Who’s up for reindeer games? Meet Rudolph’s relatives in a wintery paradise about two hours south of Chicago at the family owned Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch. The peaceful slice of countryside (which doubles as a Christmas tree farm!) draws families from all over to meet, pet and feed a herd of Alaskan reindeer. Here’s what you need to know to make your trip go down in history.

hardys-4photo: devinf via flickr

The Ranch & Its History
The 80-acre destination is located in Rantoul in Central Illinois, 15 miles north of University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Its tree-dappled grounds are great for winter walks, and there is a heated barn and mini playground with deer-shaped rubber swings. The real highlight, though, is the reindeer: Walk the length of a fenced-in pen to pet and feed Santa’s favorite animals — they were flown here from Alaska!

It all started back in 1995, when Julie and Mark Hardy bought two reindeer with the hopes that the furry friends would inspire folks to stop and check out their Christmas trees. Two years later, Mark and Julie traveled to Alaska and brought home 13 reindeer via 747 airplanes. (You can honestly tell your kids that reindeer really do fly!) After nearly 20 years in the biz, Hardy’s still has a dozen friendly reindeers and five acres of 5,000 Christmas trees.

hardys-5photo: devinf via flickr

Meet Prancer (Really!) 
As you sidle up to your furry new friends, farm hands are there to share information about reindeer. They’ll fill you in on how they take care of the reindeers and will divulge remarkable trivia. For example, did you know that the color of a reindeer’s eyes changes with the seasons, or that both males and females have — and shed yearly — antlers, or that these beasts have an amazing sense of smell?

The best part is the opportunity to actually engage with the reindeer. You’ll be given snacks that will be nuzzled right out of your hand. Prancer, Scooter, Yukon and the rest of their buddies will welcome your kisses, making for a picture-perfect opportunity. Don’t be surprised if the farm dog, Huckleberry, approaches you looking for a head scratch.

hardys-6photo: devinf via flickr

Oh, Christmas Trees
Take your time — nobody is rushing you here — and stroll around in search of a pine or fir to chop down and bring home. You can also buy a freshly cut tree, if you prefer to let somebody else do the lumberjacking. Six to eight foot trees are $60 and trim, shake and binding are included in the price. Finding your own Christmas tree, out in the fresh wintertime air, will likely be an experience your family will remember for years to come.

Fun Extras
After you’ve galavanted with the reindeer and toured the grounds, visit the Country Barn Gift Shop, hand built from salvaged barn wood and heated by a traditional potbelly stove. You can sip hot cider, munch on fudge and peruse ornaments and gifts. Don’t forget to look up and spot the model train that circles the top of the barn. If you’re lucky enough to meet Mr. Hardy, he will happily tell you all about the farm’s history and how his small Christmas tree farm boomed into a huge hotspot for visitors.

hardys-9photo: devinf via flickr

Insider Tips

  • Make sure you buy your reindeer tour tickets before 4:30 p.m. or you’ll be out of luck. And note: Many activities listed on the website (corn maze, paintball, pedal race carts) are fall activities and not available in the winter months.
  • The biggest attractions at Hardy’s for the month of December are the choose-and-cut Christmas trees, the reindeer tours and the café that has treats and drinks on weekends.
  • Hardy’s caters to groups of 15 or more so keep that in mind if you’re thinking about a family and friend outing or a spot for a birthday party or event. Please note: picnics, outside food and pets are not allowed.

Bottom Dollar
It’s free to enter and walk around the old-fashioned country ranch. For the month of December, reindeer tours are $5/person.

hardys-3photo: courtesy of Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch

Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch
Open Daily, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Christmas Eve; closed on Christmas Day
10 a.m.-5 p.m. after Christmas until the last day on December 28
1356 County Rd. 2900 N.
Rantoul, Il
Online: reindeerranch.com

What day trips are you planning to make this winter? Let us know in the Comments!

— Wendy Altschuler