Emily Buckley, editor-in-chief
For Brad Hunt, a life that revolves around work, spending his days tucked up in the mountains and interacting with the wildlife in their natural habitat is pretty ideal. He worked as a driver at Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area while studying at Utah State University and landed his “dream job” five years ago.
Hardware Ranch, located 15 miles from Cache Valley, up Blacksmith Fork Canyon, was originally settled in 1858 by Lee Curtis. It changed hands several times over the years and eventually became the Box Elder Hardware Company.
Cache Valley was historically the natural winter range for local elk herds, but as towns were settled, conflict rose between hungry elk and local farmers. In 1945, the state of Utah purchased Hardware Ranch with sportsman’s dollars generated by the Wildlife Restoration Act to prevent elk migration into Cache Valley during the cold winter months. Since the state’s purchase of Hardware Ranch, the area has been a center for elk research; it is operated as part of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
In addition to providing a habitat for Rocky Mountain Elk, the 14,300-acre Hardware Ranch provides visitors with an up-close opportunity to learn about wildlife. In fact, Brad and his team of about a dozen employees who work as drivers and educators in the education center host about 30,000 visitors each winter.
From the beginning of December (when the return of the elk is celebrated at an annual Elk Festival) until the last weekend of February, the public can visit Hardware Ranch on Mondays and Fridays from noon to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for horse-drawn sleigh or wagon rides that will bring you right through the meadow where the elk wander. The cost is $3 for children ages 3 to 9 and $5 for ages 9 and up, 3 and under ride free. Drivers share expert information on the history of the area and the biology of elk during the ride, and visitors can learn even more in the free education center.
Long before the wagon rides start, Brad and his team get to work. Every morning they load up two and half tons of hay, which is grown on the same land during the warmer summer months, to feed the nearly 700 elk that spend their cold winters at Hardware Ranch. Last summer they produced 214 tons of hay on 120 acres in order to have enough feed to last the winter. Brad’s team also contracts with local farmers to manage grazing sheep and cattle during the summers.
“It is a unique experience you can’t get anywhere else in Utah,” Brad said. “Even hunters who track them don’t get this close to wild elk. We take you close enough to hear them ‘talk,’ smell them and see their body language. It is great, especially for children. It is easy to get so busy or lost in technology that we forget how amazing the world is, right here close to home.”
Another draw for visitors are the team horses. “These working horses are really a throwback to how things were for the settlers of Cache Valley,” Brad said.
“I encourage everyone come on up and enjoy a beautiful winter day,” Brad said, noting that Hardware Ranch is usually above the inversion with sunny skies. “We read about these things and even sing about them, but here you can experience them, hopefully learn something new and make some family memories while you’re at it.”
Did you know Hardware Ranch is open year round?
Fishing on the Blacksmith Fork River, Curtis Creek and Rock Creek provides miles of access for excellent fishing. All waters on Hardware Ranch area are open to fishing year round, with appropriate licenses.
Free primitive camping spots are also available during the year. No restrooms or garbage facilities are offered, so campers are asked to camp responsibly and pack trash out.
The majority of the area is open for ATV riding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and recreational hunting (during the appropriate seasons). Deer, elk, moose, chukar, ruffed grouse and cottontail rabbits are all hunted on the management area.