Where and When to See Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado

Updated on June 8, 2020
Chad Claeyssen profile image

Chad is an avid traveler who loves to share his tips and experiences to help others get the most out of their travels.

A Little History About Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Shortly before 1900, the answer to where and when to see elk in Rocky Mountain National Park was that they weren't many places and you'd almost never see them. The once great elk herd that inhabited the area had almost been eradicated due to over-hunting. In 1913 and 1914, 49 elk from Yellowstone were moved to Rocky Mountain National Park. Thanks to the reintroduction of elk as well as the elimination of their natural predators (grizzlies and wolves), there's now an elk population of over 3,000 in the national park and surrounding area.

Elk near Estes Park, Colorado
Elk near Estes Park, Colorado

Where and When to See Elk in RMNP and Estes Park

Elk, also called Wapiti by Native Americans, are commonly 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, but every season affords ample viewing opportunities.

Spring

Elk can be found in abundance at lower elevations and in the town of Estes Park during the Spring. Snow still makes it hard for them to forage for food higher in the mountains. Inside Rocky Mountain National Park, Moraine Park and the area just west of the Beaver Meadows Visitors' Center are great places to look for elk. In the springtime you'll usually see elk congregating with animals of the same gender, as they do most of the year.

Spring is also the time of year when elk lose their antlers. Around mid-March elk start to drop their antlers and they start to grow back almost immediately. 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.

An elk with new antlers in velvet near Estes Park, Colorado
An elk with new antlers in velvet near Estes Park, Colorado

Female elk, called cows, 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 even above the tree line in summer. Dawn and dusk are favorite feeding times. Calves begin to lose their spots in late summer.

An elk above the tree line during the Summer. This photo was taken through a car window from the roadside.
An elk above the tree line during the Summer. This photo was taken through a car window from the roadside.

Fall

Fall is a popular elk viewing season. Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park can become crowded. The elk return to 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 see a moose) are good spots on the west side of the park to see elk.

Elk locking antlers in Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk locking antlers in Rocky Mountain National Park | Source

Winter

Elk can be seen grazing around Estes Park, near homes and hotels in Winter. Elk can also be found at lower elevations in the park meadows. When the snow is too deep for elk to get food from the ground, sometimes they turn to eating the 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. Small animals can pass under a 16 inch space at the bottom of the fences.

Elk in the snow at Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk in the snow at Rocky Mountain National Park

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.

Have you ever seen an elk in the wild? Have you heard a bull bugle or seen two of them lock antlers?

A
Estes Park, Colorado:
Estes Park, CO 80517, USA

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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      2 months ago from UK

      This is a very well-illustrated and informative article.

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