Just Back From

First Look: Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch

A few moments after we left the stables, I worried I had made a mistake in my choice of morning activity. It had been years since I had ridden a horse, and the reins felt foreign in my sweaty grasp. The powerful pulse of the noble beast below me made me very aware that I had, to some degree, entrusted my safety to a stranger, my borrowed horse for the morning: Doc. As we rode along a narrow, steep and rocky trail under the hot New Mexico sun, I was feeling uneasy.

At every change in incline, Doc set off into a brief trot and then stopped short, violently waving away the flies that were buzzing around his auburn mane and face. At every stream, he would lean down and lazily sip the cool water, as I nervously leaned back and hoped for the best. Sensing my fear, another rider advised me that horses take the lead from the emotional states of their riders, and so if I remained confident, all would be well. Those words, combined with the offering of a cool breeze against my neck were all I needed to regain a sense of calm.

My narrow focus widened and I began to take in the morning sunlight hitting the emerald leaves of elegant tress that lined our path, with a soundtrack of a nearby bubbling stream and hooves clopping underfoot. As we continued, the landscape began to change, from an enclosed wooded trail to an expansive prairie. Short grasses dotted with wild irises and daffodils swayed in the breeze, and snow-capped mountains stood proud in the distance. I was mesmerized. All I could think to myself was, "This is America."

Related: American West Destination Report

The American West boasts some of the world’s most majestic landscapes. Millions of travelers journey here every year to experience its vast offerings. Adventurists seek out the West’s towering peaks and raging rivers, nature enthusiasts flock here to appreciate the extraordinary wildlife, and many others make their way to simply marvel at the sweeping vistas that leave us eternally awestruck.

Situated on over 590,000 acres that stretch 920 square miles from northern New Mexico into southern Colorado, Vermejo Park Ranch is exceptional in its virtually untouched acreage, with land that’s the equivalent of a substantially sized national park, and which can be explored in near privacy. In fact, only eighteen of the fifty-nine national parks in the United States exceed the size of Vermejo. While millions visit our national parks annually, only a couple thousand find their way to this vast expanse of land, making a visit here an opportunity in which to intimately experience nature.

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Purchased by media mogul Ted Turner in 1996, Vermejo has long welcomed guests who visit to enjoy its vast and varied landscape, along with its plentiful offerings for outdoor exploration. Year-round activities include hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing (there are over twenty lakes on the property), shooting, archery and wildlife viewing. The ranch consists of impressively varied terrain: you can travel from prairie grasslands through four ecosystems up to alpine tundra above the tree line at 13,000 feet—all in one day. Along with this, the wildlife population is abundant: large herds of elk, deer, antelope and bison, as well as black bears, mountain lions, and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, roam the property, and there over 180 species of bird, including bald and golden eagles. One might think of a visit to Vermejo as the closest thing we have to safari in America.

Turner’s dedication to land and wildlife conservation is unrelenting. To note, he is the second-largest landowner in the United States, with over two million acres to his name. Vermejo Park Ranch is currently the largest of these holdings, which also include two other ranches in New Mexico, property in Montana and an island off the coast of South Carolina. In the spirit of sharing the experience of these properties with eco-conscious adventurers, Turner has established Ted Turner Expeditions, which opens the doors of his private holdings to paying guests.

Related: Four of the American West's Most Unique Hotels

The abundance of fauna is a testament to Ted Turner’s dedication to ecological conservation. Since he acquired the ranch, Turner has instituted a number of restoration projects, comprising regenerative forestry and endangered species initiatives to ensure that wildlife remains on the ranch for generations to come. Included in these efforts is the successful restoration of endangered black-footed ferrets to the wild and the reintroduction of Rio Grande cutthroat trout to the watershed. In addition, Vermejo’s land is rich in history, with with petroglyphs, adobe ruins, coal and gold mining settlements and abandoned charcoal ovens to explore to explore.

When asked what inspired his tremendous acquisition of land, Turner said, “I love the outdoors and wildlife and hunting and fishing; I am just an outdoors-crazy person. When I was a kid, I didn’t have a place to hunt and fish. We had a one-acre lot and that was it. So, when I was ten, I was out one day with my BB gun poaching squirrels on the neighbor’s property, he turned me in, and I got called in front of the judge. And he said, ‘You’re a poacher,’ and he fined me, I don’t know, ten dollars—and that was a lot of money sixty years ago. And so I went out of that courtroom, grittin’ my teeth, with fists clenched, and I said, ‘By God I’m gonna work like a son of a bitch and make a lot of money and I’m gonna buy me a place to hunt and fish!’”

He laughed, and continued, “It really is fun to make your dreams come true. I mean, I was married to Jane Fonda for a while, and that was pretty amazing too.”

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Accommodations at Vermejo consist of nine different houses and lodges, some of which can only be booked for exclusive use, others which allow individual room reservations. The crown jewel of these is Turner’s private home, Casa Grande, the only true luxury accommodation at the ranch. The 25,000-square-foot, 7-bedroom home was built for the ranch’s first owner, a wealthy Chicago resident, in 1907 by Joseph Lyman Silsbee, mentor to legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. After a painstaking four-year renovation, during which the estate was restored to its original splendor, Casa Grande opened its doors to guests for the first time earlier this year. The house centers around a grand living room with double-height windows and a coffered ceiling, where guests can mingle and enjoy one another's company after a day of exploring the ranch. Guests can book individual rooms, or rent the entire house for exclusive use. The house is located directly adjacent to the ranch’s main lodge, which features a large bar area and two dining rooms, along with the reception desk and gift shop. The food on the ranch is solidly reliable. Breakfast and lunch are low-key buffets reminiscent of summer camp meals, while dinner offerings are refined and delicious, with menu highlights including fresh trout and perfectly cooked elk.

On my last evening at the ranch, our group congregated around a fire pit outside of the main lodge. Twilight cast its bewitching spell on us as we melted s’mores between our fingers to the score of a crackling fire. It was an apropos moment to discuss what makes Vermejo so unique. Many of the guides noted the ranch’s immense size and diversity of wildlife; some cited the staff’s commitment to land conservation; others mentioned the interesting history of Vermejo throughout the years.

The essence of Vermejo Park Ranch boils down to a few things: the magic of its sheer expanse; the charm found in its dedicated and passionate guides, many of whom have lived there for years; and, most important, the tenacity of Turner’s mission, which is Vermejo’s beating heart. While the ranch existed long before Turner purchased it, its current state of glory is due to his impressive vision to conserve our country’s land in order to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.

When I asked Gus Holme, the ranch manager, who has worked at Vermejo for sixteen years, what makes the place so special, he noted Turner’s personal philosophy and holistic viewpoint. “The goal to serve the ranch but also make the money to support the conservation is a unique model,” he said. “We’re trying to support the native species, promote conservation and be self-funding. That’s the goal, and we’re achieving it. . . . To do the conservation side of things and then the capitalism side of things is very much Ted.”

How to Get There

Getting to Vermejo Park Ranch isn’t an easy journey. The closest airport is Colorado Springs, which is a three-hour drive away. Otherwise, Denver and Albuquerque are both about four-and-a-half hours away by car. Those flying privately can land in Raton, NM, located forty minutes from the ranch.

Who Should Go

Those looking for an authentic, rough-and-tumble American West experience; multigenerational families; bachelor parties; nature enthusiasts.

Read More: American West Destination Report

Published onJuly 11, 2016

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