Sep 07

Sound the Bugle: Yellowstone’s Fall Elk Rut

Each autumn, visitors to Yellowstone National Park are treated to a dramatic spectacle—the thrilling display of the fall elk rut. September to mid-October is elk mating season in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where mixed elk herds gather to carry out the fascinating ritual.

Park visitors from all over the world flock to the northern section of the park as well, hoping to hear the unforgettable bugle of a bull elk or witness the males engage in battle firsthand.

Where to See the Elk

During the rut, elk gather all along the Northern Range and at Yellowstone’s North Entrance, but activity is heavily concentrated in Mammoth Hot Springs. You might see them congregating on the lawns at Officer’s Row, alongside the Gardner River, or just outside the park near the historic Roosevelt Arch. Elsewhere in the park, you might also spot them along the Madison River between Madison Junction and West Yellowstone.

Safety First

Though the elk rut is undoubtedly a spectacular phenomenon, it’s important to be mindful of your own safety and that of the animals while you watch—and listen—to this spectacular display. Bull elk can become extremely aggressive during mating season and may charge vehicles or even people if they feel threatened. As a general rule of thumb:

  1. Give the elk plenty of room. This includes refraining from approaching them in your vehicle—or especially on foot.
  2. It’s illegal to approach elk closer than 25 yard in the park, or to imitate the call of an elk.
  3. Exit Mammoth Hot Springs buildings on high alert, as you never know who might be bedded down in a patch of sage just outside the Mammoth Dining Room!

Elk Rut Volunteers

The gathering of elk herds in Mammoth Hot Springs signals another type of pilgrimage: the intrepid Elk Rut Corps Volunteers. Along with National Park Service (NPS) staff, volunteers from around the country are stationed in Mammoth proper and stand ready to ensure the safety of visitors who’ve traveled from near and far to witness the rut.

As visitors, it’s important to listen to the direction of NPS staff and elk rut volunteers. After all, they’ve dedicated their time and energy to protecting Yellowstone’s wildlife and the safety of visitors; they know when the scene is about to become unsafe, and how to prevent it from becoming so.

Plus, NPS staff and volunteers know a lot of fascinating information about Yellowstone’s wildlife, including elk. They’re more than happy to share their knowledge with anyone interested, so it’s a great idea to engage them in conversation about the incredible spectacle unfolding before your own eyes.

Yellowstone Forever funds the staffing of elk rut volunteers as part of the Wildlife & Visitor Safety Education project.

Take the Yellowstone Pledge

You can go a step further in ensuring the safety of the elk and yourself by taking the Yellowstone Pledge. The Pledge is a personal promise visitors can make to themselves and to the park, and includes committing to safety measures such as practicing “safe selfies,” staying on boardwalks, and reporting violations to park staff.


Photos: YF / Matt Ludin