9 Tips for Viewing the Elk Rut at Rocky Mountain National Park

Bull Elk

A bull elk wanders in the Upper Beaver Meadow at Rocky Mountain National Park.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park, and this year I noticed so many people staring through binoculars at fields far, far away. I’ve had amazing experiences watching the elk rut, and I’ve never had to use binoculars.

It’s getting late in the season, but I hope this helps a few folks out. Here are my tips for viewing the elk rut at Rocky Mountain National Park:

Idiots and a bull elk

These people are getting great photos of an elk decorating himself, but these people are idiots. The park has done everything possible to warn people to stay off the trails in the evenings. That dangerous animal can turn on them at any minute.

1. Be safe. As boring as it is to start on a note of safety, this really must be said. These charismatic megafauna can lull you into a false sense of familiarity and comfort, but elk are wild animals that can and will kill you if they see you as a threat.

You must realize that they are living through their annual struggle for life and death; they are not there for your entertainment.Rocky Mountain National Park does a great job of placing volunteers and rangers to help remind the crowd to keep distance between themselves and the elk, and they do all they can to keep people on the road and off the trails during evening hours when they elk are most aggressive.

Some idiots, though, slip through – overconfident and overcomfortable – tempting fate. Don’t be that guy.

2. Time your visit right. In terms of the calendar, visit in late September or early October for your best chance to catch rutting elk. In terms of the clock, aim for about 5 p.m. to sundown. That’s when they’re most active.

3. Get familiar with the area and where the activity is happening. This can take some time, and you should probably spend a few evenings in Estes Park if you want to really get some good up-close experiences and photographs. Sure, the elk are everywhere, and you can accidentally happen upon them, but the really interesting stuff (bull fights, etc.) takes some time and research.This can take some time, and you should probably spend a few evenings in Estes Park if you want to really get some good up-close experiences and photographs. Sure, the elk are everywhere, and you can accidentally happen upon them, but the really interesting stuff (bull fights, etc.) takes some time and research.

Bull elk and harem

A bull elk stands guard over his harem in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Remember that park rangers are there to help you. Ask them where the most activity has taken place. They’ll probably tell you to watch in Moraine Park, Glacier Park, Upper Beaver Meadow, Horseshoe Park and the park’s eastern entrance areas. Press a little harder to see if any one of them has been particularly active.

This year, we saw the best stuff at the far end of Upper Beaver Meadow, but during our first couple of visits Moraine Park was lousy with elk.

4. Don’t settle for one bull. I was surprised about how many people I see pulled over, sitting in chairs, cameras in hand, waiting for one bull elk to do something. Here’s a secret: that lone bull elk is kind of a loser this year. He’s probably waiting for someone else’s harem to come by. You could do better. Go find a harem.That means, look for more than one elk at a site. Chances are, there will probably be a core group of females in the harem and a dominant bull in charge. They might be lazing around eating or sleeping.If you can, look for a harem that has satellite bulls.

If you see a bunch of males wandering around the females, that’s where the magic happens. You can see the strategizing of the satellite males trying to figure out ways to distract the dominant bull. You can see females wandering off before the bull chases her back into place. You can see dominant bulls running off younger, weaker males and fighting with suitable challengers.

5. Talk to Rangers. They park deploys rangers and volunteers out to hot spots during the elk rut season. These folks know their stuff and can teach you all kinds of things about the elk, what they are likely to do and how to stay safe while getting the best pictures. They clearly love their jobs, and they love talking about the elk and teaching people about them. Take advantage of their knowledge, and you’ll have a great experience.

6. If possible, get downwind. Okay, so this might be a little gross, but if you want the full sensory experience of an elk rut, try to find a spot downwind from the action. One of the many things bull elk will do to attract cows is to decorate themselves. Part of this is just how it sounds – ripping grass and twigs up into their antlers. Part of this is much more … olfactory.If you are downwind from a male elk, you may catch a whiff of elk cologne (TM). What is this elk cologne I speak of? Well it’s a heady blend of dirt and the elk’s own urine, mixed into a mud so that he can roll in it and get all pretty smelling. Yeah. Like I said, it’s a bit gross to think of, and it’s not the most pleasant smell ever, but it definitely adds to the experience.

7. Plan for the worst. Yeah, yeah, I’m harping on safety, but it really is important. Last night I had an encounter that was a little too close for my comfort, as a female ran from a bull and led him directly toward me. Fortunately, she veered away at the last moment, and I had sufficient distance to get behind a safe structure in case he saw me as a target.Remember that these wild animals may see you as a threat, and try to predict what could happen and plan for how you would react.

8. Hope for the best. If you have your safety covered, you can relax and enjoy your experience. Watch these majestic beasts battle it out in their Darwinian struggle from the comfort of your vehicle or near it. Even if your pictures aren’t the best, your memories will be fantastic.

9. Support your National Parks. I am a huge fan of the National Park System and a true believer in the goal of nature conservation for generations to come. The Rocky Mountain National Park elk herds are a prime example of how the parks can bring people together with nature in an inspirational and educational way. There are plenty of ways you can help support your parks, so be sure to ask at the visitors center what donor programs are available.

 

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