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Vermejo Park Ranch Outdoor Exploration and Nature Tourism

The bison and I just kinda stared at each other. Clearly I was the more interested party in this interaction. But he was willing to sit there and look at me, unlike the cute little calf who kept trying to nudge his mother and had turned his back on my attempts to immortalize him in pixels. Now, the elk were too busy leaping across the road to even bother to stop, and the bears seemed to shun me, but there was more than enough wildlife to entrance, especially watching the elk and their babies who come down to the land near the lodge in the evening.

Remote, beautiful and empty -- at most there are less than 100 guests -- Vermejo Park Ranch is like being alone in a national park only with comfy beds and great food.

Our New Book

Vermejo Park Ranch is a hunting and fishing lodge, but their most recent initiative is nature tourism. Visitors can row across an alpine lake, watch cow elks and their calves, take a turn at skeet shooting, photograph bison and eagles, or horse ride through the high country. Want more? Hike through abandoned towns, learn about forest management, peer through binoculars at raptors, or learn about the geology of the land and efforts to bring back some of the Ranch's original species including black--footed ferrets, Rio Grande cutthroat trout and wolves.

What you can't find here are swimming pools and posh spas. Or game rooms to entertain the children. Nature is the playground with all its richness. Each group (from a couple to a family) has its own guide who designs an individual itinerary -- unique to the interests of the visitors and is a driver, tour guide, and naturalist.

Ted Turner Acquires Vermejo Ranch

Although most huge tracts of land ultimately end up as federal land, parks, or subdivisions, Vermejo Park Ranch has been kept almost intact and is currently said to be the largest privately owned, contiguous tract of land in the United States. The acquisition of the ranch, the biggest component of Turner's ranch empire made him the biggest private landowner in the United States. But happily, this piece of the empire is open to the public.

Frontiersman Lucien B. Maxwell started in 1842 encouraging settlement and buying up more and more land until he became the sole owner of more than 1.7 million acres by 1865. He didn't keep the land very much longer. He died on the ranch, and it went to an English syndicate called the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company in 1870. It's not clear what Maxwell did with the land but the company sold over 200,000 acres to Chicago businessman William H. Bartlett in 1902. This became the present--day Vermejo Park Ranch land. Bartlett reintroduced elk (which had been so severely hunted they were almost totally gone from the property) and developed many of the lakes and early buildings.

The next owner was Harry Chandler in 1926. He formed the Vermejo Club which the rich and famous used as a private haven. The Great Depression ended that club. The buildings were shuttered and the land was leased to cattle ranchers. The next owner was Texas industrialist W. J. Gourley who purchased Vermejo Park in 1948. He remodeled the Ranch's elegant stone structures into guest accommodations and restocked several lakes, turning Vermejo into a fishing and hunting retreat in 1952. Not a man to do things by halves, Gourley purchased several hundred head of elk from Yellowstone National Park in the late 1950s. Gourley died in 1970, and his widow sold the Ranch to the Pennzoil Corporation in 1973.

Pennzoil maintained both the cattle and the hunting/fishing operations. But it also deeded more than 150 contiguous square miles of the Ranch to the U.S. Forest Service which became part of the Carson National Forest. Currently, Ted Turner's company, Vermejo Park, LLC, owns Vermejo, which it purchased from the Pennzoil Corporation in 1996. Passionately committed to conservation, forestry and wildlife management, Turner phased out the cattle to restore the Ranch's original ecology and opened it to the public.

Although Vermejo Park Ranch is clearly an upscale hunting and fishing lodge, the breadth of offerings draws wider interest. Through their Outdoor Exploration program guests can hike and ride in high mountain meadows, explore abandoned sites, view (and photograph) wildlife, or just kickback and row on a lake.

Nature, Conservation, Ruins and Remnants

Since I'm fascinated with ruins and history, our guide planned a trip to the charcoal kilns and the remnants of the town of Catskill located on Vermejo Park Ranch grounds. Like huge beehive ovens, these kilns baked trees into charcoal to be shipped to steel--making plants across the country. The business was the focus of the town of Catskill. But when the trees were gone, in the early 1900s, so was the town. Left slowly to fall back into the earth, today there are scattered foundations of buildings, shards of clay pots and china, bits of a pot belly stove. And the tall kilns still standing almost intact, almost ready to receive their next load of trees.

The kilns are located in two different ends of the town and along the way, Nicole pointed out some of realities of the forest. All the trees are about the same age -- naturally reseeded after logging ended and reforesting the area that had literally been cut down to nothing. The forests are being actively managed to keep them thin enough for healthy trees. There are aspen and Ponderosa pines with their gorgeous butterscotch vanilla fragrance.

Our itinerary didn't have time devoted to bird- and animal-watching. Just driving the land one sees the animals and birds who have made it home. Wild turkeys, and the more photographic mule deer. Magnificent elk herd that ran and leap across the road as we snapped pictures trying in vain to catch their long strides and great leaps. But we also saw plenty of bison, although we just missed seeing a bear, and the mountain lions, coyotes, wild horses, and the odd wolf or two that seem to wander through the land did elude us.

Another day combined trucking in, and hiking around. In addition to driving the dirt roads, chatting about the ranch, Nicole kept an eye out for animals, birds, anything that might offer a positive nature experience, at one point stopping along the way to photograph butterflies atop wildflowers. We admired the work of a beaver, learn about the efforts to save and restock the streams with New Mexico's endangered cutthroat trout, picked some wild strawberries, saw elk tracks, and enjoyed a boxed lunch at Munn Lake.

You don't have to fish to enjoy the lake -- no pretense of rods and reels are necessary. After lunch we rowed out into the lake in one of the boats that are always moored by the water for guest use. The nesting eagles weren't around, but their fledgling was -- making a show of flapping his wings but stopping short of actually flying.

Then, a session of skeet shooting, then ending our day with a drink and a delicious dinner.

Had we wanted to horseback ride, we would have been driven up to High Country (with its own set of lakes and fabulous views).

Lodging and Costilla Lodge

Guest rooms are in the half-dozen "cottages". These stone architectural beauties each have about four to six with a well-fixed ranch feel inside. Since the Ranch is about nature and unplugging, you won't find phones or televisions in any of these rooms. And you certainly won't find wifi. Each cottage has a living area and a phone (in case your cell phone doesn't work). The larger rooms sport stone fireplaces, ceiling fans, comfy couches and chairs. If you simply MUST go online, there's wifi in the main lodge. And good luck trying to work on the veranda with the competition from the beautiful views.

There's one other lodging option -- the beautifully rustic costilla Lodge. The Lodge usually is reserved one group of visitors in its 8 bedrooms, plus Great Room and dining room, but in winter visitors can book individual rooms for their special program with snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, ice fishing, sledding and wildlife viewing. costilla comes with its own staff (and fabulous chef).

But Is The Food Good? Gourmet dining

Breakfast is a buffet, with eggs cooked to order and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Lunch is usually boxed although if you're at Headquarters, a full hot and cold menu is available. But all days end with one of Chef Africano's delicious dinners. The menu changes about every week so if you want to eat a favorite every night while you're there, you can. One of the highlights is definitely the bison tenderloin from one of Ted Turners ranches. The bison tenderloin could easily have been the most tender cut of beef -- flavorful and moist. The soups are standouts with a new specialty each day. There's also a new and delicious pie each day, as well as ice cream and an amazing chocolate mouse layered between paper thin sheets of sweet crunch. The rolls, too, change daily -- my favorite was Chef Africano's adaptation of the French baguette as a roll -- oh, yes! Rolls are served with three kinds of butter (the scallion jalapeno was delicious).

Their newest package is photography tours where participants can capture the power of elk mating season and fall foliage.

In a world that is shrinking its natural areas, in which animals have less and less land to roam, Vermejo Park Ranch offers conservation of land and wildlife, and for guests a chance to see those animals living a natural life.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

July 1st, 2015

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