Once you are lucky enough to hear the sound of an elk bugling in the twilight, you will remember its chilling melody all of your life. Autumn in Jackson Hole is rich with undiscovered treasures and underrated off season activities, but none quite as unique and awe-inspiring as listening to the elk bugle at last light, calling out to one another in a chorus of sounds that seem as old as the earth itself.
The bugle is a haunting song only sung this time of year, when the elk are in their mating season, or rut. Dominant bulls challenge one another for harems of cow elk during the rut, and the herd bull uses his bugle to make his presence known to other bulls in the area. A challenger, or satellite bull, might step into the territory of a herd bull and bellow back to his call to fight. They can gauge one another’s maturity and strength by the depth and power of their voices, and may choose to continue the challenge or back off. Once a bugle sounds, another may interrupt it from one or more bulls, creating a symphony of these loud, chilling calls resounding through the forest.
To witness the rut in all its majesty, plan an evening picnic in Grand Teton National Park. Pack a sandwich or cheese and crackers with some Jackson Hole Winery Rendezvous Red to warm up the crisp autumn night. Temperatures drop quickly this time of year, so be sure to layer sweaters and scarves, and bring a blanket or two. An hour or so before sunset, drive up to the Jenny Lake loop road or, if you have a solid vehicle with four-wheel drive, you might venture into the historic White Grass Dude Ranch off of the Death Canyon road. Drive towards the trailhead and continue onto a primitive, rugged dirt road, scoping out a good place to park. Last light, right after sunset, is prime time for hearing the elk call to each other, but it is also an active time of day for bears, so be sure to pack your bear spray and keep food in your car.
Pull your blanket closer around your shoulders as the air temperature drops and the forest transitions from day to star speckled night. If the moon is full, elk often stay active late into the night, feeding and socializing with one another. If you can, resist turning on your headlamps or reaching for you iPhone, and simply soak in the quietude of dusk. As last light fades, you may begin to wonder what you are doing out in the middle of the woods, and every cracking twig or leaf falling softly in the breeze may make your turn your head in anticipation.
Then, there it is! A hallowed call breaks the silence- a long, guttural cry, ending in a few short barks, a proud declaration of life in the Tetons. Moments pass, and you may think you have imagined such a thing, until another call from the west bellows back. If you listen for long enough, the bugles will grow louder and closer as the bulls close in on one another, and their song will rattle your bones and settle into the deep spaces of your soul. Stay immersed in this visceral reminder of nature’s majesty until last light is long gone and darkness surrounds you, and relish the opportunity to sit back and watch the sacred rituals of autumn unfold.