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Elk & Bighorn Sheep Feeding Station – Oak Creek Wildlife Area near Naches Washington

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Elk & Bighorn Sheep Feeding Areas

Elk & Bighorn Sheep Feeding Station – Oak Creek Wildlife Area

If you are looking for a truly unique experience, watching the feeding of the elk & bighorn sheep during the winter in the White Pass / Naches area of Washington is such a fun close-up view of these animals in the wild.  The feeding stations are located on the eastern side of Mount Rainier, but only accessible by Highway 12 coming from White Pass or Highway 12 north coming out of Yakima & up into Naches.

The two feeding areas are located just a few miles apart, so if you time it right, you can see large groups of both the elk & the bighorn sheep in the wild. A rare opportunity to see them up close for viewing their behaviors & taking lots of photos & videos! Kids will be fascinated to see the animals so close in the wild & in such large numbers as they congregate to feed. Even if you are just driving thru the area, it is absolutely worth a stop in the winter to see if there might be elk or bighorn sheep in the area, even if it is not the official feeding time.

Why do they feed the elk & bighorn sheep in the winter?

Oak Creek Elk Feeding Area

The winter feeding program at Oak Creek Wildlife Area is managed by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. They provide this supplemental winter feeding program because the elk & bighorn sheep are forced to migrate down from the Cascade mountains when there is a lot of snow in the mountains. So, they head down to the foothills to find food. By doing that, they come into contact with orchards, ranches & homes that now occupy those lands & they would feed on their lands. So, this is a way to help provide food for these animals without as much impact on the farms/ranches. 

So, the winter feeding program was started in 1945 primarily as a feeding program for elk & has expanded to feed bighorn sheep as well. Up to 1200 elk (including 90 bulls) can be seen at feeding times at Oak Creek. But, during a severe winter, as many as 8000 elk may use the feeding areas. The wintering elk may eat from 3 – 10 pounds of hay per day at the feeding station. Most of this hay is grown & purchased from Washington farmers.

The Oak Creek Wildlife Area is primarily an area for the winter herd from the Yakima elk herd, but the wildlife area also insures a permanent popular of fish, elk, deer, bear, & many more animals. During the spring, the elk herd will then move up to higher elevations where they can find more food as the snow melts. They said the land does close to the public as the bulls lose their antlers during the winter recovery period (March to early May). It then reopens in early May to allow access for gathering antlers & other wildlife watching activities.

Cleman Mountain Bighorn Sheep Feeding Area

The bighorn sheep are fed just down the road at the Cleman Mountain feeding station. In the winter, the sheep will seek lower elevation, southern-facing slopes as they are warmer & the snow accumulation is lightest so they can feed on the grasses & shrubs located in the lower elevation hills in that area. During the feeding times, up to 150 sheep will congregate during these times. They will come down from the hills right above the feeding area, where they really blend in, so look carefully to find them. During the winter feeding time, you will have the opportunity to see both the rams & ewes of all ages meeting at the feeding station, which is rare to see them all together in the wild, as they separate during other times of year.

When to Visit:

Elk at Elk Feeding station in Oak Creek

The timing on when to visit will really vary by the weather each year. There needs to be enough snow in the mountains for the elk & bighorn sheep to make their way down to the foothills & valley area. So, typically mid December – February are the typical feeding months (January & February are your best bet), maybe into March as well (even as early as November, too). We went a few years ago & it was late December and the elk had not come down from the mountains yet as it was a lighter snowfall year that year so far. So, it really just depends on the amount of snowfall around that area.

The best advice I have is to contact the feeding station as they will have the information about whether or not they are open & the times on their answering machine. Call this number: 509-653-2390, then press 9 then 4. They do not keep that information updated on their website, so call ahead & then I recommend always calling the day before or the day that you go, just to make sure it’s still going on (as it’s a long drive out of your way from White Pass if it’s not happening).

Hay Storage for Elk Feeding Area

As for time of day,  the elk are fed daily at 1:30pm at the Oak Creek Headquarters & the Bighorn Sheep are fed daily at mid-morning (when we went, they had fed them around 10:30- 11am at the Cleman Mountain Feeding site.

Bighorn Sheep At Cleman Mtn Feeding Area Naches WA

Since those times are several hours apart, we actually lucked out in that we were able to see them both around the same time. We arrived at the Bighorn Sheep feeding station after they had fed them, but the sheep were still there eating for another few hours. So, we arrived around 11 – 11:30 & there were still plenty of sheep around. We went back an hour later (as friends had arrived to meet us) & there weren’t quite as many sheep – there were more up on the hillside, but you could still see them even then. So, even if you arrive later than their feeding time, it’s absolutely worth driving down the road 5 minutes from the elk feeding area to see if they are there.

We also stopped in at the Elk feeding area on our way to the Bighorn sheep feeding area & they were already down milling around & waiting to be fed around 11:30am, 2 hours ahead of when they were supposed to be fed. I don’t know if that is typical, but definitely worth stopping in whenever you are able to get there. We didn’t stick around for the actual feeding, since it was still quite early, but we got to see the elk up close  for plenty of pictures by going late morning. Perfect timing to get there to see both the Bighorn Sheep & Elk.

Where it’s Located:

Bighorn Sheep feeding at trough

The feeding station for the elk & bighorn sheep is located in the Oak Creek Recreation Area. They have their headquarters building just 2 miles west of the junction of Highways 12 & 410. It’s located on Highway 12 on the lefthand side (when coming from White Pass), which is approximately 20 miles west of Yakima. The signs will say Oak Creek Headquarters, but it does not say Elk feeding area, so make sure to look for the signs for Oak Creek. You’ll go up a very short little road & then you will see the headquarters & the fields with the elk as soon as you are off the highway (it’s not really visible from the highway, so it’s easy to miss). If you hit the intersection of Highways 12 & 410, then you have gone too far.

The feeding area for the elk & bighorn sheep are actually very close to each other – they are just 5 minutes away from each other. The elk feeding area is much easier to find, but the Bighorn Sheep area is not far at all. Just continue on the highway & cross over highway 410 at the Highway 12/410 intersection, going straight. You will see the bighorn sheep feeding area on your left within a mile or two past the intersection. This is easy to spot from the road (unlike the elk feeding area).

The time it took us to arrive at the Elk Feeding Station was 40 minutes from the White Pass Ski Resort. And it’s 20 miles away from Yakima. So just plan on some time to get there if you are adding that on to your trip from White Pass. Totally worth it, though!

Tips for Visiting:

Watching the Elk at Feeding station

Discover Pass or WDFW Vehicle Access Pass

You will need a Washington Discover pass (state park pass) or WDFW Vehicle Access Pass for visiting the Elk Feeding station at Oak Creek Recreation area. These are $10/pass if you purchase it directly from the feeding station. Or you can use your annual pass ($30 for the year).

Bring your cameras, binoculars, tripods etc

You are going to have prime animal viewing & such a unique experience. I would definitely make sure you are all ready to capture the best photos with your high-quality cameras & tripods, binoculars, and more. I was disappointed I only had my phone – totally wish I had thought to bring my big camera to get close shots of them & a tripod would be even better to really capture them well!

Elk at Oak Creek Feeding Area

Elk & Bighorn Sheep Numbers/Behavior during Feeding

The elk will be larger in number & they do get much closer, so you will have plenty of opportunity to get up close & take great pictures of the elk.  The bighorn sheep are much more skittish & there are much fewer of them (150 or so, compared to several thousand elk you may see in the feeding area). They are very sensitive to sound – we noticed that as cars would drive into the parking lot or if people were talking loud, they would scatter back up the hill. So be very aware & be quiet in this feeding area as you are walking up. They don’t like quick movements or loud noises/talking, etc. If you can park further back, not right up against the fence, that’s even better, so you don’t scare them off. {We went after the feeding time, so this may not be as much of an issue when they are actively feeding them.}

Visitor Center

During regular years, the Visitor Center is open daily during the feeding season from 9am – 4pm. There is a small museum inside the Visitor Center & it’s free to visit. There was some great information about the elk & the feeding program that explained it all in better detail for us. They have a video program, exhibits & a kids’ corner, too.

The Visitor Center is staffed by Wildlife Education Corps volunteers & they were incredibly knowledgeable. Unfortunately during 2020 – 2021, the Visitor’s Center is closed, although the feeding program is still happening, but it’s all outdoors only.

Elk Feeding Station with Trucks

Truck Tours

The Oak Creek Elk Feeding Station also offers Truck Tours to take visitors out amongst the elk as they are feeding. These tours are on a first-come, first-serve as well as reservation basis. There is no cost for these tours, but they are supported by donations, which are encouraged, so they can continue to provide these tours. Call the Oak Creek headquarters to find out more information about reserving these tours. {During 2020-2021 season, the truck tours are cancelled}

Things to Do in the Area during the Winter:

White Pass Ski Resort

Tubing at White Pass

One of the closest areas to the Oak Creek Feeding Stations is the White Pass Ski Area. If you are visiting the Elk feeding station, you may want to turn this into a day trip for some fun in the snow. They have a tubing hill at White Pass as well as skiing & snowboarding. This could be a fun morning activity & then head back to the ski resort for skiing, snowboarding or tubing fun. 3rd graders ski free at White Pass, too, so check out this program if you have a 3rd grader (not available during 2020-2021).

White Pass Tubing Fun

The tubing hill does not take advance reservations – it’s first-come, first-serve, so make sure to check out their times available before heading that way. Typically they are only open weekends & holidays, but sometimes they add more times (in 2020-2021, they are also open on Wednesdays & Fridays as they have been busy).

White Pass Nordic Center

White Pass Nordic Center

The White Pass Nordic Center offer 18 kilometers of trails for beginner to advanced nordic skiers (cross-country skiing). They also offer trails for snowshoeing & fat biking as well on their property.  They offer rental equipment for cross country skiing, skate skiing, snowshoeing & fat biking. There are guided tours as well as lessons offered for these types of activities as well.  Make sure to check out the Nordic center’s website for information on trail passes & rentals.

Snow Activities at White Pass area & surrounding areas around Packwood, Naches & more areas

White Pass Scenic Byway

Make sure to check out the White Pass Byway website as they have a lot more information on activities such as cross country skiing, snowshoeing, & snowmobiling around the Cascade mountains in this area.  We love to go sledding in this area (the best tip I have is to ask locals about some small little sledding areas).

Snowshoeing at White Pass PCT Trail

We have also gone snowshoeing on several trails in the area.  Two trails we have gone snowshoeing at are Maintenance Shed Road (just before White Pass ski resort) and Sand Lake / Deer Lake Snowshoe trail on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail – this starts at the White Pass Nordic Center trails & then meets up with the PCT)

Yakima Valley / Union Gap

Dinosaur Park in Granger

The Yakima Valley & town of Union Gap is just about 30 minutes from the Oak Creek Feeding area. Check out our post on things to do in Union Gap & the surrounding areas.

A few highlights include:

  • Fishing
  • Visiting the Central Washington Agricultural Museum (free)
  • Dinosaur Park in Granger (about 15-20 min further, so about 50 minutes from Oak Creek)
  • Wine Tasting & Vineyards
  • Yakima River Greenway, trails & more

More Winter Fun Ideas:

Check out our big list of Sledding & Tubing areas in Washington, too, for more winter fun!

Snowshoeing at Mt Rainier - Tips on Where to Find Snowshoes, What to Bring & more

Mount Rainier Snowshoeing

Sledding at Mount Rainier National Park is a fun winter activity in the Northwest if you know these tips before you go.

Sledding at Mount Rainier

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