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Planning Your Trip to Estes Park During the Peak Elk Rut Season

Known nationwide for its stunning mountains and alpine tundra, every fall Rocky Mountain National Park also becomes the place to be to see the elk rut!

From mid-September to mid-October each year, the elk rut is the elk’s annual mating season where the elk come down to the montane meadows. During this time you can listen to and watch the majestic male elk perform their three key mating rituals:

1. Bugling
2. Fighting
3. Herding

Elk Bugling: The Roar of the Elk

Elk Bugling in Rocky Mountain National ParkOfficially known as ‘bugling,’ the bulls (male elk) call loudly to nearby cows (female elk) in order to attract them into their ‘harem,’ as well as to warn cows when they’re straying too far from the herd, and even to signal a warning to another bull if they’re coming too close. Interestingly “the elk bugle gave rise to the term “rut” for the elk mating season. Rut is derived from the Latin word meaning roar,” according to the National Park Service website. A unique and raw sound, elk bugling is almost indescribable; honestly, it’s something you must hear in person to feel the full effects. Typically it starts with a high pitch and can be heard in bursts with some grunting at the end. Add to this fact the best times of the day to attend the elk rut – dawn and dusk – and you’ll feel yourself transported with an intense connection to the natural world around you.

The View from Afar: Watching Male Elk Spar for Attention

Bull Elk Sparring During Elk Rut SeasonThe male elk also spar with one another during this time in order to prove themselves to the female elk. They charge at one another, lock antlers, and show other aggressive acts to win attention and win their dominant status. Actual fighting and injury is rare during this, so it’s even more impressive to watch the elk as they charge and crack their antlers with each other. While at all times when watching wildlife it’s important to keep a safe distance, it goes without saying that during the elk rut it’s even more crucial to stay far enough away from both the bulls and cows! You don’t want to be mistaken for a threat to the elk when they’ve already got their hackles up.

Elk Community: Rounding up the Herd

Peak Elk Rut Season Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes ParkThe third piece to a successful elk rut is the herding. Rocky Mountain National Park averages 600-800 elk in the Park during the fall and winter season, all of which are grouped into smaller herds. The most dominant bulls may have up to 20 or so cows in their herd and will aggressively protect them day and night from other bulls, particularly during the elk rut season.

Insider Tips for the Best Elk Watching Experience

  • Plan on at least an hour in Rocky Mountain National Park to find the elk and enjoy the elk watching experience! Aim for Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park within RMNP for the best elk viewing.


  • You’ll typically avoid the crowds if you go in the early morning, rather than the evening, but both times can be magical.


  • If you’re going in the morning, make a quick stop in Estes Park at one of the coffee shops or other breakfast joints, to get a hot coffee or tea and a little snack to bring with you.


  • When you find elk in the park, turn off your car and lights, keep a safe distance away, speak softly so as not to scare off the elk, and open and close doors as quietly as you can.


  • Stay on the roads! While it’s tempting to want to get closer and walk into the meadows, it’s important to not only keep your safety from the elk in mind, but also the safety of the natural environment around you.


  • Bring binoculars. Sometimes the elk are quite close to the road, but often they can be out in the middle of the field and you’ll need binoculars to get the best view.


  • Make time to attend the annual Estes Park Elk Fest! This free event is on September 30 – October 1, 2017, and includes fun bugling competitions, a Cabela’s archery range, elk-themed kids’ activities, live music, local food and drink, and much more.