by Adam McCully
Elk County has really made its mark on the Pennsylvania Tourism scene over the last decade because of – you guessed it – the wild elk herd.
Visitors come from across the globe to witness these majestic wandering beasts in their natural habitat. Seeing this 1,000 lbs. behemoth lumbering through the brush, bugling out to find a mate, or clashing antlers with another male in an epic showdown for breeding rights, brings on an adrenaline rush that you just won’t find at the zoo.
The town of Benezette has become something of a central hub for elk viewing in Pennsylvania, and as such has had several trails and scenic vistas set aside for this specific purpose. Not to mention the award-winning Elk Country Visitors Center, which is a must-stop for anyone visiting Elk County.
However, most the area is still covered in wilderness, which is perfect for the elk, but makes traversing the landscape a little more difficult for us humans.
Trekking through an overgrown field or into a dark patch of forest can be extremely intimidating, especially for anyone not used to this type of landscape. Even if you are an experienced hiker, the wilderness of Elk County can be a dangerous and unforgiving place.
So how can one experience Elk Country and all the natural beauty it has to offer safely?
The men and women of the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, have come up with what could be considered a compromise with Mother Nature. By purchasing land known locally as the Woodring Farm, and using the resources at their disposal (namely the PGC employees) to clear out and mark a path, they’ve created the first interpretive hiking trail in Benezette.
What’s an interpretive hiking trail you ask?
Good question. In a nutshell (of which you’ll find plenty on the trail) the Woodring Farm Interpretive Hiking Trail consists of a ¾ mile dirt trail that encircles approximately 81 acres of prime elk viewing habitat.
What makes an area “prime elk viewing”?
Another good question. In addition to Woodring Farm being right in the heart of Elk Country, it’s also full of wide open fields filled with the types of vegetation that elk love munching on, as well as a few apple orchards placed in strategic locations, just to sweeten the deal for the elk. If you don’t see any elk up close, you might have better luck when you reach the viewing platform near the middle of the trail, which will give you a bird’s eye view of surrounding landscape.
But what makes this trail interpretive?
You know, you ask a lot of questions. It’s a little rude, but we’ll answer anyways because it’s just the type of people we are here at the PA Great Outdoors. The Woodring Interpretive Hiking Trail doesn’t just provide visitors with a nature walk. It’s a complete learning experience.
Guided tours are available (contact the PGC North Central Region for dates and times: 570-398-4744) and informational placards are placed throughout the trail itself. The placards display a wide array of information pertaining to wildlife conservation, covering topics such as “what are state game lands?”, “how does the PGC create and maintain wildlife habitats?”, and “what other forms of wildlife make their home in Elk County?”.
One of the most fascinating aspects of these signs is that they feature artwork done by local high school students.
Hiking this trail, it’s hard to believe that it all used to be part of a coal strip mine. Whether you see an elk or not, the natural beauty provided by the Woodring Farm Interpretive Hiking Trail is a testament to the conservation efforts put forth by the men and women of the PGC. Usually when someone uses the phrase “breathtaking views” they’re being melodramatic, but there are spots on this trail that will literally make you gasp, especially if it’s your first time in Elk Country.
Perhaps one of the most appealing features of the Woodring Farm trail is its length. At ¾ of a mile, it’s perfect for the wildlife enthusiast of any age or fitness level. There’s only one large-ish hill at the beginning of the trail and after that it’s remarkably flat. You’ll still want to trade in your stilettos for a good pair of hiking boots or sneakers, but you can leave your mountain climbing gear in the car.
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the fact that just because this is a nice, smooth, comfortable hiking trail there weren’t dangers involved.
The irony of this warning is that the most dangerous thing you’ll encounter on the trail is also the thing you most want to see, the elk. Elk are beautiful creatures, and like all beautiful creatures, we’re naturally inclined to get close to them. However, the PGC would like to remind all visitors to keep a safe viewing distance of at least 100 yards between yourself and the elk, especially during the rutting season (mid-September through mid-October). Male elk are very protective of their harem and they’ve been known to charge anything that they consider a threat.
So, the next time you head up to Benezette for some elk viewing (or the first time you head up) be sure to check out the Woodring Farm Interpretive Hiking Trail, and try and show up during one of their scheduled tours. The PGC staff there have an extensive knowledge of the landscape and wildlife found within Elk County, and they’ve done a fantastic job of creating a fascinating and educational attraction.
Find more information to plan your trip to Pennsylvania’s Wild Elk Country online at VisitPAGO.com or call the PA Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau at (814) 849-5197.