Seeing wildlife in Colorado's national parks evokes a rush of excitement so great it's hard to remember there isn't a piece of glass between you and the animals. Home to thousands of elk, mule deer, moose, marmots, bighorn sheep and the occasional black bear, it's not uncommon to see wildlife in the parks.
After spending hundreds of hours inside the national parks, we've come to learn a thing or two about how not to get your food ravaged by a black bear or how to cross through a heard of elk in the high country. So if seeing wildlife is a priority, take our word for it and plan on exploring the parks in depth. And even better, use a little one as a lookout since they typically see things first. (Don't ask us how; it just seems to always work out that way.)
Rocky Mountain Elk
These 800-pound animals are nearly ubiquitous in and around Rocky Mountain National Park and there are over 4,000 elk in the eastern part of the San Luis Valley near Great Sand Dunes National Park. The best time to see elk is September and October when herds gather for the mating season, also known as “the rut.” Hear the bulls bugle in Rocky’s Kawuneeche Valley, Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park and Upper Beaver Meadows. At Great Sand Dunes, watch the valleys near the visitor center and surrounding the park.
Bighorn sheep bound up steep terrain, thanks to their flexible, spongy hooves. Both males and females have horns, but ram horns are larger and more curved. Rams battle each other for dominance, butting horns until one surrenders. In Great Sand Dunes, spot them along Medano Pass Primitive Road. Look for them in Colorado National Monument and Rocky Mountain National Park.
As the largest member of the deer family, moose have long snouts, bulbous noses and dewlaps under their throats, which set them apart. Introduced to northern Colorado in the 1970s, they are frequently sighted on Rocky Mountain National Park’s west side along the East Inlet and Onahu Trails, in Big Meadows and the Kawuneeche Valley. Look in areas full of willows and aquatic vegetation. Also see them at State Forest State Park in Walden, Colorado's moose capital.
Not just a clothing brand, marmots scurry around the park snagging food, chirping loudly, and usually looking pretty cuddly. Found primarily above 10,000 feet, marmots play a key role in the tundra's ecosystem. Look for them in the high elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park sunning on a rock or taking a nap in open tundra. Small mammals known as picas also reside in the high country but are typically a bit harder to spot.
Birds of the Rocky Mountains
Bird enthusiasts will enjoy a variety of species unique to high-elevations and ecology. More than 200 known species can be found throughout Colorado and surrounding regions.
During wintertime in Rocky Mountain National Park look for white-tailed ptarmigan, a plump, rounded bird that reaches about 12 to 13 inches long and scurries across the forest floor. The bird is the only species in the alpine zone that does not migrate. Other birds include Clark's Nutcracker, Red Crossbill, and Western Tanager.
During the spring and summer months at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, make sure to check out ranger-led bird watching programs. Look for the fastest bird in the world, the Peregrine Falcon, at the Painted Wall overlook. Above the rims, watch for birds of prey including red tailed hawks, turkey vultures and golden eagles.
These solitary and elusive cats are not frequently spotted. They stalk their favorite prey, mule deer, but prefer to slink through the forest unseen. In addition to deer, they hunt coyotes and raccoons. Encounters with mountain lions can be dangerous. If you encounter a mountain lion, do not try to run. Instead, stand tall and attempt to scare it away. Rare sightings have happened in all corners of Colorado.
These omnivores follow their mostly vegetarian food sources in the park. In spring, they feast on shrubs and new shoots in the forest. Throughout summer and fall, they retreat to the cooler alpine zone, chasing berries and trout. Black bears hibernate in winter and mate in summer. Rocky Mountain National Park’s bear population is small. In Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, you may spot one along Mosca Pass Trail.
These curious-looking squirrels have rabbit-like ears, setting them apart from the average squirrel you see in your backyard. They are only found in mature coniferous forests in mountain ecosystems. They spend more of their lives in and around ponderosa pine trees, eating pine cones, buds, the inner bark and seeds. They are only active during the daylight hours. To weather the winter and raise their young, usually 2-5 in a litter, they build nests of up to 24 inches wide. Find them in Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Rocky Mountain national parks.
Over 2,000 bison roam inside Great Sand Dunes National Park on land owned by The Nature Conservancy. It is the largest Conservancy preserve in Colorado. Currently, the area is not open to the public but visitors are welcome to join a bison tour or field trip at Zapata Ranch close to the park. Learn more at www.zranch.org
Pssst. Want to receive a printed insider’s guide to Colorado's four national parks including Rocky Mountain National Park? Order our free stunning National Park Trip Planner for Colorado filled with an inspiring itinerary, gorgeous photographs and everything you need to plan your dream vacation.