Sitting in the horse-drawn sleigh, swathed in wool blankets, we marveled at the spectacular view of Jackson Hole below us. To the west, multi-colored lights of the town of Jackson, Wyo., sparkled in the cold crystalline night framed by snow covered mountains. Coyotes yipped and howled. It is a signature Western experience with magnificent views and a sleigh-ride route that overlooks the crown jewel of the national wildlife refuge system the National Elk Refuge.
The sleight ride was part of a two-night Jackson Hole getaway package I bought from the online travel wholesaler, Travel Zoo, it featured a two-night stay at the four-star Spring Creek Ranch including a $75 credit to be used towards a meal or activity. The sleigh ride was a “don’t miss” activity so you can guess where the $75 bucks went.
Near the barn, where we climbed on board the sleigh, four mature bull elk with wide six-foot-by-six-foot antlers nibbled at hay left uneaten by the sleigh horses. Framed against the sunset and snow, it was the perfect introduction to wildlife watching and the next day’s sleighing adventure inside the National Elk Refuge.
After the sleigh ride our group dined at Spring Creek Ranch’s restaurant. I ordered its special, Cajun-spiced elk tenderloin. Tender and juicy it reminded me that my freezer was empty of elk meat, so I had better enjoy the meal since it cost less than an elk tag and license.
At the National Elk Refuge the next morning, the sleigh ride was a trip back in time 100 years to the era when settlers realized the need to protect the magnificent elk herds wintering in the valley. The refuge was established in 1912. Our sleigh driver, Meredith Marshall, interpreted the historical and natural history highlights as he guided two jet-black draft horses pulling the sleigh past small herds of elk.
The elk had seen it all before, horses, sleigh and tourists. Massive seven-point bulls just gazed up at us from 30 to 50 yards as if we were the attraction as they chewed their cud. Sleigh rides are the most popular activity at the refuge, and the elk seem undisturbed by them. Over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, a record 4,700 people enjoyed the sleigh rides.
The sleigh provides incredible photo opportunities. Where else can you full-frame the head and antlers of a massive bull? Or catch a coyote chasing mice, or a bald eagle waiting for its next meal on camera? We were close enough that the cowlicks on the young calves stood out and the gleam and polish of old bulls’ antlers reminded me of how many times I had come home from elk hunting amazed that a 700-pound animal could vanish so quickly.
The majority of the 5,000 to 7,000 elk were on the far east end of the 25,000-plus-acre refuge, along with a small herd of bison. Time didn’t allow us to cut across the five miles of open flats to them. But we saw hundreds of elk up close. Our sleigh ride lasted approximately an hour. On our way back we detoured to photograph a pair of bald eagles perched in a tall cottonwood tree. As we stopped to photograph the eagles, two coyotes raced by us chasing each other as if in a game of tag. Shutters clicked like crazy. It is hard to imagine that at one time an estimate 25,000 elk roamed the valley.
The Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center provides an overview of the region and has excellent wildlife displays including a herd of nine taxidermy elk. I picked up a Refuge Road Wildlife Viewing Guide, which recommended driving routes to see bighorn sheep, bison and moose. The first recommended stop produced sharp photos of bighorn sheep. The following day, the map lead us to moose, mule deer and trumpeter swans.
To get the most out of a winter visit to Jackson Hole plan two days of wildlife watching, take a sleigh ride, get the free map at the visitor center or buy the Refuge Road Wildlife Viewing Guide and poke around enjoying the views of the Grand Tetons. Not to mention skiing, shopping, dinning and country and western dancing. Dress warm, it was a balmy 5 degrees when I was there.
Want to go?
Jackson Hole features a wide range of accommodations
Spring Creek Ranch runs specials like one from Travel Zoo. Its accommodations and food are four star.
Spring Creek Ranch
1800 N Spirit Dance Road
Jackson, WY 83001
National Elk Refuge Sleigh Rides
Daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tickets are sold at Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center
Reservations are available but not required