To See Wildlife at Rocky Mtn National Park, Avoid Midsummer
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. (MCT) - Everyone has a favorite place in the world. This is mine.
Other destinations have taken a run at the title - the coast of Northern California, the Black Hills of South Dakota, Caribbean and Hawaiian beaches. None of those would be a bad choice. But I could visit Rocky Mountain National Park every year for the rest of my life and never tire of the long, steep trails to pristine lakes or looking out over the scenic vistas along Trail Ridge Road.
On the other hand, it's going to be a long time before I return to the park at midsummer.
Don't get me wrong. The park was as beautiful this summer as I have ever seen it. Wildflowers painted marshy areas along icy ponds in hues of yellow and red, white, pink and lavender. The meadows were a soft, grassy green.
The animals were missing.
For two days in mid-July I scoured the mountainsides and walked the wooded trails, but the largest animals I encountered were slurping ice cream cones along Elkhorn Avenue in Estes Park.
I did see a lone coyote ambling along U.S. 34 one misty morning and a single mule deer the next day. I saw dozens of fearless ground squirrels and chipmunks, nearly all of them hoping for a handout from tourists.
But not a single elk grazed in the park meadows for my camera. No bighorn sheep tumbled down the mountain. No moose drank from ponds in the higher elevations.
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to about 350 bighorn sheep, ranger Richard Boyer told a small crowd of visitors who gathered one Friday morning to hear his talk, "The Ballad of the Bighorn Sheep." A herd of 61 or so lives on Bighorn Mountain, across the highway from Horseshoe Park, where we had gathered in anticipation.
Of anywhere in the 265,000-acre park, this is the place to see sheep. So where were they? And, more important, when would they be coming down?
"Statistically, I can tell you that they are most likely to be here between 10 a.m. and noon on a Saturday morning," Boyer said. "But don't come here expecting them then."
And probably not today. "They haven't been seen on a Friday in seven weeks," Boyer said.
Rangers who keep careful track of the animals know they will come eventually to munch on the mineral-rich mud in the nearby meadow and to drink from the lake. There's just no telling when or how many.
Most often, the sheep cross between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and stay a few minutes or a few hours. Good news for the hopeful folks who had camped out in their plastic and nylon chairs, binoculars focused on the rising slope across the blacktop.
Could be the sheep are nervous. Predators include black bears, golden eagles and, much more likely, coyotes.
"We had one down here earlier today, so that may be one reason they aren't here," Boyer said.
But it's not likely they're unnerved by summer visitors. Surely by now they're used to the parking lots full of people and the rangers who act as crossing guards when they approach the highway.
But the mountain is silent, so we settle in for Boyer's often-repeated talk and learn that:
Rams can weigh up to 300 pounds, ewes, 150 pounds.
Each of an adult ram's two horns can weigh up to 25 pounds. (Imagine carrying those around on your head.)
Sheep can run as fast as 30 or 40 miles an hour - uphill.
And that will have to do unless, well, what's that up there?
"It's hard to spot them unless they are moving," Boyer said. "Sometimes you'll say, 'Oh, there's one,' and then it's a rock."
Early one spring morning on a previous visit, I looked out the window of my motel room and saw two elk feeding in the grass, perhaps 50 yards away. The evening before I had encountered elk crossing the road in Estes Park.
Not this trip.
Some of the area's 3,000 elk can be found in lower elevations during the summer, Boyer said. Estes Park golf courses are likely candidates for sightings - all that grass. A good time to see them is between dusk and dark. But, for the most part, the elk move up into higher elevations for summer starting in May.
"It's mainly because of the cooler temperatures at the higher elevations and because it's their natural migratory pattern, which they've been following for thousands of years," said Kyle Patterson, the park information officer. "They actually have vegetation they can eat at a variety of locations."
By the end of August, depending on temperatures, the animals will begin working their way down to lower elevations.
"Then at the beginning or middle of September the rut starts, when the bulls start gathering their harems," Patterson said. "They start gathering in large groups again.
"For most of the year the bulls are on their own and the cows are on their own. In the fall you start to see the big herds again."
As fall moves into winter, it will be tough not to find an elk at Rocky Mountain National Park.
"Winter is our quietest time as far as visitation is concerned," Patterson said, "but it's a great time to see wildlife because they are more visible during the day. There aren't as many people they are reacting to.
"We obviously have some animals that hibernate in winter, but the vast majority of the wildlife here do not hibernate, so you'll see them or you'll see their tracks."
The park roads and parking lots are jammed all summer - Rocky Mountain park received more than 2.9 million visitors last year, making it the sixth most-popular among national parks.
But even here the crowds tend to thin out along the trails - the farther you walk, the fewer people you'll encounter and the greater chances you'll find something wild, say, at least a mule deer.
But if you don't see any wildlife, well, it's not exactly as if you're settling. The trails are spectacular - filled with the scent of pine and spruce, cooled by the thick canopy of trees.
On the way to Alberta Falls, a popular destination about a mile's walk from Bear Lake, I met a family from Washington state, where I imagined this kind of scenery is a little more common than it is in, say, Kansas and Missouri.
"No, this is majesty," the mother told me, as the falls thundered down Glacier Creek behind her. "And you never get tired of majesty."
Animals or not, I couldn't argue.
The central part of the park is rich with hiking trails. I counted more than 15 destinations within five miles of Bear Lake on my map. I headed west along a path that would lead to three lakes in just less than two miles.
"Around every corner is a different, amazing view," said Pam Koppen of Leawood, Kan., who had been hiking around Nymph Lake, the lowest of the three lakes, with her husband, Bill Koppen; their sons, Gus and Sam; and her parents, Warren and Pat Werner of Lake St. Louis, Mo.
She was right, as I found out again and again.
Nymph Lake was covered in water lilies, many of them topped with delicate yellow flowers. At Dream Lake, another half-mile up the trail, spotted greenback cutthroat trout swam in water so crystal clear that I was tempted several times to reach in and try to grab one. Dream Lake is a popular catch-and-release fishing spot.
By now I had climbed a little more than 400 feet in elevation since I began walking back at Bear Lake, and the mountain peaks seemed to rise almost directly overhead. Thick patches of dirty snow remained here and there.
By the time I got to my destination, Emerald Lake, the great, gray slabs of rock really were at hand - too close for my camera lens to capture the scene before me.
That's when my attention shifted. Something had moved on the path ahead of me.
For just a second, a fat, brown marmot and I locked eyes. Then it scurried into the cover of a rock formation.
This wasn't an elk or a ram, but I wasn't about to let it get away without a longer look. The race was on. Up and over I followed, squeezing among massive rocks as quietly as I could.
Somewhere close by I could still hear something moving. If this were a game of hide-and-seek, I knew I would surely lose.
But I didn't. I caught one more peek - just long enough for a single picture.
Victory was mine.
(c) 2007, The Kansas City Star.
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