Many national parks have wildlife, and visitors to most parks will see a squirrel, a chipmunk, and maybe a deer or two. But the abundance of animals here, the larger mammals in particular, means that most park visitors will see dozens of elk and deer, bighorn sheep, and possibly a moose. Those interested in the smaller park inhabitants, such as rabbits and their cousins the pikas, squirrels and chipmunks, yellow-bellied marmots, coyotes, and a wide variety of colorful birds, will not go home disappointed. The extremes of elevation and temperature, Rocky's natural wildness, and the fact that the higher elevations are off-limits to most humans for more than half the year make this an ideal habitat for wildlife.
There are more than 60 species of mammals in the park, ranging from moose and elk that weigh well over 1,000 pounds to the tiny northern pocket gopher, which is seldom seen because it's busy digging tunnels and munching on roots underground. Bats also call Rocky home and feed over the park's lakes and ponds. There are more than 280 species of birds, 11 species of fish, and 6 amphibians, including the boreal toad, which is listed as an endangered species by the federal government. One snake -- the harmless garter snake -- and numerous insects, including a large number of butterflies, are also residents.
Although seeing wildlife is often the highlight of a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, it is important to remember that these are wild animals, and not only can you harm them, but they can harm you as well. The park is not a petting zoo. There have been reports in recent years of visitors to the West's national parks being injured and killed by mountain lions and bears. Smaller mammals can carry and spread bubonic plague and other diseases.
Photo Tip -- The key to getting good wildlife photos is to know the animals' habits, such as where they go and when. Get there first and quietly wait for your opportunity. Keep in mind that walking within photo or feeding distance of wildlife poses a threat to your well-being. It is not uncommon for elk in rut to attack unsuspecting shutterbugs. When the elk fills the viewfinder of your telephoto lens, you're close enough.
For Bighorns, Bigger Is Better
The symbol of Rocky Mountain National Park, bighorn sheep are named for the rams' large curving horns, which form an almost complete circle over 2 1/2 feet long. Their most prominent feature, their horns play a major role in bighorns' lives. When settlers arrived in the area of the park in the 19th century, hunters quickly discovered that not only could they sell the bighorn's meat, but they also could get high prices for the male's horns. The bighorn population soon dropped from the thousands into the hundreds.
But it is not only humans that prize the ram's massive headdress. For the animals themselves it is a status symbol -- the ram with the biggest horns gets all the females he wants. Unlike antlers, which are shed annually, horns are kept throughout the sheep's lives. Females' horns grow only a small amount after the first 4 years, but males' horns continue to grow, usually reaching a magnificent curl by 7 or 8 years. After that the horns may exceed a full curl. When the large horns start to restrict the rams' peripheral vision, they sometimes deliberately chip off the tips.
Getting back to the important subject of these animals' sex lives, the rams are not especially particular, and will mate with any female in heat, often visiting other herds seeking additional ewes. During the mating season, which occurs in the fall, if more than one ram is following a particular ewe, the rams have butting contests, using their horns as battering rams and crashing into each other at speeds up to 40 mph. These battles can continue for up to 20 hours, and the sound of horn hitting horn can often be heard over a mile away. However, these contests occur only between rams of equal horn size; those with smaller horns are out of luck.
Beaver -- These big rodents, up to 4 feet long and weighing up to 60 pounds, have fine, dark-brown fur, webbed feet, and a large black paddle-shaped tail. At Rocky Mountain National Park, they build dams, which turn streams to ponds and eventually to meadows. Fall is a good time to see beaver, usually in the evening in wetland areas throughout the park. Recommended viewing spots are near Glacier Creek Picnic Area, along Bear Lake Road, near the Endovalley Picnic Area, and along the road to the Cub Lake Parking Area.
Bighorn sheep -- The official symbol of Rocky Mountain National Park, bighorn sheep prefer rocky slopes away from humans but also frequent lakeshores, where they eat grasses and especially soil, which provides much-needed minerals. Ideally suited for life in harsh mountain climates, they have muscular bodies, excellent eyesight and hearing, a fine sense of smell, and hooves that are hard on the edges but flexible in the center, providing good traction on rock. They also swim well. The males (rams) can grow to over 300 pounds, while mature females (ewes) usually weigh no more than 200 pounds. Both sexes have horns. Female bighorn sheep are often mistaken for mountain goats, but goats are usually white, while bighorn sheep have tan or brown coats. There are no goats in the park. There were thousands of bighorns in the area in the mid-1800s, but the herds were decimated by hunters and ranchers who brought domestic sheep into the area, changing the bighorns' habitat and introducing scabies and pneumonia, which further reduced their numbers. By the 1950s there were only about 150 bighorns left in the area, but thanks to government protection and reintroduction efforts, herds are increasing; it is now estimated that from 650 to 800 live in and near the park. They are seen frequently at Sheep Lakes and Horseshoe Park from May to mid-August.
Black bear -- Rangers estimate that there are about 50 black bears living in the park's backcountry. Found throughout Rocky, they usually stay to themselves, avoiding humans, but during years when berry and nut crops and other food sources are low, bears will help themselves to whatever they find in backpackers' tents, packs, and even ice chests. Although often black in the eastern United States, black bears in the West are more frequently brown or tan. Males are big, measuring up to 6 feet tall and weighing over 500 pounds, but the females are much smaller. Bears' footprints look similar to those made by humans, with the addition of a small round mark above each toe, produced by the bears' claws.
Chipmunk -- A common sight in the park, often in open forests and meadows, chipmunks have brown and gray fur and black and white stripes on their backs, in addition to prominent black and white facial stripes. Of the 22 species of chipmunks in North America, 21 occur in the western United States. It is often difficult to tell one chipmunk species from another (at least for humans), but it's usually fairly easy to distinguish chipmunks from their cousins the squirrels, since chipmunks have facial stripes while squirrels do not.
Coyote -- Seen throughout the park, but especially in open areas at lower elevations, coyotes hunt rabbits, rodents, and other small animals. Tan or yellow-gray, with bushy tails, coyotes look much like domestic dogs and usually weigh 30 to 40 pounds. They can run at over 25 mph, reaching 40 mph for short periods. One way to easily distinguish a dog from a coyote is to look at their tails -- coyotes run with their tails down, while domestic dogs run with their tails up. Coyote choruses are often heard at night, consisting of a series of sharp yips, barks, and howls. Watch for coyotes along the Coyote Valley Nature Trail in Kawuneeche Valley.
Elk -- Also called "wapiti," the Shawnee word for a deer with white on its sides and flanks, Rocky Mountain elk are usually brown or tan, with hints of white or yellow on their rumps and tails. The males can weigh up to 1,100 pounds and stand 5 feet high at their shoulders, but they are best known for their antlers, which can reach 5 feet across and weigh 25 pounds. The antlers, which are shed each year between January and April, can grow half an inch per day. There are about 3,000 to 3,500 elk in the park during the summer, but that number drops to about 1,500 in winter, when the rest migrate outside the park. Elk are often seen in early evening shortly before sundown, and they are usually scattered about meadows along the roads.
The best elk-viewing time is usually from mid-September to mid-October, during mating season, when amorous bulls compete for females, each bull gathering as many cows as possible. During this time, called "rutting," there is little actual fighting among bulls, but there is what is called "bugling," a call that warns other bulls to stay away. The sound starts low but soon becomes a shrill squeal or whine. Volunteers called the Rocky Mountain National Park Elk Bugle Corps are stationed at elk-viewing areas during rutting season to help visitors get the best views without disturbing the animals. Good spots to see the bulls gathering their harems each fall include Kawuneeche Valley, Upper Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park, and Horseshoe Park.
Factoid: There are more elk in Colorado than in any other state or Canadian province.
Moose -- The largest relative of the deer, bull moose can weigh up to 1,600 pounds and stand 7 1/2 feet tall at the shoulders. With long, dark chocolate-brown hair, they have poor eyesight, but good senses of hearing and smell. Usually seen alone or with one or two others, moose eat willow, aspen, and aquatic plants, and they can swim at up to 6 mph. Known for an ornery disposition and unpredictable behavior, they are best observed from a distance and the relative safety of an automobile, although moose have been known to charge cars and even trains. The bulls are most aggressive during mating season, in the fall, and a cow becomes quite displeased if a person gets between her and her calf. Moose migrate in and out of the park's west side and are sometimes seen among the willow along the Colorado River, the Big Meadows area, at the beaver ponds near Timber Creek Campground, and along the Onahu Creek Trail.
Mountain lion -- Also known as panthers, cougars, and pumas, these large cats are occasionally seen, usually on winter mornings, in the montane zone. Solid tan or beige, they prefer to eat deer, and a single mountain lion can kill and consume one mule deer a week if deer are plentiful. Weighing up to 200 pounds, they are exceedingly strong, and they also hunt elk, bighorn sheep, coyotes, beavers, small mammals, and birds. Mountain lions will usually stash the leftovers from their kills, covering them with brush, sticks, and leaves, for later consumption.
Mule deer -- The park's mule deer are often observed in meadows along the edge of the forest. Considered medium-size as deer go, mule deer are usually reddish brown in summer and gray during the winter, with patches of white on their rumps and throats year-round. However, their most distinguishing characteristic -- what has given them their name -- is their huge mulelike ears. Bucks can weigh up to 450 pounds, while does usually weigh only about one-third of that.
Northern pocket gopher -- Named for their cheek pouches that serve as food storage containers, northern pocket gophers are usually grayish brown, with small dark eyes and tiny round ears. They grow to about 9 inches long. Rarely seen above ground, they are found throughout the park, including in the alpine tundra, and live in extensive underground tunnels, where they eat roots and tubers. Usually, the only visible evidence of their presence is long mounds of dirt signifying the location of their tunnel homes.
Pika -- These small, cute, round-eared relatives of the rabbit -- although they look more like guinea pigs than rabbits -- like rocky slopes in the subalpine and alpine zones. They are often brown with some mottled gray coloring, and have no visible tail. Because they do not hibernate, pikas spend most of their time in summer gathering winter food. Much like a farmer, they cut grasses, lay them on rocks to dry in the sun, and then store their hoard in their lairs. Social creatures, pikas live in large colonies. They're quite vocal, communicating in a shrill sound that could be compared to that of a young goat. You can look for pikas along Old Ute Trail and the Grand Ditch Trail.
Porcupine -- These slow-moving animals have large, chunky bodies, short legs, and sharp quills covering the back half of their bodies. The porcupine's 30,000 quills are modified hairs -- hollow tubes with sharp, solid, barbed points -- and they provide two functions: They discourage predators, and although the porcupine cannot shoot its quills, if attacked it will strike with its tail, driving the quills into the attacker's flesh, at which time the quills detach from the porcupine. The quills on the underside of the porcupine's tail also function as a brake to keep it from sliding down tree trunks. Porcupines can grow to 3 feet long and weigh up to 40 pounds. They like wetland areas and the subalpine forest. You might see porcupines, which are primarily nocturnal, along Coyote Valley Nature Trail.
Snowshoe hare -- Found in the subalpine zone, snowshoe hares are known for their huge rear feet -- their snowshoes -- and the fact that the changing length of daylight as the seasons change triggers an altering of their hair color. In summer they are mostly a mottled brown, while in winter they become almost pure white. They eat grasses, berries, and the bark of aspen and willow. Seldom seen, these hares are especially shy, and when startled they will either try to hide in brush or run frantically, often in a wide circle, at speeds up to 30 mph.
Squirrel -- Practically every visitor to Rocky Mountain National Park sees squirrels. Species in the park include the golden-mantled ground squirrel, which digs complex tunnel systems under rocks. They have white stripes bordered by two black stripes along each side of their brownish gray bodies, and reddish brown or copper-colored heads and shoulders. These squirrels are often confused with chipmunks, which are generally the same size, shape, and coloring, but it's easy to tell them apart -- chipmunks have stripes on the sides of their faces and golden-mantled ground squirrels do not.
Also in the park, often seen in the lower elevations of the Wild Basin area, are Abert's squirrels, easily identified by their long ears topped with tufts of hair. Also called "tassel-eared squirrels," they have white bellies and are dark gray above. Abert's squirrels usually live in the branches of ponderosa pines, where they eat seeds and twigs.
Chickarees, also known as red squirrels or pine squirrels, enjoy the seeds of lodgepole pines, and also eat a variety of other seeds and nuts, birds' eggs and young birds, and mushrooms, including species that are poisonous to man. Chickarees are usually rust red or grayish red on their upper bodies, and white or gray on the lower sections. They have rounded ears, bushy reddish brown tails with black tints, and measure up to 15 inches long. They're often seen, and their noisy chattering is often heard, along Coyote Valley Nature Trail.
Yellow-bellied marmot -- A member of the squirrel family, yellow-bellied marmots are big -- sometimes over 2 feet long and weighing up to 10 pounds -- with golden brown fur on their sides and back, and a yellowish belly. They have bushy tails and live in rocky areas at higher elevations. Because they hibernate all winter, their main summer activity is fattening themselves up by gorging on whatever green vegetation is available. Sometimes they're called "whistling pigs" because of the high-pitched whistling or chirping sound they may make when startled. Look for yellow-bellied marmots along the Grand Ditch Trail and Old Ute Trail.
American dipper -- Also called "water ouzel," these year-round park residents are seen along streams, where they feed on insects and other aquatic life. In shallow water they appear to water-ski on the surface, but in deeper water they dive in and run along the bottom underwater. Mostly slate gray, with a stocky build and short tail and wings, the American dipper's loud call sounds like two stones being hit together. Watch for these birds along Ouzel Falls Trail and at the falls, where they dart in and out of the tumbling waterfall.
Broad-tailed hummingbird -- These colorful little birds are delightful to watch as they hover at flowers to sip nectar, perform rambunctious aerial mating dances, or warn other hummingbirds away with tail-fanning and other displays. Hummingbirds are also the only birds known to fly backwards. The most common of hummingbird species seen in the park, the broad-tailed hummingbird is a summer resident that will be found among aspen, Douglas fir, and pine trees, and near water courses.
Clark's nutcracker -- Often seen along Trail Ridge Road and in the Bear Lake area, this year-round park resident is about a foot long, with a long light-gray hood, a white face, a pointed black bill, and black wings. Named for William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 1800s, it eats the seeds of limber pines, which it pries from cones with its long beak, and is also not above begging or stealing food scraps from picnickers.
Dark-eyed junco -- Frequently seen in many areas of the park, especially along the edges of forests, dark-eyed juncos are mostly gray, with black and white accents. Year-round residents of the park, they eat seeds and berries.
Golden eagle -- These large birds, with wingspans usually over 6 feet long, are dark brown and black, with a light-gold color on the backs of their necks. Seen year-round in the higher elevations of the park, such as along Trail Ridge Road, they swoop down to grab rabbits and large rodents with their sharp talons. In flight, golden eagles are sometimes confused with turkey vultures, which are about the same size as eagles and are also seen occasionally in the park. The main visual difference is that the turkey vulture has a red head, and unlike the golden eagle, it can glide seemingly forever without flapping its wings, riding on columns of warm air known as thermals.
Jays -- You are almost certain to hear a jay, because it is among the noisiest and most raucous-sounding of birds. Because of their size -- sometimes a foot long -- both Steller's and gray jays are easy to spot as well. Seen at numerous locations, including along Trail Ridge Road, Steller's jays are bright blue on their lower half and black on top, with a prominent crest on the tops of their heads. Gray jays, not surprisingly, are mostly gray, although their foreheads and parts of their lower bodies are white. They have earned the nickname "camp robber" because of their habit of carrying off whatever food they can find from camp and picnic sites. Gray jays like the subalpine zone and are often seen in the Bear Lake and Big Meadows areas. Both jays are year-round park residents.
Mallard -- These large ducks, which can grow to over 2 feet long, like to paddle about on Sprague Lake and other water bodies in the park. Males have an almost iridescent green head, with a white neck ring, deep-brown chest, and light-gray body. Females, although attractive with mottled brown and black body feathers and white tail, are not as striking as the males.
Mountain bluebird -- One of the most commonly seen birds at Rocky, and one of the most attractive, mountain bluebirds arrive early -- usually in March. They like open meadows, aspen and pine forests, and even the alpine tundra. Males have bright-blue backs and tail feathers, and lighter blue chests; females are a duller gray-blue. They are often seen hovering low over the ground in search of insects.
Mountain chickadee -- Year-round inhabitants, mountain chickadees are small -- only about 5 inches long -- and have pale-gray backs, jet-black caps and eye bands, and white cheeks, eyebrows, and chests. They're abundant in ponderosa pine and pinyon-juniper forests.
Northern flicker -- Year-round residents of the park, although seen mostly in summer, northern flickers are large woodpeckers, up to a foot long, that are mostly brownish gray with a red band across the tips of their tail feathers. Males have a red strip on their lower face. They prefer woodlands of pine, Douglas fir, or aspen, and drill holes in these trees that provide homes for other species.
Peregrine falcon -- With wingspans that often exceed 3 feet, peregrine falcons are one of the world's fastest birds, capable of diving at speeds over 125 mph. Their backs and wings are usually slate gray or blue-gray, and this coloring projects vertically down their faces in bands over their eyes. The rest of their faces and necks are a light gray or white, and underneath, these falcons are usually a medium gray. Although they are not seen frequently in the park, they are occasionally spotted at higher elevations from spring through fall, and the park closes several rock-climbing areas to humans during the raptors' nesting periods.
Although pesticides drastically reduced the number of peregrine falcons in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, they are on the increase again, thanks to the banning of those pesticides and successful efforts to raise the birds in captivity and release them into the wild. Peregrine falcons have also discovered cities, where they nest on tall buildings and bridges and dine on pigeons.
Red-tailed hawk -- Always on the lookout for small rodents, the main part of their diet, these year-round park residents are a common sight as they glide over open areas in search of prey, or perch in a pine tree at the edge of a meadow. Stocky, with wingspans of about 4 feet, red-tails are named for their rust-colored tails. Their chests and faces are usually white, and their upper parts vary in color, from light to dark brown.
Violet-green swallow -- Known for their long, pointed wings and superb grace while flying, violet-green swallows are pretty little birds, about 5 inches long, with striking metallic green backs, bright-violet tails, and white faces and lower extremities. You'll often see flocks of swallows soaring over the meadows and plateaus from spring through fall.
Warbling vireo -- Often easier to hear than see, the warbling vireo is small -- about 5 to 6 inches long -- grayish green above and light gray or white below, with white eyebrows. Its slow song is rambling and easygoing, ending on a rising note. These birds are frequently seen during the summer in the park's aspen forests and in trees along streams.
White-tailed ptarmigan -- Inhabiting the higher elevations of the park, about 11,000 feet and up, during the winter this year-round park resident roosts in small snow caves, which it digs with its chickenlike feet. At other times look for it near willow shrubs. During summer this bird, which measures about a foot long, is mostly mottled brown, with white wings, chest, and tail, but during winter it turns pure white.
State Fish a Bit of a Wimp
Mistakenly believed to be extinct in 1937 and listed as an endangered species in the early 1970s, the greenback cutthroat trout has made a comeback, and in 1994 was named the official Colorado State Fish by the state legislature. It replaced the rainbow trout, a California transplant that had been listed on maps and other documents as the state fish, although state Division of Wildlife officials couldn't say why.
Known for its black spots and brilliant crimson color on its sides, the greenback cutthroat is one of four subspecies of cutthroat trout native to Colorado, one of the few species of fish that can truly be called the state's own. The greenback was abundant in Colorado waters during the early to mid-19th century, but pollution from silver and gold mining took its toll, and later the greenback was crowded out by the more aggressive rainbow, brown, and brook trout that had been imported to expand fishing opportunities.
Part of the greenback's problem is that it fails to live up to its cutthroat name, letting other trout invade its waters and practically jumping on any hook dropped into the water.
But rumors of its demise were premature, and two native populations were discovered just outside Rocky Mountain National Park in 1973. Efforts were begun to reintroduce the fish to its native waters, including park waters, as government agencies and Trout Unlimited provided it with places to live that are free from more aggressive newcomers. By 1978 its status had improved from "endangered" to "threatened." State wildlife officials hope that if the greenback continues to prosper, it can be removed from the "threatened" list in the near future.
Today, the greenback cutthroat can be found in some four dozen bodies of water around the state, including Bear and Sprague lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Another good place in the park to see the greenback cutthroat close-up is from the boardwalks through the Beaver Ponds on Trail Ridge Road.
Although the greenback's designation as official state fish does not provide any additional protection, Division of Wildlife officials say it strengthens the public's willingness to protect the fish, and encourages anglers to throw it back if they catch it, as should be the rule with any threatened species.
Reptiles & Amphibians
Tiger salamander -- Looking much like a fish with feet, tiger salamanders can grow to be a foot long. They are found in the park's lower-elevation lakes, where they consume insects and aquatic creatures but also will eat worms and small rodents.
Wandering garter snake -- The only snake commonly seen in the park, this nonpoisonous species is found near streams at lower elevations. Usually brown and tan, with darker spots or stripes, these snakes can grow to be over 3 feet long.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.