Discovering Pennsylvania’s Elk Herd at the Elk Country Visitor Center
When I first started uncovering the many great things to see and do in Pennsylvania, I was surprised to learn that the state was home to the largest elk herd east of the Rockies. Truth be told, I was even surprised that there were elk this far east.
However, before European settlers came to the Americas, elk herds roamed across much of the east coast. As more and more settlers pushed west, the number of elk diminished. By the 1870s, there were no elk left in Pennsylvania.
Between 1913 and 1926, in an effort to rebuild the elk population in Pennsylvania, 177 elk were released in 10 different Pennsylvania counties. Over the coming years, the elk population would decline to a low of less than 50. However, proper management of the species has resulted in an estimated population of over 800 in 2013.While these elk are part of a different sub-species than those that used to roam the state, they have been so successful in their reintroduction that they are now a tourist attraction in the Pennsylvania Wilds.
Wanting to learn about the herd and hopefully see some elk for myself, I took a trip to the Elk Country Visitor Center in Benezette. The Elk Country Visitor Center isn’t your normal county visitor center. Sure, you can pick up brochures here for many of the attractions in the area, but this visitor center is actually a tourist attraction by itself.
Sitting on a hill above the small town of Benezette, the Elk Country Visitor Center sits in the heart of elk country. It is not at all uncommon to see elk meandering around the grounds of the visitor center, thanks in part to the food plots and favorable habitat. The grounds of the visitor center also have several trails that meander through the surrounding area that provide great vantage points for viewing the elk as they graze in pastures.
Inside the Elk Country Visitor Center, there is small museum filled with information on the elk herd, as well as several taxidermied animals. The museum is definitely geared toward hands-on activities for kids, but it still provided me with great information about the history of elk in Pennsylvania.The visitor center also offers a 4D theater and carriage rides for those interested, for a small fee.There is also a gift shop. Should all your elk viewing leave you a little famished, the elk jerky in the gift shop is definitely an amusing choice.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t a zoo and you’re dealing with wild animals. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that you might not see any elk at the Elk Country Visitor Center. That, unfortunately, was my experience.
Hoping to improve my luck, I set out to visit two other viewing areas that the visitor center maintains. Both perched on top of a hillside, they offer a great vantage point to see elk roaming below. Unfortunately, though, I struck out there as well.
Fortunately, I had spent some time the day before in the small town of Benezette. Outside of the small, but excellent, Benezette Wines, there isn’t much to see and do in the town itself. However, the local elk do frequent the town’s backyards, and I was lucky to see several elk roaming freely among the homes of the community.It’s also worth noting that, while the area around Benezette is widely considered to be the best for elk viewing, the elk do roam throughout much of the Pennsylvania Wilds and surrounding area, so you never know where you will find an elk during your travels. In fact, while still relatively close, I had my best elk encounter along a quiet road close to downtown Saint Marys.
All in all, a visit to Benezette, the Elk Country Visitor Center, and the rest of Pennsylvania’s elk region is a fantastic way to learn more about these beautiful animals. And, while there are no guarantees, your odds of seeing several of these beautiful animals is highly likely.
In fact, I found the experience so great that I consider Elk County to be one of the best places in PA for outdoor adventure.
When to visit the Elk Country Visitor Center
If you do visit, the best time to view elk is during dawn or dusk, though it’s possible to see them at any time of the day. Many like to visit in the early fall to see the bull elk with their full antlers, however, anytime during spring or summer can offer great chances to see elk. Viewing elk during the winter months is possible, but they are often hunkering down to stay warm, and viewing them can be a bit more difficult.
Looking for more adventures in the area? Try hiking in the Marion Brooks Natural Area, visiting Parker Dam State Park, seeking out Table Falls in the Quehanna Wild Area, or touring Straub Brewery in Saint Marys.
Elk Country Visitor Center
Hours: Vary. See website.
Address: 134 Homestead Drive