Bugling Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park

A bull elk bugles to the ladies in the Upper Beaver Meadow at Rocky Mountain National Park.

A bull elk bugles to the ladies in the Upper Beaver Meadow at Rocky Mountain National Park.

IMHO, the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park and its endcap towns – Estes Park and Grand Lake, Colorado – is in the fall. Not only do you get to see the shocking yellow of the autumn aspen leaves, you also get to hear and see the unusual mating dance of elk known as rutting.

If you’re in Rocky Mountain National Park in late September or early October, you’ll certainly hear the bugling of the males before you’ll see what’s going on. An elk bugle is a one-of-a-kind sound you will never forget once you have heard it. Part of the reason it is so unforgettable is because the haunting and horrific squeal will surely show up in your nightmares for a few months after a close encounter.

The reason for the sound is two-fold. First, the ladies like it. They are much more likely to hang out with a big bull elk that has a bugle with a mighty range of several octaves and the ability to echo around the valley. Second, the sound helps a male mark his territory and warn other males to keep their hoofs off his harem.

Bull elk and harem

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

Harem? Yes. Bull elk gather female elk into harems of as many as 60 females who are herded and impregnated by a single male elk. This is a lot of work, considering that dozens of other males are constantly trying to lure some of the harem away.

Male elk without their own harems do everything they can to challenge the dominant bull, steal the harem, split the harem or sneak in a good time with a single female, if they can manage it.

Satellite bulls will work together to distract a male from many sides and try to attract females away from their bull. The dominant bull is constantly working to chase off distractions from all sides.

And all of this is on full display in the fall at Rocky Mountain National Park each year.

Hundreds of visitors line the park roads trying to get a good view of the elk soap opera playing out in the meadows at the eastern base of the park’s mountain range. Amature photographers (like myself) gather with documentary filmmakers, artistic photographers, journalists and families all trying to see the drama unfold each evening.

And the drama can be quite eventful. Over four evenings in the park, I have witness high-speed chases across meadows, posing and posturing for fights, gangs of males teasing and taunting dominant bulls while flirting with wayward young females, and I have witnessed the clacking of antlers as the taunting finally came to blows.

Tonight, I even watched a small herd of females change hands at least three times, as a bull was run off by another bull, who chased off another group of bulls, while yet another bull quietly came in from a stream to temporarily take over the harem before the original bull came back and herded his females back into order. It was fascinating and frightening when it got too close for comfort.

Mostly, though, the elk rut is the reason I’ve visited Rocky Mountain National Park three times in the fall over the past ten years. It’s definitely a bucket list item.

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