Surrounded by horizons of rugged mountain peaks, crystalline lakes and plenty of wide-open meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park contains some of the nation’s most mind-clearing wilderness. With over 280 types of birds and dozens of mammal species, there’s a good chance you’ll spot something, so take a seat in the company of pines and boulders, and watch a broad-antlered moose sip from an alpine stream. This is nature as nature intended: raw, pristine and unfettered.
Along the park’s 300 miles of trails, you’ll encounter majestic elk, brawny bighorn sheep and gangly-footed moose. Go further into the backcountry and you may run into reclusive predators like black bear and mountain lion. At every step of the way, you're sure to have plenty of one-on-one time with charming little critters like the bumbling-fur-ball marmots and slinky pikas that call the park’s alpine tundra home. And above the lakes and rivers, this is a birder’s paradise. American dippers and swift white-tailed ptarmigans can be seen, and the occasional bald eagle soars overhead.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a great area to get close (but not too close) to mega-fauna like elk and moose. The elk herd is massive, numbering 800 to 1000, and park traffic regularly comes to a stop to accommodate these stately ungulates. Come during September and October for fall colors and the bugling that echoes through the park, marking the beginning of mating season. Elk can be seen everywhere in the park – they summer in the high country, and then come down to the park’s meadows for the fall rut. The best places to see them are the Kawuneeche Valley, Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park and Upper Beaver Meadows.
Nearly hunted to extinction in the early 20th century, there are now some 350 bighorn sheep in the park today. Look up on cliff faces and you might just spot them – deft and acrobatic, these highly adaptable creatures make rock climbing look like a breeze. During the late spring and summer, you can see them around Sheep Lakes and Horseshoe Park. To see them in their alpine environment, head up near Milner Pass to The Crater or scan the horizon along Trailridge Road. One of America’s most iconic animal mating rituals is the hard-fought jousts between adult males, who charge at speeds of up to 40 miles an hour and clash horns, the sound of which can be heard a mile away.
The biggest member of the deer family, Rocky Mountain National Park’s moose are truly magnificent – their antlers can spread over five feet and they weigh around 1800 pounds. There was never a permanent moose population in the park until the 1970s, when the division of wildlife transferred two groups here. Now moose sightings occur almost daily. Check in at the visitor center to see where these strange beasts are hanging out. The best place to find them is near water and in thick willow stands. Good spots include the Onahu Creek Trail, willow stands along the Colorado River next to Timber Creek Campground and in Lulu City. Other large park herbivores include mule dear and white-tailed deer. Sorry, no bison currently live here, but you can head south from the park to spot herds near Buffalo Bill’s grave.
The park lacks large populations of top-of-the-food-chain predators. There are no wolves here (and a recent plan to re-introduce them to the park was shot down in federal court), but there is a fairly large population of mountain lion and a few bobcats. Also known as cougars or pumas, mountain lions are one of North America’s largest cats. Sightings are rare, but if you head out around dusk or dawn (the best time of day for basically all wildlife spotting), you might just catch a glimpse of a darting, sleek, muscle-bound feline.
You are more likely to spot coyote and fox in the park and perhaps a black bear or two. Male black bear can grow up to 500 pounds (females just get up to 200 pounds here), and the animals range throughout the park. They don’t like humans, and prefer to stay in the deep backcountry where they hunt for small animals and forage for plants, consuming up to 20,000 calories a day as they prepare for a long winter’s slumber.
Wherever you go in the park, you are certain to spot chipmunks and squirrels (some might even try to steal your sandwiches). Real treats are had in the high country, where you can see marmot, badger, marten and pika. Look around the forests and near water for mink, weasel, raccoon and snowshoe hare. In the rivers and lakes you can see beaver building their lodges and repairing their dams, plus the occasional river otter. Little guys include tiger salamanders, toads and frogs. The garter snake is the only snake in the park.
- Never feed wildlife.
- Stay on marked paths.
- Don’t litter.
- You are a guest here. Be respectful of others, of the environment and of Mother Nature.
- If you see a bear, don’t run. Stand your ground, announce yourself and back away slowly. Make lots of noise when in bear country (you don’t want to surprise a momma and her cubs).
- Park officials require bear canisters for backcountry travel – and bear bins are provided at all established campsites. Keep a clean campsite, cook downwind from your tent and keep your food in the canister. Never cook or eat in your tent.
- Moose are one of the park’s most dangerous animals. Never get too close to a moose – they can run at 35 miles an hour and can become aggressive when protecting their young.
- The biggest danger in the park is altitude and sun. Wear sun protection, drink lots of water and go slow at high altitudes. Also, check yourself for ticks.
Getting There & Around
Enter the park from either Grand Lake to the west or Estes Park to the east. There are shuttles to the park from Estes Park as well as park-operated shuttles in the summer. Trail Ridge Road is the main artery through the park.
A Colorado native, Greg often heads into the Colorado backcountry – though he’s never seen a bear in the Colorado wild. Greg is an expert on sustainable travel and regularly contributes to Lonely Planet’s Colorado and Latin America books. He calls Denver’s Highlands home. Find him on Twitter @greentravels.