An entry in the guest book read: "Uh oh, the Great Sand Dunes have tons of sand, and if you're not careful you could end up with half of it in your shoes. And the view from the Zapata Inn is so great. I love the food. (My compliments to the chef.) By Mollie Doerner, age 8, third grade."
Young Mollie had it right about the Inn at Zapata Ranch. Imagine sitting on the patio watching the colors of sunset play on the Sand Dunes four miles away while a large herd of bison slowly graze in the foreground, and a larger herd of elk move like harried commuters through them. Add the sound track: the twitter of swallows flitting field to nest with food for their nestlings; the whir of hummingbirds around the flowers, and later, the conversation among coyotes.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Some history first. In 1806 Zebulon Pike crossed over Mosca Pass and camped in a grove of cottonwoods a few miles to the south. In the next decade, sheepherders from New Mexico began grazing their flocks in the lush San Luis Valley. By the middle of the 19th century cattlemen followed and the inevitable conflicts between species and between men followed. Consolidation was often more effective than brute force, and families tended to acquire larger and larger parcels of land.
The Zapata Ranch was established in 1879, complete with a store, a stagecoach stop and a post office. Ownership changed several times in the next 70 years until the Stewart family purchased both the Zapata Ranch and the neighboring Medano Ranch. Both the Stewarts and the corporation they sold the ranches to raised bison. In 1989, in the cottonwood grove that sheltered Pike, the Inn at Zapata opened. In 1999, with funding provided by the El Pomar Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and GOCO (Greater Outdoors Colorado), the Nature Conservancy bought the Zapata Medano Ranches; at 100,000 acres of wetlands, wildlife, pasture and plains, it is the largest Nature Conservancy preserve in Colorado.
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, Zapata Ranch contains several buildings dating back to 1879, now adapted to modern use. A former barn, for example, now houses state-of-the-art workout equipment. More prosaically, the former post office is now the boiler room. There are 15 guest rooms, poshly rustic, and a dining room that offers three meals a day to guests and opens to the public for lunch daily and dinner on Friday and Saturday.
Breakfast is included in the room rates and is semi-self-serve. Cold items like fruit (the sweetest strawberries imaginable), granola, muffins, yogurt, and juices are arranged in a simple buffet. The bread, next to the toaster, is still in its bag. The pastries are store-bought but the teas are Tazo.
Some of the very pleasant waitstaff bring small carafes of coffee to the table and take orders for any hot items like eggs, pancakes or French toast. Nothing fancy -- no quiche, no omelets, no breakfast burritos. We carbo-loaded on both days as we had serious hiking ahead of us. The eggs were perfectly fried with a buttery flavor. The bacon was crisp and the French toast fluffy. The cook that morning was our waitress's mom and a far better cook than mine ever was. The second morning my hiking pal and I both had so many bacon strips and gigantic pancakes that, though they were light, neither of us could finish.
Both days' breakfasts fueled us for the miles ahead but by evening we were more than ready to dig into dinner. The menu is modest but changes slightly from day to day. We started with goat cheese and red pepper bruscetta and bacon-wrapped artichoke hearts. Granted we were hungry enough to eat the chair cushions, but these were nice beginnings. We had the artichoke hearts again on our second night along with a buffalo green chili that could have warmed the dead.
Every attempt is made to feature local produce, meat and fish. The first night I had tilapia, farm-raised (along with trout and a hybrid striped bass) 30 miles up the Valley, and my pal had lamb chops. Both came with tender, thin asparagus and rice or potatoes. Our waitress that night said, "I like it when people order potatoes 'cause my dad's a potato farmer.' " One begins to understand a certain connectedness, and to appreciate the efforts made by some of Colorado Springs' finest chefs to emphasize Colorado-grown ingredients.
Both entrees were terrific. The tilapia was sweet, lightly breaded and nicely finished with a cilantro salsa. The lamb was marinated in a stock with fresh herbs -- mint, oregano, thyme, and garlic -- which added a complexity to the meat. The second night we both behaved like carnivores and ordered the bison ribeye and the Angus sirloin. Both were on the tough side though prepared to a perfect medium rare. Next time I will order the grilled salmon topped with a sun-dried tomato pesto, or the chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese, tomatoes, spinach and the ubiquitous bacon. (The life of a pig in the San Luis Valley must be brutish and short.)
Two caveats: the Inn has no liquor license and the one dessert we tried, tiramisu, tasted like still-frozen Sara Lee. But you won't go to the Inn at Zapata Ranch for dessert on a plate. Dessert is all around you. Walk away from the few lights at the Inn and look up at more stars than you thought possible. Let the sights, the smells, the sounds of this remarkable place be the all the nourishment you need.
Directions to The Inn at Zapata Ranch
Directions to The Inn at Zapata Ranch: Take I-25 south to Walsenburg. Take Highway 160 west over La Veta Pass and through Fort Garland and Blanca. Four miles west of Blanca, turn right onto Highway 150, following signs for the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. The Inn at Zapata is just beyond the 12-mile marker on the left.