The Oak Creek Elk Feeding Area, located southeast of Mt Rainier and six miles west of Naches on Highway 12, offers families a unique winter wildlife experience. Every day from mid-December to early March visitors can drop by the feeding area to watch hundreds of Rocky Mountain Elk during the supplemental winter feeding program.
When you pull into the Oak Creek Elk Feeding Area’s large gravel parking lot, you can find a parking spot in front of the eight foot fence enclosing the feeding area. Here you can watch as the elk gather for feeding time, which begins every day at 1:30pm. The feeding area is an enormous field surrounded on three sides by rolling hills and rocky outcrops.
The building to your left is the visitor’s center, which houses a variety of exhibits, a video program, and a kid’s corner. Like the truck tour, the exhibits are free of charge. The center also has several glass windows where you and the kids can safely watch the elk munching hay a few feet away. The visitor’s center is open all winter from 9am to 4pm and staffed with volunteers from AmeriCorps and the Wildlife Education Corps.
My husband Erik, our 2-year-old son Finn, and I arrived at the Oak Creek Feeding Area on a sunny but blustery March afternoon, bundled up in our warmest winter clothes. Although it was an hour before feeding time, about 200 elk were already milling around the feeding area. A dozen more elk were slowly making their way down a narrow switchback trail from the ridge above, where yet more elk lined up, waiting for their turn to make their way down the hill.
After watching the elk for a few minutes, you’ll want to head into the visitors center to sign up for a free truck tour of the feeding area. The 40 minute truck tours are available on a first come, first serve basis so visitor center staffers recommend signing up a half hour to an hour before feeding time starts at 1:30pm. They also recommend everyone in your group dress very warmly and bring binoculars, warm beverages, and a winter lunch. At least eight passengers are required for the tour to run. Children of all ages are welcome as long as a parent or guardian signs a waiver.
If you have some time to spare before your tour, you and the kids can explore the visitor’s center. Erik, Finn and I enjoyed the eclectic mix of informational and tactile exhibits about Oak Creek’s history and its large elk herd.
Just before feeding time we headed back to the parking lot, where the tour guide (one of the visitor’s center staff) brought around the tour truck, a large flatbed army vehicle with a green canopy and benches for sitting. Once the tour truck was parked, we walked up a short, sturdy ramp and onto the truck’s flatbed. There was ample seating for eight adults and all the children.
With all of us secured in our open air seats, our tour guide drove the truck out into the middle of the enormous field where the elk are fed. From this closer but safe distance we watched as two more army trucks dropped large flakes of hay for the elk. Our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide answered all of our questions about the animals while Finn and the other kids eagerly watched, laughing and pointing as the hungry elk tore into the hay.
When our tour guide drove us back to the parking lot we walked back down the ramp and stopped behind the eight foot fence so that Finn could watch for several more minutes. We took a few more pictures, Finn waved goodbye to the elk and we hopped into our car to head home. From here you can drive east toward Yakima or west toward Mount Rainier and access several routes north and south along Interstate 5. Note: January and February are the best months for viewing the elk. For more information on the truck tours call the Oak Creek Wildlife Area at 509-653-2390 or the Oak Creek Visitor’s Center at 509-698-5106.
Learn more about the Oak Creek Wildlife Area.