All three of my children still were in their teens the first time they saw an elk. The first words out of my daughter's mouth were, “This was so worth getting up at 4 a.m.”
Pretty strong words coming from a teenager.
Not to speak in a cliché, but elks are majestic animals. Huge in stature -- the male elk can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds, the female about 500 pounds -- they slowly amble as they cross fields and stop to munch on grass. As we watched two male elk search for their breakfast, we made a family memory that is stored with many others.
We weren’t in Montana or Wyoming when we saw the elk. We were in Benezette in north central Pennsylvania, a drive of about three hours from the Greater Pittsburgh area.
Elk were once native to the state, but overhunting eliminated them by the mid-1800s. In the early 1900s, the Pennsylvania Game Commission imported elk to Pennsylvania, reintroducing them to the region in our state referred to as “The Pennsylvania Wilds.”
In 1913, a herd of 50 elk were imported from Wyoming and released in Clearfield and Clinton counties. Two years later, 95 elk were imported from Yellowstone National Park.
Thanks in part to the efforts of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and others, the herd in Pennsylvania has grown to more than 800 elk in the past century.
The best places to see our elk herd is along the Elk Scenic Drive.
You might want to start your trip at the new Elk Country Visitor Center in Benezette, but as you’re already passing some of the elk viewing areas along the way, it’s easy enough to pull over and look for some of these great animals.
The Elk Scenic Drive is 127 miles and comprises three state game lands and 23 state forests. There are several designated points to stop and view the elk.
One of those places is Sinnemahoning State Park, a 1,900-acre state park purported to be home to a large herd of elk. In our two stops at the park we have never spotted any elk, but we did see a few herds of whitetail deer. On our latest venture there was a black bear on the trail.
The vistor center is a great place to learn more about the Pennsylvania herd. Opened in 2010, the 245-acre site is perfect for elk viewing, particularly in early morning or at dusk. There are watching trails, viewing blinds, outdoor observation areas, restrooms and a gift shop.
Inside the center, there is a sensory-surround theater where viewers can watch a movie depicting elk behavior during the seasons, including a baby elk calf in the spring and a sparring match between two bull elk in autumn.
There are interactive displays about the elk and our state. A life-size natural history display and wilderness cameras are educational and entertaining.
If you plan an elk adventure, try to leave in the wee hours of the morning so you arrive at dawn, which is when the elk are out looking for food. You can still spot them throughout the day, especially at the visitor center, but there’s a greater chance of seeing them first thing in the morning and at dusk.
You easily can make a day trip out of driving the Elk Scenic Drive, but pack snacks and plan your restroom breaks accordingly. Don’t forget the camera.