Mantled in fresh snow, the bowl-shaped valley surrounding Utah's Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area is a scene of postcard perfection. Except, perhaps, for the piles of dark brown pellets ― elk scat ― dotting the snow. As our sleigh jounces out into the meadow, I pull my jacket closed against the chill. But for the big bull elk on the hillside ― cloaked in a shaggy tan coat and a thick brown mane ― the weather is perfect.
"See what a stud he is? With those big antlers, he has no trouble gathering a harem of females," Marni Lee says with a little laugh. Lee knows elk. She's the assistant manager at Hardware Ranch, which is in the southeastern Cache Valley, about 80 miles northeast of Salt Lake City.
Lee explains that, in winter, many mammals migrate down from the high country to gather and forage in vast herds in the warmer climate of the valleys. At Hardware Ranch, you have an especially good chance of seeing bobcats, deer, elk, moose, or mountain lions. Other areas offer opportunities to see bighorn sheep, bison, pronghorn antelope, wolves, or even grizzlies. As our sleigh pulls deeper into the meadow, we see elk around the snowy draws edged by cottonwoods, willows, and juniper. Soon we can see at least 200 elk, and I marvel at their big, liquid-brown eyes fringed by heavy lashes. The bulls are magnificent, though some wear scars from battling to add more females to their harems.
"Visiting the ranch is a winter wildlife-watching tradition for some families," Lee notes. I can see the appeal. It's hard to get much closer to wildlife than you can here. And there's no standing around in the snow, waiting for a long look through binoculars: At Hardware Ranch, visitors ride comfortably through the meadow, tucked into large horse-drawn sleighs. At last, the bull we'd been gazing at up on the hill comes down into the meadow. Slowly at first, then boldly, he approaches the sleigh. Suddenly, I'm eye-to-eye with this wild creature, and he's fearsome, weighing at least 700 pounds, with sunlight winking off the sharp tines of his antlers. That's when I feel the real thrill of this wild herd. Lee puts it another way. "Seeing a herd this big is exciting," she says. "It tells us there's still a wild West."
Winter is a time when animals rest often to conserve energy they'll need just to survive the season. The elk here may look docile when they're quietly feeding or resting in the meadow, but they're still wild, capable of injuring humans or other animals (on our visit, we witnessed a brief, antler-clashing battle between two bulls).
Wildlife-viewing is a fun family outing, but when looking on your own, remember to keep a safe distance from all critters ― best is to stay in the car ― for your safety and that of the animals.
Watch elk at Hardware Ranch
Be on the watch for wildlife as you make the drive toward Hardware Ranch. Along State 101 through Blacksmith Fork Canyon, you might see bald eagles, coyotes, ducks, or the occasional moose.
The visitor center and Sunrunner Ridge Café ($) are open noon–5 Thu–Mon, Dec 15–Mar 15. Sleigh rides are 20 minutes ($5, $3 ages 4–8). Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area is in Blacksmith Fork Canyon, 15 miles east of Hyrum, UT, on State 101 (about 90 minutes northeast of Salt Lake City); www.hardwareranch.com or 435/753-6206.