Things To Do in Utah: See Elk by Horse-Drawn Sleigh at Hardware Ranch

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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.

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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.

GETTING THERE

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.

Things To Do In Utah: The Power of Poison at NHMU

Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

Okay, listen. I’m a nerd. Let’s get that right out of the way, just in case you haven’t noticed yet, because I want you to understand that I love the Natural History Museum of Utah. (And am now finally a member! Hell yes!) In the last few years they’ve been host to some seriously remarkable special exhibits. The one about the history of horses? Transcendent, even if I wanted to carry on a spirited argument with that one placard about horse shoes. The one that was entirely about geckos? Life-changing. I literally own four geckos now and my life is profoundly enriched and I would possibly kill a man to be able to go see that particular exhibit again. (It’s cool, I went to the poisons exhibit, I totally know how to kill a man now.)

But I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced the kind of profound museum-related disappointment that I felt when I reached the end of the Power of Poisons exhibit that’s currently on display at NHMU. How had I reached the end? Why, and wherefore? Surely there was more I needed to learn about poisons. SURELY.

Alas, it was the end, which doesn’t diminish the fact that the entire exhibit, from beginning to end, was an absolutely fascinating, fact-packed thrill ride of myth, legend, and science, live reptiles and interactive screens, taking us from the forests of Colombia, to poisons in literature, to modern medicine and forensics. There’s a book whose pages seem to ink themselves before your eyes, illustrated scenes from mythology playing out on pottery, a video presentation on early forensic science, a series of interactive whodunnits, and plenty to see everywhere you look.

Between my interests in history and mysteries, and my slight addiction to forensic shows on TV, I was already a little bit of a poison enthusiast. But I learned so much about poison from this exhibit that I almost couldn’t pack it all into my brain-hole. I need to go back and visit the exhibit again just to take it all in a second time. (Which I can. Because I’m a member now. AMAZING.)

Here are a few of my favorite factoids from the exhibit:

  • There’s a tree so poisonous to human life that even standing beneath its leaves during a rainstorm will cause your skin to blister. No thank you.
  • There are places where ants, to assist the plants they like to live in, have basically killed off every other sort of plant in the vicinity; these are called Devil’s Gardens, presumably because they’re a lush hellscape of ants.
  • When history’s writers like Shakespeare talk about witches’ brews containing ingredients like “tooth of wolf” and “tongue of hound,” they likely weren’t just referring to random gross spell ingredients, but to actual known poisons like Wolfsbane and Houndstongue.
  • There’s evidence to suggest that early warfare might have included things like throwing pots filled with venomous insects or scorpions at your enemies. Bad. Ass.
  • Documents containing specific ingredients for “flying potions” made by historical witches included ingredients that would definitely induce a drug trip that would make the user feel like they were flying. A researcher in 1927 actually made one of those flying potions and got high off his ass. It doesn’t sound like the greatest thing, though… with ingredients like wolfsbane, mandrake, and belladonna, those mixtures would have been highly toxic; another researcher who decided to try one out actually poisoned himself and died.
  • In the early days of anesthesiology, doctors used curare to immobilize patients during surgery, not realizing that while it did keep their patients still, they were still awake during their surgery. Yiiiikes. (Interestingly enough, curare can also be used as an antidote to strychnine.)
  • Radium (yeah the actual radioactive kind) was considered a miracle cure in the 20s and you could buy everything from cigarettes to butter with radium in it, like it was a health product. Same with mercury and a lot of other toxic substances… you used to be able to buy teething powders with mercury in them to put in your kid’s mouth. That is super not recommended today, obviously.
  • Marie Curie not only unlocked many of the secrets of radiation, she also set up mobile x-ray vehicles in France during WWI and freaking drove them herself. Hero goals.

And those are just a few of the incredible collection of fascinating facts. I can’t even list them all because then I’d just be reading you every sign from the exhibit. Yeah, I did take cell phone pictures of them all so I could re-read them later.

This cool interactive book responded to pages being turned and touched. You can also play with it online here!

The Power of Poison is a traveling exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History, so if you’re not in Salt Lake and you can’t see it at NHMU, all hope is not lost; maybe it’ll wind up in a city near you! It’ll be on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah through April 16, 2017; you can find more information and purchase tickets here. There’s also a live theatrical performance connected to the exhibit, the Extreme Plants Traveling Sideshow, so make sure to check it out while you’re there!