It’s 6:30 in the morning, it's still dark, and there’s a pretty serious chill in the autumn air. As we wait for the first bits of sunlight, we set up our cameras, hoping to capture some of the red and orange glow of sunrise spreading across the always spectacular Rocky Mountain landscapes. The hot chocolate tastes good going down.
Everything is still and very, very quiet, until the silence is suddenly shattered by the eerie, mournful sound of a bull elk bugling, as he calls to the females in his harem.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a treat for the senses in any season of the year, but especially in the fall -- soaring mountain peaks, lightly dusted with snow, the fresh scent of the towering pines, the flaming gold aspens, crisp cool morning air, and the hushed murmuring of the waters of the Big Thompson and Fall Rivers. It’s why we keep going back, again and again.
A relatively short drive from OKC, the park, although small by some standards, is a great way to see some our country’s great unspoiled natural wonders: the magnificent Rocky Mountains, forests of lodgepole pines and white-barked aspens, and large, open meadows, complete with fish-filled streams that run cold and clear year round.
We have been to RMNP twice before, both times in the spring. This trip was planned specifically for the fall, for a couple of reasons -- we wanted to see the fall foliage, especially the aspens, with their golden leaves, and we wanted to be able to photograph elk, deer, and if we were very lucky, moose, with their full racks of antlers, something we’d never seen on either of our spring trips. While we never did see any moose, and the only white-tailed deer we encountered were does, the elk did not disappoint.
The park has an abundant supply of elk. They seem to be everywhere, and indeed they can be. It is not unknown for them to be seen wandering around downtown Estes Park, the bustling little community that serves as the home base for the park. During the fall, which is the elk rut, the males can be heard bugling from miles away, as they call to the females in the hopes of adding to their harem, or to sound a warning to other males, as if to say, "these ladies are mine."
Occasionally, a younger male will challenge an older bull to a duel over the bull’s harem. These antler-rattling, head-butting battles can be quit the brawl, and have been known to result in one or the other of the combatants being seriously injured. On this particular trip, the only clashes we witnessed were nothing more than a couple of the males barely locking horns. It was more like playful jousting than a life and death struggle.
That’s not to say we never saw some young upstart trying to muscle in on an old bull’s territory. One incident in particular lasted for quite a few minutes, as the old bull, who had 15 or more females in his harem, was forced to fend off not one, but three different challengers. But his reputation was such that all he had to do was bugle loudly, and trot off in the general direction of the intruder, and the unwelcome guest would take off running. Of course, the ladies of the herd hadn’t much peace either -- if they strayed even a little too far, or got just a little too close the a younger male, the old man would round them up, make his feelings known in no uncertain terms, and they’d scamper back to the harem.
The park’s Rangers prefer people to keep at least 25 yards from any wildlife, with the exception of bears, when the minimum safe distance increases to 100 yards. (Although there are bears in RMNP, by the time we got to the park, most of them had already headed up into the backcountry to their dens, where they will sleep the winter away.)
Elk are large animals, and their antlers can be quite dangerous -- after all, the elk use them as weapons. For such large animals, elk can be surprisingly fast and agile, and can surprise even the most experienced park goer.
On this particular trip, I was photographing a large bull elk on a small hill on the other side of the road, when he suddenly decided to cross to my side of the road. He bounded down off that hill in a heartbeat, and in doing so, took aim directly at me. That 25 yard safe distance disappeared in a hurry,, and I found myself running backwards as fast as I could -- until I bumped into a parked car.
Turning your back on wildlife can be seen by a wild animal as a sign of fear on your part, and that is when they will charge you. By facing them as you are backing up, you are showing them you’re not afraid, but are willing to give ground. When I bumped into the parked car, I had to stop backing away, and the elk took that to mean I was now standing my ground. Fortunately, he wasn’t in the mood to take me on, and changed course, heading off into the woods.
There are other wildlife in the park -- whitetail deer, a huge variety of birds, and the ever present squirrels and other small rodents. Many of these animals are not at all afraid of people, and will come right up to you. In fact, many have learned that people can be a source of food. It’s illegal to feed the wildlife -- it’s not healthy for the animals and can be dangerous for people. If watching wildlife is not your thing, there are many other activities inside the park. From hiking trails to horseback riding to fly fishing in the many streams running throughout the park, there is a lot to do for everyone.
Lodging around RMNP is pretty much limited on the east side of the park to a myriad of small inns and lodges in and around Estes Park, each with its own unique charms. On our first two visits, we stayed at Boulder Brook Lodge. A series of small, beautiful cottages, Boulder Brook is literally on the banks of Fall River, about halfway between downtown Estes Park and the park’s main gate. We loved being able to relax in our own in-room hot tub after a long day in the park, then open the windows, and fall asleep to the sounds of the water rushing downstream. Of course, we will never forget coming home one evening, and finding a small herd of elk in our yard.
This year, we decided to take advantage of one of the many vacation homes that are available for rent. Like Boulder Brook, our rental was on the banks of Fall River, affording us the same wonderful sounds of rushing water to fall asleep to. But everything in life is a tradeoff, so while this home didn't have a hot tub, it did have three bedrooms, two full baths, and, more importantly, a full kitchen. A kitchen is important to our travels, as we prefer to prepare our own meals whenever possible, including the hot picnic lunches we like to take along on chilly days.