In this episode, Steve Neeleman — owner of Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort — talks with Hal about what visitors can expect when visiting East Zion and what hikes should be on your bucket list. Next, hit the trails with our producers to talk to explorers on the park trails. Listen in to get an inside look at what it’s like to hike the less populated areas of Zion National Park!
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Hal Johnson: [00:00:01] You were listening to the Magic of Kanab Podcast, part of the Destination Marketing Podcast Network. Welcome to another episode of the Magic of Kanab. I’m your host Hal. Today I’m with Steve Neeleman. In this episode, we’re going to discuss Zion National Park but we won’t be discussing or touching on every run-of-the-mill hikes and activities that people are more accustomed to. Today, we’re going to focus on and be talking more specifically about East Zion, the best way to experience Zion National Park. Steve, how are you?
Steve Neeleman: [00:00:31] Good. Good Hal.
Hal Johnson: [00:00:33] Welcome to the show. I appreciate you coming on. Hey Steve, do you mind introducing yourself a little bit? Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, where you’re coming from if you don’t mind.
Steve Neeleman: [00:00:41] Sure. I live in Utah, born and raised here. I did leave the state for about seven years when I did some surgical training. I’m a trained trauma and general surgeon but my heart is always brought back to the east side of Zion National Park because in 1962. 60 years ago, my grandfather and grandmother bought a ranch that borders Zion National Park for about five miles. Every time I was a kid and my parents wanted to get a break they sent me down and I spend a chunk of my summers with my grandparents. I always tell my wife that we have a deal that whoever passes first, the other one gets to choose where they’re going to be buried. I’m going to figure out a way to be buried on the east side of Zion National Park. We’ll see if I live longer.
Hal Johnson: [00:01:36] I love it. Was it a working ranch when you were there Steve or where you’re doing chores and ranching or what was it like?
Steve Neeleman: [00:01:42] Yeah. We had a small cattle population that my grandfather would run and he had some horses and things like that. It’s a high plateau up there and so there’s not a lot of natural grasses. There are millions of trees and because of that, it was tough to make money in the cattle ranch business. My grandfather set up a little hunting club. For many, many years people would buy a little piece of property on our ranch, and then they could go up and hunt the over 5000 acres we had in the property. It was kind of a hunting ranch with a small population of cattle.
Hal Johnson: [00:02:21] Got you. Did a part of that ranch stay in the family? Did your father or your mother have it and then to you or did you step back in years later?
Steve Neeleman: [00:02:30] Well actually my grandparents had nine children. They ended up with the ranch when my grandparents passed and there was that whole question, “What’s going to happen?” There wasn’t a lot of money to pay the taxes and stuff. My brother and I, so this would be two of their grandkids, we stepped up and we actually bought the ranch from the family about 15 years ago. My brother and I own it and so this is third-generation for this family.
Hal Johnson: [00:02:57] That’s awesome. I’d love to hear that. Well let’s jump right into our topic today, Steve. Today’s episode, of course on the east side of Zion because we know most of the park’s congestion is experienced in the main canyon and on the west end of the park. East Zion offers incredible hikes, far less visited that doesn’t require a shuttle to access. Elaborate on that if you could. Tell us a little bit more about the east side.
Steve Neeleman: [00:03:19] Yeah. We’ve always been on the east side and of course we’ve slipped down to Springdale to get an ice cream cone or something like that. We were kind of up in the area where we knew it was about 10 degrees cooler, sometimes 20 degrees cooler where 6500 ft and just absolutely loved it up there. We had this fantastic access to all of these hikes that would go right into the park. We kind of first would do kind of some of the over-rim hikes and then pretty soon we started doing some of these canyon hikes like for example, Orderville Canyon that would go down to the park. I just fell in love with it.
We never knew what was going on the west side until people started telling us, “Did you know that we waste a couple of hours sometimes to get into the west side of the park?” We had no idea what was going on because some people know about a third of the people that enter Zion and coming from the east side. Some people believe that maybe as much as half exit the east side, but when you’re going into the park, it’s just a lot less people that enter in on the east side. We’ve never experienced it.
Hal Johnson: [00:04:23] That’s interesting, wow. You are kind of oblivious to the congestion on the west side because you’re just right at home and enjoying the east side.
Steve Neeleman: [00:04:29] Yeah. We’d make it a habit to never go through the west side during the busy part of the day. Maybe we’d go down and like I said, get something to eat and come back in, but by the time we’re going back into the park it was after hours and we could get in pretty easily. It just never occurred to us that people are waiting two hours to get into the park.
Hal Johnson: [00:04:50] You’re lucky. Well, I’ve heard some really cool hikes here. You mentioned you’ve hiked that area a lot. Checkerboard Mesa observation point from Zion Ponderosa East rim Canyon, the overlook and many other hikes in that east side. Steve, I’m going to ask you. Let’s say we have a young family maybe with children, maybe they’re not super experienced hikers. What’s a hike you might recommend that you think would be really kind of eye-opening for the area and available to families?
Steve Neeleman: [00:05:21] It’s little bit older kids and they can walk four or five miles. They should go to Cable Mountain. It’s unbelievable. You walk out from the edge of our property and it’s a pretty flat trail and you get out to the edge where there’s a 2000 ft drop off. There’s this old bulwark that is made out of railroad ties. This is where the early pioneers would lower these giant pine trees that are up on the plateau where our ranches down to the good people of Springdale and Rockville and Virgin and that’s how they built their homes. I love Cable Mountain. I love it.
Look and I’ll be candid with you. Even that more hikes like Orderville Canyon where you’re going through, we rule in our family, kid turns eight years old, they’re going through that hike. That’s their baptism by Zion and, you know, they’re swimming through pools. There’s a wonderful thing is there’s a great variety of hikes, but those would be two that would jump out cable mountain and canyon.
Hal Johnson: [00:06:20] I love it. I appreciate that. It sounds like there’s quite a network. It sounds like there’s an extensive network of trails and options. It’s not limited on the east side. Right?
Steve Neeleman: [00:06:29] No. In fact, I would say there’s more trails that certainly if you look at the variety of trails and it’s not just the ones in going to the park, but you’ve got BLM trails that are all over that east side that are just fantastic. You can do repelling. You can do just more basic canyoneering and as you’re entering in, even through that east gate, there’s so many just wonderful trails that take off right there in the park.
Hal Johnson: [00:06:55] You can keep yourself busy for some time and be entertained and impressed.
Steve Neeleman: [00:07:01] Absolutely.
Hal Johnson: [00:07:02] I love it. Okay, we hear a lot about the wildlife in Zion, bighorn sheep, and bison, at least on the Zion Mountain ranch side. Is that something that visitors could expect to experience, expect to see some of this wildlife?
Steve Neeleman: [00:07:16] Oh yeah because we’re up higher you get a lot of it. The elk are starting to come in a little bit, lots of mule deer and then just an amazing turkey population. There are plenty of mountain lions running around that sometimes you’ll catch a quick glimpse of and the birds are fantastic up there. Again, the elevation up on the east side is between about 6,000 to 6,400 feet. It’s a little bit cooler. You just get kind of a different cut of the fauna and the floor is amazing to the trees. I mean big, huge Ponderosa pines. You just don’t have those down in the base of the park.
Hal Johnson: [00:07:52] Right. That’s interesting. I’ve heard a lot of stories and I know people in designated hunting areas. They just really enjoy the wildlife, the hunting options that they’re there on the east side. What are the lodging options like? I’m curious Steve, I mean are there are various options that people of different desires, income levels, and family situations can enjoy, is it?
Steve Neeleman: [00:08:14] Yeah. Right on these borders, there’s basically two establishments. My neighbor runs Zion Mountain Ranch and he has some fantastic cabins and homes and things like that. We have a little bit of a broader offering at Zion Ponderosa Ranch resort. We were up the road just a little bit and we have not only homes and cabins, but we also have some glamping and some campsites and things like that. I’m not telling you that there’s a giant amount of offerings. That’s part of the allure of the east side is that there’s more open space. There’s less people kind of sitting on top of each other. There are certainly enough to take care of families and there’s even some RV sites and stuff like that. If people want to bring their own rig.
Hal Johnson: [00:08:59] Awesome. I’ve actually heard rumors of Conestoga wagon lodging options. Is that right?
Steve Neeleman: [00:09:04] That is true. There are also some wagons. I failed to mention those and sleep in a covered wagon. You can sleep in a covered wagon.
Hal Johnson: [00:09:11] That’s great. Was that your brainchild Steve? I’m curious.
Steve Neeleman: [00:09:15] It’s actually my nephew’s. There are a couple of guys that grew up in Orderville, Utah. Owen and Jake and somehow, they came up with this idea. They brought in the wagons and put them on the ranch and it’s amazing how many people like to sleep in those wagons.
Hal Johnson: [00:09:29] I can imagine it’d be a little popular. Well, that’s awesome. Steve, what am I missing? What am I not asking you that you’d like to tell us about the east side?
Steve Neeleman: [00:09:37] Well look, I mean the reality is that there is this risk of Zion being overrun. In fact, I mentioned the challenges on the west side. There’s still five million people that are coming to the park every year and I think it’s now the second most visited park in the United States. One of the things we’re doing on the east side to really help out is we’re putting in a very thoughtful manner, a new visitor center. some parking so that people can park. As that gets developed, we think there’s some good opportunities to maybe do some private shuttles or something like that run into the park.
We’re trying to work through how to best do that to take care of guests. I think most people would prefer not to have to drive their car through if they’re just looking to jump off into a hike or something like that. We’re looking at options through that. The reality is that if you’re looking for this kind of a little bit quieter experience of Zion, where you can still see just an amazing, for example, stargazing tours and things like that. It’s just quieter. It’s cooler in the summer. It tends to be a place where people go to kind of slow down a little bit versus going too fast. We are doing our best, the neighbors and the landowners there to really keep it that way.
We’ve done some nice conservation easements where we decided and it’s been our choice to take parcels of land and put them aside so they’ll never be developed. We do not want the east side to be overrun like other areas around national parks.
Hal Johnson: [00:11:05] That’s great. I have an opportunity to take people out and show them the countryside here more in the Kanab King County area more on the east side. I talked to people all the time who have been through Zion. They are enthralled by it. They are impressed by it. They are amazed, astounded at the cliffs, the canyons but there is the singular complaint. The most predominant complaint I receive is, it was so crowded and so many people. To think that you have those kinds of views and vistas and experiences minus the large crowds at this point in time, I think that would appeal to an awful lot of people.
Steve Neeleman: [00:11:39] It’s our goal. This is to actually disperse people out of Zion because since you get your groups around, some of these BLM spots are just every bit as good as the national park and they’re still public land, you can get out on them. If you do them in a thoughtful manner, you get out and see some stuff. We have a plan with the new visitors’ center and things like that that’s coming on the east side to disperse people, meaning draw them out of the park and to really reduce things, which we think will not just help the east side, but it will help the west side too, because there will be less congestion there.
Hal Johnson: [00:12:13] Right.
Steve Neeleman: [00:12:14] That’s a plan we’re working on.
Hal Johnson: [00:12:15] Right. I understand the parks and full support of this.
Steve Neeleman: [00:12:17] Look, I mean, Kevin Clause my partner. He is not my business partner; he is just my neighbor. Kevin’s done a good job of just going in. Initially, we thought we were competitors but then when we realized that we were both trying to salvage the east side, he’s gone in and just met with park officials and said, “Hey, once you get involved in this planning process, because if we’re going to put a visitor center right outside the national park, you need to be there to staff it and things like that.” Kevin has done a great job on it. Sometimes people don’t understand Kevin, they don’t understand what he’s trying to do up there. If they ever want to know, they should go up and talk to him because he’s got a great vision of how to make the east side properly done and not have it be overdeveloped.
Hal Johnson: [00:13:01] Well, that’s great. That’s great. I appreciate you coming in today Steve and it’s been a pleasure visiting with you and picking your brain a little bit. Thanks so much.
Steve Neeleman: [00:13:08] Thank you Hal and good luck with the podcast and taking care of people on the east side of the Zion National Park.
Hal Johnson: [00:13:14] All right, Steven my pleasure. Okay, this next segment, we actually sent our producers into the east side of Zion. They met with people from, I was going to say all over the country, really all over the world, multinational from several countries. We will just ask them a few questions about their experience in Zion. We cut these sound bites together for you to listen to and kind of understand the visitor experience on the east side. I think you’ll be pretty impressed with what they had to say. I hope you enjoy it.
Chelsea: [00:13:44] Hi, my name is Chelsea and I am from Colorado. Today I am at the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion and I absolutely love it. It is beautiful. My friend Carly is actually with me and she showed me this trail. I went to a couple different other trails in Zion but this one has to be my absolute favorite. The view is beautiful and it’s just so breathtaking when you get to the top, there’s an overlook of all of Zion and it’s absolutely beautiful. I think the reason why this is also my favorite is because it’s more, I guess preserved. There’s a lot of people down at the bottom and up here. I mean of course, there’s lots of hikers but it’s definitely not as crowded so I feel like you’re able to get a better experience for sure.
Carly: [00:14:22] Hi, my name is Carly. I’m from St. George, Utah. I’ve lived here pretty much my whole entire life. I’ve had family in Kanab and around Springdale area. I’m in Zion every single summer. We’re at the Canyon Overlook Trail right now. I’ve been on this one since I think I was about eight years old. I love this one because it is a little bit more intimate and reserved. There’s a lot of people, that don’t really know about it and I think it has nice shady spots, but it’s also like a good calf burner. I really love it. I recommend going on it with family. It’s good for little kids and just anyone of any age.
Xavier: [00:15:00] Hi, I’m Xavier.
Wendy: [00:15:01] Hi, I’m Wendy. We came to Zion today to experience just the kind of the, what is it?
Xavier: [00:15:09] Just the beautiful views and we’re not like avid hikers. We picked the easy hikes to go on and we just enjoyed taking our time and pulling over Wendy as an artist. She likes to sit down and draw the rocks and the flowers and things like that.
Wendy: [00:15:27] It’s a really beautiful place. I feel like it’s really fun to see. Just kind of some of the little wildlife that’s around here. Don’t feed them, but it’s very fun to see them scurrying in nature.
Xavier: [00:15:39] Yeah. Didn’t you say this was one of the hikes you did as a child?
Wendy: [00:15:43] Yeah. I’ve lived around Zion. I’ve done a lot of the hikes here. They’re very, very friendly for kids. They’re very friendly for adults. I definitely recommend people to come and just see the beautiful nature that is out here.
Mary: [00:16:00] Hi, I’m Mary. I’m here with my husband Dave. We’re both from Minnesota and we’re enjoying the beautiful Zion National Park today. The first thing we’re doing this morning is the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail. It’s a beautiful trail, a little bit challenging for me. but not too bad overall. Experience here has been lovely. Yesterday we rented the e-bikes and drove the scenic trail and did a couple of beautiful hikes there. We did the emerald pools and that was really great. If you want to take your time, do things at your leisure but see the most you can see and not get over tired then the bikes are definitely the way to go. Today we’re going to do The Narrows. We are excited about that. We will expect to get really wet and hopefully cooled off. Come early in the morning because it gets really hot around here this time of year.
Massimo: [00:17:02] Hi, my name is Massimo. I come from Genova in Italy. I am here in Zion Park with my family with Serena and Alessandro. We arrived there two days ago. We stay in a ranch range here at Zion. We enjoy a lot, all the landscape and all the hike here. It’s also very nice for the child because there are some very competitive hikes but there are also a lot of a little hike like this where the children can enjoy and view all the wonderful landscape here in Zion. Unfortunately, tomorrow we have to leave. We have to come back in Italy but we are very, very happy to be here. I hope my son when he grows up can come here with his family, to visit this wonderful place like I do. I’ve been here almost 30 years ago with my family. It was like this but there were less people and also the party here is a little bit quieter than the Zion on the highway. It is a little bit more crowded.
Stefan: [00:18:22] Okay our name is Stefan and
Steffi: [00:18:25] Steffi.
Stefan: [00:18:26] We are coming from Germany from the southern part, from Bavaria. The city is called Nuremberg. It is famous for the Christmas market. We made actually a round trip for three weeks. We started in San Francisco, go to Yosemite Park then to the Great Basin Park. Yesterday we arrived from Bryce Canyon and today’s our first day in Zion National Park. Yeah. We are coming here for having these great views for hiking.
Steffi: [00:18:57] Yeah, my husband knows already the park from the past. He already has been here something like 30 years ago without me and he knows the best places in the west of the US. He has told me we have to go also to Zion because you can hike there very well but we didn’t expect it so hot. It’s very hot but very beautiful. The mountains are so different from mountains in Europe and yeah, it’s fantastic.
Alan: [00:19:37] Hi my name is Alan, I’m originally from Kansas, I’m semi-local now so I just live down in Rockville. It’s like one of the gateway cities under Zion. This is sort of my, “I don’t feel like exercising today, I’m slightly hungover” hike. It’s beautiful. It’s short, there’s a lot of shade and I mean you meet a lot of cool people at the top so it’s always fun to hang out up here. Sometimes. I think in the peak season the main canyon is just like chaos and you’ve got a shuttle in and there’s all these people. I don’t really feel like seeing mass amounts of people usually come over here. I feel like locals usually do this trail too. You run into a lot more people at the top that you know, bring more water than you think. Always more water.
Spencer Sheffield: [00:20:17] Hi, my name is Spencer Sheffield. I’m from Layton, Utah currently living in Provo. I’m just on a business trip here. We’re at the Checkerboard Mesa overlook or viewpoint and it looks pretty cool. What I like about this part of Zion’s is, I’ve never been here before, at least this part. I get to see some new sites which are just as cool as the rest of the park.
Adam Caster: [00:20:45] Hi, my name is Adam Caster. I’m originally from Long Island New York and this is my first time going to Zion. We are here at Checkerboard Mesa and it’s really nice. The viewpoint is gorgeous looking at all the red rock. It’s actually amazing that we’re still in the United States like New York and Utah are so different geographically when you go to all the other national parks where if you go upstate, you have a couple of mountains and nature and things like that, but nothing like in Utah for sure.
Anna: [00:21:22] Okay, I’m Anna, I’m from Spain. We have chosen to enter Zion because we’ve been here like six years ago and we want to do again. Last year, no not last year, six years ago we went to Angels Landing. This year we want to do the observatory. We are entering this zone of the park because we’re going to go to Springdale that the place where we’re going to sleep. I don’t know what we’re going to find around. We are here in Checkerboard Mesa because it’s gorgeous. It’s amazing. It’s like different formations from the land. They are huge and that’s wonderful.
Jenny: [00:22:07] I’m Jenny, I’m from St. Louis but originally Illinois.
Barb: [00:22:10] I’m Barb. I’m from Rockford Illinois.
Margie: [00:22:14] I’m Margie, I am from Appleton Wisconsin.
Barb: [00:22:15] We are two daughters and one mother. Basically, we came out here, we’re going to go to the narrows. It’s a hike down a canyon, right? You know more about Margie’s laughing too much. That’s why we came and we entered the park and it was a nice drive here. It wasn’t too bad. It was a great drive, it’s a beautiful day. We are ready to go, have some fun.
Margie: [00:22:41] Yeah.
Ashley McKenzie: [00:22:45] My name is Ashley McKenzie. I work here at Zion Mountain Ranch on the east side of Zion National Park. One of the major things I love about this side of the park is that it still seems very natural and protected in comparison to other gateway communities, especially if you look at how busy and congested it can get on the other outside of the park in Springdale. This is kind of seems like a breath of fresh air relaxation for a lot of people that have been in the park or have traveled through busier parks or have been, you know, fighting for space on the top of Angel’s Landing or in the narrows
They come up to this side of the park and it’s authentic. It’s raw, it’s natural, it’s, it’s just a moment to really find peace and solitude and kind of, you know what you think about when you think of going to a national park is experiencing nature and having this relationship with it. And that idea can sometimes get thrown off balance by how many people are within some of these popular hiking destinations. This is a chance on this side of the park to really find that relationship with the natural park system. I would think.
Vincent Ronald: [00:23:57] Hi, I’m Vincent Ronald. I’m originally from France, but I’m living in California now. We arrived in Utah two days ago and we’ve stayed tonight here at Zion Mountain Range. So far, we’ve done the Narrows and observation point today which is a trail not too far from here. The main reason why we choose the east side of Zion is it looks like it’s less touristy and I think we were right and also more maybe more authentic. Yeah, I think that’s the two main reasons.
Dennis Jacques: [00:24:30] My name is Dennis Jacques. I am from Switzerland originally. I’ve been living in the U. S. for 20 years now. I’m based out of California Napa. I found Zion Mountain Ranch a couple years ago by accident driving through Zion. We spent our first night in Springdale on the other side of the park and the second night here. We kind of, my wife and I fell in love with this place. We’ve been coming back on a regular basis several times a year and this summer we’re actually spending the summer here on the ranch and helping out the team here to welcome our guests. What we love about this place is its authenticity. It’s different from most of the access to national parks that we have visited and there is a true balance between people and nature. Nature is a very important component. I think it makes this place special. We are looking forward to come back many times and encourage anybody who wants to discover East Zion and a more authentic Southern Utah environment to get you into the national park. This is the place to try.
Hal Johnson: [00:25:48] Well that was awesome. Getting to listen to the different people have experienced East Zion. We appreciate all of their comments. We’re going to bring Camille Taylor, Office of Tourism here in Kane County on with us a little bit. She has been with us before. Camille, what can you add to this equation?
Camille Taylor: [00:26:04] I just to speak to the sound bites that we just heard. That’s amazing to always hear from the visitor’s perspective because sometimes we get a little bit jaded about all this beautiful scenery around us. And I love actually taking people out on some of my favorite because I get to see them all over again for the first time through their eyes.
Hal Johnson: [00:26:19] So true.
Camille Taylor: [00:26:20] That was really cool.
Hal Johnson: [00:26:22] So true. I’ve experienced that all the time. It never gets old.
Camille Taylor: [00:26:28] It never gets old for us, right? It never gets old. Here’s kind of the tough decision-making on my part. I’m like, do I take people to my favorites because then I’m a better host? I know them. I can kind of shape their experience or I would take them to something I haven’t seen. I realized it doesn’t matter because it is like seeing it for the first time, all over again through their eyes.
Hal Johnson: [00:26:43] Well, if you’ve positioned yourself as the resident expert, you can kind of bluff your way along the place, right.
Camille Taylor: [00:26:42] I am not bluffing and tell them a few stories that may or may not be true and just make it fun.
Hal Johnson: [00:26:51] There you go. That’s right. We get the truth scope on occasion. Right?
Camille Taylor: [00:26:55] Yeah. Like Dennis Judd said in a little Hollywood episode, that story is mostly true.
Hal Johnson: [00:27:00] I love it. I love it. Steve mentioned that the BLM public lands have some areas that rival within the park there, right there adjacent to it.
Camille Taylor: [00:27:12] Yeah, I would just say when you’re considering your visit design, you know, go beyond the arrows or Angels Landing. There’s so much more to the park than that. That is just as grand. Maybe even more connective. There are fewer visitors. Yeah, you can have a Zion-like experience well beyond the park borders and avoid the crowds and have that connective experience that you’re really looking for when you’re doing nature.
Hal Johnson: [00:27:37] Amen. I love it. Okay, well with that, I appreciate you coming on Camille.
Camille Taylor: [00:27:41] Yeah, it’s always fun to pop in.
Hal Johnson: [00:27:43] Thanks everybody for listening. We hope you enjoyed this episode. Remember to like and subscribe and we’ll see you next time. This has been another episode of the Magic of Kanab Podcast, part of the Destination Marketing Podcast Network hosted by Hal Johnson and produced by Relic.