Immediately north of Jackson  is the National Elk Refuge (307/733-9212, www.fws.gov/nationalelkrefuge ), winter home for thousands of these majestic animals. During summer, the elk range up to 65 miles away to feed on grasses, shrubs, and forbs in alpine meadows. But as the snows descend each fall, they move downslope, wintering in Jackson Hole  and the surrounding country.
The chance to view elk up close from a horse-drawn sleigh makes a trip to the National Elk Refuge one of the most popular wintertime activities for Jackson Hole visitors.
When the first ranchers arrived in Jackson Hole in the late 19th century, they moved onto land that had long been an elk migration route and wintering ground. The ranchers soon found elk raiding their haystacks and competing with cattle for forage, particularly during severe winters.
The conflicts peaked early in the 20th century when three consecutive severe winters killed thousands of elk, leading one settler to claim that he had “walked for a mile on dead elk lying from one to four deep.” Following a national outcry, the federal government began buying land in 1911 for a permanent winter elk refuge that would eventually cover nearly 25,000 acres.
About 5,500 elk (two-thirds of the local population) typically spend November-May on the refuge, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because development has reduced elk habitat in the valley to one-quarter of its original size, refuge managers try to improve the remaining land through seeding, irrigation, and prescribed burning.
In addition, during the most difficult foraging period, the elk are fed alfalfa pellets paid for in part by sales of elk antlers collected on the refuge. During this time, each elk eats more than seven pounds of supplemental alfalfa per day, or 30 tons per day for the entire herd. Elk head back into the mountains with the melting of snow each April and May; during summer you’ll see few (if any) on the refuge.
The National Elk Refuge is primarily a winter attraction, although it’s also an excellent place to watch birds and other wildlife—including nesting trumpeter swans—in summer. Refuge staff are on duty year-round in the Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center (532 N. Cache Dr., 307/733-3316, www.jacksonholechamber.com , open daily), leading nature talks, summertime wildlife viewing from the back deck, and theater programs. Visit the picturesque and historic (built in 1898) Miller Ranch on the east side of the refuge, 0.75 mile out Elk Refuge Road. It’s open daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Memorial Day-Labor Day, with a naturalist available to answer questions about the refuge.
The main winter attraction here is the chance to see thousands of elk up close from one of the horse-drawn sleighs that take visitors through the refuge. The elk are accustomed to these sleighs and pay little heed, but people on foot would scare them. A tour of the National Elk Refuge is always a highlight for wintertime visitors to Jackson Hole . In December and January the bulls have impressive antlers that they start to shed by the end of February. The months of January and February are good times to see sparring matches. You might also catch a glimpse of a wolf or two, because a pack now lives in the area year-round and hunts elk in winter. Morning is the best time to look for wolves.
Begin your wintertime visit to the refuge at the Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, where you can buy sleigh-ride tickets ($18 adults, $14 ages 5-12, free for kids under age five). Reservations are available, but are not required, through Bar-T-Five (307/733-0277 or 800/772-5386, www.bart5.com ), the folks who run the sleighs. The visitor center shows an interpretive slide show about the refuge while you’re waiting for a shuttle bus to take you to the boarding area. Sleighs run daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. mid-December-March (closed Christmas), heading out as soon as enough folks show up for a ride—generally just long enough for the early-comers to finish watching the slide show. The rides last 45-60 minutes. Be sure to wear warm clothes or bring extra layers, because the wind can get bitterly cold.
Four miles north of town and adjacent to the elk refuge is the Jackson National Fish Hatchery (307/733-2510, http://jackson.fws.gov , daily 8 a.m.-4 p.m. year-round), which rears 400,000 cutthroat trout annually. There’s also a small pond open for fishing on the grounds (fishing license required), a great spot for kids and novice anglers.