One of the best wildlife experiences I’ve ever had was taking a trip up to Elk Country in Pennsylvania in the fall. From September to mid-October, it’s mating season, and the elk begin to exhibit their most fascinating behaviors – the most memorable of which is elk bugling.
Elk only make this odd noise when they’re in rut—once a year— and people visit Pennsylvania in droves to hear and watch the largest herd of elk in the northeastern U.S. go on about their annual mating ritual.
Elk bugling begins with a bellow, escalates to a squealing whistle and ends with a series of grunts.
The first time I heard it, it gave me chills. It’s a very eerie and haunting sound (but oh, so cool).
Visit Clearfield County arranged the elk viewing experience and hosted my stay.
Each fall from mid-September to mid-October male elk (bulls) begin looking for the ladies (cows) and they take it very seriously. The bulls get more aggressive and will battle other bulls for dominance. The most dominant males will collect quite the harem of cows.
The bugling is the bull elk’s way of maintaining order. He may bugle as a warning to other males to back away from the area and he may bugle to keep his cows from straying too far. Sometimes he just bugles to strut his stuff and announce he’s in the area. (There’s some ego involved.)
Best Elk Viewing in Elk Country, PA
The following sites are great places to see elk but keep in mind, it’s still a game of chance. It’s about being at the right place at the right time and there’s absolutely no way of knowing what wild animals are going to do.
On my first attempt —plan on looking for them on more than one day and at different times— I saw just a few (but I could hear elk bugling in the distance so I knew they weren’t far). The next day I saw loads of them. You never know when you’re going to get lucky!
Elk Country Visitor Center
The ideal time of day for prime elk view is just after sunrise and just before sunset and the ideal place to start your elk viewing adventures is at the Elk Country Visitor Center in Benezette, PA.
The beautiful state-of-the-art “green” facility has wonderful interactive exhibits, a Discovery Room for the littles and a terrific 4D movie you won’t want to miss.
Outside the visitor center are three observation trails leading to viewing areas. I made both a sunset and a sunrise visit and spotted elk both times.
It was very exciting to see this big bull elk hanging out alongside one of the trails but we kept a good distance, especially since he was already eyeballin’ us. Bull elk are easily agitated during mating season so it’s super important to give them a very wide berth while viewing.
Outside of the walking trails and viewing areas, visitors can sign up for horse-drawn wagon rides that travel out into the grazing areas.
They’re extremely popular and sell out quickly. Reservations are taken one day in advance beginning at 8 am at the visitor center and during rutting season, there’s always a line at the door. (Get more information here.)
Winslow Hill Elk Viewing Area
The Winslow Hill Elk Viewing Area is another really popular spot for elk viewing in PA and it’s just down the road from the visitor center.
There is plenty of parking available and the view overlooks a large meadow where elk are often visible. Each time I visited this location, I spotted elk (and heard them).
Dents Run Elk Viewing Area
Dents Run is said to be an excellent place to view elk and even though I didn’t spot any when I visited, the fall colors completely made up for it.
Hicks Run Viewing Area
Located on Route 555 about 12 miles from Benezette.
It’s a short and pretty walk from the parking lot to the covered viewing blind overlooking the feeding area.
Although I didn’t catch sight of any elk when I went there, the blind is really close to the forage so it would be super exciting if they were grazing.
Random Elk Sightings
Odds are pretty good that you’ll have random elk sightings here and there, especially around the elk capital of Pennsylvania – Benezette. You’ll know when one’s nearby because you’ll see cars pulled off on the side of the road (even though signs prohibit it).
Please remember these areas are private property and should be respected as such. I wanted so badly to stop and watch the fellow below. However, I just snapped a pic from my window and drove slowly by.
There’s always another elk to see!
Elk Country Scenic Drive
Spend the entire day taking in the views while driving the 127-mile loop (with 23 official stops) through Elk Country for spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities. You can download a driving guide here.
When is the best time for elk viewing and elk bugling in PA?
Each fall from late summer to mid-October. (Contact VisitClearfieldCounty.org for help with timing.) It’s one of the coolest things you never knew you had to do, see and most especially, hear.
Directions to elk viewing sites in Elk Country, PA
Where to eat in Benezette
You’re bound to work up an appetite after all that elk viewing so stop by the Benezette Hotel for an “elk burger”. At first I felt a little guilty about my choice of entree, but elk is high in protein, low in fat and tastes very much like beef with a skosh more flavor.
Go for it!
Where to stay when elk viewing
To turn your elk country experience into the ultimate memory, book a stay in a rail car at the Depot at Dolittle Station in Dubois, a 45-minute drive from Benezette with beautiful views. (Read the post to find out about my stay in Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential campaign rail car.)