Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Elk Life Day Trip



Elk Country says it all. Elk Country, straddling Clearfield and Elk counties, is home to the largest elk herd in the northeastern United States. And that's where you go to catch a glimpse of these incredible beauties!



Elk Country is by definition in the middle of nowhere. The best place to start this daytrip is in Clearfield County, where there are plenty of restaurants and places to stay.



Before the European invasion, elk roamed freely across what came to be known as Pennsylvania. European settlements, habitat destruction and hunting threatened the native Eastern woodland elk as early as 1750. In less than 100 years, the Eastern woodland elk had disappeared from many parts of Pennsylvania. In 1867, the last known elk was killed.

The story of the herd that exists today parallels other stories I've covered for MidAtlanticDayTrips: unfettered and wanton destruction of the environment -- Dolly Sods, Schuylkill River, and Susquehannah River all come to mind -- turned around by the dedication of individuals, private organizations, and governments.



In 1913, the PA Game Commission imported elk from Yellowstone National Park and from Monroe County, PA. Now, a herd of more than 1000 elk live in Elk Country, the largest herd in the northeastern United States. Over the past 20 years, the PA Game Commission, the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, as well as other organizations, have worked to conserve and protect elk and their habitat.



We took a fairly direct, although leisurely approach. Out of Clearfield, we traveled on Route 879/Quehanna Highway to a right turn onto Route 555. During the drive, we appreciated the hilly scenery -- Clearfield County and Elk Country really are beautiful.



Along Rt 879/Quehanna Highway, we drove slowly, hoping to see some elk along the road -- often folks do see them! But the day was too hot (low 80s), and the elk were probably bedded down in the cool shade of the forest. Elk spend summer days relaxing in the shade, so your best viewing opportunities are at dawn and dusk.

If you follow the same route we did, you also pass some wildlife viewing areas, such as Hoover Farm Wildlife Viewing Area, Wykoff Run Natural Area, Beaver Run Dam Wildlife Viewing Area, and the Marion Brooks Natural Area. There are ample hiking opportunities here as well.



We stopped briefly at the Marion Brooks Natural Area to pay brief homage to the stand of white birch trees, one of the largest stands on the east coast.



After we turned right onto SR 555, it was only a short drive before we turned left onto Winslow Hill, which we followed through Benezette to Homestead Drive and the entrance for the Elk Viewing Center. One of the most popular locations in the entire PA Wilds, the Elk Country Visitor Center is a 245-acre site near the village of Benezette and a premier elk watching and conservation education facility.




The visitor center plants several fields with alfalfa and other elk favorites, increasing your likelihood of seeing them. Inside, there's an exhibit about the elk and other native wildlife in the area, as well as a viewing area. However, you'll increase your chances of seeing elk if you walk quietly along some of the pathways leading out to the fields.



We were rewarded with a small group of cows (female elks) bounding across the field, white tail deer fleeing in alarm -- and giving notice of the elks' arrival -- in front of them.



It was still fairly warm and we decided to go sample some wines at the Benezette Winery and then enjoy dinner at one of the local Benezette restaurants -- there are a couple to chose from. One of the area's newest wineries, Benezette Winery shares its fame with the Pennsylvania elk. This winery has an outdoor patio that backs up to a 200-year-old oak tree and borders State game lands. Its gift shop displays photos and memorabilia of the history of the Benezette Area.





Like several other local eateries, the Benezette Hotel offers elk burgers, obtained from a Pennsylvania herd of farmed elk. Experiencing a delicious elk burger is an attraction in itself, and ironically, complements the day spent enjoying the wild animals. (If you're not into eating the elk, then there are the more generally accepted chicken and beef offerings as well.)



After dinner, with the Elk Country Visitor Center closed, but dusk rapidly approaching, we headed to the Winslow Hill Viewing Area to try to see more elk. We were rewarded with a view of a big group, casually grazing on the hill side below.



To reach the public viewing area, start at the Benezette Hotel and travel north along Winslow Hill road 3.5 miles. Follow the signs to the viewing area.

I'm still looking for Moose Country, btw!



Know before you go #1: Elk are wild animals, and there are no guarantees you will see them. The fields surrounding the center are planted with alfalfa, timothy, clover, and winter wheat to attract the elk. The best times to view are early in the morning, just after day light, and in the hours before dark. Elk do not like the heat, and they will bed down in the shade where it is coolest during the day. Be sure to bring a camera and binoculars for better viewing!

Know before you go #2: Make this a day-long day trip by having dinner at the Benezette Hotel or Medix Hotel or sampling some local wine at Benezette Wines.

Know before you go #3: Cell phone coverage is limited in Elk Country. Sorry, pets are not permitted. For a map of the Elk Scenic Drive: https://www.visitpago.com/wp-content/uploads/Elk_Scenic_Drive_0001.jpg



Getting there: Elk Country Visitors Center is located at 134 Homestead Drive, Benezette, PA; Winslow Hill Viewing Area is located at 2313 Winslow Hill Road, Benezette, PA. Benezette Wines is located at 196 Second St., Benezette, PA 15821.

Hours: Elk Country Visitors Center is open Thursday thru Monday 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Benezette Winery is open 7 days a week from 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.

Websites: Elk Country Scenic Drive -- http://pawilds.com/journey/elk-scenic-drive/; Elk Country Visitor Center -- http://elkcountryvisitorcenter.com/; www.benezettewines.com.



Beginning in March 2018, I started a series of posts about Clearfield County, PA. This is a continuation of the series. To see others in this series, click on the label "Clearfield County" at the bottom of this post.





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