Elk are majestic creatures that look like reindeer on steroids, and Yellowstone National Park is a great place to see them. Use caution, however, because a peacefully grazing elk can turn into a quarter ton of charging hooves and horns faster than the shutter on your camera.
All about elk
Elk are some of the largest members of the deer family, second only to moose. Females weigh around 500 pounds, while males can top 700. Elk stand four to five feet at the shoulder, with males well over seven feet tall once you include the antlers.
Elk shed their antlers in late winter, growing new ones each year. The antlers grow up to an inch a day, and can weigh more than 20 pounds each. New antlers are covered with a suede-like skin which is rubbed off in the late summer as the elk prepare to mate.
Where to see elk in Yellowstone National Park
During our August visit, we saw several groups of three to four animals, and several solitary males. Look for the animals where the trees thin, near the banks of rivers, and in the shallows of lakes and ponds. As summer draws to a close, watch for elk rubbing the velvet off their antlers on piles of driftwood or downed trees.
Most of our sightings happened along the Lewis River from the South Entrance into the West Thumb area. We had three different close-ups in and around Grant Village. The elk in the first photo is standing near the Grant shower and laundry facilities, and we snapped the second photo on the shores of Yellowstone Lake between the West Thumb and Bridge Bay.
Elk are also common near Mammoth Hot Springs and in the upper and lower geyser basins. For the best photo ops, go in the early morning before the crowds arrive.
Tip: Don’t look for heads and antlers. Most of the elk you’ll see will have their heads down for grazing. You’ll find more of them if you watch for flat, brown backs and lighter hind quarters.
How to watch elk without getting kicked, trampled or gored
Imagine a quarter-ton pickup barreling toward you at 30 miles an hour with ten bayonets mounted on the front bumper. That’s what you’ll be facing if an elk charges. (For a peek at what that looks like, try this YouTube video.)
Stay inside your vehicle, and keep your distance. Do not yell or honk your horn to get the animal to look up. Elk are fairly placid creatures, but can be dangerous if spooked, threatened or cornered. Males can become aggressive during the mating season from late August through the middle of October. Females vigorously defend their young during spring calving.
Remember: Just because you know you’re no threat to that cow and her calf doesn’t mean she does.
More from this contributor:
Where to See Bison in Yellowstone National Park
Viewing Tips for Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park