They may not carry passports or take road trips, but Wyoming’s elk herd has learned a thing or two about making the most of winter: When the going gets tough, the tough go on vacation.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming — sandwiched between Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming — is known for its stunning views, cozy lodges and ample ski runs. It’s no wonder that this beautiful part of the country draws thousands of visitors each year, including members of the Jackson Elk Herd, the largest wintering group of elk in the world.
Get to know Jackson Hole’s iconic mountains: Wyoming’s towering Grand Tetons.
As temperatures in the nearby mountains drop, the herd starts its journey to the National Elk Refuge, located just north of the area’s primary town, Jackson. This stunning area offers more bearable conditions than nearby Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest, where the elk usually reside; the snow isn’t as deep, and food is easier to come by.
Lori Iverson, an outreach and visitor services specialist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, says that thousands of elk migrate to this prime spot each year. At the refuge, the elk are fed and looked after by animal-loving staff.
Where there are elk, scavengers are often close by. “You’ll almost always see coyotes on the sleigh ride or walking across the refuge. We also have wolves, but they’re a little more difficult to see,” Iverson says. The refuge also has a large population of bighorn sheep that winter on rocky cliffs to keep away from predators.
Like a hotel, the refuge can welcome only so many elk at one time. Covering roughly 10,000 hectares of prime habitat near the popular resort town of Jackson, Wyoming, the refuge comfortably accommodates 5,000 elk, though some years, it can get crowded. “Last year, which was a pretty heavy winter, we had up to 8,000 elk,” Iverson notes.
If communing with wild elk is a lifelong dream, you should pack your parka and head to Jackson Hole this winter.
When to visit the refuge
You’re most likely to spot the herd if you visit the refuge between January and April. It’s not always easy to predict when the elk will make their way back to the national parks — sometimes it’s as early as March. Other years, May will roll around, and the refuge staff will think, “All right, guys, time to start heading out, here!” Iverson said.
But Iverson says she has yet to tire of her experiences at the refuge. “If I ever lose the thrill of seeing the bighorn sheep or the elk, then it’s probably time to move on.”
See the elk from a one-horse open sleigh
One fun way to see the elk up close is to take a sleigh ride through the refuge. Horse-drawn sleighs go straight into the elk herd, allowing you to come face to face with these massive mammals.
“Hands down, our most popular program in the wintertime is a sleigh ride,” Iverson said. “You can get incredibly close, and for some people, it’s the closest they’ve ever been to wild animals.”
If you’d rather skip the guided tour, you can see the herd from Elk Refuge Road, the main road that runs through the refuge. Just be sure to stop in at the refuge's visitor center to talk with staff about wildlife viewing opportunities before hitting the open road.
You'll find plenty of photo-worthy scenes in the National Elk Refuge. National Geographic's Dan Westergren has tips to help you take beautiful wildlife photos.