The Elk Experience

The Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus elaphus) is an animal well suited for ecotourism.  They are large members of the deer family, with a body mass four to five times larger than the more familiar whitetail deer.  Female elk are referred to as cows.  The males, known as bull elk, grow a new set of antlers each spring.  By the fall of each year, the mature bulls grow massive new antlers.  Elk are uniformly regarded by naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts as the most majestic animal in North America.  Elk will be the marquis species for The Center.

As soon as visitors drive through the Cumberland Gap, or exit Interstate 75 and head east, they will be in elk country.  When they turn off of Highway 119 onto Elk Mountain Drive, they will be sharing the same ground as wild elk.  As they enter the grounds of The Center, visitors will find numerous options and opportunities to see and learn about wild elk. 

There will be foot trails, viewing pavilions and a 15-mile loop road through 12,000 acres of habitat to get out among the elk.  In the Visitor Center, visitors will be able to track the movement of elk on and around The Center on large screen GPS tracking displays.  Wireless video camera systems will provide the opportunity to view the elk as they roam remote meadows and valleys.

In addition to elk viewing, The Center’s elk experience will include an array of learning opportunities.  Life size elk displays will allow an up-close examination of the animal.  Visitors will be able to handle elk hides, antlers and bones.  Various educational displays will tell the story of how elk were once extirpated from most of their original range in North America because of market and subsistence hunting, and will also chronicle the subsequent restoration of elk from the early 1900s to the present.

Elk viewing at The Center will be a year round activity, with the heaviest visitor concentration in the fall, during the breeding season when the elk bulls are “in the rut”.  The older dominant bulls assemble and tend to harems of cow elk.  Visitors will watch as less dominant bulls, known as satellite bulls, try to sneak into the harems and steal a breeding opportunity with a cow.  As the dominant bull chases away the interloper, this will trigger sparring and fighting when a lesser bull decides to stand his ground and test the dominant bull.  Elk viewers will watch bull elk herding cows, trying to move them away from challenging bulls that do not have harems.  The action will be virtually non-stop from late August thru the end of October.

As exciting as the elk skirmishes are to watch, the most exhilarating experience of elk viewing during the rut is listening to the bull elk bugling.  During the rut, the bulls produce a loud, guttural sound, beginning as a throaty low tone and ending in a high pitch, known as a bugle.  A bugling elk can be heard from over a mile away.  The elk bugle to alert cows and other bulls to their presence.  During the peak of the rut, bugling can be heard from dawn to dusk.  Bulls will call back and forth to one another.  Anywhere elk viewing is offered as a tourist attraction, the rut is the peak period for visitation.

After the rut, beginning in December, the male elk form into bachelor groups that may include 50 or more individual bulls.  At the same time, the cows, yearlings and calves form large wintering herds.  Winter herds of more than 300 elk have been documented in southeastern Kentucky. This time of year does not offer all of the drama of the rut, but rather some incredible viewing opportunities of large concentrations of elk.

During the spring and summer months elk are typically seen early and late in the day.  After mid-June elk cows can be seen in the fields with their newly born calves.

The elk viewing and learning opportunities at The Center will provide an overall experience unequaled east of the Rocky Mountains.