Autumn Elk Rutting Season in Rocky Mountain National Park

By Courtney Holden,
Bull Elk Bugling in Rocky Mountain National Park

Fall is always a great time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. The summer crowds have died down, the air is cool with a touch of winter’s bite and aspens are turning into a dazzling gold color. Another bonus: the elk rut season is in full swing.

At its peak from mid-September to mid-October, the elk rut is a time when male elk, or bulls, vie for the hearts of their female counterparts, known as cows. Their goal is to prove their prowess and win the loyalty of a “harem” of females. Eight-to-nine-year-old bulls stand the greatest chance of mating.

Bull elk with his cow harem. 

The bulls become more aggressive during this season, charging at each other and locking antlers as they battle over dominant status and mating rights. Although competition is high, actual fighting is rare since it causes injury and depletes energy. Rather, they compete by showcasing their antlers, necks and bodies, as well as emitting a strong, musky odor.

Bull Elk Bugling

Elk bugling is another significant characteristic of rut season. This loud call is the sound of a bull trying to attract and keep an eye on as many cows as possible. It starts out as a high-pitch cry and then, about 16 percent of the time, becomes a series of low, resonating grunts.

Research led by Dr. Jennifer Clarke at the University of Northern Colorado suggests that different types of bugling sounds mean different things. One sound communicates that the bull is in the area with his harem; another warns the cows that they’re straying too far from their bull; and others tell potentially competitive bulls that they’re too close to the first bull’s harem and in for trouble if they come closer.

Watch another video of elk bugling

Elk Alerts on Social Media #EstesElkWatch

Keep an eye on social media to get the latest updates on where the elk are battling and bugling by checking hashtag #EstesElkWatch. Feel free to add your own updates on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Estes Park Elk Festival

If you’re in the Rocky Mountain National Park area in autumn, head to Estes Park for their annual Elk Festival. Held in late-September or early-October, the event includes bugling contests, educational areas, elk seminars, Native American music, dancing and storytelling. Vendors will sell their wares, much of it inspired by elk ivory. There will also be a range of unique elk cuisine for the tasting. Elk-viewing bus tours take you around favorite elk haunts in Estes Park or go it on your own and sit along the roadsides of the park's meadows around dawn and dusk. www.visitestespark.com/events-calendar/special-events/elk-fest/