Surrounded by the smells of the rainforest and the sights of dripping moss from colorful maples, autumn in Olympic National Park is a time to celebrate. With summer in the rearview mirror, the wilderness and the animals that call the region home busy themselves before the winter months.
As the salmon make their way back up the rivers, a majestically antlered creature wanders through the lush environment, making a noise completely unlike anything you’ve heard before. The sound of bugling from the bull elk is like music in the valleys, playing a symphony of love, telling us the season is in full force.
Fall is the time of the elk rut and one of the best opportunities to experience autumn beauty on the Olympic Peninsula. Starting in September and lasting through October, the elk rut is when the bull elk compete for the love and affection of the cows, hoping to prove their might over their foes and find themselves a harem with which to breed. The bugling acts as a way to show their masculinity without fighting, letting other bull elk in the area know how tough they are. If that doesn’t work, the bulls will fight, using their antlers as weapons.
Elk have wandered the lands of the Olympic Peninsula for thousands of years, providing food for the numerous tribes who called the region home. The elk were also hunted by packs of wolves which used to roam the region. After westward expansion, the hunting of the elk increased, prompting a need for their protection. In 1909, Teddy Roosevelt set aside land on the Olympic Peninsula, designating it the Mount Olympus National Monument (now Olympic National Park) to protect the elk habitat from overhunting. The new monument also protected the rainforests, glaciers and the salmon-filled rivers of the region. In return, the elk were named after President Roosevelt.
Today, the park boundaries are home to the largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk in the Pacific Northwest. Roosevelt elk are six to ten feet in length and stand around five feet tall at the shoulder. With bulls weighing up to 1,100 pounds and cows weighing 625 pounds, they are the largest bodied elk in North America.
Roosevelt elk play an important roll in the ecosystem of the valleys around the Olympic Peninsula. From spring to fall, the region’s Roosevelt elk eat ferns, shrubs, lichens and grasses, helping to reduce the undergrowth and create a healthier forest floor. In the winter months, the elk tend to eat woody plants like Devil’s Club when their regular foods are gone. In some instances, visitors to Olympic have even seen Roosevelt elk eating blueberry plants, mushrooms and salmonberries.
Seeing the elk rut in Olympic is one of the many quintessential moments of life in the Pacific Northwest. Their huge antlers roam through the green landscape and they bugle like an eager trumpet player. Seeing Roosevelt elk in the rut is as quintessential to fall as seeing the salmon returning upriver.
While elk can be seen all around the Olympic Peninsula, two destinations will give you an amazing view of the rut: the Quinault and Hoh River Valleys, with the Hoh being the more famous. However, the Quinault Rainforest, especially driving the Quinault Loop, is where you can see the elk rut in the best and most stunning fall colors. Often, the elk can be seen near the golf course on South Shore Road or near the Kestner Homestead and Ranger Station on the North Shore Road. If they aren’t there, take the slow and beautiful drive upriver to the Graves Creek Campground. Along the river and in the ferns and forest, the elk might be congregating, posing perfectly against the wilderness backdrop.
The Roosevelt elk tend to be most active in the early morning and evening hours, making these the best time to view and hear them. However, with cooler fall weather, the elk can be active at any time with bulls bugling all day and night.
Adding to the draw is the fact that the Quinault empties out once summer is over. Now free from large numbers of tourists and full parking lots, you can drive the loop slowly, enjoying all the pullouts and highlights of the region to your heart’s content. The Quinault area is also one of the best places to see fall colors in all of the Olympic Peninsula, adding to the allure of this fall activity.
As always, remember to be safe and smart while viewing animals. Olympic National Park staff and officials would like to remind you of the following: Do not approach elk and maintain a distance of at least 150 feet. If you encounter an elk on a trail, make noise, avoid eye contact and move away slowly.