BENEZETTE, Pa. - Why did the elk cross the road? To get past the tourists. The tourists, wide-eyed and camera-ready, are coming in increasingly large numbers to this woodsy, countrified area of north-central Pennsylvania.

Their trips are spurred by a buzz about free-roaming elk that has transformed the place from a rural curiosity to a bona-fide travel destination, especially at sunrise and dusk, when the elk come out of the woods to play.

But before we move on, full disclosure about why the elk primarily cross the road, in the middle of teeny Benezette: Because they can. The bulls, which is to say the guys - those regal, pointy-horned icons of insurance ads and many a nature shot - can weigh close to half a ton, and the cows, their lovers, are no slouches at up to about 600 pounds. You see them coming toward the road, you value your car, you want a future, you stop. (Even if you are from New York - like more than a few of the nearly four million yearly visitors up here.)

The brown-and-gray animals with big, beige butts are bringing more to the region - about a 41/2-hour drive from central Philadelphia - than just heft. They are pulling in new money, lots of it from the state, which considers them a draw, a conservation effort, a limited hunting opportunity, and the keystone of outdoor recreation projects that run from hiking and biking and canoeing to sky-watching.

The area, a part of what's now energetically marketed as the Pennsylvania Wilds, not only boasts the largest contingent of free-roaming elk in the entire Northeast, but also has what the state promotes as the darkest Northeast skies. Cherry Springs State Park, northeast of Benezette, has become a stargazers' haven, and the state continues to install observation domes and other amenities, and to encourage towns nearby to keep the lights dim.

"If you compare the Philadelphia sky at night and the sky there at night, you'd think you were on different planets," said Mike DiBerardinis, a former Philadelphia recreation official who runs the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the major state player in the area and the steward over vast state-owned forestry.

DiBerardinis and his wife have combined elk-watching and sky-watching for what is becoming the preeminent northern Pennsylvania experience. One night during the rut - the active, fully frontal elk mating season in early fall, when tourism is busiest - they hiked into the woods, and came upon a herd of about 40.

Four or five bulls were among the herd, horn-jousting for their harems and making the mating sound called bugling, a pierce of many notes that bounces off trees and shoots through the amplifying Pennsylvania night. "The elk were bugling like mad," DiBerardinis said. "The stars were spectacular. That night was one of my most unforgettable outdoor experiences ever."

Elk County - where else?

The elk, which state officials believe number at least 600 and others venture to be around 1,000, roam mainly in Elk County, one of those rare places that live up to their name. Many also roam in neighboring Cameron County, with fewer in Clinton, Centre and Clearfield Counties - overall, about 835 square miles of forests and mountains.

They have been the bane of farmers, who had no farm unless they had a decent elk-deflecting fence; the animals not only love veggies, but the bulls also destroy saplings and larger trees by vibrantly rubbing their antlers - which they grow and lose annually - on the bark.

But if farmers see them as worthless, the state has always seen them as an opportunity. The elk, in fact, are Pennsylvania's Prodigal Animals, brought back on purpose, by humans.

Elk once ranged across the state, but were overhunted. The last native elk was killed 140 years ago. Beginning in 1913, the state Game Commission began a reclamation project, rounding up elk from Yellowstone National Park and South Dakota, putting them on trains, then releasing them with elk from a private reserve in Monroe County. In all, 177 were sent into 10 Pennsylvania counties, and hunting resumed from 1923 through 1931. The elk population by then had dwindled again, hunting was banned, and today's herd is the legacy of many a tenacious animal.

Hunting resumed in 2001; a few weeks ago, 40 hunters were licensed from about 30,000 who applied to take the state's largest game animal in a six-day season. (An even more limited hunt comes earlier each fall.)

While elk are key to the development of tourism in what was once an amalgam of country roads where traffic jams were unthinkable, the elk country is only a piece of the Pennsylvania Wilds, which celebrates the state's outdoor life in general. For years before anyone ever used that name - Deputy State Tourism Secretary Mickey Rowley and officials from 12 counties came up with it, from an evolving list, without a minute's billing from any marketing agency - people had been coming to see elk, or hunt, or fish, hike and bike. But nothing about the place was an organized recreation and tourism area until Gov. Rendell came along five years ago with a vision, a commitment to it, and so far more than $75 million in state money.

If Broad Street captured Rendell's passion as Philadelphia's Avenue of the Arts when he was mayor, then the dozen counties of the Pennsylvania Wilds have become his pathway through nature. In fact, the Avenue of the Arts is a model for the Pennsylvania Wilds: Government provides an infrastructure to organize what's already there and to attract new development, which also gets incentives from the government.

In the summer of 2002, Rendell decided to campaign in every county of the state, including the northern tier, where he had not before concentrated.

"The trip blew me away," he said. "I couldn't believe how many interesting things there were to do, how many great little towns with charm there were, how beautiful the entire trip was." (He was on Route 6, which runs above I-80 and amid some of the state's most breathtaking scenery, including a part of pristine Pine Creek Gorge, whose street name is Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon, near Wellsboro.)

"I came away thinking, it's amazing: Pennsylvanians will drive all the way down to Skyline Drive in Virginia, or fly out to the Rockies or the Pacific Coast Highway, and they can have the same experiences at one-fifth of the cost and a fifth of the time it takes."

The gubernatorial elk

The governor was on a mission. He didn't see his first elk until more than a year later - and not up close, as so many tourists see them, but with binoculars. "The problem was, because I'm the governor I don't travel light, and I ended up with an entourage of 25 or 30, and we all went out into the wild. And I think we made too much noise."

Once back in Harrisburg, he continued to make noise, getting his staffers revved up and then sending them across northern Pennsylvania, where they must have seemed like Aliens from the Urban Outposts to local officials and mover-shakers, who were surely not looking for that sort of attention. For Rendell, it was the sort of challenge that makes him salivate, like a bull elk during the rut.

"The great thing about it was getting the local people to buy in," he said. "At the beginning, local officials and other people were skeptical: Here's this guy from Philadelphia - what does he know?"

In fact, about tourism, he knows a lot. "I could see that if we began to draw more people, we couldn't handle it. We didn't have the hotels, and we didn't have the services, and we needed more infrastructure, and you know me: I wanted everything done yesterday."

It was done in three years, an almost unheard-of pace for a huge project with so many disparate parts - a major reason the Society of American Travel Writers honored the Pennsylvania Wilds in October with its Phoenix Award for outstanding work in developing or rescuing a tourist destination.

Here's how the Pennsylvania Wilds happened: Officials came together from 12 counties and the state, formed an association that combined their tourism and recreation efforts, and used state funding and their own resources. From several roads, they put together a fully signed Elk Scenic Drive, 127 miles with 23 points of interest in the elk range. (Its closest access from metropolitan Philadelphia is the eastern edge, at Snow Shoe just off I-80, about four hours by car.)

They planned business and economic development together, hugely upgraded the night-sky observation, built elk watches where cars can pull to the edge of large clearings, built 27 new bridges in state forests, launched land-use projects that include reclaiming mine lands and protecting waterways, and improved the 60-plus-mile hiking/biking path called the Pine Creek Rail Trail.

This has brought private development - lodges and other places that cater to tourism. Northwest of Benezette, in Elk County's seat of Ridgway (estimated population: 7,000), 25 tourism and outdoors projects have generated $8.5 million in the last three years - most of them with private funding.

Two years ago, as the buzz was growing, about 3.5 million people visited the Pennsylvania Wilds; one study has tourism now at 3.9 million. When you consider what people are coming to see, the combined forces of the dozen counties, as touted by the state, make the Wilds a statistical powerhouse:

More than 1.6 million acres of state forest and game lands, 29 state parks, the half-million-plus-acre Allegheny National Forest, 16,000 miles of streams that include 2,067 trout streams, 1,600 miles of designated trails. Plus those elk, the stars, and myriad small towns with their own charms.

The elk put on a show

It didn't take five minutes on a recent trip to Benezette (population: 227), the center of the elk range, to see an elk. It was late on a weekday afternoon, perhaps 90 minutes before the elk were expected to come out of the woods, and the bull elk sat in the middle of a field, lazing in the late-autumn sun as if to pose for the folks who were pulling their cars into the Winslow Hill viewing area. For a good look, they needed binoculars.

"It's a five-by-five," someone said after an intense stare through the spyglasses. Five points on each antler - a decent-size bull. As the sun went down, more folks parked to watch for elk. One couple put out a small barbecue.

At dusk, people in town were pulling over to the roadside, drawn by the cars already parked there and the people with cameras, aimed. A bull and his harem were crossing the main road in town to meet other cow elk in a field yards away from the road. Another bull elk came down, and it looked for a few minutes as if there would be a tussle, but after the two looked in each other's eyes, the intruder headed back across the road.

"Do not stop on the roadway to view elk," says a sign in Benezette. "It is a safety hazard and a violation" - probably committed in Elk County over and over, each day.

For Jack Foltyn, who lives near Erie and drives to Elk County several times a week to capture the elk in his camera, it was a fine few minutes. Foltyn, among the 40 or so folks who stopped to see the animals, is like many people who've been turned into nature photographers by the elk: Every time he sees one, it's like the first time.

The next morning, Phil Burkhouse, a guide from Cameron County, came to Benezette with his buddy Joe Blackburn, a retired doctor who delivered a legion of that county's babies. Tourists frequently find herds of elk in the forests with the help of hired guides, and on this morning the two men didn't need to go far with their two charges in tow after breakfast at the Benezette Store & Restaurant, which sort of defines downtown Benezette.

A herd was standing around, on residential property, about a minute away. "To get this close to a wild elk is almost impossible anywhere else," Blackburn said. "These elk are habituated, but don't think they're not wild." A few minutes later, on a walk through lands run by the state and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, where pink flags on saplings mark off what will become a $10 million visitation center in two years, some elk sat peacefully in a thick stand of trees.

"They will bed down and chew their cud most of the day," said Blackburn, who sees elk a majority of his days. Burkhouse and Blackburn are, in the parlance of the region, elkaholics.

It doesn't take much to be enchanted by such large and graceful animals, even for urbanites. Among the people at the Winslow Hill elk lookout were Harry and Karen Hunters, former Lansdale residents who retired to Warriors Mark, near only slightly larger Tyrone, which is near much larger Altoona.

This was their second elk outing this year, their third altogether. Karen Hunter, a nurse, now calls Philadelphia "back east." Her husband, who worked at a Souderton bank, looked at the lone elk in the distance. "This," he said, "is real country."

The elk sat, and the cool air gently tickled the leaves on the trees. The sounds the countryside makes were broken only by the slow progress of cars on the road. "I tell people that living out here is like going back 40 years," Karen Hunter said. "Like to the time when I was a kid."

For More Information

For information about the Pennsylvania Wilds, including all aspects of trip planning, visit the Web site at www.pawilds.com or call 1-800-577-2029.EndText

For video of an elk herd

in Elk County, visit http://go.philly.

com/elkEndText

Contact travel editor Howard Shapiro
at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.