During fall in the high country, the haunting bull elk bugle marks the beginning of the elk “rut,” or mating season. The bugling starts high-pitched, like a shrill whistle, and slides into a grunt that echoes across the valley. It comes from the gut, signaling that a bull and his harem are in the area or that his cows have strayed too far.
In September and October, Estes Park welcomes visitors to see this annual ritual. The town and Rocky Mountain National Park are home to around 3,000 elk, large members of the deer family with the prominent white rump and tan coat. Mature bulls can reach five feet tall, boast impressive antlers and weigh 1,100 pounds or more.
Elk roam free and don’t care about Park boundaries or fences. Photographers hope to find them in picturesque settings with aspen and Longs Peak in the background. While that picturesque setting does frequently happen, bull elk gathering their harems are also frequently seen on the groomed fairways and manicured greens of Estes Park’s two golf courses.
Watching a bull elk try to control wandering females and chase off competing suitors often turns into a fascinating melodrama. The big guy sits in the middle of his herd and licks his lips, surveying his harem. When a few females wander away he groans to his feet and chases them back to the herd. If another bull challenges, the agitated bull elk will hold its head high, lay its ears back and flare its nostrils. Sparring bulls are a sight to see. Click to see a YouTube video of two sparring bull elk.
While you are watching and photographing the elk, be sure to keep your distance. Though grazing elk appear docile they are wild animals and will defend themselves if they feel threatened. Charging bulls have sent people to the hospital and cars to the body shop. Be smart and use a telephoto lens. Selfies with elk are a bad idea.
To celebrate the annual elk rut, Estes Park hosts the 18th Annual Elk Fest in Bond Park and the surrounding area on the weekend of October 1-2, 2016. The free festival features bugling contests, Cabela’s Archery Range, elk exhibits, the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, elk seminars, elk-inspired arts and crafts, Native American music, dancing and storytelling, self-guided elk tour maps, a children’s’ area with elk-themed activities, and a craft beer garden.
The elk rut in Estes Park is a sight that you will never forget. Plan your trip to watch this fascinating mating ritual among the area’s stunning autumn colors. See EstesPark.com’s lodging Search Tool for help finding just the right place to stay: https://estespark.wpengine.com/lodging-all/.