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More than food on the menu
Long hikes, ATV rides, rappelling offered at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort

MOUNT CARMEL, Kane County -- Meals are served three times daily at the Zion Ponderosa Ranch, but the main menu doesn't come with the food.

It's on the sheet marked "activities," and it contains such choices as long hikes with return rides included, horseback rides, ATV tours, go-kart races, mountain bike trips, rappelling adventures off sheer rock cliffs, wagon rides, wall-climbing attempts, paintball wars, astronomy tours and all the usual things like swimming, basketball, tennis, soccer, volleyball and, of course, the customary barn dances country ranches are recognized for.Selections might include an early breakfast followed by rappelling by 8, biking at 11 and then a gallon of water and a quick sandwich and chips. Up and moving, a trip to the Zion overlook on ATVs at 1, encounter a minor skirmish at 3, swing into the saddle by 4, climb a wall at 5, then hurriedly downing taco, salad and apple tart before the wagon ride at 7. Volleyball starts at 8 and a serving of cowboy poetry at 9, followed by a sound sleep by the second verse of the third poem.

And the next day it begins again, with maybe a few substitutes like fishing or two trips on the back of old Navajo, the spotted Appaloosa, instead of one and a game of ping-pong before dinner to wind down.

And it's all included in the price of the room. And, most likely, at some expense of the body. You keep your hands on the rope or the reins or the handlebars and out of the pockets.

In the beginning, the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, which bumps up against the eastern boundaries of Zion National Park, was family land limited to some camping and hiking by a select group of invited guests. With some outside encouragement by friends in the early 1990s, the owners had a cabin built that was operated as an out-of-the-way bed and breakfast for a season. Activities were limited, however,

to shuttled hikes and storytelling around the dinner table.

With the natural wonders of the national park and 8,000 acres of open country to buoy it, the all-in-one concept of the ranch began to take form in the spring of 1995 with groundbreaking for the main lodge, some individual cabins, a swimming pool and a big barn that would become the heartbeat of the ranch.

"Two months after ground breaking we opened," said Keoni Stephens, manager of the Southern Utah ranch. "We were very limited at first. Horseback riding and hiking was about it, then we began to add more activities. In the beginning we broke everything out into separate prices . . . rooms, food, horseback riding, fishing trips, everything. What we noticed was that a lot of people were always standing around wondering what to do.

"Then we came up with the idea of offering two packages -- one where everything was included in one price and the second where all of the activities were broken out and guests paid for those things they were interested in. It caused us a lot of problems even though people had their choice. The guests who chose the all-inclusive package were always off doing things and the others were standing around, watching and complaining that they didn't have anything to do. Last year we went to the all-inclusive package and haven't regretted it for a minute."

Now, for the price of the ticket, guests can do as much as their endurance will allow . . . rappelling down a 100-foot cliff into the heart of Zion country; riding horses over the open range of ponderosa and pines; heading into the backcountry over rugged four-wheel roads on an ATVs; or waiting to ambush the opposing team armed with a gun loaded with yellow, green, blue and pink balls of paint.

Visitors can sign up for as much as their day will hold.

Given free reins, some guests have opted to spend all day riding horses through the country around Zion. Trips go from hourly excursions along the park boundaries to half-day rides into the heavily wooded and rugged backcountry.

For the more adventurous, there are the longer hikes, some venturing into the park, that involve a shuttle ride back to the ranch. One trip includes rappelling down a 150-foot maze carved in the red-tinted sandstone and into Orderville Gulch, a popular entrance to the Zion Narrows.

"There's another hike that goes into Pine Creek. In a distance of about one mile you encounter six major rapels. You drop about 400 feet. It's an incredible hike that takes about five and a half hours," he said.

On another trip, guests follow guides to the banks of the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry to fish. There are also trips to Lake Powell, which is about two hours away.

"Overall, there have been a lot fewer problems and the people are a lot happier since we went to the all-inclusive program," said Stephens. "If I were to guess, I'd say the horseback and ATV rides are the most popular activities."

This year the ranch introduced another program, this one just for kids.

Camp Ponderosa is for children 3 to 11. Most of the kids, says camp director Maxcine Jensen, tend to be on the younger side.

The camp does two things: It targets activities children are able to do and enjoy, and it releases parents to do things they are able to do and enjoy.

Daily activities for the kids include arts and crafts, field trips, swimming, pony rides and walks through the petting zoo . . . all, of course, included in the price of the room.

Having completed one season and headed into the second, Stephens said the changes thus far been good.

"In the beginning, our busiest times used to be weekends. Now we seem to be busier during the week. People are looking at us differently. They used to stop on their way somewhere. Now we're a destination stop. They come, they stay and they go home. I'd say the average stay is between three and four days," he added.

During the summer months the ranch employs about 60 people. Each specializes in an activity. Each is responsible for overseeing a specific event and in making sure guests receive the necessary instruction and equipment.

Peak season runs from May 1 to Sept. 9. Off-peak is from March 1 to May 20 and Sept. 10 to Nov. 30. Winter season, which offers added activities such as downhill skiing at Brian Head, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross country skiing, fills in the remaining days.

The cost for a weekday stay in a cabin suite, for a family of four, is $95 per person per day, all activities included. A weekend stay in a smaller cowboy cabin, for two, is $85 per person per day and for four it's $75 each. Off-peak and winter rates are lower.

For information on availability and prices call 1-800-293-5444 or look at the Web site on www.zionponderosa.com.