Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — September 2006

Elk — The Wild in PA Wilds

by Gary Thornbloom

Elk, five of them, disappeared into the dusk darkened line of trees at the far edge of the field. This is what we had come for. Sixteen miles of trail, two nights camping — backpacking on the Elk Trail through the heart of Elk Country.

PA Wilds is not only about scenic drives. Two million acres of public lands — habitat, space for wildlife — are PA Wilds. This is a lot of space for backpackers to go wild in.

Elk, up to 1,000 pounds, five feet at the shoulder, males with antlers up to five feet long, are the most dramatic of PA Wilds wildlife. Eastern elk native to Pennsylvania were eliminated by 1867. Rocky Mountain elk introduced by the PA Game Commission between 1916 and 1926, after decades of declining numbers through the 1970s, have thrived once adequate habitat was preserved and created.

The Elk Trail arcs through prime elk habitat. Fields, open areas along natural gas pipelines, hollows and streams provide opportunities for the backcountry hiker to encounter elk.

We began backpacking the Elk Trail by hiking one mile up Little Bear Run and camping near fields maintained as elk feeding plots. As we began to get tents out of our packs, coyote howling greeted us. Soon howling from the opposite direction answered the first chorus. Within minutes a young coyote trotted through the woods, looked us over and continued on. Numerous times in the next two days and nights we would again hear coyotes, certainly a sound of PA Wilds.

That evening we walked up the trail to the fields. At dusk we saw five elk at the far edge of the field. Our encounter was brief, but enchanting. Back at our campsite we sat in the dark listening to barred owls calling back and forth. The silence as night closed in was total, broken only by the owls, and later coyotes calling in the distance.

Visiting the fields in the morning, we were treated to thick mist working its magic over the landscape. Early morning is an excellent time for seeing elk. But the mist, dew lined spider webs throughout the fields, song birds getting their day going, and eventually the sun burning through the mist had to suffice on this day.

Yesterday’s hike had followed on old wagon road — wagon roads usually date from horse and wagon days and provide a gentle grade — up one of several delightful hollows that this trail traverses. We continued on a haul road — roads used for logging — from the 1960s. These roads, closed to vehicles, are used by the Bureau of Forestry to maintain elk feed plots. Muddy sections, easily walked around, provide an excellent opportunity to examine footprints. We saw no human prints, many coyote tracks, many turkey tracks, and some deer, raccoon, and of course elk tracks. Occasional elk scat along with much coyote scat dotted this section of trail.

The Elk Trail makes use of numerous older trails, haul roads, elk feed plot maintenance roads, and sections of other trails. It is a well-maintained orange-blazed trail. To avoid wandering off the trail, pay attention to the blazes and follow your progress on the Elk Trail map.

This section of State Forest is a working forest. You will encounter areas that have been logged and are now fenced, including one section of solar-powered electric fence. Take the time to observe these areas and the surrounding forest. Note the regeneration inside the fence that includes tree seedlings and saplings, both missing in many areas of State Forest lands where overbrowsing by deer has left a blanket of hay-scented fern that prevents germination of anything.

hiking the Elk Train

Hiking the Elk Trail · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

Fields near Shaffer Draft Road are newly created elk food plots. Camping near these plots offers another chance for dusk and dawn elk viewing. As the trail crosses a small stream and comes out of Shaffer Draft it is now following an abandoned pipeline.

After the ridgetop the trail leaves the pipeline and continues on a railroad grade from early 1900s logging. Hiking trails throughout Central PA make use of these long, straight, gentle grades, which are free of brushy growth, and make for pleasant hiking. Ballast along the rail bed, depressions where crossties have long since rotted away and stone work along the edges reveal the historical use.

The trail leaves the railroad grade as it threads its way through boulders and approaches Belle Draft Road. This road, open to vehicles, and the nearby hunting cabins again draw attention to the many uses of State Forest Lands. The springs along the road provided a much needed cold drink. We took a lunch break on the large boulders just as the trail leaves the road.

The next gas pipeline clearing that you cross is in use, our working forest again, and the opening provides another prime location for encountering elk. Advice I received from the District Forester:

You may want to camp here. The elk like to come out in openings in the evening and herd the cows around. You can hear well from this location. I have regularly seen elk just north of this location along the pipeline. There are… browse along with water, cover and few people at this location.

We opted to continue on in order to have a shorter hike out the next day. After crossing another divide on and off old wagon roads the trail makes a rocky descent into Dents Run. Before rock hopping across Dents Run we filtered enough water to get us through supper, and tomorrow’s breakfast.

Another wagon road steadily rises up the fern-covered mountainside above Dents Run. Ben and I had encountered an ornery rattlesnake stretched lengthwise on the trail when we had scouted the trail a few weeks earlier. The snake rattled to warn us away, and would not move. The ferns were knee high, and so thick that there was no way to walk around the snake and still see what we may be stepping on or next to. After some photos and debate on our part, the snake eventually crawled off, but just barely off, the trail and coiled up in a hollow stump. We cautiously continued onward.

timber rattler along the trail

Rattlesnakes are among the diversity of wildlife found on the Elk Trail · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

That rattlesnake was a beautifully patterned dark phase snake. The other two we saw on that day were yellow phase, equally beautiful, and much larger — one in the fifty-inch range. Rattlesnakes are another part of the wild in PA Wilds. They have their place and deserve to be protected. They prefer to avoid people, often lie silent as you pass, will rattle if you are too close, and will bite primarily when they are left no alternative.

Our backpacking group proceeded uneventfully up the mountainside, along the ridge, through a stand of hemlocks and dropped into Emory Draft. We followed an intermittent stream until we found a clearing near a small pool of water that we could filter and use while camping there.

Emory Draft is a pleasant, quiet setting. The rapping and cries of pileated woodpeckers, residents of deep woodlands, were the exception. We sat around a small campfire into the darkness, doused the fire and slept deeply in the unbroken silence of the night.

Sunday’s hike out brought rocky hollows, wagon roads, hunting cabins, fenced woodlots, and elk feed fields in reclaimed strip mines, before a bumpy descent to Trout Run and our shuttle vehicles.

The wildlife we saw on two outings on the Elk Trail included not only elk,
coyotes, pileated woodpeckers and rattlesnakes, but also deer, bear, hawks, and ravens.

Time spent along the Elk Tail will provide anyone with opportunities for encountering the wild in PA Wilds.

Our backpacking took place in mid-August and that was a little early to hear the majestic and haunting sound of elk bugling. September is a great time to spend several nights on the trail and to experience the primal sound of elk bugling.

The Elk Trail is an accessible sixteen-mile trail. It follows ridges, drops into hollows, includes open areas, has suitable spots for campsites, and as the Elk Hiking Trail guide says, “The trail area is prime elk territory.” Exploring and enjoying the wild in PA Wilds is as close as getting on the Elk Trail in Elk County.


Public Use Map for Elk State Forest and a detailed map of the Elk Trail are available for free. Contact Elk State Forest Headquarters at 814-486-3353.

If You Go: From I-80 Exit 111 take PA 153 north 8 miles to Penfield; turn right onto PA 255 and after 6.4 miles stay straight onto PA 555; after 9.4 miles turn left in Benezette and go past the Hotel Benezette — nice place for a good meal and cold beverages after your hike — staying on this road until it becomes a dirt road, bear left at the fork and park at the parking area on the left near the trailhead. We left a shuttle vehicle here, and drove to the other trailhead.

From Benezette to the eastern trailhead drive 8 miles east on PA 555; turn left onto Dents Run Road and go 2 miles to a parking area on the left. Look for the trailhead and orange blazes to the right; parking is immediately to the left.

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Gary Thornbloom is the Chair of the Sierra Club Moshannon Group and can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net