Each autumn, as shorter days and cooler temperatures approach, a familiar sound begins to echo across the fields and forests in Elk County, Pennsylvania, near the small township of Benezette. It is, of course, the bugle of the bull elk. A call of the wild from Penn's Woods that everyone should have the opportunity to experience, while seated around the fire ring at horse camp after a long day in the saddle.
Almost 50 years after the demise of the native species in 1867, elk were reintroduced to the state in 1913, with 50 Rocky Mountain Elk from Yellowstone released into Clearfield and Clinton Counties. An additional 95 animals were released several years later, and the herd today now numbers near 600, with their primary range comprising about 225 square miles of Cameron and Elk Counties.
Elk County Riding
The "elk ride" is perhaps the most anticipated trip of the season for myself and many of my fellow trail companions. It's usually our last long weekend adventure into Pennsylvania's big north woods, and the fresh fall air is enjoyed by both horse and rider.
During my first few years of travel to Benezette, I was fortunate to be able to tag along with friends who knew the area well, and stayed at private camping sites owned by Elk Foundation volunteer Don "Woody" Wood. Woody also has two organized trail rides each year (June and September). These three-day rides are great opportunities to experience and learn a portion of the trail system available in the Benezette area.
Horses are also welcome at The Big Elk Lick, a private campground located just outside of town along PA Route 555. There's also an outstanding horse trail located in the Elk State Forest, just north of Benezette. The Thunder Mountain Equestrian Trail is a 26-mile double loop, with trailhead access along the East Branch of the Hicks Run Rd., approximately 3.75 miles north of PA Route 555.
The trailhead parking area is a day-use facility only, but you can obtain a free camping permit from the district office for two sites located along Bell Draft Rd. Both sites provide connecting trails to Thunder Mountain.
Bring water for your horses, as these are primitive sites. I'd recommend staying at the north site (west of Bell Draft), which is far less exposed and provides much more shade for your horses and rig than other areas.
Summer Scouting Trip
We made our elk-country base camp in the quiet little town of Dent's Run, just seven miles east of Benezette. Parking our rigs at a mountain camp owned by our friend, Tim Flohr, we picketed the horses in a grove of locust trees just close enough for us to check up on them during the night by shining a small flashlight from the trailer door.
Tim doesn't own horses and had very little prior riding experience, but jumped at the chance to see the mountains he'd explored so many times on foot. After a few Saturday tutoring sessions, he accompanied our group on a late-summer scouting trip, prior to the fall rut. Unfortunately, after two days of riding, we didn't encounter any elk. We did spot a large coyote, which is also a species fairly new to Penn's Woods, but far less appreciated. On a positive note, we did discover several new horse trails passing through areas of forest we'd never explored before.
Waking up to a heavy rain on Sunday morning, we broke camp and headed for home, hopeful that our return trip in September would offer more opportunities to view our quarry.
With the designation of trails for horseback riding on State Game Lands in 2003, there are now approximately 20 miles of marked trails available on Game Land No. 311, which adjoins the state forest just north of Benezette. You can access these trails from a parking area at the Winslow Hill viewing area, as well as a connecting trail from Thunder Mountain.
These trails are closed from the last Saturday in September to the third Saturday in January, and from the second Saturday in April to the last Saturday in May (except on Sundays). All routes are clearly posted by green-triangle markers with illustrations of a mountain bike and horseback rider.
The opening of the Game Land trails allows riders to access an additional portion of the elk's primary range. These trails consist of dirt roads and narrow paths, through natural forest and reclaimed strip mine planted in evergreens. There are several challenging trails with steep drop-offs along the mine spoil banks, which offer great views of the surrounding landscape.
Numerous food plots along these trails also increases the opportunity to view elk, as well as other wildlife, such as whitetail deer, wild turkey, and black bear. We've also had several close encounters with our state bird, the Ruffed Grouse, thundering out from the grassy trail.
As we headed back for horse camp in late September, we were filled with great expectations of spotting that first big bull calling to his harem of cows. Nothing gets your blood pumping faster than having an animal nearly as large as your horse suddenly appear in the woods along the trail.
To save valuable daylight hours, we made the drive to Dent's Run, arriving at camp after dusk the evening before our scheduled ride, and headed straight for the parking area at Winslow Hill at daybreak the following morning.
We unloaded the horses, grabbed the saddles and gear, and hit the trail. It was an unseasonably cold September morning, and my fingers tingled as I held the reins. This minor discomfort would soon be forgotten, as I noticed the perk in my horse's ears as she listened to something in the distance. It was obvious that the ride on this day was about to get much more interesting.
Directing our horses towards the sound of bugling elk, we located the first dominant bull, keeping a watchful eye on his group of cows. We spent the entire morning following area trails, careful not to spook the elk, a practice that everyone should follow while enjoying this incredible spectacle of nature. By day's end, we'd spot nearly a dozen bulls, large and small, watching several as they sparred with one another over the cows.
Heading out from camp the following morning, our luck changed; although we rode through miles of beautiful forest, we didn't spot any more elk. We headed back to the trailers to prepare for our journey home, more than satisfied with our weekend adventure.
Pennsylvania's magnificent elk country is a tremendous resource, providing those of us who live and ride in the eastern mountain region just a small taste of this annual display of nature that our Rocky Mountain friends find commonplace.
For more information on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Elk Country Horseback Trail Ride, call (570) 278-4747, or visit www.pennsylvaniarmef.org. For Big Elk Lick information/reservations, call (814)787-4656. For more information on The Thunder Mountain Equestrian Trail, call the State Forest District #13 at (814) 486-3353, or visit www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry. For more on the State Game Lands, visit www.pgc.state.pa.us, and click on "State Game Lands."