Growing up in Northern New Mexico — and being a skier, fisherman and hiker — I thought I was familiar with every nook and cranny across our fascinating region, but a few weeks ago I discovered a realm unto itself bristling with 12,000-foot-plus peaks, plunging valleys, well-watered streams and world-class big game.
As we topped a ridge some 30 miles west of Raton, this immense panorama of snow-capped summits and rippling valleys opened before us. I stifled a gasp.
How had this corner of the Sangre de Cristos eluded me these many years? What secrets did it hold? And, would we find some backcountry skiing here? We soon found out as we wound our way onto the 585,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch, a remnant chunk of the former 1.8 million acre Maxwell Land Grant.
Owned by Ted Turner, it is the largest contiguous privately-owned property in the West. Sprawling over the New Mexico/Colorado border and five life zones, it operates as a guest ranch with a firm ecological emphasis. Since 1996, Turner spent millions restoring this property to its prehistoric ecological conditions. He removed some 4,800 cattle and re-introduced buffalo. Black-footed ferrets and black-footed prairie dogs are raised for release into the wild.
Streamsides are being fenced to promote bank stabilization and reduce trout-killing sediment loads, forests thinned, bighorn sheep preserved, and many other precedent-setting policies undertaken. It has some of the nation’s finest hunting for elk, mule deer and other big game as well as the best fishing for New Mexico’s native Rio Grande cutthroat trout. There’s horseback riding, wildflower hikes, photo safaris and other non-motorized recreation as Turner attempts to make eco-tourism a viable way to protect treasured places.
Gus Holm, Vermejo’s general manager, calls it “conservation capitalism.”
Booked solidly during summer, the ranch is embarking on development as a winter destination as well. While it ran successful ice fishing programs in the past, consistently pulling out 20-inch plus rainbows, a change in management crushed this endeavor, so we showed up to an entirely empty establishment.
We lodged in a three-story stone palace, Casa Grande, built in 1909-10 by Chicago commodities broker William Bartlett, which flanks a massive log cabin structure and another, smaller stone house, Casa Minor. The first night we dined alone at a table accommodating 16 people, the fire dancing in its walk-in fireplace. In the corner stood the MGM lion, a relic of the days when Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and other Hollywood elite gathered here, in addition to Herbert Hoover, F.W. Kellogg, Harry Chandler, Harvey Firestone and Andrew Mellon.
Italian marble columns, shipped across the Atlantic, rare crystal, acres of book shelves, blue ottomans and Western art provided a regal touch, not to mention the full staff fulfilling our every whim. It was an experience to treasure, albeit a bit bizarre and unexpected!
The next morning we rose early for a hot breakfast of trout hash, homemade bread and fresh-squeezed juice prepared by new chef Wes Coffel and met our personal guide, the affable, outgoing, thoughtful James Reidy, for a day of cross-country skiing and wildlife viewing.
We were barely out the front gate when we came across a small herd of young buck mule deer, and soon after, at a lake, we saw five immature and two mature bald eagles sailing over the ice-dotted water for their breakfast. Next up were some elk. Climbing into the high country, where the snow still lay on north-facing slopes, we stopped in to see remote Costilla Lodge. It overlooks a massive valley and reservoir of the same name; to the west tower Big Costilla Peak (12,739 feet), two unnamed peaks over 12,500 feet, and Stateline Peak (12,867 feet, 13th highest in New Mexico) — all on the ranch property.
We parked on the high ridge dividing Taos from Colfax county, and put on our skis. The hot days and cold nights had played havoc with the snow, but with the skinny skis we stayed on top of it and pushed out a mile and more on an old logging road. We whooped down gentle inclines, taking in views that run north to the 14,000-plus Culebra Peaks area and stair-step mesas near Trinidad, Colo. The sun shone, the wind rustled the pines and aspen, and we pinched ourselves that we were so privileged to experience all this.
If you go
The Vermejo Park Ranch is located 32 miles west of Raton, and north of Cimarron. It is being operated by Ted Turner Expeditions. There are 52 rooms available in the summer, including the Costilla Lodge (which is open only May-October). Rooms in the Casa Grande are now being made available for the first time to the public. Accommodations include all meals, and guided outings and activities at no additional cost.
Winter activities include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, wildlife viewing and historic tours. Summer activities include bird watching, hiking, stream and lake fishing, history tours (the ranch once had a functional school house, a steam power plant and mining villages), sports clays, skeet shooting, archery, mountain biking, wildflower tours, cooking classes and more. Spring is turkey season and fall is big game hunting.
For additional details, call 575-455-2059 or visit www.VermejoParkRanch.com.
Daniel Gibson (danielbgibson.com) of Santa Fe has been roaming the region as a writer and editor for most of his life.