The winding, tree-lined roads of the Missouri Ozarks lead to a variety of outdoor adventures, from camping and canoeing to hiking and fishing.
Those same roads also lead to an area inhabited by an ever-growing elk herd at Peck Ranch Conservation Area.
Today, some 140 adult elk and 40 to 50 calves roam areas in Reynolds, Shannon and Carter counties.
"Based on calving the last two springs, we're likely to see the elk population begin to grow rapidly in the coming years," says David Hasenbeck, elk program manager at the Missouri Department of Conservation. "We're seeing elk in new areas ... and both overall survival rates and the population are increasing."
That's excellent news for outdoors enthusiasts who want an opportunity to see the somewhat reclusive elk in a natural environment.
The upcoming fall months are an excellent time to visit the area, both for elk and the natural outdoor beauty that abounds as leaves begin to change and temperatures cool.
Bordered by the communities of Ellington, Eminence, Van Buren and Winona, Missouri's Elk Restoration Zone spans several hundred acres and is open to the public.
Established driving-tour routes offer the best chances to see elk and visitors are encouraged to explore the area in the pre-dawn hours and near sundown for optimal viewing opportunities.
While there's no guarantee visitors will see elk, it's well worth the trek for the beautiful scenery alone. Of particular note are routes 19, 60, 101 and 21, which offer sweeping vistas and sights like Alley Spring Mill, Blue Spring and Mark Twain National Forest.
Peck Ranch offers perhaps the greatest likelihood of seeing elk, as that's where about 70 percent of the herd usually is found, Hasenbeck says. The remainder roams Current River Conservation Area.
The Department of Conservation re-introduced elk to Missouri to restore populations that were decimated by over-hunting and habitat loss more than 150 years ago.
In 2011, 2012 and 2013, about three dozen elk per year were brought to Missouri from neighboring Kentucky, which has a burgeoning population of about 12,000 elk - the result of a focused, 25-year restoration program. In a neighborly exchange, Missouri provided turkeys to Kentucky to help with stabilization and conservation efforts there.
Along with the opportunity to see elk, people who travel to this region of the Show-Me State find plenty of outdoor fun, as the area is a prime destination for canoe-and-float-trip enthusiasts.
The Elk Restoration Zone is about 40 minutes west of Echo Bluff State Park and makes a great day trip destination from that site as well.
Elk tours are self guided; there's no check-in station at Peck Ranch. Twin Pines Conservation Education Center in Winona (573-325-1381) is the best local resource for visitors who want to explore the area and obtain maps and information about the tours.
Visitors should not rely on digital maps and GPS services when traveling in the area.
More information also is available at 855-263-2355 and online at www.MDC.Mo.Gov.
To learn more about vacation opportunities in the area, keep exploring www.VisitMO.com.
Photo courtesy the Missouri Department of Conservation.