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With the Fall Rut Beginning, Wind Cave National Park Rangers Leading Elk Bugling Programs


September into October is a great time to catch the bugling of elk in our national parks. NPS photo.

One of the oddest sounds you might encounter in a national park at this time of year is the high-pitched squeal of elk. Better known as "bugling," to me this sound is as magical as that of a wolf howl hanging in the air. It's auditory "wildness."

Among the many parks where you can hear bugling elk are Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and a park perhaps better known for its subterranean wonders -- Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. In fact, head to Wind Cave this month and the rangers will even lead you out into the park to listen to the elk.

Throughout September, Wind Cave rangers are giving brief interpretive programs about elk before leading a caravan to a nearby pullout to listen for them. These programs are offered Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings through September 26. Participants meet at the aptly named Elk Mountain Campground Amphitheater at 7 p.m. and are encouraged to bring a flashlight, a blanket to sit on, and to dress warmly.

“Even if you have heard elk bugling before, there is something about listening to this eerie sound echoing out of the darkness that makes a repeat trip worthwhile,” says Wind Cave Superintendent Vidal Davila. “It is truly one of nature’s wild sounds.”

You can listen to an elk bugling at this site:

The fall ranger program schedule at Wind Cave also includes Natural Entrance Tours of Wind Cave throughout the day. Participants are encouraged to bring a light coat or sweater and good walking shoes. The tour lasts approximately 75 minutes and involves 300 stairs, most of which are going down. The park visitor center is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through September 26.

Beginning September 27 through October 17, hour-long tours of the Garden of Eden area are offered at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. and the visitor center is open until 5 p.m. The park’s winter interpretive schedule begins on October 18 with tours of the Garden of Eden at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. and visitor center hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.


I was in Rocky Mountain National Park back in October 2005 and spent many a late night that week listening to the elk make their haunting sound. Anyone who has been to Rocky knows about Horseshoe Park's huge meadow and the parking area there. This was stupid but exhilarating at the same time. The parking lot is about the size of a football field. I was alone there, my car was parked in the middle of the lot and I was sitting on a bench at one end of the lot with a digital audio recorder recording the sounds of elk walking, eating, breathing, crashing their antlers and, yes, bugling. As I was taping, I started hearing something trotting behind me in the parking lot. The footfalls, they sounded like padded feet at the time, came closer and closer very rapidly, then stopped very close to me. It was dark as all get out, I couldn't see what was there. In a past trip I had seen a mountain mama and cub within yards of this spot so I stayed still waiting for what was next. A few seconds after the footfalls stopped a male elk scared the something-or-other out of me with a monster bugle basically in my ear. It was a startling sound to say the least. You can hear it on the audio. Needless to say I shut down the recorder and beat a hasty retreat to my car. It was such a scary experience, but awesome nonetheless. Listening to the recording over and over, I've come to the conclusion that the footfalls were hooves and a male elk came over to shoo me off. UNFORGETABLE!!!

I heard my first elk bugling on this very ranger program 2 years ago. The various participants drove out in their own cars to a pullout north of the campground. When we got there we discovered a huge bull bison grazing just feet away in the dark. The ranger thought about it for a while and decided that if we were quiet and stood at the other end of the pullout we'd probably be okay. We listened and heard elk bugling in the valley below us. I was really elated to finally hear bugling in person and so glad they happened to be offering this program when I was visiting. As it turned out, every night in my tent I could hear elk bugling in the hills around the campground.

Olympic National Park's native Roosevelt elk are now bugling, their calls echoing across the high valleys throughout the Park. In rut, they reopen wallows in the high meadows, habitat they inadvertantly maintain for rare amphibians. They are the major reason T. R. designated Olympic Game Reserve, and FDR designated this National Park, so it is fitting that, as each autumn renews their eerie calls, we remember their name.

Sir, are there any recordings of the sounds that come from the wind caves? I am doing a DVD about the Windcave N.P. in photos and would like to add the sounds if any, to the photos. I find it very interesting and if I had some sounds it would be great.

Thank you, Mr. Geno Loro

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