Wooing Wapiti, Roosevelt Elk in Rut on the Olympic Peninsula
© 2001 Sunny Walter and Janet O'Mara
It's a fall morning and suddenly, a trumpeting call cuts through the crisp air
and a 7-point bull elk walks out of the mist. What a thrill!
This weekend, visit the Olympic Peninsula to see and hear Roosevelt elk “bugling,”
up close, at their noisiest and most visible, during breeding season.
|Site: Hoh and Quinault rain forests, south of Forks on the coast.
Recommended time: Elk breeding season begins early in September and lasts until mid-October, activity often peaks at the end of September.
Minimum time commitment: A half day plus travel time; a weekend is better.
What to bring: Camera, binoculars, rain gear,
(entrance fee, National Parks Pass, or Golden Eagle Passport).
Directions: See below.
|The background: There are two
species of elk in Washington— Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt. The smaller,
lighter colored, and most plentiful of the two, Rocky Mountain elk, are found
mainly east of the Cascades—most of them in wildlife areas and national forests
that are managed for hunting. You may hear bugling elk in the eastern part
of the state this time of year, but it is less likely that you will see any.
They are smart and try to disappear when hunting season starts.
On the west side of the mountains, Roosevelt elk live along the coast and in some parts of the Cascades’ western slopes. Here, there are several areas protected from hunting and the elk have become accustomed to human presence. They are also very busy and focused this time of year, so it is amazingly easy to see them.
|The fun: Elk exhibit fascinating social behavior during breeding season.
At this time, they are preoccupied with the task at hand and sometimes allow
people to approach fairly close to watch them gather together and protect
their harems (see sidebar). There are two Olympic Peninsula locations where
elk have become accustomed to human presence.
Hoh Rain Forest: Olympic National Park's Hoh Rain Forest visitor center is located about 14 miles south of Forks and 18.5 miles up the Hoh River Road.
About 200 Roosevelt elk live in the Hoh River valley; most of them move up into the park (12.5 miles up the river) during hunting season. The Hoh Campground elk herd is the easiest to see and hear; they will often walk right by you if you stand still. A warning—do not get between the bull and his harem. He will object—sometimes aggressively. Remember that these are still wild animals and their hormones are raging.
From mid-September through mid-October, the dominant bull elk and his harem of around 13 cows and calves can often be seen around the campground; the unoccupied C loop is a favorite place to browse. They also move downriver into the occupied A loop and the picnic area, over to the visitor center, upriver (visible from the 1.25-mile Spruce Nature Trail), or onto islands in the river. Look in all the open park-like areas that are a byproduct of their grazing.
Elk are most visible in the evening and early morning. It's an extra treat to actually hear bugling from your campsite here.
|Next best: Enjoy shorts walks through magnificent rain forests and
visits to giant trees. Stop in the visitor center for information about Hoh
Rain Forest attractions. In the early morning, watch for river otter, spawning
salmon, and harlequin ducks on the Hoh River.
If you spend the night in nearby Forks, ask at Tinker's Tales for in-town elk locations. Rialto Beach, 15 miles west of Forks on the ocean, has magnificent sunsets.
|Food and lodging: The Hoh Campground is open year-round. There are accommodations and food along the Hoh River Road; Bogachiel Campground is on US 101 (showers). Forks offers all services.|
|Quinault Rain Forest:
The second protected location to hear and see
bugling elk is in the Quinault Rain Forest. Lake Quinault is located about
52 miles south of the Hoh River Road on U.S. Highway 101 at Amanda Park. When
you exit the Hoh River Road, head south on US 101, stopping at any of several
lovely beaches along the way. Most have tidepools; some have seastacks.
Look for Roosevelt elk feeding in the meadows on Quinault Lake's North Shore Road about 14 miles from US 101. Evening and early morning are the most reliable. For other attractions on the 28-mile Lake Quinault loop, see chapter 49.
More food and lodging: Lake Quinault Lodge is 2 miles from US 101 on the South Shore Road, along with several smaller resorts and restaurants. Lake Quinault Resort is on the North Shore Road; Amanda Park also has services. Several campgrounds are open in September.
|For more information:
Olympic National Forest, Quinault Visitor Information Office, 360-288-2525
Olympic National Park, Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, 360-374-6925
[Natural History Sidebar]
Breeding season is in progress in earnest this time of year for both Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk in Washington. They are genetically programmed to perpetuate the species and it is very serious business indeed.
|During the four- to six-week breeding period, called the
“rut,” the enormous male elk or “bull,” emits a very loud call, “bugling.”
The purpose of this eerily shrill sound is to declare the bull's masculinity
and to announce to the rest of the elk world where the boundaries have been
drawn. The biggest, “baddest” bull, called the “dominant bull,” gathers
together the most females or “cows” for his harem, as many as 15 to 20.
He must then protect them from all intruders. He shakes his huge antlers
or “rack,” attacks trees, other bulls, and anything else that gets in his
In late September, it is not unusual to see the dominant bull thrashing around in the small trees, moving his antlers back and forth. He will also urinate in the mud and roll in it—all behavior to establish his territory. Some of the younger bulls with smaller racks or spikes stay near the herd and spar with each other—waiting for an opportunity to steal some cows from the dominant bull. The young bulls’ bravado is tempered with realism however. Sometimes all it takes is a look from the dominant bull to send them running away.
| The whole point of this, of course,
is that the strongest, most successful males have a chance to impregnate
many females and thus perpetuate the strongest genes. It is a demanding task.
The bulls eat very little during this time.
After rutting season, elk society becomes matriarchal once more. The bulls must attend to serious eating. They only have a short time to accumulate enough body fat to survive the winter. The older cows resume their leadership roles, watching over the rest of the herd, barking alarms, leading them from summer range to winter range.
|Note: Go to Government Nature Resources Guide for National Forest and National Parks links.|
"Washington Nature Weekends" Book
Links checked and updated on: September 4, 2003
Photos are copyright © Sunny Walter (unless otherwise noted)
Text is copyright © 2001 Sunny Walter and Janet O'Mara
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