The Elk is the second largest member of the deer family in British Columbia. It has a large body and long, slender legs. In winter, both sexes have a dark, sometimes blackish-brown head and neck, with a lighter greyish-brown body. The chest, legs and underbelly are usually darker than the rest of the body. There is a distinctive yellow-brown or cream-coloured rump patch, and similarly coloured, short tail. The rump patch is bordered on either side by a band of dark brown hair along the lower sides running up from the top of the dark legs. In winter, the longer hair on the neck, especially on the underside, forms a mane that is longer in males than females. The lower lip is light coloured with a distinct black stripe running down from the back of the mouth, and there is a ring of light hair around the eye. The summer pelage is generally the same colour pattern but somewhat more reddish-brown or tawny than in winter. Most adult males have a lighter coloured body than the females, with darker legs and neck – so a male has more contrast between the light and dark areas of his body than a female has, especially in early fall at the beginning of the rut. Antorbital glands are present and visible, and other epithelial glands include metatarsal, caudal and interdigital glands.
Young up to about three months of age have reddish-brown coats with white spots. They lack the distinctive cream-coloured rump patch until they are about one year old.
Antlers are grown almost exclusively by males (females can grow antlers but only very rarely). They range in size and structure from a single spike or sometimes a simple fork in yearlings to the large branched antlers of adults. The antlers of adult Elk are characterized by a long, cylindrical main beam with usually five or six points branching from it. The first tines are two curved brow points protecting the eyes and head, followed by a third curved point midway along the beam, then a fourth large, relatively straight, upward-forward-pointing tine three-quarters along the beam. After the fourth tine, the main beam bends backward and ends usually either in a fork or a single sharp point. Large specimens can have one or two more tines after the fourth point. And the same animal can have a different number of points on each antler. The average length of the main beam from the base to the tip for 67 adult male Rocky Mountain Elk from Alberta was 1,186 mm, with a maximum length of 1,380 mm. The term “spike” or “spikehorn” is sometimes used for yearling males because of their simple antler structure, while “raghorn” is sometimes used for two- to three-year-old males whose slender three- to five-pointed antlers are easily damaged. Antlers of older males are stronger and heavier, and each usually weighs over 2.5 kg. Elk shed their antlers beginning in late February for the largest males and extending to late April and even early May for younger ones. New antler growth begins soon after shedding.
The skull of an Elk is large, with well developed lachrymal pits, open lachrymal vacuities, posterior nares undivided by the vomer and a broad premaxillae. It is one of only two species of deer in British Columbia with upper canine teeth, and these short, wide and rounded teeth are present in both sexes.