We were recently amazed to learn that Pennsylvania has a thriving herd of wild elk.

A couple of times each year we make the long drive from our Iowa home to visit relatives in New Jersey. We traverse Pennsylvania on Interstate 80. For years we’ve been intrigued by interesting and unusual town names we see on roadside signs.   Jersey Shore, Mountain Top, and Snow Shoe are examples.

As we approached mid-Pennsylvania recently heading back to Iowa, we tired of the big semi-truck-filled road. So we exited at the tiny town of Snow Shoe and followed smaller paved roads through the forests and clearings of Moshannon State Forest. We soon reached the hamlet of Benezette, the epicenter of Pennsylvania’s wild elk herd.

Thanks to a stop at the visitor center of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance we learned the fascinating story of this massive deer’s return to an area called the Pennsylvania Wilds.

Where Elk Once Trod

When Columbus made landfall wild elk roamed much of what became the United States, even close to the Atlantic Ocean’s shore. Such tasty and large animals had little chance against explosive human population growth and the conversion of wild lands to farms, ranches, roads, and urban areas. By the late 1800s wild elk only lived in wild areas in the Rocky Mountain States.

Fortunately, that’s changed. Now there are wild elk herds in at least 19 states, including Michigan, Minnesota, West Virginia, Missouri, Arkansas, and North Carolina.   Kentucky has the largest wild elk herd east of the Rockies with at least 13,000 of the massive deer roaming the state.

How It Happened

In 1912 a shipment of elk was trained from Yellowstone National Park to Pennsylvania and released in the north-central part of the state. It was joined by some animals from a private herd and further releases a few years later. The herd stayed small for years but began expanding during the past few decades. Today about 1,400 wild elk roam the area.

We loved our day in the Benezette area. The lands are managed so large patches of open woods allow visitors to see into the forests hoping to spot elk. It was hot, so the elk were somewhere deep in the shady woods. We didn’t see any but enjoyed learning more in the impressive museum. Then, we walked area trails looking for signs of elk – droppings, and rubs. Hot and thirsty, we stopped at the Elk Life Store for elk hot dogs and a cool beverage. Tasty and with great views. The hills shimmered in the light and streams coursed down the draws and valleys.

Elk bring tourists to the Benezette area. Small lodges, bed and breakfasts, and Airbnb’s abound. The most popular time is fall when male, or bull, elk bugle. Make lodging reservations well in advance. For information contact  Keystone Elk Country Alliance.

Pennsylvania’s Not Alone

Thanks to the efforts of state wildlife agencies, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, volunteers, and financial donors elk are thriving in many states. Read where elk live. And, for a map, check out the Izaak Walton League’s site.

We even have about 15 elk in Iowa. They’re at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City east of Des Moines.

A trip to Wyoming, Colorado, or Idaho offers wonderful chances to see elk, but elk can be seen far and wide across the Eastern United States.