"We get anywhere from 400 to 700 head of elk here depending on the winter," he added. "Most of them probably bring their offspring. I guess even for the elk it is a family tradition."
The ranch, managed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, was created when the state purchased property from the Box Elder Hardware Company in Blacksmith Fork Canyon in 1945 as a way to curtail elk/human conflicts in nearby Cache Valley.
The idea was that providing a refuge from vehicles, people and development along with a daily meal would keep the elk away from the valley, where their numbers were impacted by collisions, poaching and a loss of habitat. Not to mention keeping the state mammal of Utah from eating hay reserves stored by ranchers to get livestock through the winter.
"These poor elk had a very serious problem called people," Hardware Ranch driver Hugh Jenkins told a group of visitors sitting in a horse-drawn wagon in the middle of 500 elk on a recent winter weekend. "They were getting into haystacks and dinging up cars; really making a mess. Before we could regulate them with hunts people started taking care of them as nuisance elk. Concerned people came up with an idea to keep the elk in the meadows here and out of the valley."
It worked, and before long, people in the valley were traveling up the canyon to appreciate the elk that were not eating their haystacks.
Eventually, the wagon rides sleigh rides when snow allows became a tradition at the ranch. As many as 25,000 visit the ranch each winter.
Rachel Larsen made the trip from her home in Salt Lake County to experience the ride with family.
"We gave this as a Christmas present to my husband's family. I've always heard about it and we wanted to see the elk," Larsen said while holding one of her baby twins, Sam. "It was better than I expected. They were bigger than I thought they would be and I learned a lot that I didn't know."
In fact, one of the most memorable parts of the Hardware Ranch experience is hearing about the elk from the drivers.
For instance, did you know the elk at Hardware Ranch do not chew stomach cud like other elk?
"We have a bubble gum machine at the mouth of the canyon," Jenkins told his guests after pointing out that the elk were all chewing on something. "They all buy a stick of bubble gum to help us fund this place."
After the laughs subside Jenkins explains that elk have a complex digestive system similar to cattle.
Other laughs come from the guests.
"We have been asked what size of saddles people need to bring for the elk rides," said Marni Lee, assistant manager at Hardware Ranch. "People wonder if elk pull the sleighs and how close they can get."
Drivers also like to share other "real" information about elk.
"Please don't call them horns," Jenkins told a guest on his wagon. "It will make them mad and they will run off. Male elk have antlers."
There is one question Jenkins won't answer. It happens every once in a while when a confused bull thinks it is still mating season.
"I just look at mom when that happens and let her explain," Jenkins told the group. "They don't pay me to tell you guys about that."
Visitors with sharp eyes will notice one animal among the elk this winter: A pronghorn doe has been hanging around the fringes of the main meadow. Other commonly seen wildlife in the canyon or at the ranch include mule deer, moose, bald eagles, coyotes and wild turkeys.
Drivers point out during the 20- to 30-minute ride that not all Hardware Ranch activity takes place in the winter. The 10 pounds of hay fed to each elk every day is grown on the ranch. Enough is produced each summer to feed the elk and the teams of Clydesdales that pull the wagons.
"We grow as much as 300 tons of hay," Hunt said. "We are also open to the public throughout the year. You can camp, hike, horseback ride and, if you have the appropriate licenses, you can hunt or fish on the Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area."
The original purchase from the Box Elder Hardware Company was 7,560 acres. Through the years acquisitions helped the ranch grow to roughly 19,000 acres.
While some critics argue that it is bad idea to congregate wildlife into certain areas through feeding programs, Hunt said it is still important, and perhaps even more so due to development, to keep the elk from heading to Cache Valley.
Wildlife officials also take advantage of the large number of elk to conduct research projects.
Jenkins told of bull elk that had been ear tagged at Hardware Ranch and then eventually killed by hunters near Blackfoot, Idaho, and Boulder, Colo.
Larsen is looking forward to returning in the years to come with her young family.
"It was a special experience," she said. "We will definitely be back."
If you go
The Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area in Blacksmith Fork Canyon is open for viewing Rocky Mountain elk and horse-drawn sleigh rides ($5 for adults; $3 for kids ages 4-8; under 3, free) through the herd (weather allowing) from mid-December through mid-March. Rides are available Thursday-Monday from noon to 5 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 4:30 Saturdays. The visitor center has the same schedule. Cash or checks only. Visit www.hardwareranch.com for more information.
The Utah Bucket List
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