The bugle of a bull elk; it’s a primal and haunting sound that defines the Rocky Mountain West and captivates the imaginations of wildlife enthusiasts and hunters alike. Each fall, Colorado’s backcountry comes alive with the sights and sounds of elk as they enter their mating season called the “rut.” Bull elk bellow screams of anguish and anger in their desire to attract receptive females and fend off challenges from competing bulls. Echoing bugles can be heard for miles, and Colorado’s mountains become a staging ground for fierce, antler-locked battles.
Home to the largest elk herd in the world, Colorado is center-stage for this amazing autumn spectacle. If you’ve never heard or seen elk during the rutting season, now’s your chance. The elk rut begins in September and continues into mid-October. As an added bonus, the rut coincides with the changing fall colors, creating a perfect time to visit Colorado’s high country.
Although you can hear elk bugle almost anywhere west of I-25 this time of year, here are a few locations and tips to help you best experience this annual rite of autumn:
Estes Park’s Elk Fest
Located at the east portal of Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is world famous for its resident elk herd. To celebrate the annual elk rut, the quaint mountain town hosts Elk Fest each year (think of Elk Fest as Lollapalooza for mating elk). The free festival, which runs in early October, features bugling contests, elk exhibits, elk seminars and elk-inspired arts and crafts. If those weren’t enough reasons to attend, there’s even a 5k “Rut Run” at this year’s event (don’t worry, unlike Pamplona you’re not running with the bulls in this race).
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) will be on hand, offering guided viewing tours and educational seminars. Tourists and wildlife photographers from across the nation converge in Estes each year to witness and photograph this popular event.
Mueller State Park
Located near Divide, Mueller State Park offers an excellent location to see and hear elk. The park features 5,000 acres of spring-fed meadows and pine forests, providing the ideal habitat for the 200-head elk herd that calls Mueller home. Mueller hosts “elk hikes” every fall, where park visitors can put their boots on the ground to pursue bugling bulls. Guided by Volunteer Naturalist Doc Cowles, the 3-mile roundtrip hikes begin in the afternoon and return after dark. The limited hikes are restricted to ages 10 and older, and advance registration is required by calling the visitor center (719) 687-2366.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park
For Denver residents, Golden Gate Canyon State Park offers a close-to-home destination to view elk and enjoy the fall colors. Located just northwest of Golden, Golden Gate Canyon features more than 12,000 acres of pine forest, aspen groves, rocky peaks and grassy meadows, which provide ideal habitat for elk. Although the elk herd in this area tends to be more transient (moving on and off of the park property), the Bootleg Bottom picnic area is a popular location to see and hear rutting activity. For the best chance to hear bugling, plan your trip early morning or late evening when elk are most active.
Always Play it Safe Around Rutting Elk
A crowded baseball field, rutting elk and a guy with a cell phone camera—what could possibly go wrong?
Thankfully, in this particular instance near Evergreen, no one got hurt. But this huge herd bull nearly charged his unwanted paparazzi, turning this wannabe wildlife photographer’s close-up into a close call.
Because elk are so abundant in Colorado, it’s easy to forget that they are wild animals that deserve respect. Elk are always highly unpredictable, but bulls can become especially aggressive during mating season. Always enjoy elk and other wildlife from a safe distance. Cell-phone selfies or close-up photos with wild animals don’t mix. Don’t be this guy!
Article written by Jerry Neal. Neal is the editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.