Elk Refuge sleigh rides come to a close with record-setting visitation

JACKSON HOLE, WYO — The refuge’s most popular seasonal educational program has ended for the year, with a record number of visitors taking a sleigh ride to view wintering elk on the National Elk Refuge. Though the horses have now moved to their summer pasture, the tack is put away, and the sleighs are stored until next winter, the final tallies are rolling in and summarizing what turned out to be a very busy season.

A total of 36,217 people took a sleigh ride this year, making it the busiest season on record. That number surpassed the previous high of 32,753 passengers, reached during the 2016-17 season. It easily exceeded last year’s mark of 28,925 riders by 25%.

The record season didn’t come without its difficulties, though. A partial government shutdown right before the busy Christmas season closed the Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center until January 30—the very location which serves as the ticket sales and boarding area for the rides. Through an agreement with the Town of Jackson, the operation temporarily moved to the Home Ranch Welcome Center in downtown Jackson, increasing the travel time for passengers to be shuttled to and from the sleigh departure area a few miles north of town and adding logistical challenges to the mix.

Next came the storms. The Jackson Hole area also saw record-setting totals this winter in the form of snow. The valley was hit with a series of storm cycles that produced blizzard-like conditions, closed roads, and made for unsafe conditions on the refuge. Sleigh rides were canceled or halted early six times because of poor visibility and high winds. Comparing those same calendar days to previous years’ ridership, at least 1,000 passengers went without rides due to the storms.

And though it was an anticlimactic way to end a banner season, the contractor and refuge staff pulled the plug on the season two days earlier than the scheduled last day of April 6. Though wagons can be substituted for sleighs in springlike conditions, this year’s mud and slush proved difficult for either type of conveyance.

“We couldn’t ask for a harder working, dedicated partner than our sleigh ride contractor,” said Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell. “They continually provide safe, enjoyable wildlife viewing experiences no matter what Mother Nature throws at them.”

“We couldn’t ask for a harder working, dedicated partner than our sleigh ride contractor,” said Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell. “They continually provide safe, enjoyable wildlife viewing experiences no matter what Mother Nature throws at them.” (Lori Iverson, USFWS)

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