A Lake of Rocky Mountain Elk

Bull Elk

It’s my fourth trip to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), though it’s been nine years since my last visit. Usually, the town of Estes Park is overrun by elk in the fall. They’re on the golf course, at the school, downtown, and, of course, in Moraine Park in RMNP.

Golf Course Bull ElkThis year, fall has come early. The aspen are mostly bare, revealing their stunning white branching. And the elk are concerningly absent. I was here more than 24 hours before I saw one.

Last winter was harsh across the United States, unusually cold and long with persistent deep, deep snow. It affected the survival of a lot of wildlife. I was worried about the elk herds here. It turns out the elk are fine. The rut is all but over, and they’ve returned to cooler areas of the Park. The Colorado sun bakes Moraine Park even on these cool fall days.

After yesterday’s nine-mile hike around Moraine Park, a day of relative rest is in order. We thought we’d check out some of the trails in the Bear Lake corridor. The first stop was Sprague Lake. As we pulled off the main road, I saw elk standing in the lake! We quickly parked and hurried to the south lake trail. The sun was just coming up.Rocky Mountain ElkA small group of elk cows and calves stood in the middle of the shallow lake. A large herd had moved out of the lake, grazing along the north shore and trapping a group of people on a viewing deck over the water.

One of the cows in the lake twice struck the water’s surface with her front hoof. It was a forceful, intentional action that garnered no response from the rest of the herd.

A lone cow appeared at the west shore. A younger elk in the lake began calling. The newcomer stood at the water’s edge for some time before finally stepping in. At that moment, the young cow frolicked through the water, prancing, circling, and kicking up her heels.

The calf took a roundabout way to approach the new elk, somewhat submissive. After approaching, she attempted to nurse. It was a family reunion!

I moved to the east side of the lake as the elk began to move off toward the northeast. All of the cows congregated at the northeast corner of the lake, browsing, unconcerned with the attention of the onlookers. Rocky Mountain ElkThe herd’s bull appeared, walking in from the west. He extended his neck and raised his nose as he bugled, his eerie, screeching, lonesome call piercing the dawn.

He quickly disappeared into the woods, heading toward the creek outflow, pushing his girls in that direction. I followed the creekside trail on the opposite side of the herd, trying to get a safe vantage point with the sun behind me. The bull appeared on a rise in front of me.

He started pushing the cows across the creek between me and the lake. Seeing that I could quickly become stuck here by myself between a rutting elk and his harem, I rushed back to the lakeside trail. I’ve been between a bull elk and his ladies before. It’s scary.

As the bull gently moved the herd and the girls grazed casually, I got ahead, climbing up a hillside and waiting behind a large boulder for them to come past me.

In time, they all passed by and then bedded down for a morning rest. The bull moved noisily through the woods, thrashing at branches in his way. Eventually, he settled above them, and we went on our way.

This was a unique, unexpected wildlife encounter. When I thought I would see the moraine full of elk, instead, I got elk in a lake!

If you love a place, it will love you back.

If you’re interested in purchasing or licensing any images you see here, please email me at SNewenham at exploringnaturephotos.com, and I’ll make it happen.

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One Reply to “A Lake of Rocky Mountain Elk”

  1. I’m not very familiar with elk, but enjoyed seeing their huge antlers as well as how they travel together in their group.

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