Anyone’s first kiss is memorable, but how many people have been kissed by an elk?
My stepdaughter, Elena Lansing, was out on an elk-viewing sleigh ride with the family at the Points Ranch near Donnelly recently, and she positioned her head close to the outside of some alfalfa hay bales, where numerous cow elk and yearlings were munching on the hay.
“They kissed my nose!” Lansing said, clearly touched by the occasion, considering she loves wildlife of all kinds.
“That was super cool,” added Michelle Marks of Boise. “I’ve never been that close to wild animals that are that big. That was really remarkable.”
Our group loaded a horse-drawn sleigh at 2 p.m. for an adventure. We were bundled up for below-freezing temperatures, and after the hourlong trip we were glad we had dressed warm. We had about 15 people on our sleigh, including a family from Ottawa, Canada.
“For us, to be so close to the elk is really unique. You don’t see that in Canada,” said Mark Chatel, who took his wife and two children on the sleigh ride. The Chatels were on the last day of a weeklong vacation in McCall. “They’re beautiful animals, and they came really close to us.”
“It was our last day in Idaho, and we wanted to finish on a high note, and this certainly did that for us.”
About 120 elk were gathered in a pasture on the Points Ranch. They had two sleighs running at the same time over a foot of snow so two groups could view the animals simultaneously during the busy tourism season. As soon as our sleigh moved into the elk herd, cows and calves carefully and gingerly approached the sleigh. Sitting on hay bales around the edges, we watched the elk eat from the bales next to our bums. In the middle of the afternoon, the elk seemed plenty hungry, and alfalfa hay is premium feed to them.
The Points family has been offering elk-viewing sleigh rides for 34 years. Scott Points, our tour guide, said the family has been co-existing with elk on the ranch since the late 1800s. They recognize that the winter range for elk has been diminished by Idaho 55, secondary roads and other private land development in Long Valley, so they give the elk a welcome home while running a side business.
“The elk are an important part of our history,” Points said. “They helped our ancestors survive when they were trying to settle this area.”
The Points feed the elk seven days a week, and they run sleigh ride trips seven days a week. The trip costs $30 for adults in high season, teens aged 13-17 are $20, and kids younger than 12 cost $10. The Christmas-New Year’s holiday and the two weeks during the McCall Winter Carnival are busy times. But they provide trips all winter long. Make advance reservations at 208-325-8783.
Our sleigh was pulled by three well-behaved black workhorses. The draft animals come from the Percheron breed, Points said, a breed known for hard work and intelligence that comes the Huisne River Valley in the old Perche Province, in France.
A set of sleigh bells mounted on one of the horses created a nice holiday jingle as we rode from the pasture to the parking lot.
Here are some other options in Southwest Idaho:
Brundage Mountain Resort offers sleigh rides at the Activity Barn for the first time this year. It’s a 90-minute ride in the outskirts of McCall with fetching views of the surrounding countryside. The sleigh holds up to 15 people. Cost is $30 for adults and $12 for kids 17 and younger. Be sure to dress warm! They have hot chocolate and coffee in the yurt. Contact Brundage.com.
Idaho Sleigh Rides in Garden Valley is open for the winter season through Feb. 3. They offer regular sleigh rides, lunch sleigh rides and dinner sleigh rides with music and Dutch oven meals. Pricing is $25 per person for a sleigh ride, $40/person for lunch rides and $70/person for dinner rides. Contact 208-462-3416 or idahosleighrides.com.
Sun Valley offers one-hour sleigh rides and also dinner tours to Trail Creek Cabin. Pricing is $20-30 for the one-hour ride, depending on dates, and $129 to $169 for the dinner tours. Contact SunValley.com for more information.
Steve Stuebner is a longtime Idaho outdoors writer who writes occasional features for the Idaho Statesman.