This article is featured in the Fall 2020 issue of LAND magazine. Click here to find out more.
Explore Ranches provides one-of-a-kind outdoor experiences by opening the gates to some of America’s wildest and most scenic ranches with the goal of creating connections.
“Explore Ranches gives people the opportunity to have special, memorable experiences in the outdoors with their family and friends,” said Allison Ryan, a co-founder of Explore Ranches whose family owns the Withers Ranch near Fort Davis, Texas. “If people make memories on the land and see the value of nature personally, they are more likely to care about conserving it.”
On ranches throughout the United States, private landowners have been on the front lines of managing the country’s natural resources to the benefit of us all. These efforts go largely unnoticed and unheralded because few people outside the landowners’ close-knit circles have witnessed their efforts and the results.
“By opening gates and allowing people to see the efforts of private land stewards, we’re creating a direct connection between urbanites and suburbanites who may never have been off the concrete of modern America and the people who care for the land that provides our clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, food, fiber and timber,” said Jay Kleberg, a co-founder of Explore Texas whose family has stewarded King Ranch near Kingsville, Texas, since the 1850s. “Strengthening those connections not only has
implications for conservation, but for policy, politics and urban-rural relationships.”
Private stewardship can be expensive.
“Explore Ranches, through conservation hospitality, offers landowners a new revenue stream that is non-consumptive,” Kleberg said. “Working through us, landowners can ‘put their infrastructure to work’ when they’re not using it.”
On business plan paper and in real world application, it’s a win for guests and for landowners.
“Our guests are getting access to their own private wilderness,” Ryan said.
Unlike public lands where the outdoors is shared with hundreds or thousands of other enthusiasts, Explore Ranches’ destinations provide soul-soothing solitude.
“It’s a chance for people to get away from the deafening ‘noise’ of right now and immerse themselves in experiences with the people who matter most to them in a way that helps everyone discover what is most important,” she said.
In the era of COVID-19, unshared private ranches provide true social distance and an added level of personal safety. Since March, the team has seen an uptick in bookings as guests have re-thought international travel and sought out respites from urban life for their families.
“Several families have booked multiple stays at several of our ranches,” Kleberg said. “The parents needed to continue working, but have a safe environment where their children could roam, play and just be kids in the outdoors.”
From a landowner’s perspective, an alignment with Explore Ranches removes some of the work and uncertainty from a conservation hospitality endeavor.
“We handle the marketing and invest a great deal in photos and videos that capture the unique beauty of each ranch,” Kleberg said. “As fellow ranchers, we know what it means to entrust your story to someone else—and it’s a responsibility we take very seriously.”
Explore Ranches also handles bookings, initial client relations, billing and can provide assistance with liability insurance and best hospitality management practices.
“We strive to be a partner in the outdoors,” Ryan said.
The team also values simplicity and flexibility. The landowner agreement is just two pages long. The fees are split on agreed upon terms. Landowners pay an annual marketing fee. Participating landowners’ base hospitality commitment is just 18 nights per year.
“In our estimation, the family who owns the ranch should still be able to enjoy it,” Kleberg said. “We want them to see their affiliation with Explore Ranches as a positive experience.”
Launched in 2018, the Austin-based company has amassed an inventory of 16 diverse properties encompassing more than 500,000 acres scattered throughout Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and California. The properties range from a rustic cabin and semi-hosted experience on Texas’ Llano River to Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch in New Mexico where guests stay in the home decorated by Jane Fonda and experience his wild bison herd to a ranch north of Dallas with amenities ranging from baseball fields and basketball courts to a swimming pool and fishing pond in a private resort setting
“We have something for everyone,” Ryan said.
While the ranches are as varied as the landscapes, they all meet Explore Ranches’ criteria for a conservation hospitality destination. First and foremost, the ranches, despite their amenities, maintain a “wild feel.”
Explore Ranches gives people the chance to step away from life as we most commonly know it and step back into a connection with nature, with people—and our own humanity.Allison Ryan
Co-founder of Explore Ranches
“When our guests arrive on a ranch, whether it’s 250 acres or 250,000 acres, we want them to feel as if they’re in a wild and untamed place,” said Kleberg, noting that they evaluated about 70 ranches to arrive at the current portfolio of 16 properties. “In our experience, the indefinable feeling of wildness that inspires awe also inspires self-reflection, a reconnection to nature and the desire to help conserve it.”
Guests can also count on comfortable and clean accommodations.
“Lodging runs the gamut, but comfort and cleanliness are tantamount,” Ryan said.
The hosts, be it the ranch owners or their managers, understand hospitality both informally and as an industry.
“To be part of Explore Ranches, you have to roll the welcome mat out,” Ryan said. “Our hosts understand their job is to ensure that guests have a positive experience that hopefully exceeds their expectations.”
Most of the Explore Ranches’ experiences include guided activities led by the hosts.
“We learned that unlike us, not everyone knows how to make the most of their time on the land simply because they’ve never done it before,” Kleberg said. “Now the hosts introduce their guests to the land, its offerings, and the various activities available, so there’s a level of comfort and another level of connection.”
Guests at Explore Ranches destination will have plenty to do. On some ranches, the activities are all within the fence lines, while on others, proximity to rural destinations such as Marfa, Texas, enhance the stay. Most properties have water features ranging from swimming pools to springs and rivers. Depending on the ranch, guests can enjoy hiking, paddling, horseback riding, star gazing, nature tours, mountain biking, bird watching, photo safaris and much more.
With advance notice, Explore Ranches can provide curated experiences. For instance, one of its properties has cave paintings, Native American middens and other evidence of more than 10,000 years of human activity on the land. On numerous occasions, they have arranged for archeologists and historians working in the region to meet with guests and explain the history and significance of what they’re seeing on the ranch.
“Our guests might not even know what they’re seeing or what the hosts are talking about until it’s interpreted for them,” Kleberg said. “The interaction with local experts brings it all to life.”
Explore Ranches continues to expand its ranch portfolio at a careful, measured pace. For now, they are concentrating their search on the American West, but not losing sight of the balance of supply and demand.
“Right now, we have more than a half-million acres in our inventory,” Kleberg said. “As we add more properties, we also want to build our clientele so that all of our ranch partners enjoy patronage.”
Attitude and openness to new experiences on the part of guests and hosts are the keys to connection.
“Our modern urban lives make it easy to get focused on our screens, our creature comforts and our addiction to busyness,” Ryan said. “In the process, we disconnect ourselves from nature and the world at large and forget that we, our people, our choices play a role in life on the planet.
“Explore Ranches gives people the chance to step away from life as we most commonly know it and step back into a connection with nature, with people—and our own humanity.”
A Partner’s Perspective
The shared goal of connecting people with nature also connects Ted Turner Reserves, the conservation hospitality brand of Ted Turner Enterprises, with Explore Ranches.
“Ted is a passionate, long-term conservationist who sees the benefits of planting seeds of interest and concern for the land in the next generation by allowing them to experience nature first-hand,” said Doug Lindauer, vice president of sales and marketing for Ted Turner Reserves. “As a brand, our mission is connecting people with nature. Explore Ranches’ mission aligns perfectly with ours.”
In 2016 Turner designated Vermejo, the Ladder and the Armendaris ranches, totaling more than one million acres in New Mexico, as conservation hospitality destinations and opened them to the public.
“From the family’s perspective, Ted Turner Reserves isn’t a traditional revenue stream business enterprise, but a sustainability practice,” Lindauer said. “The money generated by hospitality is used to pay for the biologists, fisheries experts and land management practices that improve and conserve the land.”
Conservation efforts on Ted Turner Reserves include protecting rare and iconic species, such as the North American bison, Bolson tortoise, Rio Grande cutthroat trout and Mexican wolf, along with initiatives like the riparian restoration plan and the Ponderosa pine restoration project.
“On the ranches, people can immerse themselves in nature and come into direct contact with land stewardship,” Lindauer said. “Perspectives, if not lives, can be changed.”
Vermejo, with more than 550,000 acres, a portion of the nation’s largest wild bison herd and accommodations for more than 60 people, is the most high-profile and most resort-like property of the ranches. In contrast, the 156,000-acre Ladder Ranch, which features Turner’s private home decorated by his former wife Jane Fonda, is a private retreat and wilderness getaway.
“The Ladder is a completely different experience than Vermejo—and perfectly suited for marketing through our friends at Explore Ranches,” Lindauer said.
The Ladder, which is larger than Utah’s Zion National Park and was once the stomping grounds of pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold, is an ideal fit for Explore Ranches’ portfolio of private wildernesses.
“Explore Ranches has a strong connection with like-minded people. . . people who want their family and friends to experience the land in its truest, most elemental sense and make that fundamental connection to nature and each other,” Lindauer said.
Lindauer expected to get a booking a year, but was pleasantly surprised to have four bookings within the first few months of aligning with Explore Ranches.
“If you own a ranch and want to share it when you’re not there, either to generate money to sustain your own conservation efforts or to inspire others to care about nature, I’d suggest entrusting the details to the capable hands of Explore Ranches,” Lindauer said.
Conservation hospitality is a market that is poised for growth as more people discover the opportunities.
“As brands, Ted Turner Reserves and Explore Ranches are a growing presence in the travel space,” Lindauer said. “We’re proud to offer destinations that our guests can feel good about. We take care of the land the way it should be taken care of and help our guests learn how they can care, too.”
—DOUG LINDAUER, Ladder Ranch (Ted Turner Reserves) • Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
A Partner’s Perspective
Alice Ball Strunk and her family engaged in a year’s worth of conversations before agreeing to partner with Explore Ranches to open their Hudspeth River Ranch in West Texas to guests.
“They [Jay Kleberg and Allison Ryan] worked on me for a year, but I just kept saying, ‘No, I don’t think I want to open our ranch up to the public,’” recalled Strunk, who is the fourth generation of her family to manage the 15,000-acre ranch near Comstock that is home to the headwaters and the first six miles of the wild and pristine Devils River.
Eventually, forces outside her fence lines changed her mind. First, international investors purchased more than 130,000 acres in the area with plans to construct massive wind farms that will leave an industrial footprint on the wide open spaces. Local landowners formed the Devils River Conservancy to help protect the land’s character and the river’s health, but recognize they need more widespread support if their efforts are to succeed.
“Through Explore Ranches, we can help other people realize how beautiful and rare this region is,” Strunk said. “If more people see it and begin to love it like we do, then maybe we can enlist their help to protect it.”
From a ranching perspective, the rugged, arid region is best suited for raising sheep and goats. At Hudspeth River Ranch, the Strunk family raises meat sheep with premium-quality natural lamb destined for white table cloth restaurants. As land sold and its use changed from ranching to recreation or energy development, predators have set up housekeeping en masse.
“We’re losing more than half of our lamb crop to predation, which means that our saleable product and therefore our cash flow is slashed by the same percentage,” Strunk said. “Our partnership with Explore Ranches is another revenue stream that allows us to not only keep our ranch working but improve it.”
During 2019, the ranch was the site of one curated event called Cowboy Camp. It was a weekend getaway featuring a metal artist who taught a hands-on workshop for 12 guests that was enhanced by a celebrity chef and a musician. In 2020, bookings have soared. Between late May and mid-July, the Strunks have had five bookings with more on the calendar.
“Time after time, people say, ‘I had no idea Texas had places like this,’” said Strunk, noting that three ecosystems come together on the ranch creating a truly unique environment.
Strunk, who is an attorney by profession, hosts the guests on the ranch herself with occasional help from her husband, Billy Bob, and their children, Sarah, Abbey and Armour.
“The guests who we’ve met through Explore Ranches have been top-notch, wonderful people, who have been so appreciative of the opportunity to come to the ranch,” Strunk said. “They’re just so interested in everything from our holistic grazing practices to the fossils, the caves, the goats, the history, the wildlife and the water.”
As a hospitality novice, Strunk said she had benefited from the marketing acumen and the kind, objectivity of the Explore Ranches team.
“They get our name out there in a way we can’t. They also look at the experience from a guest’s perspective and help you in a very nice sort of way improve your facilities, your excursions and everything else,” Strunk said. “They really push us landowners to be our very best, so the guests will have the time of their lives and come to know that they’re part of the land even if they don’t live here.”
—ALICE BALL STRUNK, Hudspeth River Ranch • Comstock, Texas