On our autumn trip to the Pennsylvania Elk Range, my husband and I were surprised and delighted to discover that, since our last visit in 2008, an elk watching and conservation center had opened in Elk County.
Debuting amongst rolling hills ablaze with flaming fall foliage, the Elk Country Visitor Center is in Benezette, just off Route 555 along Winslow Hill Road. It is the largest elk center in the eastern United States, sitting on 245 acres of woods, food plots and open fields. The Center unofficially opened in mid-September, a week before we visited, but the ribbon-cutting occurred on October 6th, with Governor Ed Rendell the keynote speaker. Rendell said the two-fold vision for the center was to stimulate the economy by spurring tourism in the Pennsylvania Wilds, and to introduce people to the beauty of the area and the Pennsylvania elk.
Rendell spoke of the thrill he got the first time he heard an elk bugle. “I thought, ‘People have to come here. People have to experience this.'” He told the locals, “For you it’s routine … part of your daily lives. But for us, people who grow up and walk on cement, it’s amazing.” Rendell added, “I wanted people for generations … to come and … experience it. Now that I actually see the center, it reminds me [of the line from the movie “Field of Dreams”]… ‘If you build it, they will come.'”
And come they have! Since mid-September, over 20,000 people have visited, 3,300 in one day. As I paid for a t-shirt at the gift shop, the cashier said they sold so much merchandise the first week, they had to reorder, adding that it’s taking longer to stock the Center’s gift shop because they insist their merchandise be “made in the USA.”
At 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, the Center’s parking lot was already half full with early morning elk stalkers who flock to the area in the fall mating season. A stunning life-sized bronze sculpture of a bugling bull elk greets visitors as they approach the entrance. The Elk Country Visitor Center consists of an 8,420-square-foot “green” building, wildlife trails, viewing blinds, year-round restrooms and parking for 100 cars, and RVs and buses.
Constructed in the style of a mountain lodge, the Elk Country Visitor Center houses interactive exhibits, a multimedia theatre with a fiber optic star ceiling and a “smoking” campfire, designed “to immerse visitors in the sights, sounds and smells of a mixed hardwood forest, the natural world of the elk.” Panoramic windows in the “Great Room,” which boasts high ceilings, exposed truss beams and a life-size bull elk and elk cow, look out on an elk viewing area and food plots.
The Elk Country Visitor Center was built through a partnership between the Keystone Elk Country Alliance and the Commonwealth, which put up $6 million. Six million more came from private funding from the Richard King Mellon, Dominion and Thoreson foundations, Safari Club International, Eastern Chapter Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, the Grice Gun Shop in Clearfield, Pa., and scores of individuals.
Already, 15 B&Bs, cabin and lodge facilities have opened, and local businesses have expanded their hours and days of operation. According to David Morris, a regional tourism director, antique shops and new stores are popping up around the Center, and hotel occupancy, visitor spending and tourism employment has increased. Steve Kronenwetter, co-owner of the Wapiti Woods Guest Cabins (and to whom I apologize for intruding upon your private home during a photo scavenger hunt), told The Lockhaven Express his guest count is up, visitors arriving from over 40 states and 10 countries.
As one of those “cement walkers” the governor mentioned, I find the Elk Country Visitor Center in North Central Pennsylvania the most exciting event in upstate Pennsylvania in decades. I’d like to keep the Pennsylvania Elk Range and the new Center a secret, so as not to have all those “tourists” impinging upon my annual retreat. But that would be selfish. I highly recommend that you visit the new Center and surrounding Elk Range. It will become a lasting memory for you and your family.
Elk Country Visitor Center, 134 Homestead Drive, Benezette, PA, 15821. Hours of Operation: Building open 7 days a week, 8 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.; paths and viewing areas available from dawn to sun down. Website.
Sources: Personal experience; CBSNews.com; Lockhaven.com; St. Mary Daily Press’. Related Content: Elk Viewing in Pennsylvania; Vacationing at Parker Dam State Park in the Allegheny Wilds