Featured image: A buck elk munches on freshly delivered alfalfa hay at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. (photo by Cheryl Landes)
Some winters, as many as 5,000 Rocky Mountain elk head for the Oak Creek Wildlife Area near Naches to take advantage of a welfare program—free alfalfa hay from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Mid-January through mid-February is the best time to see the animals feeding here. Volunteers feed the animals daily through March at the Oak Creek Headquarters Visitor Center at 1:30 p.m. When the hay truck approaches, brown bodies flood the feeding site. The animals prance, kick, and lock horns over the first piles of hay tossed into the snow.
For elk in this area, the hay handout has been a supplemental winter food source since the 1940s, when the wildlife department strung 100 miles of eight-foot-high fence along the hills between Ellensburg and Yakima to protect fruit orchards.
The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily during the feeding season; call (509) 653-2390 for information and updates. Free 30-minute tours are scheduled daily at 10 a.m., noon, 1 p.m., and 2 p.m., and reservations are recommended. A minimum of eight people are required to conduct a tour. To make reservations, leave a message at (509) 698-5106.
A Discover Pass is required at all state wildlife areas.
To reach the center from Interstate 82 at Yakima, take the Chinook/White Pass exit and follow US Highway 12 for 13 miles to Naches. Continue through town four miles to the Chinook/White Pass junction of US 12 and State Route 410, and turn left on US 12. The center is two miles away on the right.
Volunteers also feed a herd of bighorn sheep daily from 10 to 11 a.m. in a field south of Cleman Mountain. The sheep are more elusive than the elk, so you might need binoculars to spot them on the rocky crags above the feeding site. The field is located on Old Naches Road off State Route 410, about 100 yards west of the Chinook/White Pass junction.