Elk Watching in a Winter Wonderland

Skiing and snowboarding aren’t the only notable reasons to visit Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at this time of year.

Few places offer more spectacular views of wildlife at this time of year than the vast valley in Wyoming called Jackson Hole. What makes the area magical are the more than 5,000 elk that gather to feed and rest—the largest wintering herd in North America.

Beginning in October, intense snowfall pushes the animals out of their high-elevation summer calving ranges in the surrounding Teton and Gros Ventre mountains and Yellowstone National Park.

Access is free to the 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge, which was created in 1912 and attracts visitors from around the world. A paved road leads from the Jackson town square—bordered with unique arches made of thousands of elk antlers—north to the refuge, but it is limited in winter to several miles to protect the herds of wild animals from being disturbed. 

Photo: New Thought Digital Agency.
Photo: New Thought Digital Agency.

Sleigh rides to view the elk are a local tradition that started in the 1800s; rides are available to the public from December through April. The Double H Bar Ranch operates horse-drawn sleighs in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Elk aren’t the only wild animals you’re likely to see here at this time of year; American bison, wolves, pronghorn, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, and other species native to the American West are also common. Bring binoculars and a camera with a tripod and a long lens.

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Cervus canadensis is a species of red deer found throughout the world. The Shawnee called them wapiti or “light-colored deer,” reflecting their light beige rump patch, which is highly visible when the animals are running. Elk evolved as fast endurance runners. The cows form herds to protect their calves from predators.

Bull elk can reach 1,000 pounds and be five feet tall at the shoulder. Add four-foot antlers and the animal is an imposing tower of majesty. A smaller California subspecies called tule elk was once found in vast numbers from San Francisco Bay up to the rich marshlands bordering the Sacramento River and into the Sierra foothills. There are six subspecies in diverse habitats from the sub-Arctic Yukon to the Grand Canyon.

Each fall, the male elk’s high-pitched “bugle” sound permeates yellow-leafed mountainsides from Aspen, Colorado, to Banff National Park in Alberta. A bellow escalating to a squealing whistle and ending with a grunt, it serves as a mating call and can also announce a readiness to fight. 

Although the mating season has passed in Jackson Hole, you will likely hear elk communicating whenever you visit. According to the conservation group Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, their “talk” includes high-pitched squeals (newborns calling to mothers), barks (warning of danger), and chirps, mews, and squeals (general conversation). 

Jackson is, of course, famous as a winter sports Mecca and is home to three ski and snowboard resorts: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Grand Targhee Resort, and Snow King Mountain. The “Red Heli” aerial tram carries as many as 100 skiers together to the top of Rendezvous Peak at 10,450 feet in 12 minutes. March is considered the best month for skiing with maximum depths of so-called “cowboy snow.”

Jackson Hole Airport, with a runway elevation of 6,451, is the largest and busiest airfield in Wyoming—and the only commercial airport in a national park.

Photo: New Thought Digital Agency.
Photo: New Thought Digital Agency.

If you’re here for the Annual Stage Stop Sled Dog Race on the evening of Jan. 27, 2023, spend the day watching wildlife. Enjoy a hot cider. And don’t miss the National Museum of Wildlife Art in this friendly, snowy town.


A Bit of History

“Hole” was a geographic description used by early trappers and explorers for a big valley—thus, Jackson Hole. The first white man to see the breathtaking valley was the quintessential mountain man John Colter, who arrived in 1807, one year after serving as Lewis and Clark's top hunter in their epic Corps of Discovery journey to the Pacific and back. 

In what became known as Colter’s Run, in 1809, on the Jefferson River in what is now Montana, Blackfoot braves captured his canoe filled with beaver traps. They pierced his partner with arrows and chopped him to pieces. Stripped naked and chased bloody for miles, Colter survived by hiding in a beaver lodge, emerging at night, and walking shoeless for 11 days over rock and sagebrush eastward toward the Little Big Horn River.