Essentials of Autumn Elk Watching in Rocky Mountain National Park

Where to see elk, when to see them, where to park, and elk watching etiquette at Rocky Mountain National Park.

September into October is one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most popular times. The bull elk that are usually cordial to other bulls, become confrontational with each other in their quest to corral a harem of cows. It’s call the “rut” and the sound of bulls bugling is the season’s siren song.

The elk rut is a treat for visitors to see because the elk are so consumed with their business that they largely ignore onlookers. (Just don’t get too close.)

Over the years an elk-watching ritual has developed. Visitors bring warm clothing, snacks, chairs, cameras, and binoculars, and sit along side the meadows before dusk and wait. It’s kind of like tailgating at a sporting event, but quiet and respectful.

Like clockwork,as the sun settles, bull elk lead their harems of cows out of the forests and into the valleys. Prime time is 6:00 to 7:30 pm. You’ll need to secure your parking space no later than 5:00 pm. Although park regulations state that you may only park in parking lots and at road pull-offs, during rutting watching hours you are allowed to park on the sides of the roads as long as you are to the right of the road’s white line. Take your cue from park rangers on the scene.

Video by Colette Bordelon

Ground Rules for Elk Watching

  • Park vehicles using roadside pullouts or in areas indicated by a park ranger on the scene. Do not park on vegetation. Turn off car lights and engine after parking.
  • Stay by the road. Valleys designated for elk watching (look for the posted signs) are closed to humans between 5 pm and 7 am.
  • Never shine artificial lights toward the wildlife. Catcalls, whistles, or throwing pebbles to gain an animal’s attention is prohibited.
  • Watch for other cars and keep an eye on children.
  • Never feed wildlife.
  • Do not approach animals – they are unpredictable!

Best Places to Watch Elk Rut in Rocky Mountain Park

Numbers correspond to map. Download an official park map

1. Moraine Park

2. Upper Beaver Meadows

3. Horseshoe Park

4. Harbison Meadow

5. Holzwarth Meadow

Map of best elk watching in Rocky Mountain National Park