Take the bull by the horns and visit Benezette
By Rose Lattanze
It’s enormous! This huge bull elk stood not 200 feet from us with horns the size of Manhattan. Several more were a little farther out in the field bugling with the power of a locomotive. It was eerie to hear their piercing calls echoing through the open range. We stood behind the viewing wall, peering out from the beautifully colored canopy of trees that surrounded us. It’s Fall in Elk County, Pennsylvania.
The Elk Country Visitors Center provides wonderful forested trails leading to protective walls where visitors can view the animals in their natural habitat.
The herds move freely through woods and fields in Elk and Cameron counties. On this particular day, we were blessed with their presence right in front of us at the visitor’s center. It was so much more interesting than watching it on PBS. We could hear the clacking of antlers as bulls fought for dominance over the harem. The babies, now five months old, grazed out of the way of the warring males, standing quietly near their moms. We must have stood for an hour watching them. It was all so fascinating.
Now is a great time to visit Elk and Cameron counties. September through the end of October marks the most active elk season- a time when you’re most likely to see them. With the elk population booming (approximately 1000 in this two-county area), more and more elk activities are popping up, and though fall is the best viewing time, visitors can find activities throughout the year.
We’ve traveled to Benezette in Elk County in October three times since 2012, and we’ve seen elk each time. It’s truly a thrill to view these majestic animals up close and personal. A mature bull can weigh around 700 lbs. Their rack alone can weigh 40 lbs. Quite a spectacle.
Elk have not always wandered the hills of Pennsylvania. At the turn of the century, the natural elk population in PA was extinct, the victim of unregulated hunting. In 1913, Yellowstone National Park reported an overabundance of elk and sought to ship some animals to other areas of the country.
The state of Pennsylvania transported 50 elk by train and released them in Clinton and Clearfield counties away from the farms. Two years later, another 95 elk were shipped from Yellowstone and released in Cameron, Potter, Forest, Blair, and Monroe counties.
Elk, being elk, migrated to the farms anyway and were soon culled by the farmers seeking to save their crops. A small herd managed to survive and grew slightly through the 1970s and 1980s, due to some minor conservation efforts.
True conservation methods didn’t kick in until the early 1990s. At that time, only about 125 to 150 elk roamed the two-county area. With the guidance of the PA Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources and the PA Game Commission and other wildlife organizations, a program was created to actively conserve the species.
These organizations designated desirable areas for the elk population to grow, away from the farms, and began to purchase land. Specialized habitat management practices were deployed, and legumes like alfalfa and clover were planted in food plots to attract and maintain the elk in certain areas. “We set up the best buffet that we could for the elk,” said Jim Hyde, who was involved with game lands planning and development. If we build it, they will come. . . and they did.
Today, the Winslow Hill area of Elk County is ground zero for the elk population. The area is so special that a brand-new state-of-the-art visitors center was built in 2010. I highly recommend stopping at the Elk Country Visitors Center. It’s like a natural history museum. Explore all things elk through interactive exhibits and multi-sensory 4-D theater.
Enjoy the outdoors with their beautiful viewing trails and take a ride on their horse-drawn wagons. We first saw elk on these viewing trails back in 2012. I recommend leaving a small donation in the box to help defray their costs.
There are several hotels available, and we chose the Cobblestone Inn and Suites in downtown St. Marys. It’s a fairly new hotel, and the accommodations are pleasant and attractive.
If you’re looking for something more rustic and private, the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau site has a nice section on lodgings. Select from area cabins, bed and breakfasts, and hotels. It also provides a variety of dining options.
When you travel, it’s good to keep an eye out for Covid-19 statistics and restrictions. As of this writing, Elk County has one of the lowest incidences of Covid-19 in the state. Hotels are performing enhanced cleaning and sanitization procedures as a precaution, but currently, there are no restrictions in place. Face masks are optional.
As I have said in the past, Pennsylvania does an exceptional job creating and maintaining its outdoor heritage, and Elk County is no exception. Plan a trip to Benezette this fall. As an added bonus, the fall colors are magnificent in October. Scenic vistas and elk viewing combine to make a trip to remember. You’ll have stories to tell your family and friends for years to come. Enjoy!
About the Author
Rose Lattanze and her husband, Andy, avid anglers from the Harrisburg area, often travel to the PA Wilds to fish and enjoy the stunning scenery and wildlife. Andy, fishing PA streams since the 1970s, enticed Rose to join him 10 years ago, and together they adventure throughout the state wetting a line and enjoying retirement. In her spare time, she writes for EdTech companies and occasionally writes just for fun. They’re both members of CVTU (Cumberland Valley Trout Unlimited).
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