Elk National Wildlife Refuge
Late in October and early in November, when snow comes to the high passes, elk begin their traditional migration from high summer range in the Tetons and South Yellowstone to lower winter range in the valley. Heavy snows force the animals to lower elevations in search of food. Many of the elk make their way to the National Elk Refuge, which provides a winter home for an average of 7,500 elk, over half of the Jackson Hole population. The Refuge protects approximately one-quarter of the original elk winter range in the valley.
That this happens to part of the most wonderfully scenic areas in the United States is an added bonus. The Refuge has grassy meadows and marshes along the valley floor, timbered areas along the Gros Ventre River, and sagebrush and rock outcroppings along the foothills. Up from the valley floor rise 13,000 foot jagged peaks. This is Greater Yellowstone country, smack dab against Grand Teton National Park and near the lively basecamp town of Jackson Hole.
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Take a Sleigh Ride
What's the best way to actually see the giant elk herd? From a sleigh. In winter, from late December through late March, horse-drawn sleigh rides are transport visitors for a close-up - and cozy -- look at the elk herd. A Sleigh Ride Visitor Center features a slide show, movie, exhibits and information. Follow signs from Refuge headquarters four miles to the sleigh ride area.
Revel in the Wildlife
While elk are the primary reason for the Refuge, other animals of the high country are found on the area year around, or during seasonal migration to and from surrounding areas. Moose, bighorn sheep, and mule deer are found on the refuge (generally in winter) and coyotes, badgers and Uinta ground squirrels are often seen. Other common wildlife species include muskrats, beaver, porcupines, longtail weasels, and voles or meadow mice. Nearly 175 species of birds have been observed on the Refuge. For a birding highlight, stop at the Flat Creek Marsh along U.S. Highway 26 and look for nesting Trumpeter Swans and their young.
Two major streams - the Gros Ventre River and Flat Creek -- flow through the refuge. Both of these streams are popular with fly fishermen for the native Snake River cutthroat trout. The Flat Creek is a appropriately named stream that meanders through a stark, high plain. The fish here are wary, and a lack of brush mean it's hard for the angler to hide. The Gros Ventre is an isolated river, made to order for fly fishers in search of a little solitude.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication