(Shawn Merrell) - Recently, I had the opportunity to join family and friends on a trip northwest to spend a few days in Arkansas's elk country. What a beautiful and interesting section of our state. The diversity of topography throughout Arkansas is one of the many reasons to get out and explore the outdoors. I highly recommend a trip to the area around Ponca or Jasper, AR. There are several opportunities to rent cabins, go horseback riding, or float the Buffalo River. Fishing, hiking, canoeing and wildlife viewing are just a few of the outdoor activities an individual (or group) can enjoy. The Ouachita Mountains offer a vast amount of recreation and sight-seeing opportunities, and one of our favorite activities is hiking along one of the many trails found in the area. There are several trails with waterfall features, incredible views and even a couple of caves to explore. And one feature to a lot of the area that I find nice is limited cell phone signal. Now that's not to say there are zero signals in most of the area, but minimal cell phone signal. I can appreciate that myself. Remember back when you could be hard to get a hold of? A trip to the mountains offers a low stress and relaxing atmosphere.
As I mentioned, it's Arkansas's elk country. Elk once numbered in the millions and occupied habitats spanning most of North America. Unfortunately, shrinking habitat and overhunting reduced populations to a few persistent herds in the mountains west of Arkansas.
The eastern elk lived in eastern boreal and hardwood forests. This was the subspecies native to Arkansas, though historical records indicate it persisted no later than the 1840s. It is now extinct. Between 1981 and 1985, 112 elk from Colorado and Nebraska were released in Newton County. All release sites were near the Buffalo National River. Arkansas currently has a herd of around 500 elk, and chances to get a glimpse of the state's largest mammal is an opportunity many wildlife viewers take advantage of during the springtime. Located in Ponca, AR along highway 43 is Boxley Valley. A fantastic area to view elk. And during the months of spring, your chances of viewing elk during the mornings and afternoons in the valley are very good. We were able to view a herd of about 60 animals each day we were there. Along with a flock of turkey! Two adult gobblers in the group put on quite a show for us. Ponca is also home to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's Ponca Elk Education Center, a facility focusing on information about the elk and wildlife that inhabit the area. The center also offers information on the areas sightseeing and hiking opportunities.