Entering Estes Park, the signs say, ‘Watch for animals on every street in Estes Park.’ We would add, ‘Watch for animals on lawns, in meadows and in the town parks.’ Though Estes Park is perhaps most famously known for its numerous and often seen elk, this mountain town’s backyard is also home to a vast range of other exciting wildlife. Though animal encounters are frequent, it’s important to remember that these animals are not tame, they are not pets and they must remain that way. In fact, feeding or harassing wild animals is unlawful in Estes Park and can result in a $50 fine. If you plan on watching wildlife, keep your distance and be respectful of their home.
Some wildlife to keep an eye out for:
The Elk – Elk are so commonly seen in Estes Park, that sometimes out-of-towners become annoyed if there are no elk to be found. “Where are the elk?” frustrated visitors often ask. “Don’t you have a reserve where you keep them?” Quite simply, no! Estes valley elk (all 3,000 or so) are wild and they roam free.
These elk don’t care about park boundaries or fences built to keep them out, and there is no attempt to keep them in. Some days they are everywhere—roads, golf courses, Bond Park. The next day they seem to mysteriously disappear. If you are lucky enough to see the elk, keep your distance. Though seemingly docile, elk have sent people to the hospital and cars to the body shop. Use a telephoto lens when you’re photographing!
Moose – Moose are usually found on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park in the Kawuneeche Valley, but recently more have been sighted on the east side. Though they look rather goofy, large males often reach 1,500 pounds and have a mean disposition, so keep your distance and view them from afar.
Big Horn Sheep – Watch for Rocky Mountain big horn sheep in Horseshoe Park when they come to Sheep Lakes to graze and use the natural mineral licks. They also cause traffic jams in the Big Thompson Canyon when they gather along the roadside. The rams have large, curled horns that can weigh 30 pounds.
Black Bears – Black bears have been known to wander in the town of Estes, wandering the back alleys, investigating local households and helping themselves to groceries left in the back of open car trunks. It also not uncommon for careless campers who have improperly disposed of their trash to have frightening encounters with hungry bears. Though it may seem funny and like a good opportunity for catching a glimpse of a wild bear, it is also dangerous. Ranging in size from 200 to 600 pounds, these dark brown and cinnamon-colored black bears can outrun humans, so if you stumble upon one, you are urged to make lots of noise, shout and wave your hands while backing away slowly. When camping, store trash in a secure place or a bear-resistant container and never leave trash out overnight. Leave your bear encounters to chance and don’t tempt fate – it might maul you!
Marmots, Pikas and Ground Squirrels – Rocky slopes are a great to place to see these little critters. The yellow-bellied marmot does not like to be interrupted when sunning on its favorite rock, so it will emit a shrill, piercing chirp to announce its displeasure. Pikas are found in high elevation boulder fields and alpine meadows searching for flowers and greens. Lively and quick, the ground squirrel has contrasting stripes, bushy tails and pudgy cheeks stuffed with berries and nuts.
Mountain Lions and Bobcats – The mountain lion is shy, secretive and rarely seen, but it can see you. Encounter a mountain lion on the trail, and experts advise that you face the lion, stand upright, and try to look as big as possible while backing away. The nocturnal bobcat, named for its tail which appears to be cut or bobbed, is twice as big as the average housecat and has long legs, large paws and tufted ears. You’ll be lucky (depending on how you look at it!) to catch a glimpse of one of these kitty cats.
Coyotes and Foxes – Coyotes are often seen crossing a meadow at a quick trot, always with someplace to go. At night the call of the coyote starts with a series of short barks, followed by a long mournful howl. They hunt rabbits, rodents, fish and deer and even pets, so keep an eye on Fido. Red foxes are also a treat to see, with their reddish-orange coat, white-tipped tail and black feet and ears.
To find out more information out wildlife viewing and year round activities in Estes Park, pick up a copy of our free guest guide in town or stop by the visitor center for more information.