Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Without a doubt, the most well-known of residents of Rocky Mountain National Park are its elk. These majestic animals can be found in the park's meadows or high in the tundra.


The name elk is somewhat of a misnomer. The word originated in Scandinavia and was used for what we today call moose. Early British explorers on sighting these imposing creatures assumed that they must be moose like those in Nordic countries and called them “elk.” Although today we know the difference between these two creatures, the name stuck.

The Bugle

Elk are members of the deer family, with males often weighing up to 1,000 pounds (454 kg). Their diet consists of grasses, leaves, and bark. Because of the large number of elk that have inhabited the park in recent years, some areas of the park such as the lower meadows have been overgrazed, resulting in a loss of willows, aspens, and other plant life. Today, the park has fenced off large areas of these meadows to protect them from the elk and allow them to regrow.

Every year between mid-September and mid-October the elk enter their mating season known as “the rut.” The name rut actually comes from the Latin word rutigum, translated “bellowing.” Anyone who has been to Rocky within these months knows that this is an appropriate name, as bull elk fill the air with the sound of their mysterious bugling and grunting. During the rut, a bull will join a herd of female elk and try to keep them as his own. As well as bugling to ward off opponents, a bull will occasionally spar with others to maintain control of his harem. It can be quite a show and draws visitors from far and wide to see them during this active period.

Wildlife Watching Tips

In the winter, spring, and autumn, the elk are usually found in the lower meadows of Rocky Mountain National Park, often spilling into Estes Park and the surrounding area. Common places to find them are: Moraine Park, Beaver Meadow, Horseshoe Park, the Kawuneeche Valley, and the Estes Park golf course. As the temperatures climb in the summer, so do the elk. They make their way up to the cool tundra and can often be spotted alongside Trail Ridge Road. Since elk usually travel together, often in large herds, they are one of the easier animals to spot in the national park.

Each year we have a number of people injured by elk. They are not tame and should not be approached. In the spring, the female elk can be very aggressive as they may have young ones hidden nearby. They can trample you before you even have time to respond. Give them an extra wide berth. In the autumn, the majestic bull elk are not always thinking clearly and can be quite dangerous. Numerous people have found themselves in the hospital after being pierced with one of those antlers. If they feel you are too close or disturbing them or the female elk they may attack you.

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