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(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area in Blacksmith Fork Canyon gives visitors a unique opportunity to experience wild Elk up close. The working ranch maintains healthy rangelands for wildlife as well as increasing public awareness through community outreach and education programs.
Hardware Ranch a tradition for Utah families — and elk

Utah Bucket List: Ranch gives elk a refuge from development, and families get a winter treat.

First Published Jan 21 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jun 23 2014 12:30 pm

Blacksmith Fork Canyon • Ranching in Utah is a family tradition. The state-run Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area is certainly no exception.

There is, however, an interesting twist: This family tradition includes two species.

At a glance

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.

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The Utah Bucket List is a partnership between the Salt Lake Tribune and KUED-Channel 7. Stories, photo galleries and video clips of Utah’s “must do” outdoor adventures are produced by the Tribune. An hour-long show about the second year of filming will air on KUED in the fall of 2014.

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"We see a lot of people who came here as children and they want to come back with their children and grandchildren because it was such a memorable experience," said Hardware Ranch manager Brad Hunt.

"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.

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"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."

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