Where Can I See Wild Animals in Colorado's National Parks?

Author:
Publish date:

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

Elk on the mountain range in Rocky Mountain National Park

Elk resting in a high alpine meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park

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

A bighorn sheep ram in Rocky Mountain National Park.

A bighorn sheep ram in Rocky Mountain National 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.

Moose

Moose swimming on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park

Moose swimming on the western edge of 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.

Marmots

Yellow-bellied marmot in Rocky Mountain National Park

Yellow-bellied marmot in Rocky Mountain National Park

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

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan in the summer. In the winter they turn white.

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.

Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion

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.

Black Bear

Black Bear

Black Bear

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.

Abert's Squirrel

Albert's Squirrel

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. 

Bison (Buffalo)

Bison at South Twin Lake in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Bison at South Twin Lake in Great Sand Dunes National Park

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

hr-green_300x4
Thumbnail for Colorado Trip Planner

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.

Related

Wild Basin entrance station at Rocky Mountain National Park

Entrance Fees and Where to Get Your National Park Pass

Want to take in the sweeping beauty of Longs Peak or the awe-inspiring view of Painted Wall? Here are the many options for national park entrance fees.

Moose and Red Wing Blackbird at Sprague Lake on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park

Where to See Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park

Spotting moose is not that difficult. They are so large it's hard to miss them grazing in the low-lying valleys and wet areas near lakes.

Entrance Sign to Rocky Mountain National Park

Which Entrance Should I Take into Rocky Mountain National Park?

To access the park, there are four entrances, three on the park’s east side and one on the west. Here's how to pick your approach

Elk grazing in Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park

Where to See Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Traveling in herds across open tundra and low-lying valleys, Elk are routinely considered the main wildlife attraction.

Starry night at Moraine Park Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park

Where Should I Camp in Rocky Mountain National Park?

A personalized guide to help you decide where to spend the night, from car camping paradise and remote backcountry sites to RV heaven.

East Inlet Trail with a view of Andrews Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park

Which Rocky Mountain Park Trail Should I Hike?

Find your perfect hiking trail in Rocky Mountain National Park by answering a few questions. Then view our personalized guide to the trail.

Map showing where is Rocky Mountain National Park

Where is Rocky Mountain National Park?

Head for northeast Colorado. The park is flanked by Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west.

Fern Lake Trail horseback riding in Rocky Mountain National Park

48 Hours in Rocky Mountain National Park

Only have 48 hours? Make the most of your time by following our itinerary covering both sides of the park.

Monolith in Monument Canyon at Colorado National Monument

Where to Stay at Colorado National Monument

Make the most out of your trip to Colorado’s Western Slope with our hotels and camping guide.