Watching wildlife at close range is a thrill for most kids — that’s what zoos are for, right? But a zoo is a controlled experience, and there’s something magical about catching sight of wildlife in a more natural setting. If you’d like to move beyond the zoo and see one of our state’s most magnificent mammals in jaw-droppingly large numbers, plan a trip to the Oak Creek Wildlife Area (OCWA), located about 15 miles northwest of Yakima.
The OCWA was established in 1939 to provide a home for Rocky Mountain elk during the winter. Imported at the turn of the last century from Yellowstone National Park, the animals gained a reputation as pests during the winter months as they traveled down from socked-in mountains to forage in the settled foothills around Yakima. An interesting wildlife-viewing opportunity was born out of our seemingly inexhaustible ability to tamper with the ecosystem.
During the prime feeding months of January and February, visitors can watch a herd of more than 1,000 elk as they show up at the OCWA headquarters for chow time at 1:30 p.m. every day. The huge male elk, or bulls, are fewer in number, but their massive antlers — which they lose in the spring — make them exciting to spot. While you’re there, stop by the visitor center (open daily, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.) and check out the exhibits and a kids’ area, and be sure to sign up for one of the truck tours, which will take you right into the feeding area. The visitor center and truck tours are free, but donations are requested to keep the program running.
OCWA also feeds a flock of about 150 bighorn sheep at the Cleman Mountain feeding station, located nearby on the Old Naches Highway. The sheep are fed daily at midmorning.
If you go, pack plenty of snacks and water, binoculars if you have them, and warm layers of clothing; the average January temperature in Yakima hovers in the low 30s.
If you go . . .
Visit wdfw.wa.gov/viewing and search for “Oak Creek” to get directions to OCWA, which is located about 140 miles southeast of Seattle. Call headquarters at 509-653-2390 for more information.
Learn about the region’s natural and human history at the Yakima Valley Museum, located in the city’s Franklin Park. The museum features a large interactive space for kids ages 5–15.
Eat + stay
Find kid-friendly dining at the local Red Robin, located at 2706 W. Nob Hill Blvd. in Yakima. 509-575-1575. If you’d like to make a weekend of it, go to visityakima.com for lodging suggestions.
More elk fun
View Roosevelt elk at Woodland Park Zoo’s Northern Trail exhibit, or take a tram tour into Northwest Trek’s free-roaming area to watch Roosevelt elk, bighorn sheep and other herd animals.