Have Elk, Will Bugle

From mid-September into October, male elk begin their yearly search for a mate. Here are some places around the United States where you can catch this fascinating display of machismo.

By Courtney Johnson
Explore Ambassador

From mid-September into October, male elk (bulls) begin their yearly search for a mate. To show dominance, males will bugle to attract female elk. They also engage in antler wrestling and posturing and other mating behaviors during their rut.

From the mountainside to the prairie lands throughout the United States, this unique sound can be heard. If you are on the hunt to hear this trumpeting in the wild, elk are most active before and right after sunrise and in the evening toward dusk. Please watch these beautiful animals from a distance, and as always, follow the rules of the park, nature area or place you are visiting. Here are some places around the United States where you can catch this fascinating display of machismo.

Wind Cave National Park – Hot Springs, SD

Hike along the Elk Mountain Campground Trail, head to Boland Ridge on the east side of the park or pull over at several pullouts off Highway 87 or Highway 385. The amphitheater at the Elk Mountain Campground is wheelchair accessible for more elk spotting.

Elk in Wind Cave National Park. (Photo: NPS)

Buffalo River/Boxley Valley/Ozark Mountains – Ponca, AR

Today, over 600 elk call the Buffalo River area home. Visit Highways 43 and 21 in Boxley Valley to get your best chance of seeing the herd. Don’t forget to visit the AGFC’s Ponca Elk Education Center to find out more about eastern elk.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge – Glasgow, MT

Nearly 500 elk may visit the Slippery Ann designated elk-viewing area during the rut, with the highest concentration from mid- to late September.

Dean Creek – Reedsport, OR

On the coast of Oregon, the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area is home to 60 to 100 Roosevelt elk. The meadows are filled with these elk, especially during their rut. Viewfinders within the park help visitors see the animals close up.

Elk Forest at Black River – Gaylord, MI

The 597-acre area of the Elk Forest was an addition to the Pigeon River Country State Forest in 2020. Over 1,000 elk call the area home, and the forest is a prime place to see their yearly rut. Use this map for driving directions, or hike on one of the many trails in the over 106,000 contiguous acres of the forest land.

Grand Tetons Range – Jackson, WY

Head to the base of the Grand Tetons in the open meadows in the early morning or in the evening. The National Elk Refuge in Jackson is also a great place to visit the thousands of elk during mating season.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Cherokee, NC

Elk can be predominantly found in Cataloochee Valley in the southeastern section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Head there or to Maggie Valley in the early morning or late evening to catch some bugling. There are 200 or so elk now in the park after the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the National Park Service and other partners joined together to restore wild elk to the Smoky Mountains in 2001.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park – Salt Flat, TX

No roads go through the entire national park, so the best way to hear and see elk in the Guadalupe Mountains is to hike through some of the 80 miles of trails. Elk may also be seen along the highway corridor or even grazing near springs. Approximately 60 or so elk can be found in the park.

Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area – Golden Pond, KY

In this recreation area that is open from dawn to dusk seven days a week, the elk roam across the grasslands at the Elk & Bison Prairie. Drive the 3.5-mile paved loop, making stops along the way to hear the elk bugle and to read the interpretive signs.

Rocky Mountain National Park – Estes Park, CO

Head to Moraine Valley or Kawuneeche Valley for the best elk-sighting opportunities. Trail Ridge Road in the mornings is also a good place to hear the bugle. Trails throughout the park, especially along the Moraine Valley loop, also offer opportunities to hear the bugle from afar. If you have no luck, you can always try the golf course in Estes. Large herds of elk tend to congregate there.

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge – Los Banos, CA

Over 1,000 tule elk call the San Joaquin Valley home, including at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. Rut begins in late August and lasts until late October. Follow the Tule Elk Auto Tour route or hike along one of the eight nature trails to see if you can spot (and hear) elk.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge – Lawton, OK

The largest free-range elk herd in Oklahoma can be found at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. The 800-plus elk roam the refuge, and the sounds of the bulls can be heard along the 15 or so miles of trails. Check with Friends of the Wichitas if you’re interested in an elk bugling tour.

Winslow Hill – Benezette Township, PA

With two elk-viewing areas maintained by the game commission’s food and cover workers, Winslow Hill is a great place for viewing and listening to elk during their rut season. Trails and dirt roads in the area offer additional viewing areas. Pack breakfast or dinner (since those are the times the elk are most active) and binoculars for panoramic views.

Yellowstone National Park – West Yellowstone, MT

Head to the northern part of this national park to see the elk rut from September to mid- October. Head to Mammoth Hot Springs, Officers Row and the Gardner River. Elk can also be spotted at the north entrance and outside the park near Roosevelt Arch. On the west side, the best place to see them is along the Madison River.

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

Related Articles

Always be ready to go with the Go Out{side} Email Newsletter

Don’t miss out on new Go Out{side} news, tips and tricks.