An Oasis among the Urban Jungle

I’m a lifelong wildlife lover and proponent who enjoys traveling to wilderness areas. I’ve backpacked quite a lot in my youth, and now I am a professional photographer who has photographed animals all over the world in places such as Africa, Australia, Mexico, Egypt, the Caribbean, and many of our nationals parks such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Tetons. I have even traveled to the north shore of Alaska to photograph polar bears up close. But one of my most pleasant and surprising visits to photograph wildlife occurred within a few miles of a major urban city, St Louis. Lone Elk Park, all 546 acres, is only 20 miles from the famous arch. I was able to see and photograph within a couple hours of time a variety of wildlife that would take me days or not at all in any other locations.

My trip started with my amazement that there is no official entrance fee to visit. Only a small donation box exists at the entrance. Its up to the visitor’s discretion to donate or not. I would highly recommend a donation as this park is outstanding, and something I’d like to see remain forever. Since I had never been to this park before and didn’t have a map other than an app on my phone, I decided to just drive around and see what I might find. The park has a loop approximately 3 miles long with a couple of other intersecting roads, you can drive on. Well I doubt I had gone more than ¼ mile before coming up upon 3 elk just resting near a fence. II was ecstatic, here I was inside my car, and within 75-100 feet of 3 male elk, all with impressive headgear. I’ve seen elk before but never this close, especially without hiking a single step.

The park sure lived up to its name. The elk have such a beautiful red fur, and the antlers where still growing and covered in velvet. Two were laying down and resting but one seem to keep an eye out but was not bothered at all by my car. I spent a good 10 minutes just watching and photographing the elk. I was the only one there for a good portion of time, but as in any park where wildlife may be seen, a parked car is a beacon, especially if it has a 500mm camera lens sticking out the side. I was joined by a few more and a couple even got out to get a better view. I’d like to point out that although these animals looked extremely tame and docile, they are still wild. Caution should be used and don’t get closer than about 25 yards, and please don’t even think you can get a “selfie” with these animals as had been reported in the news a few weeks prior to my trip.

With a very successful beginning I decided to continue driving around to see what else I might find. More elk, appeared, first a lone female, quite near the one restroom facility near the reservoir. Then a bit further on two more females just resting. All this time (mid morning), I had only seen a handful of other cars. It was almost like I had hiked into the mountains and was surrounded by trees and bushes and snow melted lakes, but I was still sitting in my car only minutes from hundreds of thousands of people.

A bit further and that well known beacon of parked cars, appeared and I strained to see what was the attraction. Well off in a little valley was a mother bison and two calves, often times called “Red dogs” for their orange-red color.

Soon the rest of the herd appeared and there was no mistaking the head of this group, the large male

Sitting there I soon realized that I was going to get as close to a bison as I really cared to get, as the group meandered down the little valley and decide to cross the road. However, there were a number of cars lined up waiting. That didn’t phase them and they just proceed as they pleased, knowing that cars did not offer up any threat. As gentle as can be, the bison walked between the cars and down the road a bit before exiting to the other side. Even the little “red dogs” gallivanted in the road as they crossed.

Another word of caution, Please be courteous of your fellow wildlife lovers, and pull your car over to the edge of the road, and leave room for a car to pass by if they desire. And please do not get out of your car if the bison are within 100 feet, even the little guys.

It was at this point I began wondering how this place came into being. I later found out that this land was once part of the Tyson Valley Powder Plant, used during World War II for testing and storage of ammunition. After the war the area became a county park, and in 1948 both elk and bison were introduced to the area. During the Korean war the Federal Government re-acquired the land and most of the animals were hunted or removed by 1958 for so-called safety reasons after a collision of an elk and army vehicle. St Louis county once again, stepped in after war-time and purchased a section of the original track. In 1966 the name was changed to Lone Elk county Park, because one lone bull elk had survived the purge 8 years previous.

The county then obtained 6 additional elk from Yellowstone National Park, with help from the Lions club, and the children of the Rockwood Schools. Any child who donated a dime or more earned a share of “Elk Stock”. In 1971, the park was once again opened to the public and it continued to be a haven for wildlife. Bison were introduced in 1973, after 6 were procured from the St Louis zoo. Other resident animals have also made this area home.

My drive then continued, and it seemed every ¼ mile or so something new came into view. A racoon family quickly crossed the road ahead of my car and mom seem to stick around on the lookout. Seldom do you see raccoons during the day, here they were just feet off the side of the road, looking right at me.

Further along, white tailed deer run across the road and down into the underbrush. More elk can be seen and even baby fawns. I saw more variety and numbers of wildlife in Lone Elk Park in 2 hours than I have anywhere else except a zoo.

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