The National Elk Refuge’s best-kept secret.

Typical bighorn ram
Typical bighorn ram

It is common knowledge to most Jackson Hole winter travelers that the sleigh ride though the National Elk Refuge at $18.00 is the best deal in town  - except!

Shhhh- there is a back road which is free. The free back road accesses not only the elk herd; but also much of the West Crystal Drainage Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep herd.

November and December is the breeding season, and the patient wildlife viewer can sometimes photograph bighorn rams butting heads proving their “Ram Tough” reputation. When lucky, later in winter you can still catch them butting heads; however, they are no longer fighting in earnest for the girls.

These bighorns live on Miller Butte, the big hill about a mile after you enter the back road entrance on the left.  These steep barren slopes are the perfect escape route from wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions that sometimes try to make a meal of them.  When it is clear, the bighorns come off the cliffs and go to the valley bottom to forage. 

Rear view mirror, bighorn sheep, natonal elk refuge
Bighorns licking salt off car as seen though the rear view mirror

In Wyoming salt is put on the roads to melt snow and to help with traction in snowy conditions.  On warm days, this salt covers our cars from the melting mess on the roads.  Bighorn sheep need salt, and they know it lives on our cars, so they fearlessly approach and lick the salt off the cars.  Don’t have a telephoto for Jackson’s wildlife?  Sometimes an iphone gets you too close to these sheep licking salt of your car.  Hint = don’t wash your car before you go.

Golden eagles are often seen on the dead trees at the top of Miller Butte, or soaring when not perched.  It is a rare day that you can’t find some bald eagles perched on the high power lines heading north west from the North side of Miller Butte. Binoculars are handy if not required for the eagles.

Where the buffalo roam is to northwest of the North end of Miller Butte.  Another place where you will need binoculars.  If you look way off into the distance along the cottonwood trees that line the creek that flows though the refuge, and the hills beyond, you can usually see bison. Sometimes though, they will come to the road.  About 700 bison make the National Elk Refuge their winter home. Good optically but built flimsy are some binoculars you can get for about $40.00 at Sports Authority in Jackson, about the same amount two people will save by doing the back road instead of the sleigh ride. 

Two wolves, naitonal elk refuge
Wolves, Naitonal Elk Refuge

The lucky early riser might find a wolf feeding on an unfortunate elk that didn’t make through its last winter, bad for the elk, good for the wolf, and the early riser. Wolves can also sometimes be seen any time of day, way off in the distance. The way you find them is with your new binoculars, look for ravens swarming off in the distance.  When an elk dies of old age, the coyotes come, the wolves come, and the ravens and eagles come.  The flock of ravens is the easiest thing to see.  After the wolves eat their fill they will wander off and sleep until hungry again.  Sometimes we get lucky.

North and south of Miller Butte when the elk or bison are close you can get some awesome photos of the herds of wildlife and the Grand Tetons beyond.  What a background for American’s Serengeti.

Now this free access usually doesn’t get you as close to the elk as does the sleigh ride, and you do miss the snappy stories and tall tales of your cowboy team driver guide, but you can take your own time and take it all in.

Getting there

From Jackson’s Town Square head east on Broadway until you reach the edge of town, here you will find the back road to the refuge.

The decisive moment, bighorn rams demonstrating "Ram Tough"
Bighorn Ram looking in window of car at National Elk Refuge
A bighorn comes a bit closer to get a close look at 89 year old Grover Ratlif
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