It’s a given for many that they may spot a small herd of majestic elk at one of America’s National Parks out west. However, these aren’t the only places in the country visitors can experience elk. These large mammals are making a comeback in the eastern part of the United States.
No matter where your home base is, you likely won’t have to fly across the country to see elk in their natural habitat. From Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado to places further east like Michigan, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, elk are drawing crowds across the country.
Check out some of the most popular places in the United States to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures in their natural habitats.
Wyoming - National Elk Refuge
If you’re looking for elk on a winter getaway, the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, WY is one of your best bets.
Home to one of the largest elk herds in the world, this 24,700-acre refuge serves as home to around 7,500 elk each winter. Elk from surrounding areas like Yellowstone National Park flock to the lower elevations and grassy plains of Teton County for milder and less snowy weather following each autumn. In the spring, they retreat back to their homes in higher elevations.
While these elk have help from a supplementary feeding program and highly regulated hunting is allowed, you’ll be able to see free-roaming elk in a natural habitat. Visitors can take tours, including ones on horse-drawn sleighs, to watch the elk in their winter refuge from fall to mid-spring.
Bison, bald eagles, wolves, and bighorn sheep are also among the denizens of the National Elk Refuge. If you’re willing to brave the cold, snowy weather, stop at the nearby Grand Teton National Park and enjoy some gorgeous winter scenery.
However, if you’re planning to travel in the warmer months once the elk migrate to higher elevations, you may want to pick a different destination.
Montana and Wyoming - Yellowstone National Park
Elk are the most abundant large mammal in Yellowstone. Home to six - seven herds and a total population ranging from 10,000 - 20,000 elk in the summertime, the expansive national park gives visitors a fair chance at catching sight of these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
While Yellowstone is a large park, Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley, Norris Junction, and Madison Junction are all noted for being elk-sighting hot spots.
It’s important to note that elk are migratory animals. While they roam the higher elevations of Yellowstone National Park in the warmer months, many of the park’s elk flock to milder areas in the winter. If you’re in the area during the colder months, your best chances are on the northern border of the park in southern Montana or the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. Elk from the park’s interior travel here for milder winters with less snow.
Colorado - Rocky Mountain National Park
There are opportunities to spot the bountiful heard on both the east and west side of the park, as well as Estes Park. Look for where wide, open meadows meet the forest line. Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, and Upper Beaver Meadows all offer elk-spotting opportunities. Moraine Park will take you through roads overlooking large meadows frequented by elk, and travels can pull off different overlooks to get a peak. However, as a popular spot in one of the most frequently visited National Parks in the country, these overlooks and the spot itself can get very busy. If you’re looking for something a little less busy, check out Horseshoe Park and Upper Beaver Park.
On the west side of the park, Kawuneeche Valley’s Harbison Meadow and Holzwarth Meadow offer the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife, including elk. If you opt to check out this side of the park, you may even catch site of a moose.
Michigan - Pigeon River County State Forest
Pigeon River County State Forest is one of the few places east of the Mississippi where large herds of elk roam. There are several elk viewing spots in the park that offer a place to stop and enjoy the natural scenery while waiting for a chance to spot some elk.
Unlike Yellowstone, Pigeon River County State Forest offers the chance to catch site of these animals year round. Look for recently logged areas in the winter when snow covers the ground.
For elk-viewing tips and directions to the designated elk-spotting areas, visit the Pigeon River Discovery Center’s website.
Kentucky - Breathitt and Surrounding Counties
When most people think of elk, they think of wide open meadows surrounded by imposing mountains in America’s Great West. However, with an estimated 10,000 elk in the state, Kentucky turns that perception on its head. With the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi River, Kentucky offers a closer option for Americans living east of the Mississippi to see elk in their wild habitat.
Kentucky was once home to large herds of Eastern Elk, but during the 19th century, the Eastern Elk were driven to extinction. Between 1997 and 2002, elk were reintroduced to Kentucky’s restoration zone from herds west of the Mississippi. In just two decades, the population has swelled.
Covering 16 counties in the southeastern portion of the state, there are many wildlife areas and state forests to catch a glimpse of Kentucky’s bountiful elk herd.
Pennsylvania - Elk County and Surrounding Areas
Elk County, PA got its name for a reason. With a growing population of 1,000, North-Central Pennsylvania boasts one of the largest herds on the East Coast. Just a few hours from several East Coast cities, Benezette, PA in Elk County and surrounding areas are a great place to relax, unwind, and see these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
Just a few decades after the last Eatern Elk was killed on the East Coast, the newly created Game Commission reintroduced elk to Pennsylvania in 1913. Since then, these animals have carved out a comfortable habitat in the woods of the PA Wilds among the Allegheny mountains.
With plenty of viewing areas like Winslow Hill, Dents Run, and Hicks Run, visitors have a great chance of spotting elk and other wildlife.
Fall is a popular time to visit the area with many hoping to catch a glimpse of the Elk Rut, which peaks between Labor Day and Halloween against the beautiful backdrop of the changing autumn leaves.
However, visitors have a chance to spot elk year-round in Elk County. In the spring and summer, you’re likely to see elk venturing out into the meadows for food. In the winter, elk typically stay close to the trees for warmth and shelter.