Roosevelt Elk at Quinault
Lake Quinault and the Quinault Rain Forest provide some of the best outdoors recreation in the Pacific Northwest. They’re terrific for hiking, fishing, and viewing wildlife.
Black bears, black-tailed deer, bald eagles, and cougar all inhabit the region. In my travels across the landscape (it’s my favorite spot in Washington and I go there frequently), I’ve run into all of those animals at least once, and often at close proximity (the bear a little too close for comfort in fact) in their natural environments.
Perhaps the best wildlife to see in the area is the herd of Roosevelt elk at Quinault. The sizable herd regularly inhabits the area and can be found quite reliably in the woods and fields just off northeast portion of North Shore Road.
This area of Lake Quinault gets little visitation, especially in the off-season autumn/winter months. The road is rough and sometimes washed out, so even on days when Lake Quinault Lodge is full, you can find some solitary remove in this area.
The Roosevelt elk of Quinault feel safe and at home there, so they generally won’t scatter if you set up shop to observe them (as long as you don’t get too close, of course). They’ll go about their social business at ease.
I watched them for nearly an hour once, and they just went about their routine as though I wasn’t there. Obviously, I can’t speak for every encounter with the animals, but in my personal experience they’ve never bolted when I stopped to watch.
About the Roosevelt Elk at Quinault
According to the National Park Service, the elk at Quinault represent the Pacific Northwest’s “largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk.”
The elk are named after President Theodore Roosevelt, famous wildlife enthusiast and the man who started the national park system in the United States. The elk at Quinault are significantly bigger than the black-tail deer they share space with (the deer are beautiful, as well, though harder to find).
Male elk at Quinault, identified by their antlers, are larger than the females, but all share the characteristic darker-brown heads and lighter-brown bodies. They eat meadow grasses, ferns, shrubs, and lichens.
The elk can also be seen regularly in the Hoh Rain Forest, and I’ll be covering that area, as well. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m focusing on the elk at Quinault.
How to Find the Roosevelt Elk at Quinault
The elk move throughout the area, but they frequently congregate along a stretch of North Shore Road. Google Maps won’t let me pin to the fields, so I had to pin the Quinault Rain Forest Ranger Station (which has a nice little nature trail) in the interactive map below.
If you go east about 10 miles east of that ranger station, you’ll find some open fields. The Roosevelt elk herd often hangs out in those fields, which are pretty close to the road–I’m talking close enough to watch clearly without equipment. With binoculars or a camera, you can see the sky reflected in their eyes.
North Shore Road Approach
You can drive to the area either from North Shore Road or from South Shore Road, both of which run into each other to form a loop around Lake Quinault. South Shore Road has merit because it’s better maintained and makes the approach from Lake Quinault Lodge, but I’m going to start with North Shore Road because the ranger station is the most easily identifiable landmark close to the elk.
Before going on, let me stress that you WILL lost phone reception for a good portion of this drive. This isn’t a great cause for concern, as I’ve explained below, but just be aware that you may want to write directions down or bring a hard copy of a map.
It’s difficult to get lost on the North Shore Road drive because it’s the only real road out there, other than some primitive Forest Service roads branching off into the woods. The one spot that may cause confusion is at the end of North Shore Road. There, you’ll encounter a spot where the North Shore Road turns left/north to continue as North Shore Road and right/south to go over a bridge connecting North Shore Road to South Shore Road.
If you want to continue the loop and head back to the main road, you need to go over the bridge to the south rather than the road continuance to the north. Even if you miss this exchange, though, you’ll just end up driving a dead end road that leads to North Forks Campground, a Park Service ranger station, and the Irely Lake Trail (among other walks). It’s a dead end road and will just take you a few miles out of your way and into beautiful country.
South Shore Road Approach
You can also get to the elk-viewing spot by driving up Lake Quinault’s South Shore Road from Lake Quinault Lodge, which may be the most desirable route if your car isn’t well suited to rough driving. North Shore Road gets pretty tough in parts, particularly after heavy storm events. South Shore Road also has its hairy moments sometimes, but in my experience after years of visiting this area regularly, it’s generally kinder to vehicles than the North Shore Road.
If you decide to come up South Shore Road, just remember to turn left over the bridge linking South Shore Road to North Shore. If you’ve got the vehicle for it, though, I recommend driving the whole Lake Quinault North/South Shore Road loop. It’s a terrific drive through moss-laden trees and mountain views.
Regardless, remember to write directions down or take a hard copy map, because you WILL lost phone reception for a good portion of this drive. Also, South Shore starts out well paved, but be prepared because it will turn into a dirt road that has lots of big holes and rocks.
Come for the Roosevelt Elk at Quinault, but Stay for all the Other Critters
As mentioned in the preceding section, close to the area with the elk herd is the North Forks Campground and the Irely Lake trail. I go camping and hiking in that area frequently.
Once, in winter, I stumbled upon a black bear in one of the North Forks camping spots (I was the only person staying there). It was a spectacular encounter. The bear was no more than 10 yards from me when we first realized we weren’t alone. He watched me curiously as I walked to the outhouse and then lumbered off. I was a bit nervous camping that evening!
If you go to this area during the salmon runs, you’ve got a good shot of seeing bald eagles picking off the fish. Having grown up in Pennsylvania where bald eagle were nonexistent, I’ve never stopped being amazed at the sight of these birds.
One time (I swear) I saw a lynx dip into the woods on South Shore Road. A big chunk of road had collapsed from flooding and made the road inaccessible to vehicles. National Forest Service sites say lynx aren’t found in this area, but I swear that I caught a fleeting glimpse of one.
Lake Quinault is also an excellent place for birding.
The area is a terrific spot for wildlife enthusiasts. Obviously, you can never know for sure what you’ll run into, but the elk are about as safe a bet as I know of.
Go check them out. Maybe you’ll see some bear or eagle, too.
If you decide to make a longer trip of it, consider staying at the Quinault River Inn. There are many great choices for lodging in the Lake Quinault area, but the Inn has always been my favorite. It’s run by terrific people and is set off on quiet spot by the riverside.
No, I do not have any affiliation with the Inn and receive no compensation from them. I just really like their establishment.
If any of you need more specific directions to the open fields I discussed, shoot me a message and I’ll walk you to the spot. Also, I’d love to hear about your experiences.