An estimated 3,200 elk live nearby in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Hundreds of elk are beginning their descent from the high country into the warmer lower elevations and into Estes Park. During the fall and winter months, elk can be found walking along the shop-lined streets as well as within private neighborhood yards. It's quite common for traffic to come to a complete stop due to a large herd of elk occupying the road.
As autumn approaches and leaves change colors, the elk population also embraces the coming rut season. Typically from mid-September to mid-October, bull elk compete for the attention of female elk (cows). Bulls aggressively charge at each other often locking antlers in an effort to show off their strength and domination. Other signature characteristics of rut season are the musky smell emitted by the bulls and the sound of bulls bugling. Dusk is a great time to witness these unique sounds, starting as a high-pitched squeal and often ending in low-pitched grunts.
Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus Canadensis nelsoni) are large creatures, with the animals measuring four to five feet as adults (hoof to shoulder) and weighing nearly 1,000 pounds. They live and travel together in herds of up to 400 head—typically, one bull elk to several cows. Elk are most active in the mornings and evenings and rest in grassy areas over the warmer midday hours.
While elk appear to be calm and restful animals, they are still wild animals that can and will defend themselves when threatened. Over the years, news stories report of elk attacks, though often in reaction to people approaching, feeding, or even taunting these animals—in 2019, a large bull elk charged a crowd and knocked a woman over.
In order to protect elk (and other big game animals), a Colorado state law was passed in 1992 making it illegal to feed big game animals. Feeding of wildlife not only undermines an animal's natural need and ability to obtain its own food, but it also attracts predators closer to and within nearby cities.
All wildlife, including elk, should be respected and admired from a distance. They make for a great photograph commemorating a favorite hike or to capture a visit to the beloved Rocky Mountains.
Rocky Mountain National Park is only accessible by entrance pass and a timed-entry permit. Entrance passes are available at the staffed park entrance stations. Reservations for a timed-entry permit can only be made online. For a small fee, you'll be provided with a window of time in order for you to enter the park. You will be asked to show your entrance pass, timed entry permit, and photo identification upon entry.
Check out the park's FAQs on the timed-entry permits. Estes Park sits at 7,522 feet above sea level, and Rocky Mountain National Park ranges between 7,860 and 14,259 feet above sea level. Anytime you're at a higher elevation, be sure to drink plenty of water and apply sunscreen as you can sunburn much more easily closer to the sun.
Have you seen the elk herds make the journey through Estes Park before? If so, share your photos and videos with us in the comments.