Watching Wildlife at Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park has been a big wildlife viewing destination since it was founded at the turn of the 20th century. With herds of elk numbering between 600 and 800 in the winter, about 350 bighorn sheep, mule deer, and moose calling the park home, it’s no surprise that the park’s number one activity is wildlife viewing. In any given year, about three million people will travel to Rocky Mountain National Park to get their exposure to some of the continent’s most magnificent animals. If you’re considering this adventure for yourself, know that you are not alone.

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to 60 other species of mammals, more than 280 bird species, six amphibians, including the endangered boreal toad, one reptile, 11 species of fish, and countless insects.

Rocky Mountain National Park’s Most Watched Animals

Elk: among the largest and most abundant wild animals in Rocky Mountain National Park. As many at 3,200 elk are scattered throughout the park during the summer and fall months, with 600-800 elk spending winter in the park.

Bighorn Sheep: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are the largest wild sheep in North America. Muscular males can weigh over 300 pounds and stand over three feet tall at the shoulder. Females are roughly half this size. Bighorn sheep are gray/brown to dark brown in color with white patches on their rump, muzzle and back of legs. Winter coats are thick, double-layered and may be lighter in color. Bighorn sheep shed these heavy coats in the summer.

Moose: Moose are the largest members of the deer family. On average, an adult moose stands between five and seven feet high at the shoulder. Large males can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds while females are roughly three-quarters of this size. Both sexes have chocolate-brown fur, a humped shoulder, a bulbous nose and a ball of skin, called a “bell,” that hangs from their neck.

Mountain Lions: Mountain Lions are the largest predators currently in Rocky Mountain National Park. They are also known as pumas, cougars and panthers. They vary in size and weight, with males reaching up to 200 pounds and eight feet in length (one-third of their length is the tail). Females are typically smaller.

Bears: Only the black bear is known to exist in Rocky Mountain National Park. Its northern cousin, the grizzly bear, is no longer found in Colorado. Black bears make a point to avoid humans, so they are not often seen.

Coyotes: small, dog-like scavengers, the coyote, can be seen around the Rocky Mountain National Park. They most commonly inhabit areas of the alpine, montane, and wetland habitats both in the day and evening hours. Coyotes can be heard calling to one another in the evening.

Foxes: are usually together in pairs or small groups, and while rare for visitors to see, sanctuaries like Rocky Mountain National Park allow foxes to roam undisturbed.

Mule Deer: Mule deer are a popular animal in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Named for their large ears that resemble that of a mule, they can weigh from 100 to 300 pounds. Found in lower elevations and open area, mule deer are relatively friendly and skittish.

Viewing Locations

  • Meadows: all meadows within the Rocky Mountain National Park will have some elk grazing at a distance. They are particularly fond of where the meadow meets the forest.
  • Sheep Lakes: bighorn sheep
  • Colorado River: moose, otters
  • Kawuneeche Valley: moose
  • Trail Ridge: marmots, pikas, eagles, prairie falcons, Steller’s jays, clark’s nutcrackers
  • Old Fall River: marmots, pikas

When Should You Go?

With the Rocky Mountain National Park, there are always wildlife viewing opportunities. Elk can be seen at any time, and are especially prevalent during the fall or mating season. They will spend much of their time above the tree-line during the summer, moving to lower elevations during the colder months. For bighorn sheep, their most popular viewing period is from May through mid-August. They go deeper into the mountains during the fall and winter seasons.

Mule deer are most commonly found at lower elevations in open areas during the warmer months.

At the end of the day, every time of year is a good time to go to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Animals are most commonly viewed during the fall, winter, and sprig seasons, since the animals will move to lower elevations, including towns, for food and warmth. September and October are the best months for viewing elk; October and November are the best months for viewing mule deer, November and December are the best months to see bighorn rams challenging each other; January and February are the best months to see large groups of animals settling in the valley for the colder months; and march, April, and may are great months to see newborn calves, fawns, and lambs introduced to the Rocky Mountains.