Rick Hiduk Fall 2022
Benezette in Elk County has established itself as the “Elk Capitol of Pennsylvania.” Nearly 1,400 elk roaming 3,000 square miles in more than six counties draw hundreds of thousands of naturalists, hunters and the curious to the region every year. At Benezette, the Elk Country Visitor Center was established by the Keystone Elk Country Alliance (KECA) to benefit the future of Elk Country and provide guests with an up-close look at the majestic, timid creatures.
Elk once roamed the mountains of the eastern United States from New York to Georgia. Westward advancement of European settlers greatly reduced the herds, and the last of the wild elk disappeared from Elk and Cameron counties in the 1860s. The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) slowly reintroduced transported Rocky Mountain elk to several north central counties between 1912 and 1915, and their numbers grew rapidly.
Farmers were not fans of the elk, as their sheer size and voracious appetites could destroy a cornfield in just one night. To ease the burden on farmers, the PGC authorized legal hunts of bull elk from 1923 to 1931. The hunts proved too popular, and the elk were all but eradicated once more, with fewer than 50 remaining in Elk and Cameron counties. Luckily, they were appreciated there.
According to a history of elk in Pennsylvania posted on the PGC website, “People were flocking to wherever elk could be found to take pictures and feed them. Visiting hunters were also enamored by the elk, the sight of which widened the eyes and quickened the blood.” So it was fitting that Benezette would be the focus of the KECA’s revitalization efforts.
A renewed desire by people to explore open spaces during the COVID pandemic made the Elk Country Visitor Center a very popular destination, with attendance reaching upwards of 480,000 people annually. The venue is a partnership between the KECA and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and it features a multi-sensory 4-D theater, interactive exhibits, a gift shop, and gravel walking paths from which guests can safely view the elk. Horse-drawn wagon rides around the 245-acre preserve have also proven popular.
“We did a lot of habitat management here on the property, so it brings them up here to feed,” said Josiah Jones, director of communications and marketing for the Elk Country Visitor Center. “It gives them wide open spaces for different elk to come together. They are a beautiful animal, and they are massive.”
The most popular time of the year to visit Elk Country is in September and October when two elements overlap to attract naturalists and especially photographers: the annual elk rut, or mating season, and fall foliage. “It’s a lot of fun to watch elk during the rut season,” Jones remarked. “They are in a different element.”
While the Visitor Center may offer the easiest way to view elk, the PGC owns much of the land adjacent to the KECA property and has official viewing areas at Winslow Hill and Dents Run. Safety of both humans and the elk is a priority for both PGC and the KECA, and the PGC developed a simple Elk Smart program geared toward “Keeping PA Elk Wild.” Signage in viewing areas reads “Give Elk Space – at least 100 yards; Never Feed Elk – it’s dangerous and illegal; Don’t Name Elk – let wild be wild; and Do Your Part – if you see something, say something.”
The best viewing times suggested by the KECA are just after daylight and at dusk, when the elk are moving back and forth from the open spaces where they feed and the woodlands where they spend most of their day.
Restricted hunting of elk is permitted by the PGC, with the number of licenses allotted each year determined by the estimated herd size and the previous season’s yield. Fourteen elk hunting zones have been established and allotment varies from one to another.
The elk are beautiful and live in one of the most pristine regions of the PA Wilds. While they may be the focus of a trip, there are plenty of other things to do and see while in Elk Country. In Benezette, visitors will find the Honor Walkway lined with Civil War, Veterans, and Boy Scout memorials. Nearby are the Quehanna Wild Area and Marion Brooks Natural Area. The week of Oct. 18 is considered the average peak season for fall foliage in PA, but leaves begin changing color earlier in Elk Country.
For information on Visitor Center hours, as well as where to eat, shop, and stay, interested readers can log on to experienceelkcountry.com.