The elk are bugling, and photos of herds in and around Estes Park have been popping up on social media, heralding the arrival of the annual mating ritual known as the rut.
The rut is one of the most delightful seasons to visit Estes Park and nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. Tourists are often shocked to find elk chilling in Bond Park near the center of town or strutting down the town’s main drag, Elkhorn Ave. Locals know that just means it’s September.
It’s also the season when some humans need to be reminded that attempting to pose for selfies in close proximity to 700-pound male elks driven by hormonal urges is not a clever thing to do. Elk sometimes attack humans who try to get too close.
“People don’t understand that they’re wild animals, they’re not domesticated, and that they have habits because they’re wild animals that cause them to act aggressively,” said Rachel Ward Oppermann, marketing and communications manager for Visit Estes Park. “They’re just defending their territory and doing what’s normal for their species. They’re defending their harem so they can procreate with them, which is what they would do against other elk. That’s just what they do this time of year.”
The rut usually starts in late August and runs into October, with the peak typically beginning in mid-September. The best place for viewing may be Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park, but visitors need timed entry reservations to access Moraine Park between the hours of 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Two other areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that are recommended for elk watching are Upper Beaver Meadows and Horseshoe Park, where entry reservations are required from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. If you want to visit Upper Beaver Meadows, keep in mind that a road accessing that area is closed for construction from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., Sundays through Thursdays.
Foot travel off roadways or designated trails in the park from 5 p.m. until 10 a.m. is prohibited to prevent disturbance of the elk. Those restrictions, which went into effect Sept. 1, will remain in place through Oct. 31. They include Horseshoe Park, Upper Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park, Harbison Meadow and Holzwarth Meadow.
Other places to view elk in the area include Wapiti Meadows at Lake Estes and the town’s nine-hole golf course. The nine-hole course will close Sept. 19 to accommodate the elk, but the 18-hole course will remain open.
Estes Park will host its annual Elk Fest Oct. 2-3. The event in Bond Park and adjacent Town Hall will include a bugling contest, live music, showings of the 20-minute film “Elk of Estes Park,” Native American dancing and storytelling, vendors and live raptors from the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program.
“You have the changing aspen leaves around you, you have the mountains in the background and you’re there celebrating elk and native American indigenous populations,” Oppermann said. “It’s just a great time. People are outside enjoying the chill in the air that we get here in the fall. There’s something for everyone.”
Other places to view rutting elk near Denver include Evergreen and the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge.
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