Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch

It’s a strange beast, this vast ranch owned by Ted Turner since 1996. A century-old guest ranch devoted to hunting and fishing, long a favorite of Texans and other Southerners, it is turning a new skin under Ted’s management. Molting, changing, broadening its market. Becoming less Pennzoil, which owned it for 30 years, more Ted Turner conservationist, though the oil company retained rights to drill for natural gas.

It’s beautiful country, high desert to fir-covered mountain, broad meadows blanketed in wildflowers all summer. Fifteen hundred buffalo graze the lands, one of only two genetically pure herds in the world. Elk and antelope, bear and wolves. Fourteen hundred-year old pottery shards, grinding stones, arrowheads, pit houses. More than half a million acres roll over elevations ranging from 5,000 to 12,000 feet. It’s one of the largest private ranches in the country.

Three original, century-old buildings act as ranch center. Casa Grande is Turner’s home when he is present. Casa Minor houses 16 people and is rented out for family reunions or corporate retreats. In between them, the low, rambling Costilla Lodge serves as reception, restaurant, store and bar areas, and it contains a few rooms. We stayed in one of several bungalows scattered near the lodges where most people stay. They’re comfortable and spacious, befitting the more gracious era in which they were built.

The subtle beauty of these Sangre de Cristo mountains that lie along the border between Colorado and New Mexico is so imposing that it’s hard to take in much else. But I gave it a try. What jumped out most was the weird red-state blue-state cultural juxtaposition of the place. Camo-clad hunter rubbing elbows with animal-loving environmentalist at dinner. Instead of East meets West, kind of North meets South. The ranch seems to be trying to figure out what it wants to be 10 years from now. Its old-school soul still provides every guest with a hunting guide, even if you are planning nether to hoist a rifle nor cast a fly. Our guide is Keith Johnston, self-professed redneck and proud tobacco-chewing owner of a deep Southern drawl.

Why, I thought, were his copious talents at tracking and shooting and fishing being wasted on us, sightseers who just wanted to get into the high country and enjoy hiking in the meadows and admiring the game. But by the third day of driving many of the 2,000 miles of dirt ranch roads, with him chattering on a whirl of topics that keep coming back to the outdoor life he loves, like planets circling the sun, I understand that he’s a one-man show: tall tales, deep knowledge and a contagious passion for everything from “harvesting game” to his teenage years as a bull-riding rodeo cowboy.

We head to the high country. Aspens, firs, meadows, red rock cliffs and peaks that climb to nearly 13,000 feet. Bison, elk, antelope and deer herds graze over the grasslands. Kathryn and I ride horses on a mountain trail while Keith searches for young aspen to serve as vigas for a roof he is building. “Ya wanna see a beautiful place,” he asks when we’re back in the car. Up a steep slope along two barely discernible tracks in the tall grass to a high, perpendicular wall of rocks, like some medieval castle, then down an even steeper, deeply eroded, timbered canyon, while the full force of a Rocky Mountain lightning storm roars down upon us.

Which is why the ranch attaches a guide and 4WD pickup with 2-way radio to every guest. Keith took us to places we would never have seen, and we knew we were safe despite mountain storm and bear hunters that week. But there’s a lot of room for everyone in half a million acres. He deserved the tip he got at the end of three days.


Our “outdoor exploration” rate was $375 per person, per day, with guide and vehicle, a very nice house and big, tasty meals. Throw in fishing the trout lakes and creeks, it’s another $175 per day. A great deal compared to the $5,500 each bear hunter pays for five days, but he gets a dedicated guide and pickup all to himself.

Looking to draw in a non-predator market, the ranch has launched weeks dedicated to nature photography, cooking, and birding. Regular activities include hiking, wildlife viewing, horseback riding and — like most of what we did —outdoor exploration. In winter they are offering showshoeing, nordic skiing, ice fishing and winter wildlife viewing.