By Candice Gardner
Nestled in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park is the small, scenic town of Mammoth Hot Springs. A popular geothermal area year-round and accessible to visitors in all four seasons, it is best known for the high-energy Yellowstone elk rut each fall from late August through the end of September.
Visitors flood the small town just to watch the intense battles as competing bull elks vie for the possession of a harem of cow elks and the right to mate.
To fully understand why this is such a thrilling yearly event for spectators, one must understand a little about the elk species. The average mature bull elk stands five ft. in height at the shoulders and weighs anywhere from 600 lbs. to 1000 lbs. Known for their spectacular antler displays, they are truly a sight to behold. The antlers of a mature bull can reach five feet in length and can weigh up to 40 lbs. Combine that with unique vocalizations called bugling as well as the pawing, snorting, strength displays and you have a yearly show not to be missed.
In early fall, the cows (female elk) and younger calf elk begin to congregate together in herds. They are accompanied by numerous bulls who are competing for mating rights with the herd. As the bull elk’s testosterone begins to rise, the excitement begins as they fight antler to antler until a victor emerges. This goes on for the entire month of September with new challengers emerging daily.
Amid the bugling and sparring, a sea of visitors and snapping cameras dot the sidewalks and lawns. The reigning bull charges passing cars and even visitors while the harem grazes nearby. Challenging bulls appear on the streets throughout the day and evening hours and amazing photo opportunities abound. The elk are active at various times each day, however, prime viewing times generally begin around 4:00 PM and lasts until the sun goes down — and the action is dramatic.
So how does one enjoy the Yellowstone elk rut in Mammouth Hot Springs and stay safe at the same time? The following tips will help keep the experience within the bounds of safety, but keep you in the thick of the action.
10 Tips for Photographing Sparring Elk:
1) Keep a safe distance. Yellowstone Park Service recommends a minimum distance of 25 yards which is the length of two school busses parked end to end. Bull elk are incredibly fast and powerful and can overtake a photographer in a matter of seconds. An attack by an angry bull elk is a life threatening experience and humans are unlikely to survive.
2) Do not separate from the crowd. Lone observers can easily become targets for an angry bull elk, and they will chase you.
3) No flash photography. The flash from a camera can startle a displaying elk and may cause a charge. Flashlights as well as headlights from a passing vehicle will also often elicit a chase response.
4) If driving by an aggressive and agitated bull elk, do not slow down. Slowing down is likely to cause a charge and may get your car rammed. Many vehicles are damaged by elk charges as observers and avid photographers slow the car down for a better look. Several cars are rammed daily by charging bull elk and though it makes for good photos, it is costly in the repair shop for those vehicles unfortunate enough to be the recipient of a charge. Maintain the vehicle speed and above all keep moving.
5) Plan an exit strategy in advance. Stand near a building entrance for a quick escape to inside safety. Many observers watch the show on the steps to a building entrance or from their car but keep in mind that inside a smaller vehicle is not as safe. An angry bull elk can do severe damage to a small car quite easily and attempting to drive away is not always an option in a crowded situation.
6) Be prepared for delays to your schedule. Arriving early, around 3:00 PM or sooner is always advisable. Depending upon the elk behavior taking place, streets in town may be closed at certain times for the safety of passing cars and also to avoid interruption of the elk’s natural behavior. Rangers, as well as trained volunteers will be on the streets and sidewalks maintaining a safe distance for pedestrians as well as directing relative safe passage for vehicles. Do the rangers get charged? Yes, on occasion and yes they usually manage to get away. This is an instance where experience counts and they are experts at reading the signals of a bull elk’s behavior signs.
7) Use a telephoto lens. For capturing the best photos and maintaining maximum safety come prepared with camera equipment that will give the desired result without risking your safety. One does not have to be a pro to capture great photos. Many point and shoot cameras come equipped with zoom capabilities sufficient to produce excellent pictures of this amazing event.
8) Know the best Yellowstone elk rut viewing spots. Popular places are the steps of the post office, the patio of the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel as well as the restaurant steps across from the hotel. Many also watch from cars parked streetside along the main boulevard. If viewing from a parked car, know that this is a bit riskier. If a bull elk approaches your car, do not make direct eye contact as this could be perceived as a challenge to the bull elk.
9) Follow the rules. Visitors will likely observe a few “armchair cowboys” who will drive into town and set up lawn chairs streetside. This is foolish and dangerous. Also, there are always a few who seem to delight in getting far too close and will invariably end up on YouTube. Better safe than sorry, keep a safe distance of 25 yards and listen to the park ranger’s direction at all times.
10) Be aware of your surroundings. Use caution when walking around corners and the back of buildings. The elk have full run of the town during this time of year. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t surprise a bull elk or cow by mistake.
Travel To See the Yellowstone Elk Rut
Watching this yearly event is quite simply a thrilling experience. The advantage to viewers and photographers alike is that the display in this small town is reliable enough to plan in advance and know with certainty that a viewing experience is more than likely going to occur several times daily. The morning times are generally more sedate with cow elk and bulls resting quietly on the green lawns outside the hotel and other buildings in town. Tired from a night of bugling and sparring, many good opportunities for excellent pictures are available with reasonable safety as long as a safe distance is respected.
Midday and throughout most of the night, activity heats up to fever pitch with sparring, bugling and ground-pawing displays of dominance and aggression toward male challengers. If you choose to lodge in town, prepare to hear the loud bugling of the bulls throughout the night.
Of course this activity occurs elsewhere in the park and if one is fortunate enough to be in the right place in the wilds of the park, this can be observed there as well, though generally from a much farther vantage point. Only Mammoth Hot Springs offers the amazing opportunity to watch nature unfold reliably in a predictable event daily each September.
Reservations for lodging must be made well in advance. The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is central to this event and also happens to be the only accommodations in town. Offering luxury suites, rooms both with and without bathroom facilities ensuite and even frontier cabins in the back, this vintage hotel will not disappoint. Built in the early 1900s, the old hotel maintains an elegant charm that is reminiscent of earlier times. Service is excellent and a large patio in front is well appointed for prime Yellowstone elk rut viewing.
Across the street is the hotel dining facility offering elegant dinners on a first come, first-served basis. Early diners will have a prime viewing opportunity of the rut activity through the large picture windows. For casual diners, a burger shop is available in the rear of the building with those same great views out the large windows.
Reservations can be made at YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com or by calling (866) 439-7375. Madison Hot Springs also offers a small campground at the edge of town. Information and reservations can be made through the park service website. Alternative lodging at all price points is available in the nearby town of Gardiner, Montana through HomeAway.com or a general Google search for Gardiner Montana lodging. This small town on the Madison River is literally within sight of the north gate of Yellowstone National Park and only a short 15 min drive up the hill to Mammoth Hot Springs. The many restaurants and wide variety of rentals make it a good choice for alternative lodging, as well as a quiet night’s sleep.
Insider’s know that no visit to Yellowstone is complete without visiting the Yellowstone Association located in Gardiner, Montana just outside the north entrance to the park. With one quick visit, you’ll have the latest information on all the animal sightings within the park, so you’ll know where to go for wildlife viewing and photography opportunities. They will also have all the information needed about the Yellowstone elk rut on any given day in Mammoth Hot Springs and the scoop on the elk herds activities the previous evening.
Yellowstone Elk Rut Resources: