I knew Vermejo was big but really couldn’t grasp quite how big until I visited this private nature reserve of over half a million acres, that goes on and on for hundreds of miles in New Mexico, dipping into Colorado. Almost the size of Rhode Island, Vermejo is home to streams, rivers, lakes, prairie, high-altitude, and amazing animals, plants, views and experiences — a virtual national park with no crowds.
And you get to play in it!
In 1996 Ted Turner bought Vermejo, added to it, and created the largest private contiguous ranch in the country, preventing the land from being parceled up and developed.
Ted took down fences and replaced cattle with bison, which are easier to maintain and better for the land.
Over time Ted wanted to share this gem and opened the ranch to the public. Most of us will never come close to Turner’s fame and fortune but we can spend time in his home and on his land, reaping the rewards of his labors and love of nature and conservation.
In addition to 1,400 bison, there are elk, antelope, big horn sheep, black bears, mountain lions, even wild horses living freely on his land. Watching wildlife is a prime activity. The bison move as they wish. One day a huge herd stationed themselves right across the road of the main lodge (called Headquarters). Another time during a hike we had to cautiously wait for some bison to cross our path.
We saw huge numbers of elk running across the prairie and, higher up, as we turned a corner in the jeep, elk scattered everywhere.
Driving into the back country the day before we left, Doug (President of Ted Turner Enterprises that runs Ted’s ranches) said he really wanted to see a bear. Well not more than 3 hours later we’d finished a hike and were relaxing at the side of a lake. I rolled up my pants and waded into the water. A bit later Doug, Kerry and Diann eked and oohed and ahhed. A black bear was about 50 yards down shore, frolicking in the water. It was adorable and Doug got his wish.
Our last evening, after an early dinner, we piled into jeeps and drove up into the high country. As night descended, male elk started bugling to one another–it was the beginning of rut season.
In the tradition of Vermejo hunting is permitted, in very limited times of the year and numbers. Jade McBride, Vermejo’s onsite Managing Director Ted Turner Reserves told me that hunting is the only legal way to cull this herd of over 7,500 animals to keep the land balanced, particularly to restore riverbanks and rebuild the habitat for native cutthroat trout, a species Vermejo has literally brought back from the brink of extinction.
Vermejo is driven and managed by Turner’s conservation ethic and decisions. The ranch minimizes chemical use and resident managers oversee forestry, fisheries, bison and hunting programs. Along with a couple of full-time biologists, they study and try to ensure a sustainable healthy ranch made up of many ecosystems.
Bringing back Vermejo’s native cutthroat trout, ferrets and prairie dogs are among projects of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Tree and other flora projects are restoring the land as best as possible to its natural state. This is a rare opportunity to see a vast, vast track of land the way it was over a century ago. The real Wild West. The ranch’s history is fascinating.
Part of the experience is learning the ways of the land, the operation of the ranch and the community who works on it. Our fishing and elk-bugling guide, called Gator (because he and his wife live in Florida and he guides in the Everglades), spends 4 months a year in Vermejo and is full of stories and expertise.
We spent time just driving around the ranch, stopping at lakes, fishing in streams, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and trying our skill at archery. What you do and when is up to you. We talked to guests who had done nothing more than spend the day at a remote lake. The ranch is open year-round and wildlife viewing is just as good in winter, along with snowshoeing, ice fishing, tubing, Nordic skiing and hiking.
You can stay in the period main house, Casa Grande, replete with original mosaic and hard-wood floors, vaulted ceilings, internally lit oak bookcases with leaded-glass doors full of Ted’s personal books, and family photos propped on furniture. The Steinway in the great room, over 120 years old, is perfectly tuned. Our last night (after the elk bugling) our group gathered in one of Casa Grande’s salons, next to the billiards room, and played pool and watched the US Tennis Open.
A lovely, intimate courtyard off Casa Grande’s immense and nurturing plant conservatory is a perfect spot for a romantic dinner or small cocktail party.
Other lodging includes 5 cottages in Headquarters and the 8 -bedroom Costilla Lodge, 25 miles away in the high country with stunning views and its own staff and chef. When The Turner House renovation is completed next spring there will be room for a total of 70 guests…not a bad person to land ratio!
A typical rate is $800 per adult per night; all-inclusive of lodging, food, and most excursions. Some specially guided tours/activities (such as a personal fishing guide for a full day) are extra.
Staff are genuine and care to please – many are from the area, others from afar, but all have arrived through a love of the land and nature. Vermejo has a great gift shop, wi-fi, and bar (alcoholic drinks are extra). Make sure you ask for a phone wi-fi connection if your cell isn’t working. Attire is casual. Dining overall is very good. Evening menus always feature meat (several kinds). But Vermejo accommodates to your diet, even vegan.
A fun excursion is crossing over the ranch for some 90 minutes to visit the Old West town of Cimarron and lunching in the St. James Hotel, built in 1872, where the bar’s pressed silver ceiling is punctured by over 20 bullet holes and original period rooms boast the names of former guests such as Annie Oakley, Kit Carson, Jesse James, Davy Crockett and Doc Holiday.
Ted Turner’s Vermejo is a very special place, a true getaway, a real soul rejuvenator. A place to fully connect with nature and experience an old Americana, off-the-land, ranch way of life. Vermejo prioritizes ecosystem health and sustainability, while addressing modern–world challenges.
The beautiful light, setting, smells, people and activities deliver a special, unique experience, a feeling of excitement and well being, all the while offering true relaxation.
I was surprised by how many repeat guests I met at Vermejo–there’s so much to explore. It’s one of those unique experiences of our country and of the world. And supporting Vermejo helps keep this gem, a true example of smart and eco-friendly land management, available to us all!
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Photos by Susan Bruce and courtesy of Vermejo Park Ranch