The roadside show at Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area

Photos by Cheryl Landes

The faint mid-morning mist falling on the Dean Creek marsh east of Reedsport, Oregon, has transformed the grassy flatland into a velvety carpet, a bright green contrast to the darker, forested hilly backdrop. In the foreground, a herd of Roosevelt elk graze, their light brown coats adding even more contrast to the scene.

About 50 yards away, the black ribbon of Highway 38, which connects the Oregon Coast to the Willamette Valley, crosses this marsh. Curious tourists and residents steer their cars, campers, and trucks to the side of the road to watch the spectacular sight. Some stay inside their vehicles; others come outside to get a closer look through binoculars or to take pictures.

The human attention doesn’t seem to disturb the herd. Occasionally an elk’s ear swivels to concentrate on a sound, or a pair of nostrils flares to catch a scent. Some elk glance at the spectators, and satisfied that no danger exists, continue grazing. Others lounge in the grass.

Those Roosevelt elk—about 120 head of them—live at the marsh. They share the land with deer, beavers, shorebirds, waterfowl, and other wildlife. This 923-acre preserve is probably among the most unusual on the Oregon Coast, because passersby have an excellent view of the elk and other wildlife in their natural habitat from just off the highway.

Elk grazing

Originally part of the Umpqua floodplain, the Dean Creek marsh and forest didn’t provide suitable for elk until Highway 38 was built on a raised dike, which blocked the floodwater and allowed the lane to be drained and developed as pasture. The landowners at that time created the pasture to provide forage for cattle, and coincidentally created ideal conditions for the elk. A herd began to graze here and became accustomed to drivers stopping to watch.

In 1976, the elk paid a severe price for their lack of caution. During two days, seven bulls were shot in view of the roadway. The shootings were legal but outraged many people, who claimed the acts were unsportsmanlike.

The landowners closed the marsh to hunting in 1977 in response to the outcry. Negotiations over the next nine years eventually resulted in the Bureau of Land Management trading 80 acres of public domain, old-growth timber for the Dean Creek acreage, consisting of 358 acres of grassland and wetlands, and another 565 acres of forested uplands. BLM and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife maintain the property.

In 1991, the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area opened here with the O.H. Hinsdale Interpretive Center, restrooms, and a parking lot accommodating cars, trucks, and campers. The center is a large, open gazebo overlooking the marsh with benches and displays covering the history of the marsh and the elk, and tips for viewing wildlife.

Interpretive center

A large pair of binoculars secured to a metal post inside the center provide close-up views of the elk when they’re grazing within range.

View from interpretive center

The Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area is open 24 hours daily year-round, and admission is free. The best times to view the elk are early morning and about an hour before dusk, when they’re grazing closer to the parking area. To make the most of your viewing experience, avoid loud noises and sudden movements—these scare the elk away. And never approach the elk. Not only is it unsafe, but it’s also prohibited in the preserve.

To reach the viewing area from Highway 101 North or South in Reedsport, turn east on Oregon Highway 38 and drive three miles to the Dean Creek sign on the right. From Interstate 5 North or South, take Exit 162 for Oregon Highway 38/99 toward Drain and Elkton. At the end of the exit ramp, turn right on Highway 38 and drive west for 46.5 miles to the viewing area on the left.

Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area sign

For more information, view the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area’s page or call (541) 888-5515.

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