Bighorn sheep are among the most elusive animals in Rocky Mountain National Park. Learn more about their habits and hangout spots, and how you can see them without disturbing them.
Bighorn Sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park
Although not as frequently seen as elk and moose, the bighorn sheep are the iconic symbol of the Rocky Mountains and long-time residents of the area in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. The most distinctive feature of these animals is their horns. Unlike moose, deer, and elk, the bighorn have actual horns rather than antlers. Because of this, they don’t lose them each year. Instead, they continue to grow throughout their lifetime. As the horns of an adult male grow they begin to curl, and by eight years of age they have nearly a full wrap. Females’ horns grow into straight spikes, but their growth will slow down at about the age of four. People occasionally confuse the female bighorn sheep for mountain goats, which do not live in the park.
Bighorn sheep are much more sensitive to human presence than many of the other animals inhabiting Rocky. The additional stress of having people nearby makes it difficult for them to graze or breed. Specimen Mountain, just west of the Alpine Visitor Center, has been set apart as an area where sheep can live and breed in peace. There is one trail that leads up to an overlook of an area known as The Crater, where sheep will often congregate, but this trail is only open at the very end of the summer season, after the lambing season has ended. The rest of the mountain remains off-limits to human travel, providing at least one safe haven in the park for these skittish animals.
Wildlife Watching Tips:
During the late spring and early summer, bighorn sheep can often be found in the Horseshoe Park area at Sheep Lakes. They tend to come down to this little lake once or twice a day to take advantage of the special minerals found here. The Park Service says that they typically are seen between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., but you will need patience and a bit of luck to see them.
Later in the summer, you can sometimes find bighorn sheep grazing in the tundra along Trail Ridge Road. A large herd of bighorn sheep live on Specimen Mountain, but because of their extreme discomfort with human activity, the entire mountain is off-limits to give them space of their own. However, they occasionally descend to the Colorado River on the back side of the mountain, so you may get a chance to see them if you hike the Colorado River Trail to Lulu City.
In the autumn, early winter, and early spring, bighorn sheep can often be found along Fall River Road between Nicky’s Steakhouse and the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
In the winter, a group of bighorn sheep is also regularly seen licking salt off the road on Highway 34 between Estes Park and Drake, Colorado. If you decide to photograph here, make sure you find a safe place to park and pay attention to the traffic.