Places We Protect

Zapata Ranch


A dense thicket of shrubs with yellow flowers in the foreground with mountains in the background.
Medano Zapata Ranch Dramatic, spring view of Medano Zapata ranch with flowering shrublands at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Colorado. © Harold E. Malde

Splendor among the Great Sand Dunes and the San Juan Mountains.




South-central Colorado: near the town of Mosca in the San Luis Valley.

The ranch is not far from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, site of the tallest sand dunes in North America.

Why TNC  Selected This Site

Because it provides landscape-scale conservation of a biologically significant area containing several rare animal and plant species—some found nowhere else in the world.

What TNC Has Done/Is Doing

In 1999, The Nature Conservancy made conservation history by acquiring this preserve, its largest in Colorado.

TNC manages the ranches for two reasons: to protect their significant natural values and to demonstrate how cattle and bison operations can co-exist with conservation efforts.

Staff at the Zapata Ranch focus on:

  • Conducting naturalist workshops
  • Scientific research
  • Operating a cattle and bison ranch




Hiking, walking, wildlife watching and other nature-based activities.


100,000 acres

Explore our work in this region

Why You Should Visit

Imagine seeing thousands of acres of meadows, wetlands, sand dunes and cottonwood groves set against majestic 14,000-foot mountain peaks.

Imagine exploring a stone-age bison-kill site, a prehistoric Native American camp and a historic cattle ranch (still in operation) - all in one place.

If those prospects don't intrigue you, how about walking amidst sand dunes that soar 700 feet into the air?

The San Luis Valley harbors the Great Sand Dunes National Park and constitutes the most biologically significant landscape of its size in Colorado. Wetland ponds can be found among these huge dunes.

This preserve lies within a vast, high-elevation (7,500-foot) basin flanked by not one but two impressive mountain ranges: the San Juans and Sangre de Cristos. Elk share the landscape with a resident bison herd.

How to Visit

There are a couple of ways to see the ranch:

  • Join a guided ranch tour.
  • Enjoy the one-mile-long hiking trail through cottonwood groves and wetlands to mountain views and plentiful wildlife viewing.

The one-mile scenic trail is open March-October, dawn to dusk.

If you're scheduled to visit during the summer, dress for extreme heat, pack bug repellent and bring plenty of water. The preserve is best seen via automobile, stopping for short walks along the way. Expect to see both cattle and bison grazing on the Zapata Ranch.

What to See

Rare Plants

Slender spiderflower - one of the world's largest populations

Rare Insects

  • Ant-like flower beetle (found nowhere else on Earth!)
  • Circus beetle
  • Giant sand treader camel cricket
  • Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle (found nowhere else on Earth!)
  • Histerid beetle

Wetlands Birds

Wetlands here provide habitat for numerous bird species such as

  • American bitterns
  • Sandhill cranes (during spring and fall migrations)
  • White-faced ibis (rare)

Birds: Other species

  • Ferruginous hawk
  • Sage sparrow