Kentucky has the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, there just aren’t many places where the average person can go view these impressive animals. That’s why wildlife watchers from all over the eastern United States travel to Prestonsburg each winter to join elk tours offered by Jenny Wiley State Resort Park.
Don’t let the bitter weather deter you.
“January and February are among the best times to see large herds of elk,” says Kentucky elk researcher Karen Alexy. “They tend to stay out in the open longer, and bed down in open fields rather than hiding in the woods like they do at other times of the year.”
It’s not unusual to see 50-100 elk cows and calves grouped together in winter. Even the bulls, which were locking antlers and fighting each other in the fall, have declared truces and gather in small herds of 10-15.
Van tours led by Jenny Wiley Park Naturalist Trinity Shepherd depart from the park at 6 a.m. for the 45-minute ride across the mountains to a coal mining operation near Hazard. A total of seven tours are offered from January through March. At a cost of $12 for adults and $7 for children, the trip is a bargain.
There’s a bit of history with the tour, too. Visitors will ride through the area where the first seven animals of Kentucky’s elk restoration program were released in 1997. The tour area has some of the state’s biggest bull elk and is one of the best places in Kentucky to see the animals. The mine property included on the tour is otherwise closed to the public.
Tours go through active mining and reclaimed surface mining areas, with visitors often remarking how the wide-open vistas remind them of the western United States.
“People can see free-roaming elk in their natural habitat,” Shepherd adds. “There are no fences like other places.”
Shepherd provides binoculars and a powerful spotting scope for closer views of elk, or visitors can bring their own high-powered optics. Camera buffs should bring a 400mm lens or better for the best photographs. Visitors cannot wander away from the tour van.
Visitors should check the weather and dress appropriately. Count on the mountains being 10 degrees or so colder than the park.
For dates and to reserve your spot for an elk tour, call Jenny Wiley State Resort Park at (800) 325-0142. Visit http://parks.ky.gov/resortparks/jw/ to book a room on the Internet.
For an in-depth feature on these elk, see “Tracking Kentucky’s Elk” in the September Kentucky Living, which you can also find on the Internet in the archives of KentuckyLiving.com.
Kentucky Afield television moves to its new Saturday time this month. Join host Tim Farmer as he brings you exciting adventures from Kentucky’s woods and waters. Kentucky Afield airs at 8:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. CT Saturdays, and 4 p.m. ET/3 p.m. CT Sundays on KET.