Elk Viewing – When, Where, and How

The Elk Management plan of 1984 establishes the goal of maintaining a “viable population in harmony with the environment, affording optional recreational opportunities.” The recreational opportunity getting most of the public attention is elk hunting. Recent hunts to keep the herd in balance with its habitat have provided a limited number of hunters some memorable outings.

The elk herd has had its ups and downs since its reintroduction into Michigan in 1918, but currently about one thousand elk live in the elk range of southern Cheboygan, Otsego and Montmorency Counties. Elk viewing is one of the most popular pursuits in the elk range, drawing people from down state, out-of-state, and locals alike. Elk can be seen anytime of the year but like any wildlife are more visible at certain times of day and year. Like deer, elk are most active early in the day and toward evening and during the night. During hot summer months, June through August, elk are probably the hardest to find, just at the typical vacation time for many people. Still, if you cruise some of the best areas (explained later) at the crack of dawn or just before dark, you may see a large bull with antlers in velvet or a group of elk cows with their calves.

September and October are prime months to watch elk. The breeding season or rut begins in early September and peaks around September 20th. Large herd bulls with their polished antlers gleaming gather cows into harems for the annual breeding season. Smaller satellite or non-breeding bulls hang around the vicinity of the harem. These congregations of elk usually number between 10 and 20. Grassy meadows are focal points.

The establishment of dominance among bulls and early stages of harem formation are exciting times to watch elk. When several large bulls are bugling and breaking brush with antlers to help impress rival bulls, it can raise the hair on your neck. Recreational bugling, by people, to attract or stimulate bulls to bugle is at its best at this time.

Some viewing areas have been planted with rye, clover, alfalfa or buckwheat. These crops along with the natural grasses and forbs provide food for these large herbivores. Parking places are provided where good visibility is afforded.

The following are designated viewing areas: 3.5 miles east of Vanderbilt on Sturgeon Valley Road, then 3 miles north on Fontinalis Road; 8 miles east of Vanderbilt on Sturgeon Valley Road at a pipeline corridor; 4 miles north of the Pigeon River Country State Forest Headquarters on Osmun Road; and 18 miles east of Gaylord on County Road 622.

You are most likely to see elk early in the day and again just before dark. You likely will not be alone at these viewing areas. The opportunity to see elk will be enhanced If everyone sits quietly and avoids going into the fields. Don’t forget your binoculars.

Elk viewing is not confined to these designated areas. Many grassy meadows have been improved for deer, elk and other wildlife that utilize this type of habitat. Elk may be seen in and around these meadows or just by chance almost anywhere in the elk range. Attempting to locate and see elk at night with a spotlight is legal but remember, like for deer, it is illegal between 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. (no firearms are allowed in any vehicle that is spotlighting at any time). Spotlighting is legal during all months except November when it is not legal to shine at all.

During the winter, when snow covers the ground, elk can be found near logging operations or in recently logged areas that have an abundance of young woody sprouts. But please remember winter is a stressful time of year for animals. Not only is it illegal to chase after or otherwise harass wildlife with a snowmobile, it is not
good for the health of the animals.

Whenever attempting to view elk, plan to spend adequate time. Remember these are wild animals. They are on their own schedule coming and going when and where their biological needs take them.


Elk are primarily grazers and browsers. They prefer a landscape with open young habitat. The DNR manages state land by cutting old timber to create forests, by planting food plots, and by using prescribed burning.


Elk hunting is frequently called the hunt of a lifetime for many Michigan residents. Elk hunting is the primary tool used to maintain the balance between elk numbers and habitat, while also addressing crop damage concerns. Elk hunting has occurred annually since 1984. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people apply for a chance to hunt elk every year. The number of licenses issued generally ranges from 100-400 and depends on the current population and condition of the habitat.


Through an important partnership effort with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the DNR is working to improve elk viewing areas and elk viewing education as well as materials and programs.