It’s a well-known not-secret that I’ll go out of my way to take a picture of a horse. If it’s a draft horse working in harness, I’ll go even farther out of my way. Which is how I end up every few years driving about two hours through a canyon in the winter time to take a twenty-minute horse-drawn wagon ride at the Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area.
It’s a great activity especially for lovers of wildlife and rural tradition; visitors can take a horse-drawn tour through a peacefully grazing herd of wild elk and get a much closer look at the animals than they usually will in the wilderness. There’s also an interpretive center for visitors with displays on the local native wildlife, pelts to touch, and other exhibits, along with a beautiful view out over the wildlife viewing area.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Utah Department of Wildlife Resources administer the programs at Hardware Ranch, including tagging, testing, and research centered around the elk and other wildlife. The animals are fed in this area when they come down from the higher elevations in the winter, and the feeding program helps to keep them from wandering into town where they’d be at risk of coming into conflict with people. It also ensures that they’ll have adequate feed to get them through the winter, even though the lower elevations that have traditionally been their wintering grounds have been crowded by human development.
You’ll have a chance to visit with the horses who’ll give you your ride out among the elk — by sleigh when the snow is deep enough, and wheeled cart when it’s not — and the drivers are very knowledgeable about the elk, the horses, and the area. In early December, there are also a few special events, including the annual Elk Festival, and a biathalon where the competitors run on snowshoes and shoot muzzleloaders. (I didn’t know about that. I think I know what I’m going to be going to watch next winter. That sounds amazing.)
It might not be a quick trip, but the beautiful snowy drive into Blacksmith Fork Canyon, the beautiful draft horses pulling the sledges and carts, and getting to see elk up close, all make it more than worth the drive. The exhibit in the visitor center are a great added bonus. The scenery can’t be beat and the photo opportunities are wonderful, and if you’re interested in wildlife there’s a lot to learn. If you’re looking to get a little closer to the wild without any off-roading, this is a great day trip.
The horse-drawn vehicle seats about 20 people, and rides are first come first served, with no reservations. Tickets can be purchased in the visitor center. (The cost is $5 for people 9 and older, $3 for kids 4-8, and kids under 4 ride free.) In addition to the actual ride, you may need to wait outside for a little while before your ride (particularly if you go on a very busy day, like a Saturday or holiday), so be sure to dress warm and make sure the kids have their mittens. There is no food or fuel available at the visitor center and it’s a pretty good drive to the nearest service stations and restaurants, so make sure you’re all fueled up on gas and snacks before you leave Hyrum and get on Highway 101. (From Hyrum, it’s about 15 more miles into the canyon to Hardware Ranch.)
For the 2016-2017 season, elk viewing rides opened in early December and will be going until the end of February. They’re closed Tues-Thurs, with Mondays and Fridays typically being the slower days if you’re hoping to avoid doing any waiting in line.
Access to Hardware Ranch is along a paved state highway, and it is regularly plowed, but be sure to check weather conditions and the forecast before heading out. (You can call the Hardware Ranch visitor center at 435-753-6206 or 435-753-6168 to check in on conditions, sleigh rides, and any other info you might need.) Chains and 4-wheel drive aren’t really necessary as long as the weather isn’t bad, and the highway back to the WMA is curvy but not winding, for anybody else out there who gets motion sickness. (Holla!)
Unfortunately, plugging the Hardware Ranch visitor center into your GPS doesn’t generally work. I’ve just tracked down the actual visitor center building on Google Maps and added it as a marked place, so hopefully in the future it’ll be easier to find, but as of this writing it isn’t up yet. You can try plugging in the numeric coordinates (41.602161, -111.562611), or use the map below. (Hit the “more options” link to plug in your own address or send the GPS directions to your phone.)
You’ve arrived basically when you reach the end of the paved highway. You’ll likely see the horses and wagons, as well as a large open field with elk, on your left. There are a few pull-out parking areas off the main highway where you can park, but you might want to drive past them to take the driveway that leads up and to the right to park in the lot at the visitor center, where you’ll need to purchase your tickets. (If you run out of paved road, you’ve gone just barely too far.)
The drive is about two hours from central Salt Lake, and more detailed directions can be found on the Hardware Ranch website, as well as FAQs, event information, and probably any other info you’re looking for.