It is thought that in the late 1600’s, when Pennsylvania was in it’s infancy, that there were as many as 100,000 Eastern Elk that roamed here. After the massive clear-cutting of the forests and un-checked hunting the entire species was made extinct… other species where eliminated from the state but have slowly returned such as River Otters and Fishers. White Tailed Deer were almost eliminated as well.
However, in the late 1910’s and early 1920’s an effort was made to reintroduce Elk to the Keystone State. Rocky Mountain Elk were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park and an Elk Farm in Monroe County, Pa. Since that time the Elk herd has slowly grown from roughly 177 to now nearly 1000. Still a far cry from their earlier number.
The Pennsylvania Wilds, the home of the Elk, is a 2 million acre region covering the central and north central section of the state. Imaging trying to find 1 of 1000 Elk in a 2 million acre area? That’s 2000 acres for every 1 Elk!!! Of course, in reality the odds aren’t really that low, even though I have heard of many people going out to the region in hopes of seeing an Elk only to come away without a single sighting.
After quite a bit of research, and years of wanting to do this, I had decided that the best place to see Elk was near Benezette, PA just on the southern edge of Elk County. I loaded the Jeep and hit the road. I knew that the best time to see Elk is in the hour or two after sunrise or before sunset, since it was a 3 hour drive I wasn’t going to make the morning time frame… so I took my time and visited Bald Eagle State Park and Black Moshannon State Park. I did a little hiking and had some lunch before heading to DuBois to check in to my hotel. The original plan was for me to hike in to the Moshannon State Forest and hammock camp, unfortunately the night time weather didn’t want to cooperate.
After checking in at around 3:30pm I decided to rest up a little so I could head out and make the 35 minute drive north to Benezette, home to one of the areas Elk herds… or so I had been told. I figured spotting Elk on the first attempt most likely wasn’t going to happen, so I really was on a scouting run to get a lay-of-the-land. As I drove along Route 555 and into the Pennsylvania Elk Range, to my surprise, I spotted my first 2 Elk. One crossing the road and another grazing in a campground. After visiting the Elk County Visitor Center and checking out 2 of their Elk Viewing Areas I spotted 6 more Elk all of which were either in fields or people’s yards. Not a single one at a viewing area.
Since I had already seen 8 Elk, and I had an extremely long first day, I decided to skip the sunrise time frame again. I went back to the visitor center and spent hours there leaning about Elk, I drove around locating more potential Elk spotting areas and then after a pretty severe thunderstorm I spend most of the rest of the day at Parker Dam State Park hiking. This park contains the trail head for the Quehanna Trail, a 73 mile loop into the Moshannon State Forest. I hiked a bit of that trail with a distant hope of seeing some Elk in the forest, which I did not and then hiking the Trail of the New Giants which is completely within the park. I headed back to the hotel a little early, had dinner and went to bed early knowing I’d be up for sunrise Elk spotting before my ride home.
Heavy rain overnight caused a dense fog in the mountains, and as I rolled in to Benezette the sun was just starting to peak through just at the horizon. I drove along Winslow Hill Rd and kept my eyes scanning the yards and fields, mostly ignoring the viewing areas. About a mile past the visitors center I saw an Elk grazing at the top of a driveway before coming across a herd of maybe 20-25 among a couple fields. There were a few grazing right by the roadside, they would occasionally look up and curiously look at the people in the cars watching them and ultimately pay them no mind. There were calves laying scattered in small groups in the center and they would call out here and there. Now, I know they don’t want you stopping in the road to view the Elk… but I couldn’t help it, I felt like I was a part of the herd for a brief second. As I moved along I came across 3 Bull Elk… most likely the same 3 I saw the first night. The one was right next to the road and poked his head up and looked at me eye to eye. He started to walk away before I remembered I had my camera in my hand and I got a few shots of him walking away. I got a few other brief glimpses of Elk along the road, but nothing else like that herd or Bull. In total that morning I probably saw 30 Elk.
I left the area and started my drive home the back way. I made stops at Sinnemahoning State Park, Kettle Creek State Park, Hyner Run State Park and Hyner View State Park while driving through Bucktail State Park (which is mostly a scenic drive) before heading back home. It was a great road trip, and one I can’t wait to make again.