Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Autumn in the Rockies

September 13, 2011, 2:20 pm
Fall Colors and Bugling Elk Lure Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park

Autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park provides an opportunity to experience some truly unique seasonal beauty—and an accompanying soundtrack—all provided by mother nature.

In addition to stunning fall foliage, characterized by gorgeous expanses of yellow aspens against a background of dark green spruces and firs, the park is also host to hundreds of bugling elk.

As autumn approaches, elk descend from the high country to montane meadows for the annual breeding season, also known as “the rut.” Bull elk signal the season of mating with a crescendo of deep, resonant tones that rise rapidly to a high-pitched squeal before dropping to a series of grunts. It is this call, or bugle, that gives rise to the term “rut,” which is derived from the Latin word meaning “roar.”

The eerie call, echoing through the autumn nights, serves to intimidate rival males and may act as a physical release for tensions of the season. Cows and younger bulls may also bugle, but they are unable to match the strength or range of the older bulls' calls

Within the gathering herds, the larger antlered males, weighing up to 1,100 pounds and standing five feet at the shoulder, move nervously among the bands of smaller females. In this season of excitement, bull elk compete with one another for the right to breed with a herd of females. Prime bulls, eight to nine years old, stand the best chance of mating. While competition is high among bulls it includes little fighting, since fighting causes injury and depletes energy. Instead, mature bulls compete for cows by displaying their antlers, necks and bodies.

The peak of elk rut in Rocky Mountain National Park generally lasts from mid-September to mid-October, although it is often possible to hear elk bugling into November.

During this time, the elk congregate in the Kawuneeche Valley, Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park and Upper Beaver Meadows. Watch for elk along the edges of clearings early in the morning or in the evening. Bugling is more often heard at dawn and dusk. Ask at a visitor center for more information about where and how to watch elk, and be sure to read the park’s guidelines for watching elk.

Ranger-led programs

The National Park Service will offer free ranger-led programs about the autumn elk mating season through October 10, 2011. The program, called “Elk Echoes” provides information about elk adaptations, migration, and mating behavior. The 30-minute programs are held daily at 6 p.m. at both the Sheep Lakes Parking Lot and the Moraine Park Visitor Center Amphitheater.

Additionally, the park will host “Elk Day” on Saturday, September 17. Learn all about these bugling beauties in a special day of elk activities. Rangers will be on hand from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Holzwarth Historic Site Picnic Area with fun family activities to share. In case of inclement weather, the program will move to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.

Elk Closures

During the fall mating season, some areas of the park are closed to prevent disturbance of elk. Be sure to review the list of elk closures before visiting the park.


Each fall, members of the volunteer Elk Bugle Corps go out in the park to provide information for visitors who are observing the elk and to help prevent traffic jams, a common occurrence on fall evenings. Learn how you can become a member of the Elk Bugle Corps.