On an unassuming wintery day, we snuggle underneath blankets, as a pair of Belgian horses pull our sleigh over the uneven valley floor of the Elk Refuge. The ideal way to experience the Refuge in the wintertime is by sleigh ride. On designated tours that depart on scheduled busses from the visitor center in town, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates horse-drawn sleighs that bring onlookers into close proximity with the elk, providing a unique and awe-inspiring interaction between its passengers and the elk themselves.
As we set off, the herd lays scattered, with mothers and their young in the far off distance. A few embark at once on this tour, traveling along an invisible circle that circumnavigates a group of bull elk, who sit patiently despite our presence. As our sleigh moves in closer, the elk pay us no mind. With each of us making sure to stay seated, the sleigh does not startle or arouse any suspicion in them.
A herd of 20 to 30 bull elk calmly sleep, eat and chew their cud while we snap photos only ten feet away. But far off in the distance, a herd becomes spooked, causing over a 100 elk to start running along the horizon, in one single, swift movement that is like an elegant dance performed in unison.
With a tempered voice, our guide — who is also the driver of the sleigh — educates us on the intricacies of the herd, while answering our probing questions. We are treated to a picturesque landscape of town and Snow King Ski Resort in the distance, visible behind the haze of snowflakes that begin to fall in greater number as we look on. Bored and restless, a few bulls spar with each other, clacking their antlers together in a delicate, skirmishing dance.
The guide moves the sleigh closer with a jolt — cold temperatures cause the runners of the sleigh to freeze to the ground as it sits, a cold that is barely noticeable due to the incredible scene that entrances us. Another bull approaches us from outside the herd, strutting between the sleighs with his head held high, while hissing at the others in an attempt to show off.
He stops and paws at the snow, looking for the grass that lies underneath. Our guide goes on to explain the purpose of the Refuge, while intermittently calming his horses. “The Refuge is here specifically for the ecosystem,” he says, as the snow and wind gently pick up. An immature bald or golden eagle (we can’t tell) floats overhead, reminding us that the Refuge is home to a host of species.
Eagles, trumpeter swans, water fowl, coyotes, wolves and bighorn sheep wander in and out of this protected land, surviving the winter season each in their own way. As we continue to observe, the only sounds we hear are the steady voice of our guide and the creaking of a neighboring sleigh.
While casually leaning against the front rail, he laughingly admits that he “could talk all day about the elk.” The horses stomp nervously at the ground, as another nearby bull scratches behind his antlers, before resuming his ambling search for food. We are close enough to see the individual hairs of his shaggy coat, along with the subtle changes in the color of his antlers.
The Refuge sleigh ride is like briefly inhabiting another world, if only for a moment. With cameras held ready, the sleighs provide an opportunity to intimately observe the life of an elk herd in all its subtleties. As our tour draws to an end, we circle back toward our waiting bus, a welcome sight as the cold begins to seep into our bones.
The elk are unfazed as we depart, and the frost of the wintery breeze bites at our fingertips as we emerge from the warmth of our wool blankets. Our guide encourages us to say hello to the horses, thanking them for transporting us into a magical landscape, before climbing onto our bus headed back to town.
Established by Congress in 1912, the National Elk Refuge is the wintertime home to the largest elk herd in North America, as well as a variety of other species. Interested in the National Elk Refuge or reserving a private sleigh? Call 307.733.0277 or 1.800.772.5386 for more information.
Images © Taylor Glenn