Aside from large boisterous elk, it is hard to imagine another animal that defines Colorado as much as bighorn sheep. Appropriately named due to their large curling horns, bighorn sheep are highly visible throughout the park. A majority of their population can be found in the Mummy Mountain Range in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photographers, wildlife enthusiasts, and casual visitors all consider a bighorn sheep sighting a treasured treat.
There's an estimated population of 7,000 bighorn sheep in Colorado, the most in any state, says an article from the Coloradoan. Morning and late afternoon when the sheep come down to get a drink at the Big Thompson River are the best times to see them.
Bighorn sheep form herds of about 5 to 15 ewes and lambs. The male rams roam in groups of two to five. During mating season in November and December, the ewes create larger heads of up to 100 animals.
Instead of shedding their horns like some animals, the male sheep grow their massive horns throughout their lives. The ewe horns often remain smaller.
November through December, the sheep go through "rut," the mating season. It's a violent process where male rams butt their horns together making a loud banging sound which can be heard for miles. Experts call early December prime viewing time.
Bighorn sheep are tough creatures. During winter months the sheep migrate up into the highest reaches of the mountain ranges, staying warm due to a thick double-layered coat that grows out each summer. Though harder to see during winter months, it is not uncommon to find a lone sheep clinging to a cliff face thousands of feet above the valley floor below. Specialized hooves enable the sheep to grip the rock humans would need a rope to climb. During summer months the sheep descend down into the valleys to graze and mate. This is the best time to see the sheep since they are highly-visible out in open terrain.
Bighorn Sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park
Bighorn Sheep have always been a part of Rocky Mountain National Park, but during the late 1800's and early 1900's hunters moving into Estes Park nearly wiped out the population due to the high demand for the male sheep's curling horns. Then in 1978 the park service began reintroducing the sheep back into the Park, primarily introducing them along the North St. Vrain River and Cow Creek. Since then the herds have prospered growing to nearly 600 strong.
Early summer is the best time to see the Bighorn as they migrate down into the lower elevation valleys of the park. Horseshoe Park is of the best places to view the sheep. Easily accessible along CO-34, make sure to check out Sheeps Lake, appropriately named due to the high concentration of sheep that graze there. From the valley the Sheep ascend back up into the Mummy Range. Hikers routinely spot sheep in the Park's upper regions during the spring and summertime, but rangers due to the sheep's mating rituals block off several areas. Generally the best time to view the sheep in Horseshoe Park and Sheeps Lake is from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm.
Best Bets in Rocky Mountain National Park:
- Between Horseshoe Park and the Fall River entrance
- Poudre Canyon in the Big Bend Campground area