A little history
Shortly before 1900, the answer to where and when to see elk in Rocky Mountain National Park was – not many places and almost never. The once great elk herd that inhabited the area had almost been eradicated due to over-hunting. Thanks to re-introduction of 49 elk from Yellowstone National Park in 1913 and 1914, along with the elimination of elk’s predators (grizzlies and wolves), an elk herd of over 3,000 populate the area again.
Where and when to see elk in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado
Elk, also called Wapiti or Waapti by Native Americans, are easily seen throughout Rocky Mountain National Park and even in the town of Estes Park. The best place to see elk in the area varies slightly depending on what time of year you visit the area, but every season affords ample viewing opportunities.
SPRING – As during most of the year, Elk usually congregate with members of the same gender in spring. Elk can still be found in abundance at lower elevations and in the town of Estes Park, while snow still makes it hard to forage for food higher in the mountains. Inside the national park, Moraine Park and the area just west of the Beaver Meadows Visitors’ Center are great places to look for elk.
Spring is also the time of year when elk lose their antlers. Around mid-March elk start to drop their antlers and they almost immediately start growing back. When antlers begin to grow back they are covered in velvet and can grow up to an inch each day. Antler collecting is prohibited because they provide a key source of minerals to small mammals in the park.
Female elk, called cows and sometimes doe, deliver their young in late spring. Calves have white spots and stay with their mother for nearly a year.
SUMMER – Elk move to higher elevations and above the treeline in summer. Dawn and dusk are favorite feeding times. Calves begin to lose their spots in late summer.
FALL – Fall is a popular elk viewing season. The elk return to meadows and lower elevations for mating, or rut, season in September. Bugles of bull elk can be heard on fall nights throughout Rocky Mountain National Park and around the town of Estes Park. A bugle is a series of grunts, groans, and squeals made by a male elk to attract a female mate. Bulls can be heard bugling and seen strutting around the area from mid-September to as late as November. Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, and Upper Beaver Meadows are prime viewing areas near Estes Park. Harbison Meadow and the Kawuneeche Valley (also a good spot to maybe see a moose) are good spots on the west side of the park to see elk.
WINTER – Elk can be seen grazing around Estes Park, around residences and hotels in winter. Elk can also be found at lower elevations in the park in meadows. When the snow is too deep for elk to get food from the ground, sometimes they turn to eating the white, soft bark of aspen trees. Black scars on the base of aspens, up to four feet high, provide evidence of this. Fences built to keep elk and moose from destroying aspen and other growth can be seen around the park. These exclosures keep out elk and moose, but visitors can access the areas through gates and small animals can pass under a 16 inch space at the bottom of the fences.
*Make sure to give elk and all wild animals plenty of space when viewing them. You don’t want to end up on a vacations gone bad video. As a general rule, if you alter the movement or behavior of an animal, you’re too close. More information on elk and elk viewing, as well as general park information can be found on the National Park Service website for Rocky Mountain National Park.