We are sat under a Ponderosa Pine, our shoulders against its trunk, our eyes fixed on a male elk busy keeping his harem together a few feet away from us.
It is late September in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, we are at the peak of the ungulates mating season. Only the clicks of our camera, the wind and the male elks raising their call for the females can be heard. Without coming to physical confrontation, the fight for the predominance we are witnessing happens through this acute and penetrating sound, spread for miles along the Moraine Park valley.
Two single males descend bugling from the west mountain to the center of the valley: they point at the harem of the bull in front of us, which is becoming more and more aggressive, trying to not let the cows run away. After two hours of palpable tension and sometimes imperceptible signals, four young females escape from the herd to reach one of the two single males and quickly run away with him to form a new group.
An incredible show, one of the many you can witness on the Rocky Mountains all year round. We chose the autumn mainly for the rut season, but the park also showed us mountains full of yellow aspens and mists that made us feel out of space and time.
If, on the one hand, fog prevented us from enjoying the panoramic views of the Trail Ridge Road (in the northern section of the park), on the other it wrapped us in an incredible dreamlike setting: our walk in the Bear Lake area (south) turned out to be a surreal experience. After parking the car, among the many options we chose to walk along the path leading to the Nymph Lake (famous for the water lilies) and the Dream Lake (2.2 miles from the car park). We walked for two hours literally surrounded by woodpeckers, Steller's jays and chipmunks.
Thanks to the few tourists of the low season, the mist was able to silence every sound, allowing us to walk in an unreal setting.
ANIMALS OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Inside the park there are 280 species of birds and 60 mammals. The park's great large-animal population makes it one of the Colorado's top wildlife watching destinations. Among others, the black bear, the wolf, the coyote, the elk, the moose, the mountain lion, the mule deer and the Big Horn Sheep. Moose are frequently seen in the western part of the park (especially along the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley, that we didn’t have the time to visit), but Elk can be spotted anytime anywhere. The Sheep Lake and the Big Thompson Canyon are the Bighorn Sheep preferred areas.
Just a quick note about the animal names: the Wapiti here is called 'Elk' (the name the Europeans use for “Moose”).
It is very important to respect the safety distances in case of close encounters: at least 23 mt from Elk and Bighorn sheep and at least 36 mt from moose and bears. The long-distance relationship is of great importance for the safety of visitors (as we are talking about large, strong and wild animals), but also for the respect due to the animal’s territory and habits that must NEVER be conditioned or, worse, compromised by the human presence and behaviour.
We recommend robust and comfortable shoes, a binocular to spot and observe animals, a camera with a decent zoom if you're interested in wildlife photography, food and drinks (even hot drinks if you go in the cold season). Inside the park there are no refreshment points. Food should be kept in the car or, if you want to carry it in your backpack when hiking in the backcountry, be sure to seal it in a bear-proof container.
There are ecological toilet facilities at strategic points and at reasonable distances from each other.
THE BEST SEASON TO VISIT THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
We prefer to visit places normally affected by high visitation rates during the low season. In the Rocky Mountains, the high season corresponds to the summer (June-August), a season that obviously grants many hours of light, a pleasant climate and florid vegetation, but also coincides with the greatest tourists flows. It is absolutely personal, but if you are a nature and wildlife lover, your experience will be infinitely worse if you find yourself in the middle of a crowd and have to queue to see a deer. For us it is a bit like distorting the very essence of the experience, because it prevents us from establishing a deep connection with the peace and the silence of nature.
On the other side, low season means a colder climate (important if you plan to stake out to spot wildlife), unpredictable weather, risks of road closure: if you go in the low season, be more well equipped and flexible.
If you are interested in an animal in particular, find out its habits before departure: when it’s the mating and breeding season, what type of food it likes and where it goes to eat, when it goes in hibernation if it does (like bears).
WHERE TO STAY
Our base camp was Estes Park, one hour drive from Denver, a pretty town with all major services at just 4 miles from the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station. Estes Park is also home to The Stanley Hotel, the hotel that inspired Stephen King for the book 'The Shining'. In 1974, the writer spent a night at the Stanley Hotel while recovering from alcoholism. In 1977 his book was so successful that it later became one of Stanley Kubrick's most famous movies.
ENTRANCE AND TICKETS NATIONAL PARK OF ROCKY MOUNTAIN
In addition to the Beaver Meadows entrance (East), there are those of Wild Basin (South), Fall River (North) and Grand Lake (West). Near the entrance there are also the Visitor Centres where you can ask for information, advise, maps or books
The daily pass costs $ 20.00 per car, the weekly $ 30.00 per car.
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