Feeling bleary-eyed from our long drive, the movement ahead of me on the road snapped me back awake.  As I pressed on the brakes, I saw the tell-tale white furry butt and the buff-colored body.  The female elk was standing on the center stripe of the road, looking directly into my headlights.

In the Dark of Night

But she wasn’t the show-stopper.  As I waited for her to begin moving again, I glanced into the darkness to my left.  A huge buck with a large rack of antlers balancing over his head looked over at the female, who wavered in the middle of the road.  Finally, she pranced over to the side of the massive buck.  To either side, I could see other female gathered around their mate.

Yep, the mating game has begun.

A familiar sight in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado is the many elk competing with other bulls.  They are trying to get as many females to become part of their harem as possible.  And they will go to any length to win them over.

The Sound of His Voice

Ask visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park what first comes to mind during the elk rut, and they will talk about the bugling.  That plaintive shriek that sounds like a combination of a howl and the blowing of a horn.  It rings out around the meadows from Nederland to Estes Park.  Elk will use their bugle to signal to a female that they are bigger, better and more manly.  “Come hither” says the bugle to his prospective girlfriends.

But it’s not just their sounds, but their size.  The size of their rack, that is.  An elk’s antlers will start growing in early spring.  For mature elk, 8-9 years old, their rack can grow quite fast and for long periods of time.  Hunters talk about an elk’s rack in terms of points.  How many branches come off the main stem.  One with eight points on each antler is impressive indeed and will attract more females to the harem.

Elk Cologne

And what man doesn’t use the right cologne to woo his woman?  Elk are no different.  While watching the rut, you might notice several of the males looking muddy or dirty.  An elk will urinate, and then roll around in the dirt to scent himself with elk “cologne.”  This smell helps draw his share of cows for eventual mating.

Combine the elk rut with fall colors, and it’s easy to understand why large crowds of people line the roads of Rocky Mountain National Park each September evening.  During my four years working as a Park Ranger, I never saw such gridlock as the Saturday night I worked the “elk shift.”

That particular day was “National Public Lands Day”, which meant free admission to the park.  Combine that with a typical autumn, blue-sky day and gridlock formed on Trail Ridge Road.  I spent most of the night directing traffic and trying to keep visitors from approaching elk.

Keep Your Distance

If there is one tip I would give for elk viewing, it would be to keep your distance.  Any woman knows what happens when you get hormonal and it’s not pretty.  Imagine that irritability in a 600-pound animal, and it becomes pretty obvious that it’s best to watch this spectacle from afar.

Enjoy the show!