HAZARD — Sleepy sightseers piled into vans at a state resort park for a nearly hourlong drive in the dark to an Appalachian coal-mining site that's become home to another valuable natural resource in Eastern Kentucky.
The group gave up some sleeping time for a chance to get a close look at a majestic animal that has made a strong comeback after disappearing from these Kentucky mountains for more than a century.
That first glimpse of an elk at daybreak, as the sun peeked over the crest of hillsides, was worth the early wake-up call.
At that point, the hunt was on for visitors armed with cameras and binoculars.
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"We're in chase mode now," said tour guide Trinity Shepherd, the park naturalist at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonsburg.
Everyone had caught elk fever. The visitors peered out the van windows looking for antlers or patches of brown nestled in the green vegetation. It didn't take long to find more elk and to hear a bull elk bugle — a foghorn-like bellow heard during fall mating season.
At first, the animals were spotted one or two at a time.
"There goes a big bull, right there," Shepherd said, pointing to a hulking male elk with an impressive rack of antlers.
Not far away, five elk were found at an area that provided panoramic views of patchy fog draped over the hollows.
They were meandering a few hundred yards away in lush grass and brush planted by the coal company as part of a reclamation project after surface mining had ended. Elk in the region have thrived on the man-made meadows.
Soon, everyone was back in the van, ready for the next sightings. It wasn't long before three more elk were spotted: two females and a large male.
"My lord, he's a nice one. Isn't he gorgeous?" said Sharyn Mallicoat of Albany.
The elk didn't scamper when the van pulled up. They stared right back.
"He's a good bull, but there are bigger," Shepherd said, estimating the animal was 4 or 5 years old.
After several minutes, the show ended as the animals meandered off.
A few minutes later, a small bull elk crossed the road ahead of the vans. Then, at the top of another ridge, the sightseers came across a massive bull and 10 females that stood for several minutes before running off.
"Is that not awesome?" Shepherd said.
Male elk grow to about 850 pounds, and females reach about 650.
The area is teeming with other wildlife — deer, turkey, geese and many other birds — but the elk are the star attractions.
Elk disappeared from Kentucky about the time of the Civil War, mainly because of overhunting.
They returned in 1997, when wildlife managers started the restoration by bringing in elk from several Western states in what was heralded as an important ecology and tourism program. The startup herds have grown to about 10,000 as the elk have flourished in southeastern Kentucky. They have no natural predators and enjoy lush food sources and milder winters than those out West.
As their numbers have swelled, some elk have strayed from the backcountry to come into contact with people. Those rogue elk have trampled gardens, flattened fences and caused car crashes.
There is a limited elk-hunting season in Kentucky. (Information is available from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources at Fw.ky.gov.)
But more and more visitors are stalking the animals with cameras and binoculars. Two state parks in Eastern Kentucky, Jenny Wiley and Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park, offer fall and winter elk tours.
Shepherd said he scouts the animals before the tours begin to make sure the sightseers get a look at the animals.
"We have a 100 percent success rate," he said.
During the fall mating season, many herds feature one or two mature bulls and their "harem" of 15 to 20 females. Small clusters of bachelor groups of young male elk also roam the countryside.
In the winter, once the mating season is over, the elk herds will expand to as many as 100 to 200 animals, Shepherd said.
Once the viewing was finished, the vans stopped to give the sightseers a chance to stretch their legs and listen to a short elk lesson from Shepherd. Then it was back in the vans for the 45-minute drive to Jenny Wiley park to complete the five-hour tour.
Shepherd said he never tires of looking at the animals.
"When you go out and see these animals back in their native range here," he said, "there's nothing like it for me."