Nothing is as jaw dropping as a bull elk bugling a challenge to another elk from an overlook into the vast and mountainous expanse of Yellowstone National Park — until that bugling elk turns around and charges aggressively into a crowd of unsuspecting onlookers wielding cameras. This situation is becoming unsettlingly common this year with record visitation to the world’s first national park and many first-time visitors unfamiliar with elk body language and behavior. After what the National Park Service is terming a number of near-miss incidents in Yellowstone so far this season, visitors are being warned to be wary of these wild animals, especially during their exciting, and oftentimes dangerous mating season known as “the rut.”
Starting in late summer, bulls in rut gather large groups of female elk, called cows, and their offspring into groups called harems and defend them tirelessly from other bulls that could be contenders for mating rites. These large, mature bulls with impressive antlers chase around eligible females while bugling, sharpening their antler tines, and defending their respective areas. Unfortunately, excited onlookers can get too close and become easily injured by bulls and cows. Sometimes, testosterone-fueled bull elk will even charge cars and break windows and cause other damage. To help you enjoy this special time of year, we at the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce offer some suggestions to witness the rut while staying safe and keeping your vehicle intact for additional adventuring in Yellowstone.
What is “The Rut?”
Once per year elk in Yellowstone gather into large groups with bulls attempting to mate with cows, which typically give birth to one or two calves come springtime. Throughout late spring and early summer, as cows raise their calves in nursery groups, sexually mature bulls begin to grow antlers made of bone. The process is quite remarkable. Early on, the antlers are covered in a fuzzy coating called “velvet” that allows blood flow and deposits minerals like calcium for antler growth. Hormones, nutrients, and length of daylight factor in as antlers grow rapidly before being shed in spring. By the time the rut starts in late summer, antler growth increases to nearly an inch per day. Blood flow to the velvet eventually ceases and elk scrape off the coating on trees and shrubbery, sharpening their tines in the process. The bulls then use their antlers in battle with other bulls during mating season to defend their harems and determine mating rights. They mate with cows once the cows enter estrous and are sexually receptive. It is an action-packed annual event famous with wildlife watchers that draws photographers and onlookers to Yellowstone from across the planet.
Where can I see elk?
Mammoth Hot Springs–Mammoth Hot Springs and the Fort Yellowstone Historic District, a 15-miute drive into Yellowstone from Gardiner, is the hot spot to view elk in late summer and early autumn. Grass planted between the now historic buildings, which housed the U.S. Army during the park’s early days and remain standing today, attracts numerous elk during rut; it’s not uncommon to see more than one bull and his harem in the vicinity at a given time. The area boasts plenty of pullouts and parking spots and even has porches at the Mammoth Hotel and Albright Visitor Center. Public bathrooms, a gas station, and a couple of locations to eat and purchase snacks make this the perfect stop to see these wild animals during mating season.
Swan Lake Flat–This sagebrush-filled valley a half-hour drive from Gardiner offers sweeping views of the Gallatin Mountain Range and is a great place to settle in and view a colorful sunset. Unlike in Mammoth, where elk are artificially drawn to manicured lawns, you’ll likely view elk in the distance here once you hear their bugles echoing throughout the valley. Binoculars, spotting scopes, and other optics are helpful for viewing elk at a distance. In fact, keep your eyes and ears open for wolves, coyotes, grizzly bears, and other animals while you’re at it. Swan Lake Flat has a couple major pullouts where you can park. If you choose to get out and walk, be sure to carry bear spray and know how to use it.
Gardiner–Known as “Nature’s Favorite Entrance to Yellowstone National Park,” ™ the North Entrance Community of Gardiner boasts a fair number of elk during the mating season and into winter once the animals start to migrate. Look for bull elk and harems in Arch Park (a grassy oasis in the shadow of the historic Roosevelt Arch off Park Street) and on the football field at Gardiner Public School. Sometimes bull elk gather harems on the lawn of the Gardiner Baptist Church. Listen for elk bugling at sunset and in the early morning. A variety of places to stay and eat makes Gardiner a great place to relax. Remember, even though they may seem tame, elk in town are still wild and can be very dangerous.
What is the best way to view elk in rut safely?
- Stay in your car. If you can find a legitimate pullout or parking spot stop the car, roll down your windows, and turn off your engine. It’s a great way to see and hear these wild animals from the safety of your vehicle. Just remember it has to be an official place to park or else you might receive a warning or a ticket.
- Listen to safety officers. These people wearing bright safety vests will help you find a good location to park, view elk, and can also help you understand what you’re witnessing when standing near them. If you are asked to move your vehicle or relocate where you’re standing understand safety officers have the safety of you, other visitors, and the elk in mind so please respectfully do as they ask.
- Stay at least 25 yards away. At all times you’ll want to keep at least the length of two school buses away from elk and we recommend more as they can quickly run toward you unexpectedly. This rule applies equally in the wilds of Yellowstone, in developed areas like Mammoth and Gardiner, and where you park if you’re viewing elk from your vehicle.
- Pay attention to your surroundings. Elk can bed down in yards, browse vegetation in alleyways, and move quietly between buildings so pay attention to where you’re walking in Gardiner and Mammoth so you don’t accidently encounter one at close range. This is particularly important at dawn and dusk when visibility is limited and elk are typically more active.
- Adhere to all Park Service rules and regulations. The National Park Service wants you to enjoy your visit and is also tasked with protecting the park and its wildlife for future visitors. If you see signage informing you an area is closed to foot travel due to elk please understand it’s for the safety of you and the animals and obey. To learn more about elk, the rut, and how to stay safe during your visit please click here.
We hope you enjoy your time in Yellowstone and that you’ve found this information to help you prepare for a fun-filled and safe visit!
Chelsea DeWeese writes from her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.