Call of the Wild – Elk Viewing in Michigan’s Mitten

I spent last week exploring the Mitten – the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. My base for the week was Gaylord, located near Interstate I-75 about a 50-minute drive south of the Straits of Mackinac. Northeast of Gaylord is the 108, 000-acre Pigeon River State Forest, which covers 240 square miles and is the largest undeveloped tract of land in Lower Michigan.  Pigeon River State Forest was a favorite destination for Ernest Hemingway, who fished and hunted in the “Great Barrens” as a young man after being seriously wounded during the 1st World War in 1918.     

Inspiration Point, Pigeon River State Forest, Michigan

Pigeon River State Forest is also home to the second largest free-ranging herd of Rocky Mountain Elk in the eastern United States, and I hoped to view and photograph a few of these impressive animals during my visit. The photo above shows the view from Inspiration Point, one of thirteen elk viewing locations established in Pigeon River State Forest by Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The light-colored open meadow in the top right of the photo is a popular gathering place around dawn and dusk for elk, who like to browse the buckwheat and other forage plants that are planted by DNR in the viewing areas to supplement the elk’s natural diet of grasses, shrubs, twigs and bark. 

Inspiration Point is about a 1/4-mile hike from the parking area, and its elevated position provides a commanding view of the surrounding forest, in which the birch, maple, aspen and other deciduous trees are interspersed with taller, dark green spruce and pine, as shown in the photo below, made with my 100-400mm Tamron lens.             

Forest Vista, Pigeon River State Forest, Michigan

I checked out several other designated elk viewing locations in Pigeon River State Forest, but the elk were elusive and failed to appear during my visit. In addition, the forest edges which the elk usually prefer are often several hundred feet from the parking area, making it hard to obtain close-ups of the elk without stalking them, which is frowned upon by the DNR. Since my elk stalking skills are rudimentary, at best, and I had no desire to be lost in the dark in the forest, where cell phone coverage is spotty and GPS is unreliable, I headed back to Gaylord in the late afternoon to visit a much more photo-friendly location for viewing elk – Gaylord’s City Elk Park!       

Breakfast, City Elk Park, Gaylord, Michigan

A bull elk and his harem of cows and yearlings enjoy a hay breakfast at sunrise in Gaylord’s City Elk Park, located close to downtown Gaylord near the Elks Lodge on E. Grandview. The  resident elk herd, established 14 years ago with three elk from a zoo that closed down, has now grown to 40 individuals, including several bull elk that tip the scales at more than 800 pounds – about three times the weight of an adult buck white-tailed deer.      

Bull Elk, Gaylord City Elk Park, Michigan

Gaylord City Elk Park is surrounded by a tall chain link fence, and the links in the bottom, six-foot tall section of fence are too small to allow the use of standard size SLR/Mirrorless camera lenses, although your smartphone will work fine. The upper section of the perimeter fence has larger links that allowed me to use my Nikkor 16-80mm and Tamron 100-400mm zoom lenses without a problem, and longer lenses (e.g. 500-800mm telephotos) are overkill at this location. The hay bales, which are a culinary magnet for the elk at mealtime, are located close to the western perimeter of the park, so you will be photographing into the sun during the early morning hours. Bring a stool or short stepladder if you have one to reach the upper section of fencing more easily.   

Bull Elk Bugling, Gaylord City Elk Park, Michigan

During my early morning visit to Gaylord’s City Elk Park in mid-October, the bull elk shown in the photo above was bugling frequently and pursuing his harem of cows with hormonal hunger. A younger bull elk with a much smaller rack of antlers was also showing interest in the cows, and the bigger bull chased him away from the harem on several occasions. After an hour of vigorous mating activity, the big bull needed a rest break and lay down with his family, as show below. 

Bull Elk and Harem of Cows and Yearlings, Gaylord City Elk Park

Michigan’s DNR publishes a viewing guide to the Pigeon River State Forest elk herd with a map of the thirteen elk viewing locations. Here’s a link:

Here’s another website link with information on Gaylord’s City Elk Park:

In addition to elk viewing, I covered about 1100 miles visiting many new scenic locations in Northern Michigan during my 6-day visit, and I will share some of these highlights in another blog article next week.



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