Guide to Elk viewing and photographing at the Rocky Mountain National Park

A bull elk bugling to impress the cow. Moraine Park, RMNP, Sep 21, 2015

A bull elk bugling to impress the cow. Moraine Park, RMNP, Sep 21, 2015

About this article

This article is about locations where to view elk at the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA. It provides a list of selected references on elk, their behavior, and how to photograph them at the Rocky Mountain National Park. The objective is to compile useful information about “elk viewing” at the Park.

Where is the Rocky Mountain National Park?

Rocky mountain national parks has several entrances. The prominent entry points are located one on the East side and the other on the West side. The East site is the Beaver Meadows entrance and toll station. The other entrance is the Grand Lake entrance (both entrances are marked on the map below). The map shows direction from the Beaver Meadows entrance on the East side of the park to the Grand View entrance on the West side of the park.

Entrance fee

The entrance fee for a vehicle is $20 for a 7-consecutive-day pass, and $40 for annual pass. The annual pass is not a sticker that you attached to your vehicle’s windshield. It is a credit-card sized pass which you have to show at the entrance along with an ID when you enter the park. This is nice because you can be with your friends and all can enter free with your pass. No need to bring your vehicle.

There are a ton of things you can do at the Rocky mountain national park. In this article, I will only compile resources about elk viewing at the park. Elk comes to lower elevation during Fall mating season.

Prime time to view elk at the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is during mid-September to mid-October. Mid September to mid October is the peak mating season called “elk rut” when a bull elk gathers his “harem” of cows for mating.

According to this new article

The top two busiest days in 2014 were Saturday, Sept. 27, at No. 1 and Saturday, Sept. 20, at No. 2, Patterson said. And the weekends are 50 percent busier than weekdays, which might say something about how visitors should plan.

Elk viewing locations

According to this website, On the East Side of Rocky Mountain National Park, primary areas where you can see elk are

  • Moraine Park
  • Horseshoe Park
  • Upper Beaver Meadows

and on the West side of the park, the prime areas are

  • Harbison Meadow
  • Holzwarth Meadow
  • Throughout the Kawuneeche Valley

In the Estes Park, elk can be viewed at

  • 18-hole golf course
  • 9-hole golf course

Best time to view elk

During mid-September to mid-October, best time to view elk is early evening. During this time of the year Rocky Mountain National Park draws a huge crowed of visitors from around the country. So, plan your visit and go early.

Elks can be at the Moraine Park, at the Horseshoe Park, or at the upper Beaver Meadows. It would be a good idea to ask the ranges at the entrance about the latest activity of elk at the park on the day of your visit.

All about Elk

  • For physical description of Elk, behavior, elk viewing, disease of elk, and elk history at the Rocky Mountain National Park, visit here.
  • For elk behavior and visitor safety, read this article.

The following content was added on October 11, with photos taken on September 21, 2015.

Elk viewing at the Moraine Park

Elk is particularly common in Moraine park at the RMNP. Moraine park is located immediately on your left when you enter the park through Estes Park side of the entrances. Moraine park is a wide open area similar to a large valley in the RMNP surrounded by the mountain. The meadow or the open area where the elks are to be found is surrounded on one side by paved road. You can park on the meadow-side of the road but make sure to park as off the paved road as possible. During the September-October elk rut season, rangers will periodically patrol the area and would ask you to remove your card if it is blocking the traffic.

Bull elk grazing in the meadows at Moraine Park, RMNP

Bull elk grazing in the meadows at Moraine Park, RMNP

Cow elks resting under the sun at Moraine Park in the RMNP

Cow elks resting under the sun at Moraine Park in the RMNP

The dominant bull elk watchful of his harem of cows. Moraine Park, RMNP

The dominant bull elk watchful of his harem of cows. Moraine Park, RMNP

A relatively young bull elk at Moraine Park, RMNP

A relatively young bull elk at Moraine Park, RMNP

Elk behavior is unpredictable. They are most active during the cooler part of the day–early morning and late afternoon. I saw two/three of them sitting under the shade without much activities. Usually the dominant bull is somewhat active all the time. It is always protective of his harem.

Bull elk resting under the shade when it is hot outside at Moraine Park, RMNP

Bull elk resting under the shade when it is hot outside at Moraine Park, RMNP

The dominant bull elk is active most of the time because it has to protect his harem of cows from potential other bulls. As I was watching, there were three other bulls with antlers but the dominant bull was larger than the rest of them and it was overly protective of his harem.

A large bull elk on guard of his harem at Moraine Park in RMNP

A large bull elk on guard of his harem at Moraine Park in RMNP

A bull elk (right) chases away another bull (left) at Moraine Park, RMNP

A bull elk (right) chases away another bull (left) at Moraine Park, RMNP

The dominant bull elk stands in the meadow with pride as he watchfully guards his harem of cows. Moraine Park, RNMP, Sep 21, 2015

The dominant bull elk stands in the meadow with pride as he watchfully guards his harem of cows. Moraine Park, RNMP, Sep 21, 2015

Cow elks are mostly quite and they spend most of their time grazing in the meadow. Young elks are found grazing beside the adults. The cow elks may fight each other, for reason unknown to me at least. When they fight, they stand on their rear legs and clash with the other cow.

Two cow elks about the fight with each other. Moraine Park, RMNP, Sep 21, 2015

Two cow elks about the fight with each other. Moraine Park, RMNP, Sep 21, 2015

The majestic bull elk among his harem of cows. Moraine Park, RMNP, Sep 21, 2015

The majestic bull elk among his harem of cows. Moraine Park, RMNP, Sep 21, 2015

There are usually a large number of young and adult cow elks graze in a group dominated by a single bull elk. When I counted, it was about thirty (30) cows in the group. The younger bulls stays away from the flock but always look for opportunity to get close to the cows.

A bull elk with his harem at Moraine Park, RMNP. Sep 21, 2015

A bull elk with his harem at Moraine Park, RMNP. Sep 21, 2015

About the visitors

Elk rut draws a huge crowed at the the Rocky Mountain National Park during the rut season which is usually from mid-September to mid-October. People gather from all over the United States to the park. It usually gets very crowded on weekends. If you go early around 3 in the afternoon, you are likely to find parking spaces around the Moraine Park. You will find visitors bringing their lawn chairs to sit by the road with binoculars glued to their eyes watching the elks as they graze in the meadow.

How to photograph elk

Photographing the elk is not easy if they are far away in the meadow. If you are lucky, they might come close. Sometime they get too close to you making it difficult to photograph if you have a telephoto lens on your camera. The key is to patiently wait for them to come close to you. Often, they start grazing from one side of the park and keep moving to the other side. Visitors usually follow them as they move across  the park. Entering the meadow during the elk rut season is illegal. There are signs posted notifying the visitors about this.

I found it useful to bring both your longest telephoto and a medium range zoom lens for utilizing all the opportunities that may come to you. The longer the lens the better for you when they are far away. Also you can do elk portrait with a telephoto lens if you are lucky to have them closer. For shots of elk with the mountain in the background, I found 70-200 mm lens to be very useful.

Visitors try to take photo of a bull elk that came very close to the road. Moraine Park, RMNP, Sep 21, 2015

Visitors try to take photo of a bull elk that came very close to the road. Moraine Park, RMNP, Sep 21, 2015. Shot with a Canon 6D and 70-200 mm f/2.8 IS II lens focused at 70 mm.

For shots with telephoto lenses, my personal recommendation is to bring a tripod. I used a 300mm lens with 1.4x extender. That effectively make it a 420mm lens on a full frame camera body. If you have a crop sensor camera, then the effective focal length is further multiplied by a factor of 1.6. At that focal length, you won’t get many sharp images if you are hand holding. I was photographing on a sunny afternoon and I kept shutter speed at 1/500 with the 300+1.4x combo while hand holding. I was able to get some good photos with this combo. Needless to say, a tripod would make many “keeper” photos for lens longer than 500 mm.

Bull elk bugling at the Moraine Park, RMNP, Sep 21, 2015

Bull elk bugling at the Moraine Park, RMNP, Sep 21, 2015

I hope this is somewhat useful for myself and for you to plan for the next elk rut season! If you want to add anything to this article or you want to share a tip, please feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading this article.

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