Call of the Wild: In Fall, Tiny Benezette Becomes the Destination to View Elk During ‘the Rut’
October is the perfect time to take a day trip to Benezette, “The Elk Capital of Pennsylvania.”
Situated deep within the densely forested Pennsylvania Wilds, the tiny town of Benezette (sometimes simply spelled “Benezett”), with a full-time population of only 200 or so souls, sleeps for much of the year. But when autumn arrives and with it “the rut,” or mating season, Benezette becomes the destination for would-be elk viewers.
“It’s a big change,” says John Holjencin, a Benezette resident. “It gets hectic for close to two months. It’s like night and day. I sit on the porch and just watch it.”
“Traffic’s bumper-to-bumper,” says fellow Benezette local Kevin Gallagher. “Every year it seems like we get a few more [tourists].”
Victoria Challingsworth, conservation education specialist at the Elk Country Visitor Center, the epicenter of elk viewing activity, says that during the rut, “It gets so busy, we can see 5,000 people a day.”
Carol Delp, who works at the Benezett Store & Restaurant (which serves an elk burger), says that in September and October, “It’s a totally different town. This place gets packed. They’re waiting on the porch for a table on the weekends.”
Elk history in Pennsylvania
Benezette, about a 90 minute drive from State College, can feel like a mini-Yellowstone National Park during the rut – in more ways than one.
There are traffic jams of tourists stopping in the middle of the road to view wildlife and take pictures (a habit that irks the locals and isn’t safe). There’s also a Yellowstone connection to Benezette. Between 1913 and 1926, the Pennsylvania Game Commission transferred 177 Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone to central and northeastern PA to replace the eastern woodland elk that had been annihilated.
Today, Pennsylvania has 1,000 to 1,200 elk inhabiting 10 counties. There’s even a hunting season for elk now, which is very competitive. The highly coveted tags are awarded through a lottery system, and last year 37,000 people applied for 125 tags.
“Benezette has the largest sub-concentration of elk in the state, which is why this area has the most tourism for elk,” says Challingsworth. “We have about 300 elk that live in the area full-time, and [their numbers] go up during the mating season.”
‘It’s very raw’
“The mating season is by far the most exciting part of the year,” Challingsworth says. “The elk are visible here year-round, but the exciting thing about the rut is the bulls start to gravitate back to this area.”
The bull elk’s goal during mating season is to be the dominant elk, to establish a group of females, called a “harem,” and to defend his harem so he has the breeding rights to as many females as possible.
“You’ll see bulls challenge one another,” Challingsworth says. “The bulls have a unique sound called a bugle, which can be heard up to a mile away if conditions are right, and it’s really impressive and almost haunting. You may hear a bull bugle, and another bull bugle back. It’s kind of them issuing a challenge. Then, if both bulls come together around a harem, they may fight one another.
“They may pace alongside one another back and forth, eyeing each other up,” Challingsworth continues. “If they both decide they want to challenge one another, they’ll just suddenly turn toward one another and clash antlers and fight. It doesn’t last very long – a long fight might be a minute – but it’s a lot of energy; it’s very raw. Their testosterone is a thousand times the normal level during the mating season. It’s crazy!”
“You’ll see bulls challenge one another … they’ll just suddenly turn toward one another and clash antlers and fight,” says Victoria Challingsworth of the Elk Country Visitor Center. Photo courtesy of Keystone Elk Country Alliance.
‘Not just elk’
Benezette is known primarily for its elk, but there are many other attractions to make a day trip worthwhile.
“[Benezette] has been a nice place to live all my life,” says Kitty Dudley. “It sometimes gets too busy, because we’re not used to all these people, but it’s been good for businesses. It’s really been good for the area. Everyone who comes, they all want to come back. Everybody enjoys it.”
“It’s a beautiful place,” says Robert Crouse, who travelled from Williamsport and stopped for lunch with his daughter, Michelle, at the Benezette Hotel in early September. “And it was an absolutely gorgeous drive. The only way it could be a little bit better is if it were later in the year and the leaves were colored. We are actually going to use this trip to sort of learn the place, and then we’re going to come up again. I want to bring my grandkids up, probably within the next month.”
“Benezette has a lot to offer,” Challingsworth says. “It’s a really unique community with lots of local businesses, lots of local entrepreneurs, and then, of course, the elk add their own element of intrigue. There are two really great state parks within about 30 minutes of here. There are also other viewing areas nearby for elk, and then all of those small businesses – gift shops, wineries, distilleries, lots of neat little places to stop. There’s definitely enough here to fill a full day; it’s not just elk.”
The Elk Country Visitor Center draws crowds of spectators for up-close views of elk in the fields. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert.
Know before you go
Cell service: Benezette is remote, and that’s a big part of what makes it great. But remember that the allure of the wilderness is what makes getting lost an easy thing to do, too.
The Crouses were relying on their cellphones’ GPS to guide them back home through State College – with a stop at The Creamery along the way – but they had trouble finding a cell signal in the backwoods. Their advice is to know your route before you hit the road.
Mornings and evenings: The Crouses also arrived too late in the day to see any elk. To view the elk, heed Challingsworth’s advice.
“The first two hours after dawn and the first two hours before dusk are the best times to view elk,” she says. “That’s when they’re going to be most active. There’s definitely enough to do in town or around this general area to fill the day, if you want to go and come back.”
Take a hike: Challingsworth says there are plenty of trails in the region, so, “If you want the quiet elk experience, go for a hike.”
Informational programs: The Elk Country Visitors Center offers free, public informational programs on the weekends. There are interactive touchscreens and a sensory, 4-D movie theater. The center also offers wagon rides, but there is no set schedule for rides, and visitors are asked to call for availability and to make reservations no more than 24 hours in advance.
While at the visitors center, check out the live elk cam.
The top priority of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, which operates the visitors center, is conservation education, says operations manager Carla A. Wehler.
“We educate thousands of youth and adults each year both in person at the visitor center through our education programs and virtually through our distance learning programs,” she says. “We are able to take Elk Country anywhere in the state or country!
Plan ahead: “If you want to stay local,” Delp advises, “call six months in advance, because everywhere is booked.”
“You’ve really got to pre-plan,” says Holjencin, echoing Delp. “If you’re coming here to stay, get reservations ahead of time. The campground starts taking reservations the first of the year, and it’s booked solid now for the next three months.”
Be safe and respectful: Listen to the locals.
“Be respectful of private property,” Delp says. “People will just walk right through your yard to get a picture of an elk, and you might have a dog that’s not too happy about that.”
“Stay in your vehicle,” Holjencin says. “People take for granted these animals are wild; they’re not meant to be walked up to. View them from your vehicle and move on.”
“Don’t park on the road,” Gallagher says. “Obey the signs.”
Resources: For more information on Benezette and elk country, visit experienceelkcountry.com.
Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.