new, having experienced hospitality. We get a lot of people who are very emotional when they leave. They’re very touched by their experience, and they didn’t expect that. It becomes a lot more. Often, they become family and friends. 

What do you hope they take with them? 

It’s looking at the wider world and realizing that this mythical place that you fantasize about  might be gone one day. The more we can educate people, the more we can show people what can be lost. 


Learn more about going on a bison tour, doing a workshop or staying at Zapata Ranch at

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