After the bumper to bumper lines of summer tourists return home, savvy autumn visitors head to Estes Park, to explore a less crowded Rocky Mountain National Park, photograph snow dusted peaks or golden quaking aspen, and witness the fall rites of majestic elk.
As days shorten, large herds of elk move from their summer range among high slopes and alpine valleys to grassy meadows in the park and around town. Grazing wapitis add unpredictable hazards to the fairways and greens at the Estes Park Golf Course. A bugling bull plays havoc with the perfect back swing.
Fall denotes mating season, the rut, when bulls establish dominance and breeding rights of the herd. Body posture and displaying of antlers attract females. The antlers, shed after the rut, are an itching irritant. Intense rubbing and polishing against tree trunks creates dark scars especially evident on aspen. The scraping shreds the soft velvet summer coating.
During our last visit we decided to drive through the park on our way to dinner. Almost immediately after passing through the Fall River Entrance Station we see cars parked along both sides of the road. Sure enough, there’s a large bull with his harem munching in belly-high grass 800 feet away. We’re thankful for binoculars when observing from this distance, and spot several smaller herd members not initially seen with the naked eye. We hear our first bugle of the season – a combination bellow, whistle, grunt.
Teams of rangers and park volunteers monitor the area near the West Horseshoe Park and Sheep Lakes parking areas. Meandering streams snake through this lush meadow – a habitat sure to attract wildlife before nightfall. Through October 24 rangers offer a 30-minute nightly program, Elk Echoes, at the Sheep Lakes parking lot and a Saturday evening program at the Moraine Park Museum amphitheater.
Just before we exit the park at Beaver Meadows, traffic comes to a halt. We join the curious, parking along the side of the road – but not too far over into the planted restoration area. Armed with cameras and binoculars we walk to the edge of the gathering. There stands a magnificent bull with massive antler expanse watching over his herd. An observer noted that she counted 32 cows and calves.
This grouping feeds so close to the road rangers halt traffic in both directions. Almost on signal, three calves bolt across the highway to taste grasses along the south-facing bank. Dad observes for a minute or two before ambling after them. His mouth opens but we hear not a sound although it appears he’s talking to the wayward trio. Perhaps they are the teenagers of the herd. Circling uphill and behind, he gives one grunt and all three bound back to where they started.
Mr. Bull slowly sniffs his way across the asphalt, seemingly undisturbed. We speculate about three green stripes on his right side. Has he been purposely marked? “No, he’s just been in a tight spot with green paint,” a ranger informs. The green is a perfect match to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center sign the sultan now poses next to.
Slowly he circles the harem, forcing them closer together, when suddenly he gives chase to a young buck on the hillside. They move through the herd until the buck retreats a safe distance away from the bull’s vigilant stare. Stretching his shaggy neck and lifting the six-point antlers the bull produces a deep, resonant call rising to a high-pitched, tinny whistle followed by a series of grunts. An elk bugle we’ll long remember