How Close Can I Get to Elk and Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park?

Every year people get attacked in the park by wildlife and most of the time it could’ve been prevented simply by following the wildlife safety rules.
By Carly Everett ,
Bull elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

On Sept. 27, 2015, Marci Bowden and residents of Estes Park, Colo., watched in horror as a man was gored by a bull elk off of Highway 34. The man placed himself amidst a herd during mating season in an attempt to get an up-close shot. He got more than he was looking for though, after a bull threw him to the ground and gored him. His disregard for wildlife rules put not only his own life in danger but the elk’s life, too.

While there have been no recorded incidences of people getting attacked by elk or moose in Rocky Mountain National Park, there have been incidents outside the park's boundaries. Most of the time it could’ve been prevented simply by following the wildlife safety rules. Most people aren’t too keen on strict rules and guidelines, but the regulations put into place in Rocky Mountain National Park are there for a good reason. For starters, visitor safety is the park’s main priority. Besides protecting visitors, though, the regulations help preserve the park and keep the wildlife wild.

Why park rangers would prefer you didn’t take “selfies” with wild animals

As tempting as it is to get a “selfie” with a seven-foot-tall, furry moose, in actuality it’s extremely dangerous and destructive. When visitors overstep the rules, they’re not only putting themselves at risk, but the animals as well. Too much interaction with humans can change the animal’s natural instincts and lead to them being euthanized or hit by a car. This alters their impact on the park’s ecosystem.

Kyle Patterson, public affairs officer at Rocky Mountain National Park, says that moving young animals or approaching and feeding them interferes with the natural processes of the park. This can hurt the species involved or ourselves.

“Close proximity to wild animals can result in injury to people and transfer of potential disease and disease vectors,” says Patterson. “In addition, feeding animals can lead them closer to roads and increase the chances that they will be killed in the future by a vehicle.”

A photographer gets too close to a bull elk.

Although visitors can easily spot elk and moose in Rocky Mountain National Park, it wasn’t always that way. Northern American elk, or wapiti, were reintroduced to the area that would become Rocky Mountain National Park in 1913 and 1914. The Estes Valley Improvement Association and United States Forest Service brought in 49 elk from Yellowstone National Park after overhunting in the Estes Valley left few, if any, elk remaining by 1890. Elk reintroduction, in addition to eliminating predators such as the gray wolf and grizzly bear, helped restore the elk population.

Like elk, moose also weren’t always as prevalent as they are today in Rocky Mountain National Park. In 1978, the Colorado Division of Wildlife introduced 12 moose from Utah to Colorado’s North Park region near Walden. They brought in another 12 in 1979 from Wyoming and placed them in the same region. Since then, there are more than 2,300 moose in Colorado, including in the park. Unlike the moose population in Minnesota, Montana and Wyoming, the moose population in Colorado has continued to grow.

So just how close is too close?

Odds are, if you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park you’ll see a moose or elk, so it’s important to know how to interact with them. For most visitors, it’s obvious that they shouldn’t be close enough to a bear that they could reach out and pet it. However, when it comes to elk, moose and other seemingly docile animals, many visitors see these animals as harmless, but they’re unpredictable.

Patterson says that visitors are prohibited from willfully approaching or engaging in any activity within 25 yards of any wildlife. Additionally, visitors are prohibited from being within any distance that disturbs the movement of wildlife or creates potentially hazardous situations.

They may not have a sharp set of teeth, but if a 1,000-pound moose charges someone at speeds of up to 35 mph, he or she can be seriously injured or killed. If it’s hard to judge whether or not you’re 25 yards away, an easy way to determine if you’re a safe distance from elk or moose is to be aware of its actions. If it’s aware of your presence or seems disturbed, chances are you’re too close.

“If wildlife react to your presence, you are too close,” says Patterson. “Even if they remain where they are, approaching wildlife is illegal in Rocky Mountain National Park. Just because an elk cow doesn't stand up as you approach it doesn't mean it's okay to keep approaching it.”

Watching the autumn elk rut in Moraine Park in RMNP

Mating season in the fall, termed the rut, is when elk and moose in Rocky Mountain National Park are most aggressive. During this time the park will close off certain meadows and send out teams to patrol. That’s why it’s important to be aware of areas that are closed off. Go online at www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/area_closures.htm or stop by one of the park’s visitor centers to get more information about area closures.

If a moose or elk seems threatened when you are watching it, remain calm. Slowly back away and talk loudly in order to make your presence known.

If an elk or moose charges you, run to the nearest solid object, such as a car or tree, and hide behind it. If you’re near trees and have time to climb one, you should do that. The animal is more likely than not just trying to scare you off, not actually attack you. Put as much distance between you and it as possible.

If you get knocked to the ground by an elk or moose charge, stay down and curl up in a ball. Protect your neck and head with your arms. Remain on the ground until the animal has left the area, it may charge again if it feels threatened.

A visit to Rocky Mountain National Park gives people the opportunity to enter into the wild and partake in its beauty. Help preserve the park by respecting the rules about wildlife, so future generations can have the privilege of visiting it, too.

“Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance,” Patterson says.

A moose claims a campsite for its own in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Robert Tadlock via Flickr

Elk and Moose Observing Tips in Rocky Mountain National Park

  1. Bring binoculars or a telephoto lens to help you enjoy from a safe distance.
  2. If the elk or moose seems aware of your presence, you’re probably too close!
  3. If a moose has its ears laid back or the hair on its hump, neck, or hips is raised, it feels threatened and you should give it more space.
  4. Turn your car engine and lights off, close car doors quietly and have minimum conversation.
  5. Moose and elk cows are extremely protective of their calves, so be wary when in their presence.
  6. Don’t approach elk or moose – wild animals are unpredictable!
  7. Keep dogs on a leash at all times in the park as they’re only allowed in designated areas.