We had stayed in contact with fellow members of the Benezette Elk Camera Club, a group of photographers from all walks of life and skill levels. Almost all had been photographing a wide variety of other outdoor critters before being drawn in by the lure of the magical bugle of a bull elk. Both my wife and I had found these animals to be majestic, and just couldn’t get them out of our system.
The Jeep was hastily packed, and we both went over our mental checklist: clothes, cameras and lenses, tripod, any personal toiletry items and cash. Yes, you might want to carry some cash with you because not everyone up in Benezette has a debit or credit card machine. You might also want to find out if the place in which you choose to stay has Wi-Fi or cell service. Remember, this is rural Pennsylvania — the Pennsylvania Wilds — where the amazing surge of visitors grew faster than anyone could have imagined.
When we arrived, we could hear the elk bugling from the parking lot of The Elk Country Visitors Center, close to Winslow Hill. Karen was nearly beside herself, as was I. The rut was starting and the big boys were beginning to gather their harems. We almost ran down the path to one of the viewing areas, only to find that there were no elk in the fields, although we could see them moving along the edges of the tree-line.
We stood there chatting with others who had come — as we had — to see the elk. One couple came clear from England, and seemed more than pleased to hear them. But as we all know, the best laid plans can go in the wrong direction — just as a cow and calf approached the field, along came the horse drawn “tour bus.” Yes, the Elk Country Visitor’s Center conducts horse drawn wagon rides with the help of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance. These outdoor forays take place at the center on Saturdays and Sundays, weather permitting. Check their website for updates. The price is $10 per person for adults, and $5 for children younger than 10. Please call for a current schedule, 814-787-5167.
The wagon rides usually do not disturb the elk, but they did that night. It seemed that every time the elk came into the field, the wagon would pass by. The cows didn’t seem to mind it as much as the bulls did, and each time the largest bull on the hill would start toward us, he would duck back in when the wagon approached.
We had been standing there for close to two hours before the action began. The wagon and horses were finally retired for the evening, and the first elk appeared around 6:30 p.m. The bugles increased in number, and the elk came into the fields as if they had been released from holding pens. This is something that does not occur, but the Visitor’s Center has actually been blamed for doing just that!
It’s an amazing experience seeing cows, calves and bulls, all in a single field. We watched one young bull that we nicknamed, “the teenager.” He came strutting by with his head held high, after gathering a small group of cows and calves for himself. But before long, a larger bull came from our right, and “stole” all but three of them away from him.
Not long after that episode, the dominant bull bugled loud and clear, and all but a few cows immediately ran toward him. It was clear that this bull — at least for now — was king of this hill.
The small village of Benezette is the hub of activity, and the Elk County Visitor’s Center, with its viewing areas, attracts more people than it can comfortably handle. If you consider that people come from nearly every state, and recently foreign countries, it becomes obvious that the community, and the hill are lacking enough overnight accommodations, restaurants and most importantly, viewing areas.
Putting up yellow tape and moving the walking path at the Visitor’s Center deeper into the woods, really hasn’t helped. What it has done is eliminate areas where photographers and viewers once stood, and the other viewing areas attracted very few elk while we were there. The well-known “saddle” brought forth conflicts between horseback riders and those hiking in to photograph, or to see the big bulls that have been known to hang out there.
I’m not taking sides, simply because I wasn’t there. But, apparently some horse people were rude to hikers, and even scattered small herds of bulls. Others, we were told, were kind and considerate.
The area has been well marketed, and the number of visitors each year continues to increase. But, those who manage these areas have to keep pace with the influx of people. Some I talked to said they were never coming back, and still others loved the place.
As of January 2014, there were about 900 elk in Pennsylvania, with the largest “core group” near Benezette. This number is an estimate, and the herd is most likely over 1,000 animals.
According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the elk rut is triggered by photoperiod (day length) and generally begins around the middle of September, and lasts through early- to mid-October. If a cow is not bred in her first estrus cycle, she’ll recycle about every 21 days, providing up to three additional opportunities for conception to occur.
The reason we went a little earlier this year, was so that I could allow readers some time to get up there and enjoy it. This means you still have time to get there and see these amazing animals. The downside is that it will be crowded, especially on weekends, and you will have to call around to make reservations, which will most likely be at least 15 to 20 minutes away.
Yes, there are campgrounds in the area, but you will have to do some research to find all of them. Another idea is to camp in a state park, such as Parker Dam or SB Winter, that are located within 45 minutes of Benezette.
A day trip is always a possibility, but keep in mind that the elk move early in the morning, and again, close to dusk. It’s doubtful that you will see good numbers of elk during the middle of the day.
During our trip, we were able to capture some photos of nice bulls, but the light was poor, with the larger bulls coming in at dusk. However, the bugling will take us back time and again! Just one cautionary note, lodging during the rut is at a premium, and few places have weekend openings. If you are planning a weekday stay, call Ginger at The Bennett House B&B 814 787-4842.
Dave Wolf may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org