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The Traveler’s Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park Wildlife

The Traveler’s Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park Wildlife

Having an abundance of wildlife is a great calling card for certain kinds of tourist destinations, and at Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s no exaggeration!

Besides the spectacular mountain views, visitors can enjoy seeing many different kinds of wild animals. There are more than 60 documented species of mammals alone, including big game like elk, moose, and bighorn sheep. And that’s just for starters. Let’s take a look at other common animals spotted in the Rockies.

About Rocky Mountain National Park 

Located in north-central Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 415 square miles and has some mountain crests of over 12,000 feet. This gorgeous high country spans the Continental Divide and is home to the headwaters of the Colorado River. Visitors can explore the scenic mountains, canyons, and arctic tundra over more than 350 miles of trails.

Rocky Mountain National Park Vacation Travel Guide | Expedia

The park’s location is ideal for Colorado travelers. Grand Lake lies to the west, and Estes Park is on the east, both popular destinations for Rockies tourism. The famous 48-mile Trail Ridge Road connects them. 

Rocky Mountain National Park has four distinct ecosystems that make it a World Biosphere Reserve. Because of its location and geological features, it experiences a range of extreme weather, including hot temperatures, high winds, and intense snowstorms.

The National Parks Department has been protecting this incredible wilderness area for over a century, starting when President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law in 1915. With more than 3 million visitors a year, it’s one of the most popular national parks.

What Kinds of Wildlife Are in Rocky Mountain National Park?

Many people visit just for wildlife viewing. Though bison, gray wolves, and grizzly bears no longer roam the region, many other animals do, and one of the park’s central missions is to maintain their environment. 

marmots in rocky mountain national park
Yellow-bellied marmots in Rocky Mountain National Park

The official Rockies wildlife checklist has 63 species of mammals, but when you include birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles, there are hundreds more! 

Here are some of the animals you might encounter at Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Black Bears

You won’t find grizzly bears here, but you might see some of their smaller cousins. Black bears do their best to avoid people, but they find food (of any kind) hard to resist. For this reason, you should secure food, cooking equipment, and anything else that might tempt them in a bear-resistant container.

Bears can travel long distances, searching for roots, berries, nuts, and insects to sustain themselves. They typically feed in the mornings and late evenings and rest for hours during the day. You might spot them next to fallen trees or in the heavy brush where there’s plenty of grub for them to dig up. 

black bear

Unlike grizzlies, black bears are not endangered or protected. In fact, their numbers have rebounded strongly in some places. Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t overrun with them, however. The official estimate is that there are between 20 and 24 black bears in the park.

Bighorn Sheep

You have a much greater chance of seeing bighorn sheep than you do bears. They’re so common here that they’ve almost become an official symbol of Rocky Mountain National Park. Rangers say there are more than 350 of these wild sheep in the park.

The males (rams) are the ones with those massive horns. They stay in separate herds from the females (ewes). The lambs stay close to their mothers.

wild bighorn sheep

These mountain dwellers move to lower elevations near the aptly named Sheep’s Lake to graze in the spring and summer. (They eat dirt, too, so they can get certain minerals.) You can view them in groups of up to 60 for most of the day from May to mid-August. There’s even a Bighorn Sheep Crossing Zone near the lake in Horseshoe Park.

Moose

Weighing up to 1,500 pounds, the moose is the largest member of the deer family. There are as many as 60 of them there, mostly in the western part of the park.

They can eat up to 70 pounds a day and have a vegetarian diet. They have a taste for aquatic plants and bark, stems, and buds from woody shrubs. As long as there’s food, they don’t move around a lot. You can often spot them in the willow thickets along Highway 34 in the Kawuneeche Valley.

wild moose

Mountain Lion

You should be cautious around any of the wildlife but stay on high alert for mountain lions. People in different regions call them a few other names, including cougar and panther, but the correct name for the largest predator in the park is puma. The males can reach 8 feet in length and weigh up to 200 pounds.

Mountain lions are solitary for the most part, particularly the males. They tend to follow their food sources, so they migrate along with elk and moose herds.

Sightings of these big cats are rare, and there have been very few attacks on people. Still, it’s always wise to keep your guard up. 

wild mountain lion

Elk

Elk look like enormous deer but with a tuft of fur on their chests. The male’s antlers can grow up to eight points, meaning they branch out in many directions. The largest elk antlers have a width of over four feet. These stately, sturdy mammals are pretty social, too – they move through the park in large herds numbering hundreds.

You can see these graceful creatures in Rocky Mountain National Park throughout the year. In the summer, look for them along Trail Ridge Road. In the fall, they congregate in the Kawuneeche Valley and Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park, and Upper Beaver Meadows. Park rangers say as many as 500 of them spend the winter in Estes Park.

You might hear an elk before you see one. The males have a distinctive mating call that’s called a bugle. It starts with a low growl and ends with a squeal and a grunt. Listen for it around dawn and dusk, and you probably won’t forget it.

Great Horned Owl

This might be hard to believe, but there have been more than 270 bird species in this area in the last century. The largest is the great horned owl, and many pairs of them live here year-round.

The great horned owl stands two feet tall and has a wingspan twice that length. You might also hear it called a “hoot owl” because of the familiar sound it makes. They’re mostly active at night, of course. Unless you’re wearing night-vision goggles, you’re most likely to see them at dawn or dusk along rock ledges and on tree limbs. 

Other Animals to Look For

Our list so far is a small sampling of the plentiful Rocky Mountain National Park wildlife. There are dozens of other animals to look for. 

To start with, mule deer are common large mammals you might see there, and the smaller furry residents include beavers, coyotes, and the yellow-bellied marmot. Even smaller, there are various chipmunks and squirrels, the snowshoe hare, and a tiny critter called a pika. (It’s part of the rabbit family but looks more like a hamster.)

Travel Tip: If you’re a fan of pikas, you can also find these cute little critters hanging out in Glacier National Park in Montana.

And that’s just the mammals – if you’re a bird-watcher, look for the rare ptarmigan, eagles, hawks, warblers, sparrows, finches, and more. Look for Monarch butterflies during their two migration seasons as well! 

How Dangerous Are the Animals in Rocky Mountain National Park?

With so many wild animals and people visiting in such proximity, there’s always a potential for tragedy. Thankfully, there have been very few incidents, but those that have occurred serve as a cautionary tale for all park visitors.  

Rare incidents of the past include bears attacking people, mountain lions killing dogs, and other close encounters. Death by wildlife is very rare, but it does occur. 

taking photos of rocky mountain national park wildlife out car window

These days, park rangers like to say, “sometimes the best relationship is a long-distance relationship.” Though it’s tempting to get as close as possible to the Rocky Mountain National Park wildlife, resist the urge. They recommend staying at least 75 feet (or two bus lengths) from the elk and bighorn sheep and at least 120 feet from moose and bears. 

Check out some of these recommendations from the National Parks Service for dealing with a wildlife attack. And always report any too-close encounters with a dangerous animal.

What Are the Best Places to See Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park?

To see some animals, it helps to be in the right place at the right time. Here are some details on where and when you can have a wildlife experience.

Kawuneeche Valley in rocky mountain national park

Kawuneeche Valley

About Kawuneeche Valley: This marshy area along the Colorado River is on the western side of the park, just north of Grand Lake.

Animals You Can See: Moose and elk and maybe black bears and coyotes.

Best Time to Visit: Spring and summer.

Sheep Lakes

About Sheep Lakes: Ancient glaciers created this beautiful meadow on the east end of the national park. It’s in Horseshoe Park, near the Fall River Entrance, and it gets its name from the bighorn sheep that spend their summers there.

Animals You Can See: Bighorn sheep during the warmer months. In the fall, it’s a popular mating area for elk.

Best Time to Visit: Summer for the large herds of sheep.

rocky mountain national park roadway

Open Area Pull Outs

About Rocky Mountain Pull Outs: Keep your camera and binoculars handy. There are numerous pull-outs on both sides of Trail Ridge Road and in other areas of the park.

Animals You Can See: Bighorn sheep and elk.

Best Time to Visit: Spring, summer, and fall.

What Is the Rarest Animal to See in Rocky Mountain National Park?

Some of the animals at Rocky Mountain National Park are legally protected because their populations are so low. 

canadian lynx

The Canada lynx is a threatened species. These cats are native to Canada and Alaska and were released in Colorado to increase their numbers. They’re about the size of a bobcat but have bigger feet and distinctive black tufts on their ears.

When Is the Best Time of Year to See Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park? 

As we mentioned, the warmer temperatures of spring and summer bring many animals down to lower elevations for grazing. And they typically remain for the long summer season before moving back to higher ground.

Spring is the birthing season, so it’s not unusual to see elk, moose, or mule deer with their calves.

A Tremendous Opportunity to See Wildlife 

The incredible wildlife at Rocky Mountain National Park contributes to the park’s massive popularity. A visit there is a tremendous opportunity to see many four-legged critters at fairly close range. It’s why so many of their two-legged admirers visit this place year after year.

bull elk in rocky mountain national park

We may be biased, but we think a truck camper would be an excellent adventure vehicle for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Check out our top picks: 7 Best Half-Ton Truck Campers for Easy Adventuring

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