Seeing wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park evokes a rush of excitement so great it’s hard to remember there isn’t a piece of glass between you and the animals. Home to thousands of elk, mule deer, marmots, bighorn sheep, and the occasional black bear, it’s not uncommon to have your Park experience include a wildlife sighting.
After spending hundreds of hours inside the Park, we’ve come to learn a thing or two about how not to get your food ravaged by a black bear, or how to cross through a heard of Elk in the high country. So if seeing wildlife is a priority, take our word for it and plan on exploring the Park in depth. And even better, use a little one as a lookout since they typically see things first. (Don’t ask us how; it just seems to always work out that way.)
Rocky Mountain Elk
There is no other sight that defines Rocky Mountain National Park more than an elk. Reintroduced into the Park in 1913 and 1914, elk now total nearly 3,000 strong. Highly visible, and known mostly for their loud bugle during mating season, it’s not uncommon to see elk throughout the Park. During summertime elk typically head to the high country, while descending to lower valleys in fall months. For some of the best viewing spots check out Moraine Park, Upper Beaver Meadows, and Kawuneeche Valley.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep
A favorite mammal among young children and adults alike, bighorn sheep defy all odds by scurrying up vertical cliffs humans need ropes to ascend. A rare treat to see during wintertime, bighorn sheep typically reside in the high country clinging to cliff faces while storms dump more than a few feet of snow on them. It is much more common to view the sheep during summer months. Some of the best places to check out are Sheep Lake and Bighorn Mountain, when they come down to graze and mate.
Rocky Mountain Marmots
Not just a clothing line, marmots scurry around the Park snagging food, chirping loudly, and usually looking pretty cuddly. Found primarily above 10,000 feet, marmots play a key role in the tundra’s ecosystem. Look for them to be sunning on a rock or taking a nap in open tundra. Small mammals known as picas also reside in the high country, but are typically a bit harder to spot.
Birds of the Rocky Mountains
Bird enthusiasts in the Park will enjoy a variety of species unique to the Park’s high-elevation and ecology. Over two hundred known species can be found throughout the Park and surrounding regions. During wintertime look for White-tailed ptarmigan, a plump, rounded bird that reaches about 12 to 13 inches long and scurries across the forest floor. The bird is the only species in the alpine zone that does not migrate. Other birds include Clark’s Nutcracker, Red Crossbill, and Western Tanager. During summer months also make sure to check out ranger-led bird watching programs. The rangers are experts at helping you locate the birds you’ve always wanted to see.
These solitary and elusive cats are not frequently spotted. They stalk their favorite prey, mule deer, but prefer to slink through the forest unseen. In addition to deer, they hunt coyotes and raccoons. Encounters with mountain lions can be dangerous. If you encounter a mountain lion, do not try to run. Instead stand tall and attempt to scare it away.
These omnivores follow their mostly vegetarian food sources in the park. In spring, they feast on shrubs and new shoots in the forest. Throughout summer and fall, they retreat to the cooler alpine zone, chasing berries and trout. Black bears hibernate in winter and mate in summer. The park’s bear population is small, and black bears avoid people, so seeing one requires great luck.