Hardware Ranch: the Place to See Wild Elk
By Kerry Smith
Have you ever seen an elk in the wild? A few of us have, but for many people the opportunity is becoming rare--unless you know about Hardware Ranch, 15 miles east of Hyrum, Utah. Operated by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) since the mid-1940s, the ranch welcomes thousands of visitors each winter to view the wild elk that have come down from nearby mountains for daily feedings.
How close is the experience? Your family will board one of several horse-drawn sleighs or wagons to be pulled right out into the herd. Because the elk are accustomed to the ranchers feeding them hay from the wagons, they won't be afraid of you. Guests remain seated and don't hand-feed the animals, but there's plenty of opportunity to see the animals up close and take pictures. Each tour is about 30 minutes and is led by a DWR ranch guide, who is knowledgeable on all aspects of the ranch and happy to answer your questions.
I took my two boys on Monday, January 16, 2017. Due to the MLK holiday, a number of people were there, and we waited in line about an hour. But wait times vary depending on when you go and what the weather is like. I'm originally from southeastern Idaho and have visited the ranch several times over the years. During light-snow winters, the herds can be sparse as the animals may forage for food in the mountains. Our recent visit, however, was soon after heavy snow falls. That day, the snow was deep and the herd count was 623 and had been as high as 700+ in previous days. Lots of people came to see the large numbers, of course.
My sons were thrilled with our recent experience, and I was proud to show them a bit of my Cache Valley heritage. If you'd like your family to experience a unique wintertime activity that's also educational, this one is a must. Maybe it will even become a family tradition, one your family will return to and remember for years.
General Ranch Information:
Click here to learn about the event's pricing and hours.
There is no food or fuel sold at the ranch. Cash, check, credit, and debit cards are welcome. Cash is recommended; sometimes card readers aren't working.
Know Before You Go:
Keep driving. You'll see a sign for Hardware Ranch soon after you enter the Blacksmith Fork Canyon. (Here's a link for directions to the ranch.) Then you'll keep driving and driving and driving . . . until you wonder if you've missed a turn-off somewhere. Nope. Keep driving. You'll eventually see another sign. Basically, drive as far as you can up the canyon. The ranch is well marked and obvious once you arrive.
Prepare beforehand. Hardware Ranch is in a remote area. Make sure you have plenty of gas before you enter the canyon. Bring snacks or meals. Say goodbye to cell-phone reception for a few hours. NOTHING besides the ride tours is sold at the ranch.
Bring drinks/water. Make sure to bring your own water. Even during the winter months, you need to stay hydrated. During our visit, we did not see any opportunities to use running water. Bringing wet wipes for cleaning purposes is also a good idea.
Bundle up. Wear snow pants, a coat, warm socks, boots, a hat, and mittens. It can be COLD in the canyon and really cold on the rides if you aren't prepared. A lap blanket is also a good idea for the ride. Hint: Snow pants also double as slick sled pants for bored children waiting in line. Nearby "hills" beg to be climbed on and slid down.
Bring tissues and keep them in your pockets. When it's cold, noses run. Keep your tissues at hand. No bathroom facilities are close to the ride waiting area.
Restroom facilities are minimal. There are bathroom facilities in the visitors' center up the hill, if it's open (it was closed when we visited, due to a power outage). Bring your own toilet paper in case supplies run out. We had to use the outdoor restrooms (aka standard-issue toilets with a hole in the ground), just east of where you queue for rides. There's just one for men and one for women. That's it. You'll see them in the area where snowmobilers typically load and unload. If you have young children, plan to do diaper changes in your vehicle. I couldn't verify whether there are diaper-changing tables in the restrooms at the visitors' center, which is chilly even when it is open to the public.
Bring hand sanitizer. You won't be touching the elk or feeding them, but if you have to use the bathroom facilities, you'll want the hand sanitizer.
Consider bringing a nice camera. Unless you have a really nice phone camera, you'll want an extended lens to take some amazing pictures.
Consider bringing a folding chair. Lines for the rides can be lengthy, especially for those who have trouble standing long periods of time. You can easily set a folding chair to the side when it's your turn to ride.
Wagons are wheel-chair accessible. Getting your wheel chair to the wagons requires a good push in snow that rangers have attempted to shovel or tromp down. Just make sure someone in your group has good muscles to navigate the chair to the wagon.
Power outages do happen. The day we visited, the power had been out for most of the week prior. It's best to bring cash to pay for your rides, or maybe you'll luck out and get free rides like we did because the visitors' center was closed.
The visitors' center is basic. Even inside, it's chilly. That's what the website recommendations say as well. No food is sold at the center, but you can eat sack lunches there, which is what school groups typically do. Personally, I'd plan to eat in your car. The visitors' center has a few displays that tell about the area and, of course, the elk. But you really don't need to spend much time at the center, except to buy your tickets for the ride and use the bathroom. You'll learn everything the exhibits show and more from the ranger guide on your tour.
Basically, the atmosphere at Hardware Ranch is casual, and the ranch hands are happy to help you if they can. So don't be afraid to ask questions. Visitors tend to be pretty casual too. Just don't be in a hurry. Plan your visit with plenty of time to spare. You won't want to rush the experience. Enjoy!
To learn more about Hardware Ranch, its history and operations, visit their website at this link.
Kerry Smith is the Salt Lake City editor for KidsOutAndAbout.com. She and her husband, Cole, enjoy sharing nature and outdoor activities with their two sons. Learn more about her passion to help others at mrsladywordsmith.com.