A few years ago the mayor of Estes Park officially decreed the month of October to be known as 'Elktober'. This may seem strange to outsiders, but residents and frequent visitors know that the hundreds of elk that call this area home are a very special part of our local culture. Those who are even more in the know understand that autumn is the perfect time of year to honor and celebrate these majestic creatures, for this is the season that they put on a spectacular show - with the mating rituals known as the 'rut'.
Each year, as the days grow shorter and the aspen leaves begin to golden, the bull elk begin going through some changes. They lose the fuzzy outer layer of their antlers and they begin demonstrating some rather odd behavior: rolling in mud and urine, sparring with each other and using their big-bull voices to let out an eerie bugle (watch the video clip to hear for yourself). All of this, strange as it may seem, is to signal their prowess, strength and general manhood to the hundreds of cows choosing a mate. Fall is the prime time for wapiti (elk) procreation.
As you can imagine, this creates quite a sight. Here in Estes Park, we have perfected the art of elk rut watching and I'll share a few key tips with you here. We welcome you to share in this excitement and hope you enjoy Elktober as much as we do!
Tailgating Estes Park Style
I'll save you a series of football puns here (you're welcome), and just say that gathering up your favorite friends, snacks and beverages is a fun approach to many outdoor fall activities, including elk watching. We like to stop by a deli in town and a local craft beverage house before heading into the national park near dusk for a roadside gathering (ask a ranger to point you in the right direction). Keep in mind that you will NOT be the only one with this grand idea, so my advice is to go early on a weekday evening in October for a more chill experience. One more tip - Snowy Peaks Winery has a selection of Colorado artisan cheeses, delicious crackers, healthy snacks and (of course) elk summer sausage.
You will have less company if you head out in the morning instead of the evening. Wildlife viewing and photography is typically best around dawn and dusk, so heading out in the early light can give spectacular views to your elk rut scene. Bring some blankets, don your favorite ski cap and sip your joe to the invigorating sights and sounds of these fabulous animals. And don't forget morning munchies - grab fresh donuts, a breakfast burrito or a newly-famous cinnamon roll for sustenance.
Take a Back Seat
Don't want the pressure of tracking down the four-legged festivities on your own? Local guides and tour companies offer elk viewing and photography tours this time of year. Typically around 90 minutes long, these morning or evening tours will allow you to sit back, watch and learn as knowledgeable guides inform you about the nuances of this bizarre animal ritual. I've personally done this and it really allows you to be more aware and present in the moment - something we don't get enough of these days!
Learn from the Pros
A guided tour is one way to learn about all that's going on with these feisty animals, but sitting in on a ranger talk can be even more educational (and more cost effective). Elk Echoes is a free ranger program held in two locations on the east side of the national park, Moraine Park Discovery Center and the Sheep Lakes Parking Lot, at 6 PM daily through October 10th, 2016. Find all the fall national park events on our Event Calendar.
While the elk are definitely the stars of Elktober, don't forget to get out of the meadows and onto the trails, rivers or lakes. Whether you prefer to explore on horseback, take to two wheels in the national forest or trek out on your own two feet - autumn is a refreshing time to explore the backcountry around Estes Park. The waters are nice now, too, so try your luck (and skill) fly fishing, exercise balance on a SUP or paddle to serenity in a kayak on the lake (we find this especially fun with the kiddos).
As you can see, there are many ways to take in the elk rut fun of Estes's Elktober. While you may not believe it, this season NEVER gets old for me and my family - even when being awakened in the middle of the night by a bugling elk in the front yard! Please remember that these animals are wild, the natural lands around us are precious and this incredible place must be protected - for hundreds of Elktobers to come!
Find more wilderness safety and animal respect tips on our Wildlife Watching page!