Searching for Elk in Pennsylvania: Adventure on Thunder Mountain

by Dave Gantz. 

My friend Eriks and I went on quite an adventure to spot elk in Elk State Forest, PA. We went for a hike that lasted 13 hours, and in order to start our hike at 8 AM, we left State College at 6 AM and drove northwest to the PA Wilds part of the state, passing through the beautiful Moshannon State Forest and going into Elk State Forest. After looking at the Elk Trail map, Eriks had come up with a 30 mile hiking loop (with minimal off trail hiking required) with the hope of spotting some of the elk that reside in Pennsylvania.

walking in ferns (768x1024)         walkin (1024x768)

Our hiking started at a gravel parking area at the Elk Trail trailhead just north of the small town of Benezette. We noticed Elk droppings before the hike even began. Things looked promising from the start! We picked up the Elk Trail (the hiking only trail) and began following the yellow blazes. There were plenty of elk signs along the trail, including many side trails obviously created by very large animals.

Within a mile or so we hit our first of many trail junctions. The yellow blazed Elk Trail coincided and intersected with the red blazed Thunder Mountain Equestrian Trail. For the next several miles, we walked on double track dirt roads where food plots were abundant. We spotted some turkey as well as a grouse. After some time, the Elk Trail once again turned into a single track trail as we descended and ascended a couple of mountain drainages. The forest was filled with beautiful Maple, Beech, and Birch trees, and I’m sure that autumn is magnificent in this area. We may have to come back in a few months to check it out.

Turning trail (768x1024)         trail turn (768x1024)

Just around lunchtime, we came upon a piped spring along the trail with a very comfortable set of boulders nearby. We refilled our water containers, ate a whole bunch of snacks, and rested for a bit. The weather was overcast, and it was extremely humid with thick air. The break and cold spring water felt great!

After lunch, we cruised along the mountain ridge top for several more miles. While we still hadn’t seen elk, we did find some bear tracks, and shortly after we found ripe blackberries, which of course were delicious! The Elk Trail finally turned south off of the ridge and descended into Bear Hollow. While this last bit of trail was great, it did have some stinging nettle that left us with burning legs. We took another break at the bottom of this trail, which also marked the end of the Elk Trail.

on the move (1024x768)     blazes and ferns (1024x768)

By this point it was now 3PM. We had walked about 16 miles and had at least another 14 to go. The humidity continued to increase, and it was becoming pretty obvious to us that it would storm later in the day. Still, we threw on our backpacks and continued our hike.

We climbed back up Bear Hollow (enduring stinging nettles once again) to the top of the ridge. Then we went off trail and dropped several hundred feet down the north side of the mountain. At the bottom, we crossed a stream and found a mountain road that led back to the Thunder Mountain Trail.

bear hollow (768x1024)          plants (768x1024)

The equestrian trail was really nice at first. The horses can really clear trails and pack down the treadway. Unfortunately, the afternoon storms had finally caught up with us. First it was just a sprinkling of hail followed with a good amount of thunder. Once the rain started, it lasted for 2 hours. By now, the horse trail was saturated, and Eriks and I slipped, slid, and stuck in the muddy trail. Our lower legs were covered in mud, and we were getting increasingly tired.

The rain finally stopped about two hours before dark, and Eriks and I returned our focus to spotting wildlife. We were about 28 miles into our hike and getting pretty exhausted. I was more than ready to see my elk.
Dents Run Road Trailhead (1024x768)    food plot (1024x768)
Finally, as the sun was setting and dusk was upon us, we started seeing many deer feeding in the food plots along our trail. Then, as we turned a corner, I spotted two cow elk eating near the trail. One elk immediately took off, but the other stayed about 30 yards away for almost a minute. It was great to finally see an elk in Pennsylvania! Everything we had been through as worth it for that minute.
sunset (1024x768)
We finished our day with a 2 mile road walk. Not ideal, but it was worth it for such a great day in the woods. There are many trails in this area of the Elk State Forest, and I highly suggest that everyone get out there to experience this gem!

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