Wildlife Viewing

Rocky Mountain National Park visitors have a passion for viewing wild animals, especially the big ones. With an elk herd numbering between 600 to 800 in the winter, about 350 bighorn sheep, numerous mule deer and a small population of moose calling the park home, it's no surprise that wildlife watching is rated the number-one activity by a vast majority of Rocky's three million annual visitors.

 
A graphic showing safe viewing distances for elk and sheep (75 feet) and moose and bears (120 feet).

Wildlife Viewing Tips

The park's great large-animal population makes it one of the country's top wildlife watching destinations. But there is much more to see than these so-called "charismatic megafauna." Also found are nearly 60 other species of mammals; more than 280 recorded bird species; six amphibians, including the federally endangered boreal toad; one reptile (the harmless garter snake); 11 species of fish; and countless insects, including a surprisingly large number of butterflies.

Some basic knowledge of animal habits and habitats greatly enhances prospects of spotting Rocky Mountain's wild residents. A few park favorites:

  • Elk can be seen anytime, a popular viewing period being the fall rut, or mating season. Look for elk in meadows and where meadow and forest meet. Elk spend much of their time at or above treeline during the summer, moving to lower elevations in the fall, winter and spring. Favorite feeding times: dawn and dusk.
  • Bighorn sheep are commonly seen at Sheep Lakes from May through mid-August.
  • Moose frequent willow thickets along the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley on the park's west side.
  • Otters were reintroduced into the Colorado River area and are doing fairly well. These animals are difficult to spot.
  • Mule deer are common and can be seen anywhere. They are most often found at lower elevations in open areas.
  • Bats feed over lakes and ponds at dawn and dusk.
  • Marmots and pikas favor rocky areas. Marmots are best seen on the alpine tundra along Trail Ridge and Old Fall River roads. Pikas - small, light-colored mammals - are common in rock piles. Listen for their sharp, distinctive bark and watch for movement.
  • Clark's nutcrackers, Steller's jays, golden eagles and prairie falcons can be seen along Trail Ridge Road.
  • White-tailed ptarmigans, some of the most sought-after birds in Rocky Mountain National Park, are common but difficult to spot. For best results, hike on the tundra and look carefully. Ptarmigans usually remain still, relying on their natural camouflage for protection.
  • American dippers, or water ouzels, can be found along most streams. Listen for their loud call, similar to the rapid clicking of two stones together, as they fly up and down their territories.

Despite their good intentions, some wildlife watchers are loving park animals to death. Feeding junk food to wildlife reduces its ability to survive the long mountain winter. When they panhandle by roadsides, animals fall easy prey to automobiles. As they become habituated to humans and lose their natural fear, the animals become aggressive and may be destroyed. Harassing or feeding wildlife is illegal in all national parks.

 

Wildlife Photography Tips

When you spot wildlife, getting a great photo or video from the safe distance isn’t too hard if you follow our advice. Although mobile device cameras are convenient, you may want to bring along a camera that has a zoom lens for better zoomed-in photos of wildlife. Keep at least 75 feet or two bus-lengths away from all wildlife in the park, and we recommend at least 120 feet or three bus-lengths away from more dangerous animals like black bears, moose, and mountain lions.

 
View from the back of a person holding a camera with his elbows on his knees for stabilization
Use your zoom and pull your elbows close to you or rest them on your knee or another stable surface.
  • Time your outing when wildlife is active: dawn or dusk. These times also have some of the best lighting for photos!
  • Use binoculars, a spotting scope, or a telephoto lens for a safe, close-up view.
  • Stay quiet and still. Noise and quick movements can threaten wildlife.
  • Look to the edges of the landscape (e.g. where forest trees meet a grassy area).
  • Pull safely off the road, and use your car as an enclosure for viewing and photographing from a distance. Not only do cars provide a layer of protection, they also provide surfaces for stabilizing your camera.
  • Use your zoom, and to steady your shot, touch your elbows to your ribcage, or rest your elbows on your knee or another stable surface.
  • On your mobile device, you can zoom in by placing your thumb and forefinger together on the screen and then draw them apart just as you do to zoom in on a web page.
  • Watch wildlife with your eyes rather than through your viewfinder/screen as you move. It’s easy to miss things in your surroundings that could hurt or trip you when you’re only focused on what you can see on your screen or viewfinder.
  • When photographing from the safe distance, skilled photographers suggest lining up the horizon of the landscape along the lower third of your frame and lining up the animal(s) to one of the four intersection points as demonstrated below:
 
A photo of an elk is overlayed with a green grid showing the elk's location in the lower third of the photo
Line up your subject along one of these four imaginary intersections for better-looking wildlife photos from a distance.

Learn more about what to do when you see wildlife in the park

 

Share Your Photos

You've found your park. Now find the safe distance from wildlife to capture great memories. Share your safe distance wildlife photos on social media, and tag them #FindYourDistance #RockyPledge #RMNP

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Last updated: September 11, 2017

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

1000 US Hwy 36
Estes Park, CO 80517

Phone:

(970) 586-1206
Through winter, the Information Office is open 8:00 am–4:30 pm Mon–Fri. Recorded Trail Ridge Road status: (970) 586-1222.

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