We had everyone home for Christmas, so we planned a day trip to nearby Jackson, Wyoming. On the way, we had to drop off a piece of equipment in Driggs, Idaho. Of course it had to snow that morning, so the batteries were cold, but with everyone’s help we got it into the building.
The Elk Refuge north of Jackson was created in 1912 to protect the winter habitat of the elk. It encompasses 24,700 acres and on average, provides a sanctuary to 7,500 elk each winter. The elk migrate from as far north as Yellowstone National Park making it the second longest animal migration in the lower 48 states.
There is no motorized traffic allowed on the refuge, the best way to visit in the winter is to take a sleigh ride. The sleighs are operated by the Double H Bar, a private contractor. Our guide told us that they were “officially” started in the 1960s. The cost is $25.00 per adult and $15.00 per child. Normally you meet at the Elk Refuge Visitor’s Center, but we were there during a government shutdown, so we met at the Jackson Visitor’s Center. You are assigned a time and a bus number. We highly recommend reservations, especially on week-ends, as the tours will book very quickly.
The ride to the refuge is about 15 minutes
Once at the refuge, you are escorted to a sleigh. Michael was our sleigh driver. We learned that our horses, John and June (obviously someone likes Johnny Cash) come from the Amish in Iowa.
It was a bit early in the season for large groups of elk, as there was still ample dry grass to be obtained. The elk that were on the refuge divide into 2 groups…bulls and females/yearlings. Bulls usually only like to be around the females during the fall rut and the females really have no use for the bulls except during the fall rut. The sleigh ride does not take you to the females only the bulls. As Michael drove, he told us interesting information and everyone tried to stay warm. The wind had come up and even with the provided blankets, it was cold.
On our way to the bulls, we learned that the cold does not affect an elk until it gets to -60 degrees!! The bulls lose their antlers every spring and then begin to grow new ones for the fall rut. Each year, the antlers will be unique. Since 1968, the Boy Scouts have a permit to collect the shed antlers and sell them at an auction each May. 75% of the proceeds are returned to the refuge to help with habitat improvement. Around 10 thousand pounds of antlers are auctioned each year.
The elk spend most of their time foraging for food. They dig through the snow and eat the dry grass. A biologist monitors the food levels per acre against the number of elk on the refuge. When the elk population exceeds food supplies, then the elk are fed a specialized diet. We were able to watch two young bulls practice their sparring techniques, which are used in the fall during rutting season.
There are also 1000 bison that winter at the refuge. Throughout the year, 47 different mammals and 147 bird species use the refuge as a sanctuary. Among those are pronghorn, mule deer, trumpeter swans, and on occasion wolves and grizzly bears.
After we arrived back at the Sleigh Center, we were able to officially meet John and June.
Whitney and Wyatt even gave them a rub on the nose.
After the shuttle bus dropped us off at the visitors center, we decided to drive the eastern road along the Elk Refuge boundary. You can view the original Miller homestead that was purchased by the federal government for $45,000 to establish the refuge.
We were hoping to see Big Horn Sheep and we were not disappointed.
There were signs warning about the sheep’s appetite for road salt…
The sheep flocked to our vehicle, but we kept creeping along to avoid them licking off the road salt, which can make them sick.
Some vehicles did not heed the warning and sat while the sheep licked their vehicles.
We headed back to Jackson to have our picture taken in front of the antler arch in Jackson Town Square. The first arch was constructed in 1953 by the Rotary Club using the discarded antlers from the refuge. These became an instant tourist attraction and by 1969, there was an arch on each corner of the square. The arches need to be replaced every 30-40 years. It takes between 10-12 thousand pounds of antlers for each arch. At a current price of $17 per pound that makes each arch worth over $200,000 dollars.
In the center of the Town Square is a bucking cowboy statue, which sits atop a war memorial. Since 1932, the Town Square has officially been known as George Washington Memorial Park in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth.
We ended the day, by driving over Teton Pass and stopping at the best gourmet burger stop in Idaho, the Brakeman. Games are provided to keep you entertained while you wait for your food to be cooked.
It was a great way to end our year of adventure. We have experienced numerous new places, visited some old ones, but as always we were Building A Memory. We hope for many new and exciting adventures in 2019.