Watching Elk Just Off Hwy 101

03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two Young Bucks Waiting to Rut

All Photos: Terry Gardner

Mama Elk and Babies (products of last year's rut)

The Roosevelt elk must not have gotten the memo to be rutting by the time I arrived. Rutting is how male elk impress female elk: They lock antlers and push back and forth until one gives up. The victor gets to breed with the whole herd of females.

As we drove up U.S. 101 along the Northern California coast toward Redwood National and State Parks, visions of horn locking danced in my head. I expected to watch fighting and female fawning. My farm-raised friend Laurie, who went elk watching with me, said I had "city expectations for a wilderness event."

Head Bull Bugling

We headed to Elk Meadow, three miles north of Orick and 45 minutes from Eureka, to elk watch, admire pristine giant redwoods and seize the rutting season discount for a well-equipped cabin in Redwood Adventures Vacation Village( I learned a bit about the elk, the redwoods and myself in the process.

Roosevelt elk inhabit the Pacific coastal rain forests and mountains and are the largest of the North American elk. Elk are kin to deer but larger, graze on grasses rather than legumes and leaves, and communicate more distinctively than deer.

An adult male elk averages 875 pounds; females top out closer to 700 pounds. Adult males typically stand 5 feet tall at the shoulder, with females a bit more diminutive. Females are sexually mature at age 2, while males mature at age 3 or 4. However, young bulls don't have much chance of breeding before they're 7 to 10 years old, because older males dominate the mating scene.

If all goes as planned, after an 8 1/2 -month gestation period, a female will give birth to a single elk calf. Newborns usually weigh about 33 pounds, and females separate from the herd to have them alone.

Females graze and lounge in the meadow, oblivious to the rut, until the victor approaches and flaunts his antlers. A bull elk's antlers average between 4 and 6 feet in length, with vertical points and a distinctive crown or three-point tip. Antler racks may weigh as much as 40 pounds.

Grant Roden, tour manager of Redwood Adventures, says male Roosevelt elk shed their antlers annually between March and April and grow a new rack by June. Rutting season typically runs from early September through the end of October. The peak of the rut depends on the number of females in heat. Because elk generally shun people and the males want to fight among themselves, rutting behaviors can easily be observed at a recommended distance of at least 20 feet.

At home on the highway