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, moose, marmots, bighorn sheep and the occasional black bear, it's not uncommon to see wildlife in the park.
After spending hundreds of hours inside Rocky Mountain National 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
These 800-pound animals are nearly ubiquitous in and around Rocky. The best time to see elk is September and October when herds gather for the mating season, also known as “the rut.” Hear the bulls bugle in Rocky’s Kawuneeche Valley, Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park and Upper Beaver Meadows.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep
Bighorn sheep bound up steep terrain and cliffs, thanks to their flexible, spongy hooves. Rams weigh up to 250 pounds. Both males and females have horns, but ram horns are larger and more curved. Rams battle for dominance, butting their horns until one surrenders. In Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, spot them along Medano Pass Primitive Road. Some of the best places to check them out in Rocky Mountain National Park are Sheep Lake and Bighorn Mountain when they come down to graze and mate. Also look for them in Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction along the sandstone cliffs and next to the road.
As the largest member of the deer family, moose have long snouts, bulbous noses and dewlaps under their throats, which set them apart. Introduced to northern Colorado in the 1970s, they are frequently sighted on Rocky Mountain's west side along the East Inlet and Onahu trails, in Big Meadows and the Kawuneeche Valley. Look in areas full of willows and aquatic vegetation.
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 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 will enjoy a variety of species unique to the park's high-elevation and ecology. More than 200 known species can be found throughout the park and surrounding regions. During wintertime in Rocky Mountain National Park 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. Rocky’s bear population is small. In Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, you may spot one along Mosca Pass Trail.
These curious-looking squirrels have rabbit-like ears, setting them apart from the average squirrel you see in your backyard. They are only found in mature coniferous forests in mountain ecosystems. They spend more of their lives in and around ponderosa pine trees, eating pine cones, buds, the inner bark and seeds. They are only active during the daylight hours. To weather the winter and raise their young, usually 2-5 in a litter, they build nests of up to 24 inches wide. Find them in Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Rocky Mountain national parks.