Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Visit Estes Park.
There are countless draws to visit Estes Park, Colorado: Seeing the wildlife that inhabit the high-altitude Rocky Mountains is near the top of the list. The area is home to dozens of species of mammals, more than 250 types of birds, and even a handful of amphibian and reptile species. No matter what time of year (or time of day) you’re visiting, you’ll have an opportunity to see some of the area’s resident wildlife. If you plan to do your wildlife watching in Rocky Mountain National Park, be sure you plan ahead and are familiar with these tips for visiting (don't forget to make a reservation).
Of course, with the privilege of spending time in these creatures’ habitats and getting to see them in the wild comes some responsibility. The seven Leave No Trace principles are a code of ethics for anyone enjoying the outdoors, and one of those principles is respecting wildlife. This means keeping your distance—not approaching animals to take a better photo, for example—as well as keeping your group size small to avoid disturbing animals too much.
The animals you’ll find in Estes Park need all of their energy to focus on survival, which means that a stressful human interaction (or one that scares them and causes them to flee) can be disastrous. And, please don’t feed any animals either, including the cute “chipmunks,” which are actually golden-mantled ground squirrels.
Respect wild animals’ personal space and surroundings (their home), and you’ll have a memorable experience that’s pleasant for both you and the creature you’re seeing in action. Here are some of the more remarkable animals you can expect to see:
Hear that whirring, chirping sound? In Estes Park, odds are, that sound is a hummingbird. And that’s not a birdsong—you’re actually hearing its tiny wings beating furiously. These small creatures have iridescent feathers, and their long, thin bills allow them to feed on flowers’ nectar. There are four species in the area (Broad-tailed, Ruby-throated, Rufus, and Calliope), though you may have a tough time identifying them because they’re such busy little critters. In addition to their presence on the trail, hummingbirds can often be found hanging around special feeders all over town, particularly in the morning and evening.
These majestic fowl aren’t just lowland creatures; you might well see a giant tom strutting his stuff on Mary’s Lake Road. Wild turkeys have round bodies, so they tend to prefer running to flying, although you’ll sometimes see a hen roosting higher up in a tree than you might expect. The turkeys you’ll find in the Estes Park area can weigh between 14 and 22 pounds when they’re full-grown. You can often find them near the Fall River entrance to the park and on Bear Lake Road, and they’re most active at dawn and dusk.
High-elevation Estes Park doesn’t seem like a place where you’d find a lot of amphibians, but the tiger salamander makes its home at Lily Lake, just outside of town. These long-lived critters, whose life spans can last 10 to 16 years, are covered in black or brown splotches. Tiger salamanders eat worms, insects, and spiders. They can be hard to spot since they spend much of their lives in their underground burrows, but the warmer months are your best chance to spot them.
These hardy, comical creatures are indicative of the high alpine zone and make their homes where few others can. Even if you’ve never seen a marmot before, they’ll likely look familiar to you—they’re closely related to groundhogs and woodchucks. Yellow-bellied marmots live in colonies of up to 20, and you’ll find them high in the mountains, often among boulder fields. The Alpine Visitor Center in RMNP (or anywhere above treeline off Trail Ridge Road) is a great place to spot them. Marmots hibernate in the winter, so look for them in spring, summer, and fall.
There are five major groups of bighorn sheep—not to be confused with mountain goats, which are a non-native species to the area—in this zone. The ones you’re most likely to see often come down to Sheep Lakes in RMNP during the spring (their lambing season) and summer months. A kiosk at Sheep Lakes is stationed with rangers and volunteers during peak visitation periods—these folks control traffic when the sheep cross the road to access the minerals found in these small kettle lakes.
Moose are some of the largest animals in the park, sometimes weighing in at a whopping 1,500 pounds. They are easy to spot, when they're around, because of their enormous rack of antlers, which can be as large as five feet across. Moose have traditionally been seen most often on the west side of the park, and the drive up and over Trail Ridge Road and back is a nice way to tour the park and increase your chances of spotting one. But they are also being spotted more frequently on the east side of the park. Moose are active year-round and may be out grazing just about anytime. Look for them in the Wild Basin area and at Sprague and Cub lakes.
Elk are ubiquitous in this area. The local joke is that you’re most likely to see them on the golf course, but there are plenty of opportunities to view them in their natural habitat as well. The best time to see elk is during their rutting season in the fall. In September, head to Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park, or Upper Beaver Meadows, where you’ll see dozens of elk and hear the majestic bulls bugling. Note; males are particularly likely to be territorial during the mating season.
It may sound a bit scary to see a bear, and it’s good to maintain a healthy respect for these charismatic creatures by being bear aware. Black bear are the only species you’ll find in this area, although some may have cinnamon or brown-colored fur. There are no grizzlies here. Still, black bear can weigh between 200 and 600 pounds. They are not known for being aggressive (unfortunately, trash left unattended is the most likely reason for seeing a bear in Estes Park), but you should give them a wide berth, particularly if you see a female with cubs. If you do encounter a bear, do not run away. Stop, pick up any small children or pets you might have with you, and back away slowly. They’ll likely run away. If attacked, you should not play dead—fight back. If you’re careful and respectful, though, your bear encounter is more likely to be exciting than frightening.
Spending time in the wild around Estes Park is always a treat. But with a little luck, you’ll get to see some of the creatures that make this place truly special.